Hard To Get Over Lonely People

cat

I am not alone.

I have a best friend, who happens to be a dog. He’s really good for me, reminding me to eat, sleep, go to the bathroom and generally making sure that I get out a few times a day. He walks me whenever he gets the chance. Our favorite time is after work, when we reenter the building and the walls and halls come alive, warm with the savory smells of home-made meals (I can never smell fast food, although that scent lingers in the elevator, as if ashamed to be associated with the honesty, the effort and industry of these prepared productions).

No one sits down to dinner anymore, but all around me, people are sitting down, eating meat loaf, or some sort of roast that has simmered on low heat all afternoon. Maybe there is even a pie prepared for dessert. Maybe, inside someone’s kitchen, it’s still the 1950s.

(If I had lived in the 50s, I would eat an egg for breakfast each morning with either bacon or sausage or sometimes both, I would also eat pastrami sandwiches, drink whole milk and smoke endless streams of cigarettes, I would be father to as many children as God (most certainly a Capitalist God) saw fit to provide, I would live closer to my parents, I would miss church service seldom on Sundays and never on Holy Days of Obligation, I would know how to fix my toilet and sink if they dripped, I would never have had a shirt professionally pressed, I would drive an American car and never wear a seat belt, I would have a job that I could actually describe in one or two words. I would be, quite conceivably, content.)

I remind myself that someday, if my cards play me right, I will enjoy a real meal around a table, and experience all that I’ve been missing during these efficient years of isolation. I will clear the table and clean the dishes, I will sit on the couch and take a crack at the crossword, or catch a made-for-TV movie, or go run errands or consult a book of baby names for the offspring on the way, and eventually I will work on improving my bad habits and attempt to overlook my wife’s inadequacies (the quirks that were so endearing in those early days). I will, at last, learn to communicate openly and as an adult. Mostly, I will not be alone.

***

I’m listening to the old woman again.

This is another part of my daily routine: every time I enter the building after walking my dog, or if I’m stopping to get the mail, or anytime I am anywhere between my front door and the main entrance, this woman (I have no other option but to say she is an old woman) whose name I of course cannot remember, appears like a mosquito at a campsite.

She is there every time—every time—if I’m walking out (I’ve learned not to step out of my door in only my boxer shorts) to throw my trash down the chute, she’s there; if I am coming or going to work, she’s there; if I open your door (I’ve learned not to open my door without my boxer shorts on) to get the newspaper, she’s there; and especially if I’m returning with rapidly cooling carry-out food, she’s there.

I had half-seriously begun to consider whether or not she had rigged my door to some sort of homing device, and then I slowly started to notice, over time, it isn’t just me (of course it isn’t just me)—it’s even worse than that. It’s everyone, it’s anyone: anyone she can see or talk to, anyone she can make that human touch with, however fleetingly, any excuse she can find to escape the oppression of her immaculate isolation.

***

Hard to get over lonely people.

That is a line from a very famous song, although those are not the correct words. Those are the words I heard, which sounded and seemed real enough, until my older ears eventually understood that I had in fact been making a great song even better—in my mind anyway.

Ah, look at all the lonely people, I think. To myself.

A vision:

Cats are everywhere.

How did this happen? When did that slippery slope of sentimental turn from simple companionship to disconcerting, then beyond even that? It’s not your fault: you could see the other cats coming, waiting out there in the evening; and yourself, inside, able at any time to make it all better. All of these overlooked lives, are they the symptom or the antidote for that feeling you cannot constrain? Are they serving a separate purpose, a preemptive action against isolation? An excuse to keep connected, in some small way? A strategy to keep from slipping, to stave off starvation? Or the streets, which are always hungry, always eager to be kept company when nights bring the cold comfort of winter?

All the lonely people, where do they all come from?

Yes, you think (to yourself again): it could be all of those things, eventually. Inevitably. But mostly (you know), any effort you might someday make would be driven by the fear of becoming that person. The person who everyone knew, the one who had patrolled the same city corner for as long as anyone was able—or wanted—to remember. The man with his hand-scribbled signs, capital letter screeds against the machine, words that sought to explain who he was and why he was here. His message, excusing himself from any culpability, of course, and allowing everyone who took the time to try and make sense of it all that they were either with him or against him; if they did nothing to intervene, they were abetting the not-so-secret society that could snap a finger and take everything you owned, including your identity. He stood at the intersection for years, outlasting several politicians who recycled themselves in public office, sworn to uphold the status quo and ensure that the have-nots would not, and keep everyone else safe from the crimes committed by people who could not close their eyes.

And then, one day, he was no longer there. He had just disappeared.

How does this happen?

All the lonely people, where do they all belong?

***

You’ve seen some things, of course. You’ve heard them, read about them. The things people talk about when they talk about crazy people. The sort of people who, after numerous squabbles with long-suffering neighbors, finally had to have it out with Johnny Law over the piles of junk spewing out from their cellars, piling out from inside, forming extensions of the hand-me-down universe they’d created (in their own image?)—misguided gods of an always-imperfect world. These people who would holler and curse, and show up in court, when convicted, to protest that there was a method to their madness (they wouldn’t call it madness at all), a purpose to their paranoia, that it was no one else’s business if they found some sort of salvation in other folks’ debris, redeemable lives otherwise left for dead. Exasperated landlords, forced to take pictures in order to appeal to the proper authorities, having to prove that they weren’t capable of fabricating this sort of insanity: carpets pulled up from the floors, the linoleum in the kitchen removed, presumably by hand, the stacks of unread newspapers, the insects. And the pictures, of course, only half told the story, since pictures don’t move, pictures don’t stink, pictures only imitate what they are programmed to report. The stories that go far beyond the obligatory shit-smeared-on-the-walls sort of psychosis that always seems so overdone in bad movies (because the movies are bad; because truth always outpaces our best efforts to expose it). 

Then what happens?

You are (of course) left asking questions that always better unaddressed. Who could explain the motivation behind behavior like that? Who would want to? Who could comprehend where a mind has been, or is going, to find sense or security in this imitation of living?

***

I’m listening to the old woman again.

The fast food fiasco in its bag has already gone cold, but this time I don’t care. This time I don’t mind putting in the time; this time I’d do anything to be of some use to this woman who obviously has no one who can console her when she cries.

She is crying, now, in the hallway and I’m not sure if I should hold her, if just hearing her will suffice, or if there is simply nothing, at a moment like this, that a child like me can conjure up in the way of commiseration that a woman like her has not already heard and seen through in her not inconsiderable life experience and the unfair share of hurt and harm this world is all too eager to hand out to all of us, over time.

“Why?” she asks, again, and I can’t answer for at least two reasons: I don’t know (the answer, or what she’s asking about), and it’s obviously not me who she is really asking anyway.

I may not know what she’s talking about, but she is still holding the letter, a scene that makes me remember that all those melodramatic moments in badly made movies have their roots in reality. I don’t know what the letter says, or who it is from, and perhaps I’m not supposed to know; it’s not important that I know, only that I am here, at this particular moment, to provide a brief, human buffer against the knowledge that in the end, all of us, whoever we are, will be alone.

“Why?” she asks, again, and again I have nothing I can hope to say.

It’s a long time before I realize she has left and I’ve been standing out here, alone, still unable to find anything useful to say. To her. For myself.

***

Denial is like a dyke—the water is wide, waiting, impassive. You’re never certain but most of the time you know, you sense the security of that invisible shield; it’s only when you stop and look that you see the cracks, circling up slowly from all sides, that you become concerned. It’s only then that you look at the stranger in the street and struggle to avoid his eyes, because you’re actually seeing yourself.

***

If I had lived in the 50s, I would have taken a real job right out of college, or I may not have gone to college. I would have had to start earning a living to support my family: married at twenty-two, a father within the year. That’s just the way it would have been.

Maybe I’d like my job; maybe I would be content. Maybe I would consume so many steaks and cigarettes and whiskey sours that nothing could touch me. I’d be obese, an impenetrable fortress of flesh, and no pain could get past me.

Or maybe I would work and eat and smoke myself into a muddled mess and punch the clock prematurely—another casualty of the Cold War. Maybe I’d be smart enough to leave my family something, and maybe my wife would remarry and live off the fat of my labor and I wouldn’t begrudge her because I was in a better place, drinking Bloody Marys on the great golf course in the sky.

Or maybe my wife, being of her time, wouldn’t wish to remarry and instead focus her energies on the grandchildren and church functions and the increasingly mundane exigencies of old age. Maybe she’d wish to meet another man but her prospects would be poor—after all, she was once married to a big slob whom she somehow stayed devoted to and still mourned. Plus, there were always the kids to contend with. Used goods are used goods, whether you’re talking cars, real estate or relationships.

Maybe she would solider on, alone, oblivious to the insanity of the 60s and 70s, indifferent to the surreal psychosis of the 80s and 90s, and grow into her shrinking body the way a spider’s web settles into a windowsill.

Maybe she would eventually understand that the family home—the house in which she lost her virginity, raised her children, cleaned a thousand rooms, cooked a million meals—had outlasted her, and embrace the inevitable.

Maybe, in the end, she would be a lot like the woman across the hall. She’s had a good life (please allow her to have been happy: in my mind if not in actual fact). She, at least, once had a husband, and maybe a son and daughter whom she dotes on and who love her dearly, but they live so far away and are so busy with work and kids and life and time just slips away and so it goes.

Or maybe it is even worse than that: maybe she was never married, never found exactly what she was looking for, or the right ones overlooked her until it was too late. Maybe she was cursed with the burden of being always apart, in all the important ways, from the utterly average, anonymous faces she came into contact with day in and day out, and like almost no one else she knew, she was unaware of it.

I want to walk out your door, but I can’t.

And this time, for once, it’s not because I don’t want to, it’s because I’m desperately certain that she won’t be outside waiting for me.

Originally published on 3/14/16 at The Weeklings.
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Over/Under the Volcano

Van_Gogh_-_Skull_with_a_burning_cigarette-298x400

I STILL HAVE HANGOVERS, thank God.

Everyone who has known an alcoholic knows that as soon as you stop feeling the pain, it’s because you are no longer feeling the pain; you are no longer feeling much of anything.

So, I welcome the horrors of the digital cock crowing in my ear at an uncalled for hour, am grateful for the flaming phlegm in my throat, the snakes chasing their tails through my sinuses, the smoke stuck behind my eyelids, the shards of glass in my gut, and the special ring of hell circling my head. Because if it weren’t for those handful of my least favorite things, I’d know I had some serious problems.

All of us can think of a friend whose father (or mother for that matter), we came to understand, was in an entirely different league when it came to the science of cirrhosis. The man who falls asleep fully clothed with a snifter balanced over his balls, then up and out the door before sunrise—like the rest of the inverted vampires who do their dirty work during the day in three piece suits. Maybe it was a martini at lunch, or several cigarettes an hour to take the edge off. Whatever it was, whatever it took, they always made it out, and they always came back, for the family and to the refrigerator, filled with the best friends anyone can afford.

Our friends’ fathers came of age in the bad old days that fight it out, for posterity, in the pages of books, uneasy memories and the wishful thinking of TV reruns: the ‘50s. These are men who have never opened a bottle of wine and have no use for imported beer, men who actually have rye in their liquor cabinets—who still have liquor cabinets for that matter. These are men who were raised by men that never considered church or sick-days optional, and the only thing they disliked more than strangers was their neighbors. Men who didn’t believe in diseases and didn’t drink to escape so much as to remind themselves exactly what they never had a chance to become.

Theirs was an alcoholism that did not involve happy hours and karaoke contests; theirs was a sit down with the radio and a whiskey sour, a refill with dinner and one before, during and after the ballgame. Or maybe they’d mow the lawn to liven things up, tinker under the hood of a car that had decades to go before it could become a classic. Or perhaps friends would come over to play cards. Sometimes a second bottle would get broken out. This was a slow burn of similar nights: stiff upper lips, the sun setting on boys playing baseball, mothers sitting on the couch watching TVs families did not yet own, of forced smiles battling bottled tears in the bottom of a coffee mug, of amphetamines and affairs, overhead fans and undernourished kids, of evening papers and a creeping conviction that there is no God, of poets unable to make art out of the mess they’d made of their lives.

It was a hard time where people did not live happily ever after, if they ever lived at all. It was a time, in other words, not unlike our own.

***

When I lucked into my first so-called real job I got in the habit of referring to the time—admittedly too long—spent in the service industry as the bad old days. It wasn’t because I had no fun (I did) or that I thought there was any future in it (I didn’t). It wasn’t that I felt joining the corporate world (grad students and waiters refer to it as the real world) was any type of instant ticket to peace or fulfillment. But it did remove one from the front lines of a scene with too many lives on the fast track to nowhere. Most people there fail to understand where they are, and where they are not going.

And when I think of the place some people never find a way to leave, it makes me remember one person in particular. More than the implicit slights suffered or the stalled potential each day I strapped on an apron, when I think about what I could never afford to lose, I think of Izzy. That, of course, was not his real name, but it was what everyone called him. When he and I first met I would have sworn he was in his forties, but in fact he had only recently turned mid-thirty-something. Not old in the nine-to-five arena but ancient in the restaurant business. A lifer who had never been promoted to general manager, he was a satellite drifting through the soiled orbit of a franchised business. He was never handed his own place to run, and he seemed entirely satisfied with that arrangement. In fact, as I came to see for myself, he counted on being an assistant behind the scenes, the hardened soldier who could close up shop and count the checks. We were often the last two left, hours after the final customer had called a cab or rolled the DWI dice. After a shift that started at 4 PM Izzy would set up camp in the sweltering office in the back of the kitchen, going about the unexciting but excuses-free business of book-keeping.

When Izzy showed up for his shift the following afternoon he always looked like someone had scraped him off the bottom of a greasy skillet. Red eyes blurred, his neck shrieking in silent agony from the burn of a blunt razor, the cigarettes and coffee escaping in sluggish waves from every inch of his sagging skin. Head bowed not in deference but disdain of the daylight; he could scarcely formulate the words being signaled from bruised brain to long-suffering lips. He would step up to the bar, shake his head and ask me to call him an ambulance. Then he’d disappear into the men’s room for a minute or two, emerging like a televangelist with a badly ironed shirt. He could barely tie his shoe, but after his magic act in the crapper he would be ready to plate a thousand entrees and run laps around the building in his wingtips (managers who wear comfortable shoes are never taken seriously, but they don’t realize until it’s too late it’s not because of the shoes).

For the next eight-to-ten hours, in between return trips to the powder room (occasionally he may have even used the toilet), Izzy was constant, awkward motion. All the waiters were in awe of him and all the waitresses were repulsed by him (especially the ones he had slept with). Izzy could sweat out more alcohol in a single shift than most of us could drink in an entire weekend, and he never missed a day of work during the two years I knew him. Even if you didn’t catch him ducking into the bathroom you always knew he had recently refueled because he would suck his teeth like someone trying to extract snake venom. The lip smacking and teeth licking were, to me, the black and blue collar stage of development between rock star and burnout, the line so many in the service industry straddle before they get out or go under.

None of this fazed me, which isn’t to say it was not unsettling, but grunts in the trench don’t offer advice to their sergeants, so I mainly focused on my own unsavory habits. But I could never figure out how Izzy, when he retreated to the office each night to match receipts, guest checks and time sheets, was able to polish off an entire bottle of peppermint schnapps. When he finally went home, closer to sunrise than midnight, that bottle he took back with him would always be empty. At first I figured he was trying to impress or even intimidate me (full success on both fronts), but after months of the same scenario, I had no choice but to acknowledge that his appetites and obsessions had, at some point, evolved from unhealthy to superhuman. That bottle was not something he wanted, and was no longer something he needed; it was simply something that he required, along with the bathroom breaks and the air his lungs inhaled. I worked dozens of shifts where I didn’t see him eat a scrap of food, but he never went into that office without his bottle of schnapps. And at least once a week he’d arrive at work with fresh bottles he kept to stock the bar. I could never fathom the physics, or biology (or algebra) that enabled a man to drain a fifth each evening and still function, but I also learned the hard way in high school that some subjects would, for me, remain forever mysterious.

By the time he took his transfer to the next location (never a demotion but never an advancement) he looked like he could collect social security. How long can that lifestyle sustain itself? I asked myself, then, and ponder it now. Where is Izzy today? Is he in an assisted living facility somewhere, or at the bottom of a river? Will I find him patrolling an intersection one night, not embarrassed to ask for tips after all these years? Or did he take the hard way out and start a family; his bad habits replaced by baby bottles, dirty diapers and manicured lawns? Or most likely and equally unsettling: has he subscribed to an altogether different sort of salvation, whacked out of his skull with sobriety?

 

*This piece originally appeared at The Weeklings on 11/4/15.

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