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.
For some reason, when I talk to friends from home about London they all ask me about the parties. Without fail, anytime they call me before noon on a weekend, they’ll say, “Sorry to call you so early, man… I know you were probably out last night.” This is partly because I’m an alcoholic, of course, but they seem to overstate my ambitions.
Chances are, more likely, that I went to bed at 11 after heading to the local pub by myself to sit in a corner and read the new Haruki Murakami book. But they don’t get it. They’re aware there are plenty of parties here, but they never seem to understand that they rarely involve me.
I’ve always been slightly uncomfortable at parties and large gatherings. (I’d say I’m more of a one-on-one person, but I’m not really that either.) True, I’ve got better over the years, but something about them has always bothered me; I arrive, and everyone is already having fun, like they didn’t even know I was coming (had they known, maybe they might have toned it down a bit). It’s like coming into a room just after someone has told the best joke, the type of joke they’ll keep referring back to the rest of the evening. Everyone’s laughing their heads off, hee-hee, ha-ha, and they’re all in on the joke, enjoying it together. Except for me.
The more banging the shindig is, the less at ease I am. Especially when people are dancing. I’m not big on dancing. At least, not in public. At home, in private, I dance along to whatever music is on with total abandon. But ask me to dance in public and, yes, I will try, maybe even give it my all and everything, but in the end I really just move from side to side. Occasionally, I can fake it, especially when I’m out with people who can’t even do that – they either look like a chicken pox-infected person having an epileptic fit while being struck by lightning, or they look like a 10-year-old who really has to pee, standing straight up, hopping ever so slightly, eyes dodging around everywhere, hoping nobody notices. It’s highly amusing, to be entirely honest.
To these guys, because I was usually drunk and throwing myself around with little regard to propriety or safety, I could dance. But to the general public, the people who actually dance for fun rather than dancing because their alleged “friend” shamed them into it so he could take pictures and mock them, I’m a disaster. I jump around like a moron, move my hands wildly left to right and eventually morph dangerously into a shimmying, jiving “Walk Like an Egyptian” movin’ fool.
It’s horrific. I’ve had two ex-girlfriends actually refuse to go to any kind of dance club with me. I remember one of them used to drag me along for one purpose only: to hold the table and make sure nobody stole the bags and beer while she and her friends were all dancing. I usually tried to remember to bring a book.
I’m not sure why it is. I consider myself quite a sociable person. But when you’re at a huge party with people bumping into one another and no more than negative-6 inches between you and some 7-foot-tall fella with a lot of body hair who’s sweating out the average rainfall of the Amazon Basin all on his own, you tend to become a bit withdrawn.
Inevitably, I end up playing Pinball with the crowd – for some reason, I insanely insist on saying “Excuse me” and “Sorry” when I bump into someone at huge parties, which only happens every half-second – and ricocheting outdoors, where I sit in the corner and try to siphon off a cubic foot of space in case there’s a fire or something. Intermittently, I’ll start laughing out loud at nothing in particular, in case someone is planning on punching me and needs to be scared off by an appearance of insanity.
If someone I know comes by to say hello (or, more likely, to ask me a question about computers), I’ll make some kind of joke about being knackered from all the booty-shakin’ then wait the requisite 10 seconds – tops – until they notice some random person in the crowd, yell “Anna! Hi!” then scamper off. Then I go back to my random laughter.
And that is how I party.
Went to a party last Saturday night (Didn’t get laid / I got in a fight / Uh-oh, it ain’t no big thing. Sorry… I couldn’t resist that one!). Actually, it was a few weeks ago and it was actually more than a party. To me, it was a “rave,” you know, like those underground parties you only hear about through some secret network. (I was later told that it did not actually qualify as a rave. I’ll let you decide.)
Now, I should have known that I’m getting too old for this shit, but the whole “rave” thing, with all the “kids” “raving,” “having fun” and “enjoying” their time at a “rave” was a new experience to be had, so I was willing to give it a shot. I’d never been to such an event before, and well, I’d heard a lot about them, and, shit, they seemed totally crazy. A mate of a mate was going to be DJ’ing, and they were much cooler than me, so I figured, if just by osmosis, maybe I could have a good time.
We arrived, and I noticed straight off that this thing was going to be a struggle. Everyone was all decked out in what I decided was “dance” garb, or they weren’t wearing much at all (one girl, clearly under the influence of some kind of stimulant – probably coffee – danced topless with black stars painted on her nipples for what seemed like several non-stop hours; later on, she was lying down, staring at the ceiling, eyes wide wide wide open, and I was scared shitless because I briefly thought she might be dead and had visions of the coppers showing up and arresting us all). They were all grooving around in a trance, dancing with each other and themselves, oblivious to anything but the beat (that beat, that incessant beat). But… they were serving good rum at the bar.
I legged it to the garden outside, finagled my way into the corner and sat down. I got up once, waited half an hour for the bathroom, left the loo, realised I had to go again and stepped back in line. Another half hour. Back to the garden, save for a quick stop at the dance floor, where some guy (I swear) was digging his fingernail into his cheek. I stayed at the garden from then on before calling a cab and making my hasty escape. If you saw me, it might have looked like I was dancing for a moment, but I just tripped on a rock.
I’ve been thinking of having a party recently. Maybe I’ll invite all those friends from home, show them what a real London party’s all about. Of course, it’ll just be laughing to myself and tripping over rocks, like always, and it’ll be extra tough to do that “Anna! Hi!” trick, since, well, I’ll know everybody there. Probably won’t work.
Maybe the only person I’ll invite is me. And the neighbour’s cat. I think the cat can come.
Most of us don’t change our minds about anything important after the age of 20. We get set in our ways early. One of the earliest mindsets to form is about religion. Kids baptised in the Church of England and sent to a CofE church when they’re too young to understand religion usually end up as church-going Anglicans for life. No young child says to a parent, “I don’t want to be an Anglican. I think I’ll be a Buddhist.” There are always a rebellious few who stray, but the majority stay.
The training or indoctrination of young people can be good or bad but whatever it is, it usually sticks for life. In the 1930s, Adolf Hitler, playing on the resentment some Germans felt toward the financial success of Jews in their society, formed youth groups that taught hate. It was those German young people who became Nazis. They weren’t born Nazis.
If all the children in Neasden (a town I pick at random), had been brought up as Muslims instead of Catholics and Protestants, they would be Muslims now. There wouldn’t have been a lot of 10-year-olds stamping their feet saying, “I don’t want to be a Muslim. I want to be a Presbyterian.”
One of the greatest dangers to the survival of a civilisation is the rise of hatred within the culture. Yesterday’s horrific events in Woolwich have once again put focus on those who combine a philosophy of hate with education in murder. Radically indoctrinated young Muslims like the ones involved were never going to grow up trying to win the Noble Peace Prize, were they? They will have been convinced in their youth that Westerners are evil and that the right thing for them to do is kill as many of us as they can. There’s no hatred like the hatred based on religion. You can bet that there are more potential terrorists willing to die for Allah (peace be with him) today than there were a year ago.
The majority of peace-loving Muslims may be as opposed to these incipient terrorists as we are. However, it’s more likely they ignore them, the same way we ignore our fringe lunatics – like those of the English Defence League, for example, who are always eager to use tragic affairs like these to promote their own brand of hatred within the society. And so it goes on.
It’s not easy to understand why the races on earth are so different and so unable to get along. We don’t know whether there was always some basic, genetic difference between Eskimos and Africans, Asians and Europeans, or whether racial characteristics developed as a result of the differences in the environments in which humans with originally similar characteristics flourished over the centuries.
However it happened, there’s no doubt that now there are fundamental differences among races. Our philosophies of government, our personalities, goals, religions and even our beliefs in old wives tales differ. And those differences aren’t going away.
It’s hard to know what we should do about all this hatred. Spending more on weapons certainly doesn’t seem like the best way to eliminate it. Nuclear weapons are no deterrent to a few crazies with homemade bombs.
I remember a once reading a dialogue between two philosophers. One philosopher expressed dismay over the possible end of civilisation as a result of the invention of gun powder. The other said, “At your age, why are you so bothered by the possibility of the end of civilisation?”
I’m not too old to worry about it myself, but even if I were, I wouldn’t be so selfish that I’m ready to have this great world end with a biological or nuclear bang just because I’m not going to be around to see it.
I’m on the job hunt these days, and a friend of mine just quit the one she’s had for two years. This piqued my interest because hers was the sort of role that I always found interesting and even coveted. But she insists that I’d be a fool to go for it. “I quit this job to go into the job market, as tough as it is. Doesn’t that tell you anything?”
She has a point. Right now, even the rats in London are claiming benefits. I tried to explain to her my own situation and why I wanted – needed – to move on. She wouldn’t have it. She said the job was demeaning and demoralising and degrading and any other progressive adjective with the de- prefix, save for maybe detoxifying. It will break your spirit, she said. It’s a bunch of delusional balding men trying to hang on to their waning libidos, she said. You’ll hate it there just as much.
Then she paused. “Well… you’re a guy. It might be easier for you.”
I knew immediately what she meant, but I can’t figure out whether or not to agree with her. I know what she was trying to get across: that it was a work environment that perhaps isn’t as accommodating to women as it is to men (which I think is classified as “illegal,” but hey, never you mind). And I wasn’t sure if I should be insulted by the implication. Would I be complicit, a willing party, if I benefited from an environment that excludes women? (And seriously, boys, the Mad Men days are over. You can’t even smoke in the office anymore.)
These are all fascinating questions, really – they are, honest – but, me being me, her comment got me thinking about myself, and myself only. It affected me less on the Should-I-Take-This-Job-If-Offered front and more on the Wait… I’m-A-Guy? front.
The concept that there is some fundamental difference between the sexes, something deep down, ingrained, either through nature or nurture, a little pink or blue dot in the middle of our brains that determines how we see the world, is one that has always frustrated me.
It’s always been my belief – and feel free to mock here, because everybody does – that men and women are essentially the same. We all just want happiness, and peace, and comfort. We might go about it differently on occasion, but shit, we’re all on the same team here. But no one ever agrees with me.
I missed the blokes’ handbook they evidently handed out in primary school, along with the What’s Happening to My Body? book. I don’t think of myself as some member of an enormous fraternity, a man before I’m a human. I mean, I can barely grow a decent mat of chest hair, I really love Meryl Streep and I often talk to little babies and small, furry animals using words like “cute yiddle puddy wuddy.” If I’m supposed to be a representative of some guy culture by my very existence, I think I’m doing a very poor job. Shit, sometimes, get this, I even talk about my feelings.
But the rest of the world doesn’t seem to see it that way. And I wonder if I have a choice. I will admit, there are most certainly benefits I have received only because I am a guy, most of which I’ve never noticed and likely never will. But I didn’t sign up for this. I’m just a person, like everybody else.
I fail the Bloke Test in almost every way. Sure I talk meaningless shit about girls with the guys – and sometimes to the girls, which usually gets me in trouble. But that’s all it is to me – meaningless shit. I’ve never been in a real fight. I own no weaponry. If pressed, I’ll confess I prefer cricket, and maybe even tennis, to football. Wrestling and Formula One confuse me. I don’t spit in public. I worry about my weight. I’m not sensitive about my penis size (OK, maybe a little).
These are all stereotypes, urban legends, myths passed down through the generations. (When did they become hard, real ways to live our lives?) But I’ll never be able to live them down.
Put it this way: I was out with some friends the other evening, and one of them, a post-grad student, mentioned that she was working on a paper. She asked everyone she knew a question: If you found out your partner had developed a deep emotional attachment to someone of the opposite sex, would it bother you more than if he/she had meaningless sex with someone he/she hardly knew?
The student claimed that of the 50-something-odd people she asked, every single woman said she would be more bothered by the deep emotional connection, and every single man said he would be more bothered by the sex. She revealed this after she’d polled us, and, lo and behold, her postulate proved accurate. The four women didn’t care so much about the sex, and the two guys (myself included) did, quite so. The student was quite pleased with herself, convinced she’d stumbled across a universal truth.
I dissented, strongly. Listen, I calmly explicated, the reason I give that answer is not that I’m a guy. Don’t we, as humans, have the right, no, the duty, to develop as many “deep emotional connections” with as many people as possible? If I recognise someone as some sort of kindred spirit, male or female, why is it wrong for me to pursue a relationship – and by “relationship,” I mean an exploration of another person’s mind and thought processes, not anything sexual – with them? Isn’t it inherently flawed thinking to limit ourselves to enjoying the company of only one person, female or male? Would a girlfriend of mine object to me making a new male friend? Isn’t the real betrayal sex, and cheating, and lying?
For not the first time, the group of women laughed at me. “Guy,” they said. “You’re just a guy, and you’re full of shit, and you know it.”
See what I’m up against here?
It was a beautiful day in London on Tuesday, one of those days that reminds you why you’re here, one of those days when you feel like you’re a part of something bigger, something important. Apart from New York, no other city can make me feel like this, like I’m plugged into some massive generator, like I’m an essential part of a machine that never stops churning. It was one of those days when the sidewalks felt like they were vibrating.
So on my way back from the city on a rare day off work, I decided to get off the train early and take a walk.
Almost immediately after I got out at Pinner, some lady with a twin pram ploughed into me. Not only was she pushing the giant buggy, she was carrying four Sainsbury’s bags of groceries, wrapped around each of her arms like a straitjacket. She was so harried that she not only didn’t apologise when she almost knocked me over, I’m not sure she even noticed. One of her babies was wailing; the other was playing with a bag of frozen peas. The woman wasn’t being chased by anyone, but she might as well have been; she was so caught up in what was assuredly a stressful journey home, if everyone she passed on the street turned out to be wearing only their underwear, I bet she wouldn’t have noticed that either. And this seemed to be a regular thing for her, this pushing of children, this carrying of bags, this nonstop clutter and clamour. I wondered how long it had been like this. She was young; I bet it wasn’t more than five years ago that her friends were holding her hair back as she threw up in the back of a dingy drinking shithole somewhere in London. When did it switch for her? When did the tide turn? It was probably a gradual thing. She felt she was getting older, that the world was starting to close in on her, she met a nice guy, she settled down, she had children (twins!), and before she knew it, she was carting the sum of her existence down a fairly nondescript street in the suburbs, aware of nothing but this. She had the look of someone who had not thought about herself in a long, long time.
Because it’s a nice day, two women are having brunch outside a restaurant. I have been to this place before, and it’s exactly what you’d think: shitty service, overrated food and way too expensive. Places like this are always crowded for reasons that escape me. The two women, probably in their late 20s, are dressed in business suits and have leather handbags next to them. They are wearing a lot of makeup. They both went on dates on the weekend, and they’re deconstructing the dates, which is usually the most fun part of dates. One was going on and on about her date’s face; I guess he had a bad acne problem in college and still carries the scars. He’s in finance, it seems, and he kissed her good night, and she was a bit grossed out but kissed him anyway, and if he calls, she’ll go out with him again, sure, why not? The waiter comes by, and the two women complain to him about something, and he looks apologetic but probably isn’t, he probably hates them, he probably hates all of them.
In Northwood Hills, the same two kids as always are hanging out in front of the newsagents. They’re always here, whether the store is open or not. As always, their bikes, which seem to change all the time, are casually lying on the pavement and they’re passing headphones back and forth. They’re very bored. I once refused to buy one of them cigarettes, giving him a lecture in the process, and they’ve never forgiven me. When I went in to buy toilet paper the other day, they saw my purchase and said “Yeah, we knew you were full of shit.” I laughed, trying to show that I get it, I’m hip, and they scoffed at me, told me to “laugh it up, preacher man.” I’ve often watched these kids from the hairdressers across the street. Sometimes a third kid joins them, but I don’t think they like him very much, even though he clearly likes them, or at least wants their approval. He’ll stand there, next to them, talking more than they are, and they treat him like he’s not there. Occasionally I’ll see him standing there by himself, waiting for them to show up. He’ll wait a very long time, if necessary. I wonder if he considers them his best friends. I bet he does.
I continue down Joel Street. There’s a pub called The William Jolle which, every time I look in there, seems to have the same five people in it. They’re the types who come in at noon and just let the bartenders refill their drinks at their leisure. They don’t seem sad, or happy; they barely talk. They just look forward, sipping their drink, tired. I wonder how they got this way too. I wonder what their house or apartment is like. I imagine it is spare and dark. If the bar didn’t close, they’d never go there. I’ve been to this pub myself a few times, when I wanted the same experience of solitude among strangers. I’ve never talked to any of them. None of them have ever talked to me. It’s a comfort.
In front of me, a couple is fighting. They’re desperately trying to disguise their argument from the world of the street, and they are failing. I can’t make out the specifics of their tiff, but it seems that there’s something that he always does that drives her crazy, something that makes her feel she is making a mistake by continuing to be with him, and that he has little desire to stop doing it. She is saying, “I don’t know why you always do this,” and he is trying to ignore her, walking faster and looking away, but she is right behind him and she is speeding up, and I am speeding up to stay with them, and she is starting to yell now, and what had been his mutterings a few seconds earlier are starting to become shouts. He is waving his arms in a robotic manner, as if this is a conversation he has had too many times already and lacks the energy to give even the most feeble resistance. He says something to her that I can’t make out, and she stops and begins to cry. He tries to keep walking, wants desperately to keep walking, but he can’t now, and he turns to come back to her, looking sympathetic and guilty, and I speed past the both of them and know exactly how they both feel.
I see this girl I know walking toward me. It’s been a while. We once had some mutual friends so I’ve run into her a few times at parties. She waves and kisses me on the cheek, which I don’t like doing with her, since I don’t know her all that well and I’m not sure where those lips have been. She tells me it’s really good to see me but I don’t think she means it, since I no longer hang out with her friends. I nod and smile and say everything you’re supposed to say when you run into someone on the street and don’t really have anything to say to them but have to talk anyway. She asks me what I’m up to. I tell her I’m just walking. That’s all? That’s it. I’m just walking. It’s a lovely day.
I need to hydrate. I walk into Tesco, grab a bottle, then stand in line behind a man who is having trouble paying with his card. He is saying that this is impossible, that his card works just fine, let him try again. The cashier doesn’t really care and just wants her day to end; he tries the card again, and then another card, and none of them are working, and the guy is starting to get agitated now, and the woman never changes her apathetic expression. He throws his hands in the air, swears and storms to the door. He is moving too fast, though, and he smacks right into the automatic doors. The woman behind the counter smirks, looks at me and says “Next please.”
My mobile rings. It’s an overseas friend who is visiting London soon and is calling to tell me what airport she’ll be flying into, what day, what time. She asks how I’m settling into my new place, and I tell her about a flooding accident over the weekend. She says she hopes it’s all OK then asks why I haven’t updated my blog, that it’s been a while and she’s been hoping I’m OK. She says that she sometimes wondered what I actually did when I wasn’t at work or writing. I tell her I don’t do anything much different from her at all, that I walk down the street and pick up my laundry and pay my bills, go out with friends and drink too much, like I always do. She tells me I drink too much, and I agree, yes, I just said that.
It’s starting to get dark, and it’s time to go home. I buy some fruit and some batteries for my remote controls. I shut off all the lights in my flat, like I always do when I write, and sit down at my computer and begin to type. It is so simple here, so peaceful. I see so many people out there, who don’t know what they’re doing in this world, who are just like me. I wonder where they find their peace. I wonder where they go to slow everything down, to try to make some sense out of the chaos, to try to strip out some meaning from a planet that is doggedly determined not to provide it. I wonder where they step outside of themselves and relax, and think, and just be. This is where I often find it. On my own, shut off from the world, listening to clickety-clack of my keyboard with a backing track from my iPod to match my mood. This is the place I know to go to.
Writing is my time machine. It always takes me to where I belong. I fear that I might be lost without it. I feel it’s the one thing that’s truly mine.
I shoved a guy the other day. It wasn’t a push. It was a good, old-fashioned, solid shove, a violent explosion, inner rage pouring out that I didn’t even know was there. It was like putting an empty coffee mug in a microwave and watching in shock as, somehow, water boils over.
He was just standing there. I was exiting the Tube, heading into London to meet some friends. I was carrying a novel in my left hand, and reaching for my mobile with the right. He was directly in front of me. Then, as he reached the last step on the exit out of the station, he just stopped. I don’t know what he was doing. Maybe he was a tourist, confused about where he was going. Maybe he realised he’d left his iron on. Maybe he just decided to pause and drink in a gorgeous day. But he stopped, right in front of me.
Now, people not from London don’t really understand this sometimes, but here, stopping in the middle of the pavement is like someone braking their car in the middle of the motorway. Here, our feet are our cars, and we apply the same rules of the road to the sidewalk. As frustrated as you get when someone cuts you off in traffic, that’s how we feel when someone pauses suddenly to answer a mobile, or makes a snap decision to head toward the Starbucks on the opposite side of the street, or so on. I guess I’d call it Walk Rage.
And this guy just stopped. And I lost it. I pulled my arm across my body to my right side, put my phone back in my pocket, and just waylaid him with my left arm. I had some force behind me too; he almost went barreling into the newsstand set up just beside the station exit. My motion was punctuated with a fierce, involuntary, “OH, FOR FUCK SAKE… WATCH IT!”
He was a smaller Asian man, I was now noticing, probably about 40, with greying hair and a pair of bright blue shorts.
He plunged forward with an audible “Oomph.” He looked back at the source of this strange velocity. His eyes met mine. He did not see a sensitive, island-boy-turned-Londoner, empathetic guy, someone who just tries to get along and go along, an amiable sort always trying to make everyone feel comfortable, the guy cracking jokes at just the right times, the guy who calls everyone “Ma’am” and “Sir” in a slightly joking but still sincere attempt at mock formality, the one who calls his parents three times a week, the one who just wants everything to be OK, just let it all turn out OK, please please.
He saw a snarl and a twisted mouth, spitting, “Idiot! Move!”
He yelled “Arsehole!” I muttered, now somewhat embarrassed, “Yeah, yeah… Fuck… whatever!” before storming on my way.
Moments later, I was feeling really bad about the whole thing. It just wasn’t me. The poor guy certainly didn’t do anything to me (although the stopping-suddenly thing IS quite annoying!) and this is no excuse at all, but… I’ve had a pretty hectic and stressful summer, trying to juggle several tough work projects. And the last couple of weeks have been particularly difficult.
Now… I’m typically a pretty easy person to get along with, yes, but mostly, I’m a licensed pro at avoiding conflict. If I can sense it coming, I’ll change the subject to something happy, something we can laugh about, smile about, think fondly of. I’m so good at it, typically, that you can’t even notice I’m doing it. Just as soon as they were brought up, unpleasant topics are paved over and smoothly shifted to the next topic, maybe football, or that one movie we saw, or remember that time, when we were in the park, that was great, wasn’t it?
I once went out with this American girl who I thought I might marry, before we split and she married someone else, and never spoke to me again. Even as she was leaving, I didn’t fight. I didn’t scream, or stomp off, or tell her she was a bad person. I tried to be mature, and compassionate, and understanding, and then next thing I knew, she had no real compelling reason to stay, because I’d steadfastly refused to give her one. That’s how far I’m willing to take it. I’ll suck it up if it means avoiding a yelling, nasty tussle. I can take it.
But sometimes the pressure does get to you. You end up feeling alone, vulnerable, and wiped out at times. That’s when you snap, and fights happen. We’ve all been through them, and I’m becoming worse at avoiding them as I grow older.
One fight with a colleague (I use that term quite loosely – we work in the same place but we certainly don’t work together) was about nothing, really; they usually are. But she was being unreasonable, as usual, and said something that made me feel unappreciated, isolated, awkward, empty… Once she’d left my office, I reacted by pounding my fist into the wall. Then my head. Then I grabbed some papers off my desk and threw them across the room. Then I went for a walk.
Sunday afternoon, I was supposed to write this column, and then meet a friend of mine for lunch, then get some more job work done, run some errands, and maybe even take a walk along the South Bank, one of my favourite ways to spend a beautiful Sunday afternoon, which this was.
But I couldn’t get off the sofa. I was out of it, and emotionally spent, and had not an ounce of energy to do anything but just lie. There was some sport on. The US Open. Soapdish, on Comedy Central X, with all the swearing edited out. Some movie with Alec Baldwin and that guy from Gosford Park. I had Chinese delivered. I took a nap. Outside, kids were playing, and people were having brunch, and lying in the sun, and working, and writing, and living, and all the shit I came here to do. For the first time in a while, I simply stayed in, all day, and just watched TV and napped, alone.
I was just so tired. So, so tired.
I do not know what is happening to me. I don’t know if my job is making me hard, or angry, or bitter, or just too exhausted to think. But I do know I don’t feel like myself anymore. I don’t know what I am anymore. I’m maddeningly inconsistent. I don’t know what’s caused it. I don’t know when it happened. And I’m not sure what to do about it.
But I think I kind of miss me. The way I used to be, whenever and whatever that was. Now that I think about it, I might not have been that bad.