March 19, 2011 § Leave a comment
. . . after I go to bed but before I fall asleep and begin to dream, after I drop the mask of my profession and at last relax the grip my work holds over me during the day, the way it has me think and speak, I am freed to an elusive and indistinct group of selves, that scattered collection of memories and faces and feelings which linger behind my thoughts like many faint, overlapping shadows cast from an object by many faint points of light but which together join to form the only shape and substance that carries my name, and I listen in the dark to the sounds outside my bedroom window, trying to remember who I am and where I have been, to think how I fit in the order of things that fit together, the order of things that do not, the order of things to hope for, the order of things to fear.
I live between those who live in the neighborhoods of poverty and violence by the bay and those who can afford to live peaceably in the hills, near the center of town, at the edge of the business district, which, like a box that has been turned over, has been emptied of its activity at night. It is late and almost quiet. There is not much to do now and little reason to be out. Nonetheless, there is much to be heard:
Cars and trucks, released from rush hour communion, still continuing their cautious daytime plodding, or racing from light to light with reckless exuberance, their grinding pitch rising and falling with the shifting gears—
My neighbor in the apartment below, persisting in his diligent and flawed practice of Bach Inventions, those quick, twittering formulae of unattainable perfection—
The couple in the apartment beside me, taking up once again their endless marital quarrel in which he keeps time with his peremptory bass protests around which she flutters in a falsetto panic—
Some nights I hear only his voice and the time passes slowly with his deep, metrical anger. Others, only hers, and the night rushes by in dizzying flight.
The pianist’s halting execution on the keyboard sounds more like some argument he holds with himself. For months they have been the only pieces he has played, as if he has decided he can go no further in his life until he has worked these out.
And the whirring, shifting gears of the cars and trucks echo the workings of some internal machinery, transmissions of laboring thought. The further away they are, the softer their sounds, sounds like the suspiration of distant, restless winds. . . .
It is a time of deliberation and agitation, a variable and imperfect time, a time not measured by the carefully reasoned time of Bach my neighbor tries but cannot grasp, a time different from the one that counts my hours at work, different from that counted by the clock which sits beside my bed, still different from that counted by the clock which ticks inside my head, as if time itself questions but cannot resolve the value of each passing moment. Even the buses which stop outside my building do not follow their schedule, or do not seem to, and each arrival—fatal, with a scream of brakes, the shudder of opening doors—comes unexpected.
In the distance, a hard, insistent clatter, riveters working overtime, pounding away on a beam in the upper floors of a skyscraper whose height and need the city still debates, its whole steel skeleton ringing dully with purpose—
A noise from above, somewhat resonant, thus somewhat celestial. Closer, from below, destructive noises:
Someone busting bottles on the courthouse steps—
A city crew out with jackhammers, tearing up a street, the blades sinking into the pliant asphalt with furious murmur, throwing off my heart with a fast and heavy, ominous beat—
Sounds somewhat menacing, somewhat infernal.
Bottles: a gang of kids, who come from the neighborhoods by the bay to wage their wars of juvenile aggression, who speak in a drumming, dissonant language I do not understand and am not meant to.
Other voices, isolated and sporadic, testing the night air with the temper of their hearts:
Drunks leaving a nearby bar in expansive moods, filling it with their beery egos—
Hookers camped out by our front door, slicing it with their cryptic chatter—
Somewhere, someone trying to shatter it with the cry of religion—
Somewhere else, someone else serenading it with a song of madness—
Everywhere, derelicts and mismatched lovers, cooing, venting, garbling the varying degrees of their abandon or discontent, confusing the expression of love and despair—
Somewhat blissful voices of the somewhat saved, somewhat tormented voices of the somewhat damned.
But which is which?
Which is mine?
Closer, trees in the park across the street, swaying in an intermittent, hesitant breeze, their leaves sliding, brushing, a crepitant, electric sound, the sound of the itch of unfulfilled desire—
Yet closer, more kids, other kids, quiet kids—I do not know how they break in or whose they are—getting stoned in the well beneath my kitchen, whispering in furtive, susurrant tones—
Still closer, the nighthawks, coming out for no reason I can tell other than to stay perpetually awake, not speaking, leaving no trace other than the leather scratch of their shoes when they pass beneath my bedroom window—
So many random sounds—it is as if the city, too, has dropped its workday mask and has been freed to the stirrings of its many selves, and I cannot think of its name apart from the shades and shadows of this noise. These sounds, however, do not keep me from sleep, rather, they feed my wakefulness of the hour. From their direction, from the way shouting or laughter is reflected off walls and reverberates in the empty space between, I can reconstruct the city in rough perspective, fixing the contours of buildings, laying out the gridwork of streets that stretches away from yet contains me. From their timbre, from what I can gather is said and done, I try to determine what yet eludes me, the content of this city where I have lived for many years.
And from the time that passes, I try to retrace the path my life has followed in the course the world has run. Each noise, each voice I hear touches some voice, some noise within. The gang’s shouting shakes loose the turbulence I thought I had buried with my youth, while the couple’s fights air my anger over some recent outrage I still try to contain. Lovers recall the loves I have had and lost, resurrecting the ache of spent passion, and other voices recall those who once were close, but have been left behind, or like derelicts, have fallen from my life.
My life, the world seem only to know the history of longing and regret.
Yet there are other possibilities:
To have loved once means I might love again, and those who once were close to me might still be close, in ways I cannot see. One recollection leads to another, populating the terrain of this vacant hour with the many voices of memory. I sense the threads of continuities, connections to be made, a structure of the world unfolding around me, and my life can feel full with these possibilities—
Two cars crash with sudden terror, not far off—
Something, someone thuds against the wall, next door—
But such geometry rests on difficult, slippery calculations. My love can reach across a plane of infinite extension, or feel like the tremor of a brief and inconsequential moment. Going back into my past leads me to the present, but when I look at my life now it already seems distant and lost. The more I focus on the voices of memory the more they sound like my own, but when I listen to my own voice it breaks into the words of many vague and separate persons.
And when I turn to check the clock, I feel I have been deceived: the time has vanished, or has not moved at all, and I start to doubt the next bus will ever come.
And listening to the random sounds outside my window only leads me to the scatter and fall of random things.
The pianist struggles with a lengthy trill, his left hand fumbling. . . .
Start over; listen:
More noises, other things scraping, grating, hissing—sounds of irritation and unrest—
I don’t know what they are.
More voices, the homeless and displaced, plying the night with their timorous lament, as if they can only say in the dark what troubled them during the day—
In the park—
Named for the Welshman who seized the land in the name of our Republic from the Spanish don, granted it by his king to pay off the debts of war, who seized it from the natives who once led here, legend goes, a simple and contented pastoral life, the Welshman and his descendants waiting for the Chinese to come build the railroads, blacks from plantations in Texas and Louisiana to build the ports, the Republic to extend its grasp,
—the same transient, erupting in fits with his nightly diatribes against a varying and interchangeable group of oppressors, his screams now sustained by the shouts of the gang, who have left the courthouse steps to join him—
The same old woman—a bag lady? Who is she, whom does she recall?—heading for my building, taking the same path at the same time, following I don’t know what plan or schedule, muttering loudly and bitterly her complaint over what must be decades of a difficult life, railing against the mayor, her children, her husband, even her parents, who cannot still be alive—
So many random sounds—it is as if the apparent order of the visible world has lifted only to reveal this audible disorder, as if the notion of order itself is only a kind of illusion, the wish that flees from a troubled dream.
So many random sounds—there’s a sadness that can weigh heavily in this hour, as if the day can only conclude with a failure of reason, a loss of heart, the desperation of the vast, unredeemed space set by city walls.
I cannot always make out the words, but the texture of their concern is easy enough to figure and can be explained by some inner compulsion or outer strain, linked to the way people feel they must act or cannot help acting towards themselves and each other, to all the things that can or cannot be done in a city:
1. The transient made a slip early in the chain of his reasoning, or was abandoned and exposed to too much of the city too early in his life.
2. The old woman was rejected by her children when they grew up and took to the streets, and her husband died or left her as well, so she was forced from her home by rising rents and a shrinking income.
3. The kids come from poor and broken homes, have not been cared for, have not learned and have no use for restraint.
4. The man next door hates his job, his wife, himself, or all three, and one or both of them—it is difficult to sort out their accusations—have been unfaithful.
But I cannot always trust the surface of what I hear, and motives are hard to place. La Guardia is the old woman’s mayor and the transient’s oppressors sometimes come from Mars. The couple will fight over nothing, while the kids direct their scorn not against the fathers who have deserted them or the city fathers but rival gangs and passersby. And I really do not know where these kids come from, whether, in fact, they do not come from the hills instead and it is their parents’ order and wealth against which they rebel. Nor do I know if the old woman is poor or even if she ever had a family, and it may be the family she never had that most upsets her. There is only at best an uneven correlation between personal distress and general disorder. It is difficult to picture the world from the way it appears, to plot the distance between lucid realities and the crystalline look one might give them.
Yet the emotion in the voices is not always simple, nor the one I might expect. There’s a delight in the transient’s discontent and exuberance in the gang’s aggression. The couple’s fights have a purity and art that belie the violence of their words, and even the old woman manages a lilt in her muttering.
And still, there are the other possibilities:
1. The transient may suddenly break out in an unrestrained and unintelligible rhapsody.
2. And the couple’s shouting fall to the low, muffled sounds of unconscious love.
3. The kids may turn on the transient and shower him with their imprecations—
4. Or cheer him on with riotous jubilation.
And there’s a joy I know only at this hour that happens for no reason but falls like unsought grace, a joy that can only come from the play of random things. I can shed the constraints of the day that has passed, ignore the pull of the day to come. I could be anyone, anywhere, or don’t have to be anyone at all—
And if I fix my ears in a certain way, a kind of aural squint, noises take on the character of utterance, as if responding to some common urge, and voices lose their sense and take on another meaning, beyond inner strain, beyond the content of the words—
And a bus jolts and stammers as it stops outside my building, then groans with longing as it takes off with its charge, rattling my windows and shaking the floor as if by an earthquake, and up the street the last crowd leaves the theater, releasing a murmur confused and excited with whatever mood of thought or love or violence the movie has put them in, and two more drunks, caught in the momentum of some enormous joke, stumble down the sidewalk letting out laughter that rises to seraphic glee then falls to deep, ominous thunder, laughter somewhat celestial, somewhat infernal, and I hear more sounds of something else being built or torn apart but cannot tell which, and the kids in the park turn on themselves and break out in a fight, their fervid shouting mounting to a point of elation that transcends their hostility, as if they are moved by some supernal passion—
So many random sounds, yet they repeat themselves in patterns and variations on those patterns each night, so many different textures of sound counterpointing each other into one complex sound, so many different tempi of the different noises and voices orchestrated into one complex time, a time that might relent, or accelerate towards climax —
A kind of music, an atonal music that has no fixed key but still is music, a music that moves with time and matches my variable moods and seems closer to the world than the Bach I hear below, and it is only when my neighbor’s fingers stumble that his music sounds right—
More than music, a kind of desire, a driving passion that charges the walls of the heart and sets the edge to city streets, the desire which called me to this city—
And my wakefulness itself is a kind of desire, an itch to be close to the world. Each sound, soft and harsh, stirs this longing and quickens the desire, speaks with the same urgency, the same necessity to fit all the details of my affection into one blinding conclusion—
More than music, more than desire: since patterns and repetitions, signs of something larger, of an active, restless metaphysic which sets in motion the turbulence of things, juggling the order into which they fall and fly from and fall into again—
And I think: it is only through desperation and disorder that we know our hearts, only through our hearts that we can know our minds. Despair sets the ground from which hope can soar, disorder and destruction free from what has been the possibilities of what might yet be, and the space around me measures the breadth of these possibilities, the depth of my desire, the possibility that I might wake the next morning a new man in a new world—
At last discover the light of the divine—
Or failing this, create it—
—or signs of nothing more than large and meaningless confluence.
With a shattering of fragile thought and feeling, the world comes crashing down. But when I get up, go to the window, and raise the shades, I see that the buildings are still intact. Beneath them, in the park, the kids stand mutely around a fallen warrior. . . .
Start over: listen, think again:
I live between those who live in the neighborhoods of poverty and violence by the bay and those who can afford to live peaceably in the hills, near the business district, the center of town. But I have no place here. The city in which we all live belongs to none of us, and the gangs who roam the streets can claim only a spirit of derision that keeps the rest of us inside.
There is a difference between the desire for order and the order of desire.
One night, in the park, another old woman—who was she, whom does she recall?—was beaten and stabbed, and left to bleed lifeless into the next morning.
One morning the mutilated body of a prostitute was found on the courthouse steps.
Another night a black gang from the projects by the bay, caught in the middle of a robbery of an electronics store, took hostages and shot them one by one, throwing them out, until the SWAT team descended.
It was several months, though, before the police found the gang of middle-class white kids who had been bombing Asian stores.
And it was in the park that daytime order was disrupted by the merchants of nighttime desire, drug lords fighting over territory, who shot at each other across the open field while kindergarten kids wandered through the cross fire, erect and dazed, except for the Vietnamese and Cambodians, who were prepared and knew what to do, hitting the ground at the first shot.
Drugs, at least, have given the city a purpose, or at least a face that it recognizes. Funds have been freed, morals clarified, forces mobilized. Cries have come from everywhere for a crackdown on crime, a return to order—
But I do not know if the order that controls daytime commerce is different from that which traffics nighttime desire.
The desire for order might know no order but the order of desire.
For weeks the rumblings could be heard, as if of a distant war, as tenements were razed to build a throughway to the interstate by the bay. Neighborhoods were gutted, and I know that if I hear more voices at night it is because the residents who were evicted were not given someplace else to live. And if I hear a chorus of madness now, it is because the state cleared out its psych wards many years ago and dumped the patients on the streets.
The city seems only to know the need to build, which is not the same as the need for space and order. Though the streets are crowded, offices go unlet, and yet the banks continue to pour money into high-rises. The time, they say, is ripe for speculation.
And the city knows no time, has only the means to efface it, to build glass boxes that mirror each other in silvery distortion. When we look at them from the street as we walk by, we only see ourselves, looking. There is no plan other than that determined by what people can or cannot afford; between these possibilities lies the center, the business district, a place to negotiate this disparity.
Between these possibilities lie violence and the desire for order.
I do not know if a city can have a heart and mind.
I do know, however, that one should be cautious about the outward look given to inner turmoil. And I know about the many disorders of desire. There exists a vast and interrelated universe of causes and symptoms, a catalog of precise names for specific afflictions—
But to study these would reduce the world to the order of disease, which I assume is not the order of the world.
If it were, how could we ever hope to effect a cure?
And to say the world is sick implies some standard by which this judgment can be made, but I do not know what this standard might be: sanity’s catalog is not so well reasoned.
The desire for order might not be the order of desire.
Nor do I know that if I identified and cured the afflictions the world would be a better place, or even different.
Because it is a violent world, which cannot be contained by an idea.
Or if it could, I cannot think what violence would be needed to contain it. . . .
Just as quickly, just as easily, the world falls to mere randomness. . . .
and silence. . . .
Few test the streets now, leaving them to whatever we fear or imagine there is to be feared, which may or may not manifest itself in a scream in the dead of night, or more shouting, or the peal of an alarm from another store that has been broken into.
Or the cry of a siren, the slow pulse of light from a squad car that has just stopped outside my window.
To think and reflect at this hour is like holding a mirror up to myself in the dark, to a dark glass where, without the assurance of the visible world, the images I most clearly see may be the ones I project. And it is at night that I realize that there is much that is unsettled in my life, much that I have forgotten or hidden. If I were attentive, I might find the clues that would indicate the symptoms of some problem I have refused to deal with. But when I consider the many bits and pieces and try to follow their suggestions, I see that they lead to one problem as well as another, and it is only by deciding that I have a problem that I can put this order in my life.
What seemed hard and fast during the day is no longer so certain. The many doubts and disturbances I could dismiss in its light as petty and out of place now claim ascendance over my thoughts. The reason that guides my work, any of the work that has tried to reason the heart and mind all seem built on careful, exact—useless distinctions, elaborate constructions easily toppled, as if all thought has never been nor ever will be more than an endless stutter.
It must be my job that has brought me to this state, but then there was a time when I believed my work would settle my life’s uncertainties.
When I think about it at night, I see that I have always felt this way.
And when the last bus leaves, stopping only a second because no one is waiting, and my floor and windows settle after it leaves, when my neighbor below plays his last note, and the kids who get stoned beneath my kitchen announce they are finished by knocking over a trash can, when all is quiet and still, I know only that I am lost. I have to remind myself who and where I am.
But it doesn’t matter what name I give to myself or what name the city has. I could be anyone, anywhere, but I cannot think of the name that might resolve this confusion. Reason turns to barest vigilance, an inward listening. All I am aware of is the quiet, sometimes troubled voicing of my uncertain existence. I feel unformed and uncreated, ever stuck in a process of becoming from which there is no issue.
This moment of uncertainty, though, does not last long. I know I will eventually fall asleep, that I will wake tomorrow morning and that day will follow in some approximation of the one now ending. Whatever has happened in the streets tonight may or may not turn up in the paper. The couple on next door will leave without making a noise, or I might run into them on the landing and see their quiet, sober faces, see that they are more rested than I. The pianist, too, will be silent, because he has not yet found work and is sleeping in. The kids who got stoned will have left some indecipherable rune spraypainted on the wall. The transient will be asleep inside the park’s fountain, which the city turned off years ago because another one drowned in it.
And I will wake up and go to work.
But during this moment, it seems it will never end, as if all time has led only to this time, beyond which there is no other. I can hear now only the hum of so many nerves transmitting their messages of hope and despair in one monotonous drone, as if my life has no other significance than this tedious buzzing that resounds indefinitely in the indefinite, infinite, wanton space of the world. . . .
. . . when I do fall asleep and dream, I dream of nothing, have dreams that move like large empty boxes, sliding, scraping, crashing in a large empty room. . . .
May 9, 2010 § Leave a comment
One Sunday afternoon some years ago, run down with life, I fell asleep watching a football game, the game itself a low-scoring grind in which I had little interest. When I woke the game was over and I was looking instead at two gentleman, not tall at all, both gracious and reassuring, showing me their yacht and cars and palatial home, which dwarfed them, telling me how easily I, too, could have these things. They had to have been the Rice twins, John and Greg, and what I was watching was an infomercial hawking the Cash Flow Generator, a scheme to cash in on the housing boom, though specifics were never mentioned I suppose because that would have dispelled the magic. I was still groggy and in a mood, like all of us then, to be entranced. I thought I had awakened on the other side of the rainbow. I have a very modest income from teaching and live in a rental in Silicon Valley, one of the most expensive places in the country. Obviously I had done something wrong to be in such a position, but watching the twins I felt the problem wasn’t that I didn’t work hard enough or hadn’t made the right decisions in life, but that I was just being obtuse. There were real opportunities out there and all I had to do was make a simple call. For it was the time of our other national pastime, flipping houses, and seeing the twins was one more piece of evidence confirming my suspicion we weren’t in Kansas anymore.
A few years later, we were all looking at the other side of this curve:
The Dow Jones.