License registration, no I ain’t got none,
But I got a clear conscience ‘bout the things that I done…
When you find yourself singing Bruce Springsteen lyrics in New Jersey to a state trooper in the hopes of avoiding a ticket, you might as well close your eyes, see what happens:
Maybe you could talk to the cop and explain that it was not disrespect for the rules of the road, but love of—and getting lost in—art that caused you to forget. To forget where you were and who you were, only to find yourself in the unfamiliar role of fugitive.
And maybe he would understand.
Maybe he would engage you in a discussion about music, and how it helps us, how it is always there, and occasionally compels us to do things we would not otherwise do.
And maybe, after everything was said and done, you would stop, and ask him if he was real, if this could ever actually happen.
And maybe he would wink familiarly, as if to say: This is America, ain’t it? Anything is possible.
And maybe you would believe him, even as you heard his footsteps fading away.
And by the time you opened your eyes, maybe you were still rolling down the road, the only reality being the speed and the sky, and the siren song of metal and machinery.
Finally, his car needed fuel, he needed fuel; so he had no choice but to stop at the godforsaken rest area. Everyone, it seemed, had stopped at the same rest area: equal parts public toilet, food court and concessions stand. It was at once appalling and extraordinary; it was, in short, America.
Who were they, the people all around him? They were everyone: departing or arriving, leaving for vacation, returning to work, delighted, delirious, above all, anonymous. In New Jersey, or in any small town, or everywhere in America, there are people who find themselves lost; the people with nowhere left to go. A cliché? Sure. But clichés are made, not born. Reality, of course, is a cliché, and we have discovered that clichés—even as they are the enemy of art and authenticity—can be our friends. And so: going to church makes us sense spirituality, so we go; playing carols at Christmas facilitates a feeling of festivity, so we play; falling in love makes us feel loved, so we fall. We need all the help we can find, so we find friends and never look back.
He looked back; he looked around and in front of him, seeing the stereotypes: the ones in his mind that everything but experience had created. Or was the Cliché unfurling itself, the one that perpetuates from a particular place: experience, repetition, pattern, tradition? He saw them, he saw how he wanted to see them, he saw how they saw him, he saw how they saw him seeing them, and so on.
And who was he?
What was he all about? What had he done? Where had he been? Where was he going? Who did he think he was? Everyman? No man? Or worse: the type of person who actually asks questions like this.
Walking away, stomach full and mind clear, he saw her. He could not help noticing the forsaken sister walking in circles, seeking a corner of the room that wasn’t there. How old was she? Eighteen? Eighty? Somewhere right in between? Satisfied with a meek drink in the water fountain, she was the type of person who unthinkingly drank from public water fountains. Does anyone drink from public water fountains anymore? Do they still exist? Does anyone even notice them?
It was hard not to notice her, impossible not to notice that pain.
Pain: Dostoyevsky, disconcerted as he was with crime and punishment, saw all the suffering of the world in a prostitute’s eyes, and sobbed when he witnessed a peasant, hard-pressed with impotent anger, beating his horse to death. He opened his eyes and half expected to see this woman whipping herself while Nietzsche—knowing full well that God was dead— held his head and wept. Who was she, and what was she doing here?
A hooker, a homeless person? A mother, a case of mistaken identity? A human symbol of hope, or Hope herself—a deity deferred, paying the price for us all, all of us sinners and those sins we can scarcely describe.
She’s just like me, a voice inside attempted to say, a voice he very well may have listened to—a voice he had come dangerously close to growing into, under the shadow of the ivory tower—had he opted to make certain decisions along the way.
He walked over, ready to help: offer money, lend a hand, do whatever needed to be done, even and especially the things he had neither the ways nor means to make happen. He walked over and smiled, and she spoke, making him an offer he had no choice but to refuse.
It was enough to make one wonder if (and even wish that) the stories in the bible, and those fairy tales and myths men have made all have a foundation in fact. That the slow, ceaseless suffering some of us occasionally see is in accordance with a plan, a motion picture we have no part in producing. That it was not even personal, all this erstwhile, enigmatic madness, it was strictly business. It was enough to cause the hardest of humans to hope for a beneficent Big Guy (or Lady, but it is asking too much for God to have the decency to be a woman) upstairs, shuffling that proverbial deck. Or cutting and pasting the appropriate pieces of the puzzle, always keeping a wise eye on the endearing idiots underneath, and generally doing and saying the things that the creator of an entire universe says and does.
But how the hell are we supposed to have hope when Hope herself had been reduced to this, turning tricks at a rest stop on the Jersey Turnpike?
*Excerpted from a work-in-progress entitled Please Talk About Me When I’m Gone