The Streets

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.

Making magic

It is staggering to see how much artistic talent there is out there, everywhere, really. Wherever you look, someone is making something, and they’re quite good at it.

A friend of mine works in the financial industry. He spends his days dealing with hedge funds and separately managed accounts. When he leaves the office, he gets together with a colleague and practices with his band, in which they play the keyboards and start the drum machine and sing and dance in front of mostly empty bars. The next day, he slogs back into work and does it all again.

Another guy I know temps. He hops from job to job, a nobody, the guy floating around the office that no one knows. At night, he hits the stand-up comedy circuit, staving off hecklers, constantly trying out new material. He is constantly pushing for that big break, which has to happen, because he’s working so hard. And he is pretty funny.

And don’t get me started on the Web. At the risk of sounding grumpy, everybody’s got a damned blog. It’s their place where they can be who they really are, unvarnished, expressing themselves truthfully and with conviction. Odds are, someone you know has an Internet presence, a place where they can produce and enliven themselves, and you have no idea. There’s some great stuff out there on the Web. You should check them all out.

The most exhilarating part of any creative endeavour is that, essentially, it’s all magic. Whether you’re a tortured artist driven mad by your own genius or just some loser stringing together bad similes about your ex-girlfriend set to awkward acoustical fumblings in an empty pub, you are introducing something new into the world. Before you put pen to paper, or paint to canvas, or fingers to guitar, there was nothing there. You created it. There was emptiness, and you filled it, generating a real tangible thing out of thin air, pulling the rabbit out of your hat. It’s tremendously exciting. And — and here’s where it gets you — addictive. Ruthlessly so.

Because after a while, even if you’re good, you realise it doesn’t pay shit, and it’s a lot of work, and it’s hard and frustrating and totally thankless. You realise that there are a million other kids out there doing the same thing you are, and some of them are better, a lot of them are. And, worst, you realise that you’re growing older, and all the stuff you imagined for yourself, a family, a nice home, Sunday League football with the kids, all that’s creeping up on you. For a while you compromise, and you balance doing what you’re passionate about with what you have to do to survive and lay the groundwork for future happiness. But that line keeps inching up on you, and you find that you’re expressing yourself less and less, that after a full 8-hour workday, which you have to go through to pay your rent and live your life, get out from under your debt, whatever…  you’re just too tired to create, which, after all, at its core, is just more work. Next thing you know, you haven’t written, or painted, or performed, in months. The momentum stops, and you’re just another person working in an office, hoping to beat the traffic home. And before you know it, you’re the guy telling the upstart new kid at work, the one so full of promise and hope and optimism, how you used to write, or paint, or perform, all the time, really, I was quite good, I just didn’t catch my break, you know? Because eventually you do have to stop. As Chris Rock said, no one wants to be the oldest guy in the bar.

This isn’t meant to be depressing. It happens. How could it not? We only have so much time.

Ask your parents. No matter what they do in their lives, whether they’re an electrician or a nurse or a tax collector, I can guarantee you that when they were young, they had some sort of artistic endeavour. Maybe they wrote poems in their diary, maybe they just tore apart cars and put them back together. Do they do it anymore? Is it still a part of their life? Watch their face when they tell you how they used to paint. Watch it light up, then crest into a faint sadness. “That was a long time ago,” they’ll say.

A smart person said once that the worst thing you can say to someone under the age of 30 in London is, “You will never be famous. Let it go.” It’s a cold-blooded, cynical, joyless thing to say, even more so because it’s heartbreakingly true. And when you consider that 99 percent of the time, you’d be absolutely right, well, it makes you want to hide in your room and not try to create anything.

But yet, but yet, you do, we do, we all do. It doesn’t have to end in fame, or money, or sex (though, to be fair, it’s always nice when something ends in sex). Nobody starts doing something because they think it will ultimately provide them worldly pleasures; they do it because they love it, because they must do it.

One friend spends her day trying to help people with mental health problems, many of whom show no appreciation whatsoever for her efforts. It’s a tough and often emotionally-draining job, but in her spare time she leaves that behind and designs handbags. “It’s just my little thing that I do for me,” she says.

Is she wrong? The others above, the ones sneaking in gigs after the stock exchange closes, the ones telling jokes, the ones writing poetry, are they wrong? Are they fooling themselves? Are they wasting their time? Should they stop?

No, no, no, never, never. They are creating magic, every one of them, and that’s something a nice house and matching linens can never replace. I don’t know what’s going to happen to any of them, or to me, but I love them, I love that they still care, I love that it matters. I hope they never, ever stop. I know I don’t plan to. We all have to keep going, while we can.