In a conversation at work today it suddenly dawned on me that A-level and university students today – the ones shaping our culture, for fuck’s sake – think of Guns N’ Roses or Nirvana the way those of us over 35 think of the Rolling Stones!
We are so fucking old. I know a large percentage of the readers of this blog are older than me, so, lest you think I’m a kid who’s just whingeing, let me reassure you that you’re fucking old too. I recognise that if I eventually quit drinking – and let’s not hold our breath for that – I could live another 50 years, maybe more. But the fun part is over. I already missed it. I’m not sure what I was doing when I was supposed to be having fun. That’s frustrating. I know I wasn’t studying, or working, or preparing myself for world domination. I was frittering away time, fucking around. I should have been having more fun. I think I just wasn’t sure where the fun was. I think the fun was avoiding me. I think the fun saw me heading in its direction, then turned and walked the other way, pausing only to push a grandmother in front of traffic and give me the finger.
Do you realise that Appetite For Destruction, a cultural landmark for our generation, the first album we ever heard that made smoking, drinking, drugging, swearing and whoring sound, hell, like a whole lot of fun … that album came out in 1987? 1987! That was 30 fucking years ago! Babies born when Appetite For Destruction came out are getting married, divorced and fighting over custody of the six-year-old. If you were old enough to be driving when Appetite came out, you’re well over 40. Guns N’ Roses is now classic rock, the station where your parents used to listen to Lynyrd Skynyrd and Bob Seger.
The year 1991, the year I finished my A-levels, was a groundbreaking one for music. Look at all the albums that came out that year: REM’s Out of Time, Metallica’s self-titled black album, Pearl Jam’s Ten, the Use Your Illusion albums, Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend, U2’s Achtung Baby and, of course, Nirvana’s Nevermind. Those albums laid the foundation for much of the music I listened to from then on, and if you look at some of my playlists, probably about a third of them is made up by those artists (hardly a week goes by when I don’t listen to Nevermind or Achtung Baby at least once). Those albums came out 26 years ago. Twenty-six years!
One of the first really great experiences I had at the cinema was Oliver Stone’s JFK. I was with Joe and a couple of other nerdy buddies, and we were absolutely entranced. Sure, I went to see movies all the time, but that was mainly just to get out of the house, or, if the stars were aligned perfectly, to find a dark place to make out. But JFK sucked me in. For three hours, I forgot who I was, where I was, what I was … I was only living in the land of Oliver Stone, a place I was too young to realise probably was not psychologically healthy to dwell. With about five minutes left in the film, right when they’re about to announce the verdict of the Clay Shaw trial, the projector broke, and I snapped back to reality with a jolt. I looked over at Joe and barely recognised him. It took a good 20 minutes to readjust to the world around me. I had been transported, and there was no going back. I devoted hours from then on to watching movies. I discovered Woody Allen, became a journalist and found my muse. That was also 26 years ago. (In a side note, do you realise Woody Allen has been making movies for 46 years?)
It was my old friend Andy’s birthday last week. I don’t get to talk to Andy as much anymore. He’s married, lives in the Caribbean and is a senior manager at Angostura – where they make the world-famous bitters and, even more importantly, rum! But apart from the rum, Andy and I don’t share a lot of common interests these days. I’ll talk to him from London like it’s Mars, and he’ll talk to me from wedded bliss like it’s Pluto. (Please give me credit for resisting a Uranus joke.) But he was my closest friend from the ages 11 to 16, and those are critical years. We went through That Awkward Stage together (Andy, unlike me, eventually pulled himself out of it), and we would stay up all night sometimes, talking about girls and wondering what, exactly, we were expected to do with them if we ever happened to find ourselves alone with them. Andy knows me as well as anyone, which might be a reason I always feel nervous talking to him. We went everywhere together, which was why I dragged him to my youth group’s weekend camp on Friday the 13th, 1986.
I was trying to set him up with my girl Michelle’s best friend. Julianne was sweet and funny and, girlfriend be damned, I found her pretty cute myself. (I would later spend a good four years of my life trying to court her, failing miserably.) Michelle and I thought they’d be just darling together, but it rained the entire weekend at camp, and even though Jules was interested, Andy decidedly wasn’t, telling me in an aside that “she looked like a drowned rat.” Fourteen years ago, I told this exact story at Andy and Julianne’s wedding. Thirty-one years. Fourteen years. Bloody hell!
I’m on the job hunt these days. There’s one I found that, if I do say so myself, I’d be awesome at, and I think they would hire me. It’s outside of this crazy world of school technology, but it’s still in my comfort zone, my sweet spot, right down the middle, I’d smack it for six. I was all ready for it, and then I realised…
There was this girl. I won’t get into the particulars, but I had known her for some time and admired her from afar. Then she announced she was moving to a different city. Almost accidentally, one drunken night, we confessed feelings for each other. Then she was gone, and I never saw her again. I was gutted for a while, but life went on, and I found a whole new set of problems and women to vex me. I left her well enough alone, kept my distance, never contacted her, figured she could go on with her life.
Then I applied for this job. And I realised, with a heavy sigh, that she now works there, a senior staff member, the type of person who looks at all the CVs, and there’s no fucking way in God’s green earth that she’d ever work in the same office with me. I’m an aberration, a tumour. The chaos with her happened almost five years ago, but with all that’s occurred since then, it might as well have been 20. We are old, and we know that we are old when five years is a lifetime. Five years is always a lifetime. It’s a wonder we live long enough to string so many five-year spans together.
But they add up, and next thing you know, it’s all history, and it never stops, and we leave trails of our past behind us, slugs of time. The Stones retire, Andy and Jules get older, Kurt Cobain gets dead. And we keep moving along, never quite making sense of all of it, wondering how and when, exactly, “Paradise City” ended up sandwiched between “Stairway to Heaven” and “Hotel California” on the radio.
The outpouring of grief, shock and solidarity in the wake of the Paris attacks has led to an inevitable backlash:
A series of attacks in different parts of the world within a 24-hour period and guess which one gets most of our attention? Why aren’t public buildings in the West being lit up with Lebanese colours? Why no option to overlay my Facebook picture with the Iraqi flag? Don’t these lives also matter?
Of course they do! But, too often, there is a certain cynicism behind these arguments, or self-righteousness that borders on fascism. One friend who, like me, used the tricolor to express his solidarity with the people of Paris was forced to respond on Facebook:
“A French flag isn’t an endorsement of French values, governance, history or anything of the sort. It is just a gesture of humanity that you can make or not make as you choose. Yes, there are tragedies elsewhere and there are other causes. Feel free to identify with any one of those that you wish or several at the same time. But we should be above cynicism… Let’s not politicize grief.”
Even Facebook had to explain why it enabled its “Safety Check” feature for Paris and not for other recent attacks (http://www.theverge.com/2015/11/15/…).
The detractors are also ignoring an important psychological reality: We tend to empathise more with people with whom we identify in some way, or with those whom we simply feel are more “like us”. Whether or not that is morally right, cultural and anthropological differences do play a big role in how much we empathise with others. It’s what has been referred to by one psychologist as “the dark side of empathy.”
For example, I have an old friend who retuned home to Syria several years ago, before the start of the current conflict. I lost contact with him, but every time I see or read a report on the ongoing tragedy in that country, I find myself thinking mainly about Mahmoud. Is he safe? How is he being affected by all of this? I believe I’d care just as sincerely about the war in Syria and the resulting humanitarian crisis anyway, but surely knowing that a friend is being directly affected makes it much more personal to me. Indeed, would many of us care as much about Syria if so many refugees from that war weren’t pouring into Europe, quite literally bringing the tragedy home? And is it wrong that my support for those fleeing the terrible conflict in Syria is slightly tinged with a fear that this genuine humanitarian crisis might be exploited by extremists to bring terror to my own home city?
And Paris… I have some unease over France’s complicated relationship with the Muslim world and its own immigrant population. I have reservations about the role Western governments are playing in the Syrian conflict and others around the world. But… my own geo-political views notwithstanding, Paris is a city I love. I have friends there. It is a mere couple hours away from London. I’ve been to the Stade de France. I’ve walked past the Bataclan. On the news this weekend, I saw places I knew; streets that were familiar to me. I was contacting friends to check that they were safe. I’m sure there are people in the West who feel the same about Beirut. But for me, as I believe it is for many of us, the psychological distance with Beirut is greater. It’s not that I don’t care, or that I think Lebanese lives are of lesser value. There’s just a greater sense of personal vulnerability in the Paris attacks.
That cognitive disconnect is precisely what the terrorists depend on. When bombings and massacres happen in non-Western countries, it can feel like one of those bad things that happen to people in far-away places. When terrorists attack cities we might live in, hotels we might stay in, or nightclubs we might dance in, it feels like something that could happen to us. That’s a scary thought, which is exactly why the terrorists are doing it. We must not give in to those fears.
So I, for now, will keep the tricolor on my Facebook profile, in solidarity with the people of Paris. But I’ll also keep worrying about my friend Mahmoud in Syria and thinking about another friend, Rafat, who didn’t survive his trip back home to Libya some years ago. And I will use their stories to develop a deeper sense of empathy with the people of Beirut, Baghdad and Baga. Because, yes, their lives do matter.
But that’s not the only reason why we should be just as concerned about atrocities in other parts of the world as we are of terrorist attacks in the West. It is because as long as people are killing in the name of Islamist extremism, or any extremism, all of us are at risk. When terrorism flourishes anywhere, it strengthens terrorists everywhere.
Some thoughts on Charlie Hebdo:
1. I believe that freedom of speech is an absolute right.
2. Having that right doesn’t mean you must choose to exercise it oppressively, irresponsibly and without due regard and respect for others.
3. Nevertheless, freedom of speech as an absolute right must include the freedom to offend.
4. Ergo, religion is not, cannot and should not be exempt from scrutiny, challenge, satire and even ridicule, regardless of how much this may upset believers.
5. Having said that, freedom of speech as an absolute right must also include the freedom to be offended and express outrage.
6. Therefore, Muslims have an absolute right to be offended by Charlie Hebdo and should not have to apologise for that.
7. I (not a Muslim) also agree the publications were grossly offensive.
8. What I, or anyone else for that matter, DO NOT have the right to do is murder those who offend me. Murder is not a right. The murderous attack on Charlie Hebdo was WRONG and cannot be justified.
9. The “I am not Charlie” campaigners who are basing their argument solely on the offensiveness of the publications are missing the point. “Je Suis Charlie” has become bigger than that – it is a statement in support of free speech, not one specifically in support of the magazine.
10. Yes, there will always be hypocrites who jump on the bandwagon – such as some of the politicians in Sunday’s solidarity march in Paris, or those on the far right who wish to use the events of January 7 to promote their own brands of hatred and oppression.
11. Nevertheless… “I do not agree with what you say, but I will defend your right to say it.” (Voltaire)
12. I am a journalist, writer and comedian. I believe in responsibility; I oppose censorship. The latter is a slippery and dangerous slope.
13. I believe that freedom of speech is an absolute right.
The nature of friendship has been the subject of my musings of late, and a discussion on the theme with an old housemate led me to recall an experience from almost 15 years ago.
I had made a financial mistake.
I’m still not sure exactly what it was, but I think I subtracted one from the tens side rather than a two, or a three, or a nine, and it plunged me into a week of chaos.
I realised it right before I was due to head off for a weekend away. I did the sums in my head and, to my horror, discovered that not only had I bounced a cheque to my housemate, but also that until Friday morning, I had not a penny to my name. Actually, that’s not quite true. The cup of change by my bed had about £1.74 in it.
In hindsight, that seemed fitting. For about six months, I had been doing a temp job that barely paid me above minimum wage. This was good because it taught me how to live in London on what was essentially an ox’s salary. It was bad because, well, stuff is expensive in London. There had been times of such intense poverty that my breakfast, lunch, and dinner consisted almost totally of the free biscuits and coffee at work.
But I had just taken on a new part-time job, and even though it hardly made me rich, it was certainly a welcome step up in salary. I was starting to imagine what it would be like to live as a normal human being. It was something I had been looking forward to: a job with a living wage. I was so close.
My first payday was to be that Friday. I somehow had to make it four days until then. One last week of being one of the great unwashed.
I did an inventory of what I had to survive one week. The list read something like:
£1.74 in change.
A handful of winegums. (Not even Rowntrees … some cheap brand!)
Half a box of cat food.
Endless cups of hot coffee (courtesy of work).
One package of digestive biscuits.
That was it. I had no money for a travelcard, so after work Monday, I headed out into the cold London evening and walked from Russell Square to Hendon, where I lived at the time. I’d always been curious how long it would take me to walk that far. This was as good a time as any to find out.
One of my favourite books when I was younger was The Long Walk. It was written by Stephen King under his Richard Bachman pseudonym, published decades after it was written (when King was still in college, which is just depressing). It concerns a competition in the “not-so-distant” future in which 100 young men simply begin walking. They are required to walk a minimum of four miles an hour. If they go under four miles an hour, they are given a warning. They have an hour to walk off the warning. If they receive a fourth warning, they are shot.
There are stilted political implications in the story, though I can’t for the life of me remember what they are. But the story fascinates me still. I mean, it’s simply walking. Anybody can do that, right?
From my workplace in Russell Square to where I lived in Hendon is, according to Google Maps, about seven miles. Not an overwhelming distance and, as I mentioned, I’d been curious about walking it anyway. This final week of poverty seemed like an ideal time to finally go forward with the experiment. So, after a long day at work I packed up my bag and turned onto Great Russell Street at 6:02 p.m.
I walked fast. It was exciting, really. Why don’t people do this all the time? Up, up, I went, along Eversholt Street, past Euston Station, past the Koko nightclub and Lyttelton Arms, through bohemian Camden Town with its weird and wonderful people, past Stables Market and Cottons Rhum Shop, and into Chalk Farm. I moved at a steady pace, passing all the office workers and meandering shoppers. It was I who could not be stopped; it was I who was on a savage journey. Four miles an hour? Please. I’d double that, backwards, blindfolded, walking on my hands.
Belsize Park is an area of London where I have spent much time (I later worked in the area for five years), but I have never really understood it. An old girlfriend lives there, and, like her, everything is a little too precious. I had barely been back to the area since we’d parted ways, and I was reminded why; people in Belsize Park can make you feel like you don’t bathe often enough, like you’re this swarthy minion swooping up from the city’s underbelly, lurking in to sully their happy, lily-white pseudo-suburbia. The whole area makes me want to drink six cans of some cheap, nasty lager, and then fart. Preferably in a crowded Starbucks.
That said, when I walked past Tapeo, a lovely tapas restaurant where the ex and I had spent a lot of time together, the pangs of envy were overpowering. Nobody here chooses what they have for lunch simply on the basis that it’s only a pound-fifty.
Plus, my feet were starting to hurt. I’d noticed it as I went past the Sir Richard Steele pub, which, all considered, isn’t bad. But I was only three miles into my journey and had another four to go. It was 6:47. Not bad time, I thought, but a pace I was unlikely to keep up.
I felt the blister just after going past the Everyman Theatre. I walk on the backs of my feet, something you’d think would help my posture but doesn’t. Right there, on the base, right under my ankle, it started to swell. I kept wondering if it would squish as I moved forward, soaking my sock. But it wouldn’t. Just a squersh, squersh, squersh, as it shifted with each step. But, nevertheless, on I walked. I had declared to my housemates that I would make it back to the house by 8 p.m., and time was wasting.
Through Hampstead, down past Queen Mary’s House on the western side of the Heath (7:23… good pace still) and into Golders Green with its kosher butcher shops and Middle Eastern restaurants.
Speaking of which, it occurred to me that I was starving. I hadn’t eaten all day, which, sad as it is to say, wasn’t that highly unusual a situation for me as it probably should have been. But I was expending energy now, starting to slow perilously toward that 4 mph threshold, and it was beginning to look like calories might not be as wretched as I’d always believed. But the compiled change (up to three quid now!) in my pocket was to be used for tomorrow’s bus rides. No food could be had.
It dawned on me that I was a complete idiot. When people heard that I was broke for the week, I received a surprisingly high number of offers to help. Here, Dave, let me order you a pizza; hey, what’s your bank details? These entreaties were kind, warm-hearted, and downright touching. But, to me, they missed the point. This was a test for myself, one last week of struggle, something to never forget, something to put in the pocket of an old coat and discovered years from now with a fond smile. This was a project. This was life as art.
As I trudged up Highfield Avenue toward Brent Cross station, six miles into my journey, “life as art” was starting to look like a tremendous load of bullshit. I was hungry, cold, and, to my alarm, my calves were starting to cramp up. But, at this point, what choice did I have? I couldn’t exactly waste the whole trip by hopping on the Tube now and wasting valuable pennies. I had to make it home. Wait… is that a hill? Jesus! When did we get hills around here?
If I had been in the Bachman contest, I would have been shot somewhere around the Brent Cross Flyover.
But past the shopping centre I went, almost home now, so close. In the distance, my house. I glanced down at my right shoe. The sole of it was flapping aimlessly. “Come on, matey… hang in… almost there.”
I put my key in the lock. I heard a “Wow!” from one of my housemates. “We weren’t expecting you until 9, at least!” It was 8:11.
Weary, I forced a weak grin. I wanted to curl up on the sofa in front of the telly, and not think about how hungry I was. I shuffled to my room, peeled my shoes off, crowbarred my socks onto the floor, and shuffled back. My housemate, to whom I had accidentally bounced the cheque that had started this whole mess in the first place, was standing outside my door.
“Dave, do you want some food? We made you a pizza.”
They had. It was most wonderful.
This week wasn’t even half over. And all it took to wear down my “I don’t need help, this is for me, I must prove myself and remember and make it last” was an oven pizza and two warm housemates on an old battered sofa, administering a Cosmopolitan mag quiz (“What Kind of Lover Are You?” I think it was), huddling up in blankets, staying safe.
Because your friends, the ones who are there for you, they would have no place in the Long Walk. If you slow down, they don’t shoot you. They crouch beside you, offer you their shoulder, take your arm gently, rub your back, and tell you, “I’m here.” Then, once you’re up again, you carry on down the road, together, scarred but stronger, ready for the larger, fiercer battles ahead.
When you add it all up, Manchester United and Woody Allen and the penis insecurity and the fear of ex-girlfriends and the whole I’m-a-bit-nerdy-so-bear-with-me thing that I fall back on when I get scared, little of it matters… of the few things that ever really made an impact in my 20s, one of the biggest was Nirvana. Little else, even put together, comes close.
It’s easy to forget this. It has been a long time. Over two decades since Nirvana first seared that thing deep into our brain, made us feel like there was this whole other planet out there, good lord, what is out there, could there be more people like this, there couldn’t be, no way…
You see… we have grown old. We have changed. We are working 9-to-5 jobs now. We are worrying about the economy. We wonder where we’re going in our careers. We don’t want someone to release the plague in Trafalgar Square. We wonder if we’re missing out on the primes of our lives. We wonder if anyone will ever love us. That thing, that part of us that once flared up, previously undiscovered, where did that come from? We try to muffle it.
We discover new things. We find our new obsession. Some of us get married. Some of us devote ourselves to making money. Some of us giggle when we see our company’s commercial come on television. We forget. We forget what happened.
We rationalise it. We were young and stupid, we didn’t know shit. Man, that was college, or that was uni, or that was my 20s, dude. Yeah, that was a great song and everything… but a song’s a song. We were just kids.
Don’t you remember? It hasn’t been that long, has it? Come on, man… you remember. I know you do.
Everybody remembers when they first heard Smells Like Teen Spirit. Laugh if you will, mock us for being stupid twenty-somethings who never had to fight for anything in our lives, we get it, and we agree. But you ask any of us, we still know where we were when we saw the video for the first time.
You have to keep in mind, we were listening to bands like Warrant at the time. We were listening to Guns N’ Roses. We were telling ourselves that Axl Rose was the new Mick Jagger. We were looking for something, and, unable to find it, we just figured we’d take what we could. You have to cut us some slack here. We didn’t know they were coming.
So when that happened, the experience bore such a deep hole in us, we can all tell you when we first saw it. All of a sudden, some other force showed up. All of a sudden, something new happened, something we never could have anticipated. Where did they come from?
This weird little guy, not singing, not really, but not just screaming either. He was like a bent garden hose finally straightened, a spring uncoiled, a live wire with too much current running through it, as Jimi Hendrix was famously described. Sure, the song rocked, which was what caught our attention in the first place, but there was something else, something authentic, something afraid and pained and sardonic and intelligent and hopeful… and furious.
This sound was so unusual, we had no idea what to make of it. Who were these guys? You heard rumours. They were bisexuals. They were Satanists. I hear Axl hates them. One of them had a baby born addicted to cocaine. A friend of mine, still confused, threw away his CD after hearing that Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl had kissed on Saturday Night Live and became convinced Kurt Cobain’s garbled lyrics were going to make him gay.
But man, did it hit us. Everything changed… like that. Suddenly everything we’d been doing up to that point was ridiculous. Authenticity was suddenly what mattered. Really believing, really caring. Sure, like everything eventually, what Nirvana meant was warped over time, and you could buy pre-ripped jeans at Gap and “Grunge!” compilation CDs. But you can’t deny that it was there, and it was pure. Suddenly, something was important. We just wanted to eat something that wasn’t spoon-fed to us; we wanted that fire. It really was a revolution, however brief and fleeting it was. And it was all started by one song, one verse, one chord, one man.
Sure, we’ve changed. Nirvana is classic rock now. But Kurt is as woven into the fabric of our lives as our first date, or our first love, or our first death in the family, or our first broken heart. Or did you forget?
Don’t you remember the first time you got your hands on the In Utero album? Or hearing “Heart-Shaped Box” on the radio? Don’t you remember arguing with skeptical friends that “Rape Me” wasn’t really about rape? Or MTV Unplugged, back when there was an MTV Unplugged, where we were shocked to learn that not only was Kurt not incapacitated by heroin, but also that he could also produce 70 minutes of utter beauty that people would still talk about years later in awe. And you remember the pain, the worry, the fear, those hidden parts of you that sprung up when you listened, even if you weren’t sure why.
Admit it. You do remember now… don’t you? Come on, you have to.
Some of us follow foggy tracks, full of faith that, if we stay true to what brought us here, they will lead us right. Some of us have lost our way all together. Some of us can’t remember what it was like to have believed. Some of us are too busy to notice much of anything anymore.
But, remember, dammit! Remember what that was like. It’s as close to something real and binding as we had. Don’t rationalise it away.
Just listen. That is, after all, why they recorded everything in the first place. To remember, to document, to celebrate.
And, today, don’t forget to play it loud. Really loud!
I have just this moment finished reading Off the Road, the autobiography of Carolyn Cassady, where she tells in unrelenting detail tales of life with her writer husband Neal, novelist Jack Kerouac, and poet Allen Ginsberg in their prime, when their chief objective was ripping shit up, putting it back together, tearing it down again, and then gracefully elucidating the glory of it all just when they were about to become too insufferable to withstand any longer. It’s a fascinating book, not just because of her observations — as the most lucid, sane pseudo-participant, which was no great feat really — but also to see how the trio was a pack, the boys, like-minded in the important ways, fundamentally distinct in the tragic ones. The three of them pushed each other, farther, into the gorgeous nether of madness and chaos and beauty, and back again. They were each other’s muses, and burdens, and inspirations, and anchors. They struggled together. And it seems like they never really questioned themselves. But they did, because they must.
There’s something wonderful about the notion of a pack, particularly for literary folks. Who among us has not felt that our friends, ourselves included, are somehow the most enthralling people on the planet whose peculiarities and eccentricities must be chronicled for future generations to understand and appreciate? This is why we have friends. They’re interesting. I have met people in this world whom I would have thought it impossible to exist in real life. And yet, there they are.
These are the people we want to throw all caution to the proverbial wind with, the people with whom we just want to jump in a car and do something crazy. We just want to experience life with them, record their perceptions, expand on our own, try to make some sense of this constant pandemonium that swirls endlessly, find the absolute peace and splendour we all perceive is out there, somewhere, somehow, it has to be, right? And we love people just as nuts as us. People who see the world the way we do; as scary, beautiful, enchanting, aloof, full of awe, something to be tackled and dealt with, however we deem fit.
Man, I love these friends. Something about them makes me feel like I’m a part of something bigger than myself, that we are a troupe, that we are sages, seeing the world like no one else does. I’ve had many of them over the years, and just thinking of them gets me fired up. It’s the one aspect all my closest and dearest friends – male and female – have in common; they are all seekers. They are introspective, questioning, inspiring, alive. They are wild bulls of souls, unleashed, rampaging onward, trying to find the meaning, the truth.
But I am romanticising them, I realise now, as I sit here watching the bright, waxing moon. They were all those things. They are all those things. But they are not just all those things. They are real people. At the end of the day, Neal Cassady had to make a living. We live in a different time now. My friends are not in school anymore. They are grownups. They are married, or they are getting married, or they are worried about the mortgage, or the direction and financial security of their companies. I blinked, and they all became regular people. Somewhere down the line, they saw where they fit in in the universe, and they adjusted accordingly. They saw one path leading to mental destruction, and they chose the other, healthy, wise one. It is to be a visionary to question this whole existence; it is to be an adult to shut up about it and make sure the bills are paid and the trains run on time.
And I am still out there, adrift, wondering which way to go.
Can I simply be? I wrote a Facebook message to a group of old friends the other day, one of those impersonal, hey-look-you-were-included-on-my-closest-friends-list type of things. It was a pithy little comment on how I was doing something particularly domesticated that evening, full of self-mocking and look-at-what-it’s-come-to faux irony. One friend responded to the list saying, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, that I was right, David had become a blissful little suburbanite, he’s going for walks and cooking and watching the Olympics and buying Nike and voting and all the things you’re not supposed to do if you’re the outsider doggedly resisting social mores. It was funny and played into my joke. Then another friend responded to him, hitting a little closer to home:
(I’m paraphrasing) “Which do you think he likes more? Being domesticated, or the fact that we’re all sitting here talking about him being domesticated?” And he was right, of course. I’d always enjoyed being the little ugly duckling that everyone looked at as the peculiar one. His words disturbed me greatly, because he was so right. Did I really still want to be that guy? Why didn’t I shut up and play ball, live like a normal person? Nothing all that special about me. Nothing all that special about any of us.
Another example to prove my rapidly shifting point: I was talking to another friend who knows me as well as anyone the other evening. She met me several years ago here in London, at one of my many self-congratulatory birthday parties. She was a friend of a friend, so on, and I was still relatively new to the city, not that long removed from island life. That birthday evening, I was the new guy in town, telling my tales of the Caribbean, of ex-girlfriends and beaches and journalism adventures and self-doubt and romance and transcendence and insanity and the loss of God and anything else that would make it more likely this gorgeous girl in front of me would continue to listen, and she was staring at me, weirdly fascinated. She told me the other evening that she was compelled that night not so much by my stories — who could be? — but the fact that I had been somewhere, that I had done things. “I was looking at Kim [her other friend] and was like, ‘Er… we went to Mexico for a week once. We live just down the road from each other.’”
And I had been nowhere, really. I had done nothing. It is all relative, and ultimately, like everybody else, I’ve sold out. Real curiosities, the true lost souls of this world, will forever be roaming, searching, struggling, dreaming, wondering. I’m beginning to feel I don’t have it in me anymore., that it is no longer worth it for me. That I want to play ball.
In the end, I was far more like my friend than the weirdo whimsical outsider I once wanted people to believe I was. I am a dreamer, but I am also a human being, one who just wants happiness and serenity and a comfy chair to prop my feet up at the end of the day. Calm.
I might never again just hop in a car with a cohort and drive across the country for assorted aesthetically realised misadventures, I will never be nuts again, I will never cut all ties and just go go go GO, man! Not anymore. I like my flat too much, I like my monthly salary too much, I like my comfort too much. I am tied to this world, in a way the true visionaries never were. I cannot step outside it all, pretend that I am Neal Cassady, just not giving a fuck, ambling about, seeking seeking seeking seeking seeking. No longer. My peace is to be found in a flat that’s clean, in bills being paid, in the overseas family I can call at the end of the week. I didn’t think that’s where it was found. But I think it might be. This doesn’t make me any different than the rest of humanity. It is who I am. It just took me longer than most to realise.
So where does this leave me, or any of us who are starting to understand that, after a while, it takes too much energy to try to be the special unique snowflake all the time? That being normal has its advantages? That there’s a reason people choose comfort and relaxation and playing the game the right way? That’s OK, isn’t it? Isn’t it?
But, Dave, you say, this whole series of incoherent ramblings seems to have been focusing on some sort of final goal, some sort of intangible Meaning Of It All. We want some sort of resolution. The answer to this whole thing, it’s not becoming a corporate drone, is it? Is that what this all means? Do you conquer the demons and figure out what it all means? Do you find a way to be yourself in this universe without becoming what you’ve always fought against? Well, I’m afraid, this story has a rather mundane, mediocre conclusion. I’m just a regular guy, a squirrel trying to get a nut. I have a boss, and rent due, and bills, and a recently-acquired goldfish that needs to be fed. I have visions of a life I go home to every night, with a girlfriend or wife, and neighbours from whom I borrow tools, and membership in the golf club, and maybe a dog. I hope to get there someday. I am not Neal Cassady. Far from it.
I recognise… What is pulling me back to earth here? What has made me see the notion of settling as something that ain’t nothin’ to run from no more? Is it an inherent islander’s desire to have a home, happiness, tranquility? If that was what was important, why would I have ever left the Caribbean in the first place? Or was I just fooling myself then, thinking there was something else out there? Does it even make a difference? I just don’t want to run anymore. I don’t want to search. I just want to be normal. I want to work and go home and have a drink and relax and listen to music and watch sports and not be so damned peculiar and hungry for answers anymore. Is that so wrong? Is it? Seriously. Is it?
But no matter. Worry not. In a week, I’m sure I’ll feel the exact opposite. I am crazy, you know!
I’d been trawling the Internet and antique shops for a particular, hard-to-find item over several months when, a few days ago, as has been the case lately, to which I reply, “about fucking time” – I caught a break. A friend of a friend of a friend had one at her shop in East Molesey going at what I thought was a ludicrously cheap price. I called the girl, we met, we bonded over Radiohead, and sealed the deal. Ecstatic, I burst into a longwinded, nonsensical, relentlessly insane thank you that lasted about three minutes. She stared at me quietly for a moment, and then laughed.
“You’re crazy. But you’re a nice guy. You don’t find a lot of crazy people who are equally as nice. I like that.”
Now, “crazy” is a word I’m a little used to and understand wholly, but I probably hear no word more often than “nice.” People are always telling me that. I have an unfortunate habit of over-politeness, saying “thank you” and “please” when it’s entirely unnecessary (and aggressively annoying). You’re too nice. You’re so nice. You, David, are nice. Nice guy, that David.
Now, ignoring that nice originally meant ignorant or foolish – classifications I’d agree with wholeheartedly – I’ve never understood this. Am I a nice guy? I mean, sure, I’m pleasant. I smile a lot, make a bunch of lame jokes, try to act polite and rarely start randomly punching the face of the person with whom I’m speaking, however great the temptation. But does that make me “nice”?
Seems like popular opinion would say yes. At a pub the other day, I ordered my drink with my customary “please” and “thank you.” When I do this, I’m not hoping to brighten the pub landlord’s day. It’s just a habit. It’s a ruse. It’s so I can get by without anyone giving me any grief. It’s so people will think I am conscientious and caring. Often, people attribute it to my roots in the Caribbean, as if there are no rude people in the West Indies.
A girl I really like asked me the other day, without a trace of irony: “You’re such a nice guy! Why are you still single?” (Did I mention she’s very attractive… and ALSO single?). The response that rose to my lips would not have been considered “nice” or polite so instead I made some lame comment that was supposed to be funny, before politely excusing myself and heading to the mens’ room to bash my head repeatedly against the bathroom wall. A real nice guy, that David.
So let me set the record straight: I. Am. Not. Nice. Deep down, once you strip away all the surface bullshit, I’m not all that concerned with other people. I just want them to like me. Me! Me! The way I really am does not matter; what matters is what people see. And they see that I am “nice.” I tell myself that everyone does this, everyone tries to put their best face forward, everyone tries to mask the seedy, nasty, grimy parts that lie beneath. But I think what I do is worse.
Sure enough, the pub trick worked. The girl behind the bar commented the other day on how “nice” I was, and that you didn’t get a lot of guys like me in the pubs she’d worked in. I smiled sheepishly, stammered a bit, head hunched down, my work here done.
I have an old friend in America who called me last week. She told me she was feeling horrible because she felt she’d deserted a little girl. I asked her what she meant.
She explained that because the city of New York – she’d recently moved there from Georgia – was so harsh and fast and angry, it was wearing her down. She felt compelled to do something good, worthy, provide the world with a little bit of light, give something back. She signed up for a Big Brothers/Big Sisters program, and she took a seven-year-old girl to museums and cooked for her once a week, because her mother was unable to. Every Saturday afternoon, my friend would head to Brooklyn, pick the girl up and try to make her feel special. But she just started a new job, and she can no longer be there every Saturday. She shows up whenever she can, but her own life has got in the way of the relationship with the child. “I just feel so guilty, so horrible.”
That, friends, is nice. I am not that. I do not give money to charity. I do not help little old ladies across the street (tried that once and she almost attacked me with her handbag). I do give up my seat on the Underground to pregnant women, but only if they make eye contact. I am a self-absorbed, self-indulgent, passive-aggressive piece of crap. I am out for myself only. I am, after all, the ultimate Alpha-Male!
But somehow, people keep lumping me in with the warmhearted people, the ones who see the big picture, the ones who understand the world is more than just one self-obsessed person thinking humanity owes him something. Who sees the world through the prism of himself. Whose favourite topic is always me.
What does being nice mean? We’re so busy these days, we don’t have time to actually figure out whether someone is nice or not. So we just use shorthand: If you’re non-confrontational and soft-spoken, that makes you “nice”. If you’re effective at disguising your inherent self-interest in everything you do, you win the prize. You’re the one who means well, the one who just wants to stay out of everyone’s way. The one who writes a blog about poor me, sad little pathetic single guy, doesn’t want any trouble. Whether it’s true or not.
There are people who have known me, past the “please” and “thank you” and “that’s OK”, past all the bullshit, seen the way I really am, the way I can be with those who would deign to try to dig deeper.
And I can assure you… they might have a bit of disagreement with the classification of “nice.” Though I can’t really know for sure. You’ll have to ask them. They don’t talk to me anymore.