One more for the road…

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.

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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.

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Chaos!

There’s a term they teach in psychology that is escaping me at the moment. Maybe you can help me out. It involves early-stage human development. A child reaches a certain age of maturity when they no longer believe that an object disappears if they cannot see it. That is to say, when a baby is very young, if you put your hand over its eyes so you disappear from its vision, it thinks you are no longer there. What’s that called? Object permanence? Something like that?

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Remember that movie Jurassic Park? It was a bit of a hit when it was initially released. Had dinosaurs in it. They were eating people. Remember now? Excellent. Now, philosophers and physicists surely had been discussing it for years, but until I saw Jurassic Park in 1993, I had never really paid attention to Chaos Theory. For those of you who are reading this on a stone tablet, Chaos Theory says that every action in the world derives from the randomness of any other action. Everything that happens affects everything else in the world in some infinitesimal way that grows radically as it progresses through nature. To paraphrase, a butterfly flaps its wings in Guatemala, and the flow of nature runs its course in response to that action — a moth runs away from the breeze created, which is then eaten by a frog it flew in the path of, which then is eaten by a pig, which is then ground into pork and eaten by a human who gets indigestion and in the midst of his pain accidentally steps in front of a cab and SPLAT. Every action leads to another action, which leads to another, which leads to another, so on. There’s a sequence in that Benjamin Button movie that explains it. Check it out below. But I’m not inventing the wheel here. You get it.

This is a fun little pop theory. It suggests that the decisions we make on this earth are somehow relevant, that whether or not we decide to stay at home instead of going to the pub on a Friday night actually means something. It’s perfect for our day and age. We feel important. This is a level of significance I do not always want.

When I moved to London years ago, I was just a regular guy with dreams of the big time. I have made many decisions in my life since I moved here, many of which were on the level of “Do I go out drinking tonight, or do I not stay up and watch late-night Channel 5?” But if you subscribe to this Chaos Theory business — which has always made a great deal of sense to me, I’m sad to report — then, well, you start to think that the world might have been a whole lot better place had you not existed. And that can’t be good.

The Journey of Self Discovery is something you’re supposed to do when you’re young. It’s perfectly natural. Who knows shit about themselves when they’re 21? I made certain decisions because I was immature, or because my priorities were all out of whack, or because I thought I was something that I wasn’t, or just because I’d eaten some bad pork. Unfortunately, those decisions have ramifications, and they ripple outward, and next thing you know, you’re hit by the bloody cab. Or someone else is.

Last year, I looked at the way I was a year before and thought how incredibly stupid I was. The year before, I did the same thing. A year from now, I will think about how stupid I am now. It is an endless cycle. It is difficult to deal with. Will there be a point that I just become normal? That I’m just as wise in 2014 as I was in 2013? Man, I hope so. But I doubt it.

It is a fundamental element of the human condition that we are unable to truly understand the hurt we have caused others until we feel the same hurt ourselves. That until we’ve hit that point where we question everything and what we mean and what we do and what the fucking point of fucking all of fucking it fucking is… we understand nothing. We are only out for ourselves, and hopefully you’re not caught up in our endless loop of shit.

Dammit. This is a blog. This is something that people should want to read. They want a tale. I’m supposed to be telling you a story that entertains you, makes you laugh, or enlightens you, or sheds light on your own thoughts in a way that helps you understand that you’re not alone, that other people think that too. I’m not sure I’m doing that right now. I think I’m just typing what’s on my brain in random patterns that do not connect to anyone who would have absolutely no idea of the banal drudgery of my daily existence. Maybe I’ve just had too much to drink. I think I have. This is probably senseless to you. You don’t know the details. You just know you clicked on the link, and then it’s “Entertain me, motherfucker, entertain us!” OK. Fine. You want my fucking blood? You want my soul? You want me to rip it all out so you have something to keep you occupied while you enjoy your fancy coffee on a Sunday morning? You want the truth? Fine!

I realised today how much I had hurt someone. A while back. I hurt them without truly realising what I was doing. I was caught up in my own brain, because that was the way I was then. (Shit, it’s probably the way I am now; I just recognise it more than then.) It was something I had to do for me. I needed it. I’m sorry, but I hurt them. But the action of hurting them then sent them in this direction, and I went in this one. And this happened to them because of it, and then this did, and then this did. They felt this way about themselves, and they reacted in this way and then that made them feel this way, and next thing you knew, many years had passed. I didn’t realise what I’d put them through until I was put through it myself. And then I saw them again, and I was reminded of it all, and how this was a whole big fucking mess of my own creation. And then I felt bad. Real bad.

Is that clear enough for you? No? Well then fuck off, go read something funny.

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I’m not even sure this makes any sense. Forgive me. I guess my question is this: If we made a poor decision in the past, can it not be made right? Is it impossible to correct the mistakes of yore? Is it too late? How much has an object changed when we look at it again after someone takes the hands away from our eyes?

Seriously. I’m asking you here. Give a brother a hand. Because I don’t know. Forget that stuff I said earlier, about the coffee, and the whole “entertain me” business. I was just lashing out. I didn’t mean it. I really like you. You’re a nice person who pets kittens and gives to charity. Please, help me out. I’m really a good guy. Honest. I swear.