“I have this recurring nightmare: flailing pigeon, her broken feet frozen solid to the pavement. I turn away as if I do not see.” – Lotus Gait by Propagandhi
Sometimes I fear that all my abstinence and abstention is vanity. I get to signal virtue on the basis of my distance from the rest of the species. I get to put on airs that I’m good by doing nothing.
Or maybe not. There’s no arbiter of these things, and at this point I am who I am. I speak of myself. I deny that I am good, maybe hoping that there’s an inversion that occurs because of this claim.
I’ve always felt punctured. The membrane between myself and the world is too thin. This doesn’t necessarily mean that I am kind. Sometimes the opposite has been true. That’s humans for you.
But I do get punctured and perhaps it says something about society more generally that we’re expected to fortify ourselves against the things that do this.
When I was 19 I went with one of my unfortunate girlfriends and several others to Florida. I was drifting between two personal nightmares. I did not have fun. I was not able to.
Gainesville was a punk Mecca for a time, with an influential record label kicking out albums by good bands that no one remembers. We went to a show at a record store. It was obligatory.
What exactly punk happens to be at a given time in a given place varies, but by this time it had largely distanced itself from the self-destructive mid-90’s, becoming something more polished. Lots of people were straight edge, lots of people were vegan, and everything was smarter. Somewhere in America people were still listening to GG Allin and huffing spray paint, but no one thought much about it- it was a museum piece.
All the well-heeled kids, college bound and neurotic, sat around and listened to an utterly forgettable band. There was a young woman, out of place in the crowd. She had dreadlocks and was dressed in rags. She danced aggressively and was obviously wasted. She was quickly ejected from the show and she stumbled into the night.
I was a heavy smoker and despite all the time I spent in bars and VFW halls listening to the musical equivalents of Civil War reenactments I don’t think I ever liked it. I just didn’t know what else to be or to do. I went outside to smoke. It was Florida but it was January and it was cold. I only had one cigarette left and walked toward the distant lights of a gas station.
The woman who had been thrown out was walking toward me. As we drew close she pulled back her fist, a punch that would have gone wide had it been thrown. It was more likely that it would have knocked her down than me. I am no real tough guy. I’m sure I’ve pretended, but I’m not. I’ve just been hit enough to rise to the occasion. I put up my fists.
Her eyes filled with tears. I put my hands down.
She embraced me, crying and lostness poured out. She went to a Rainbow Family gathering a few weeks prior and had no memory of anything since then. There was a baby somewhere, her baby, and she didn’t know who was taking care of it. She needed… she didn’t know what she needed. I didn’t either. We sat. We smoked. She cried. I gave her some money. That was it.
In another epoch I was walking down Tucson’s 4th Avenue commercial district. I don’t remember what year or month. It was cool enough to move in daylight so it must have been winter.
A young man sat at a table outside of a coffee shop. He looked at me, horror crawling on his face. He said, “Help me.” That’s a request that is so clear that it requires deafness and amnesia to avoid the mandate and live with yourself.
I sat down across from him and a disjointed mess of paranoia, delusion and trauma spilled out. There were men looking for him. A massive criminal enterprise. Did I see that car? It was them. And his boyfriend, and his social worker, and the government… so much was happening, reality interceding with implausibility, the whole thing mixed into nonsense and terror.
It’s not easy to reason with this because that’s not the language it speaks. But I tried. I decided I would be mooring for him to tie himself to. It might be the case that those men across the street reading newspapers are waiting to kill him, but they couldn’t possibly want to expose their far-reaching conspiracy to a solid citizen like myself. It would just be bad practice. And this made sense to him. He sang Nirvana songs after that, and then Eminem.
We moved inside. A friend was working at the cafe. He needed sugar and he wanted it dissolved in coffee. He let me look through his wallet and there was a social worker’s card within. I called her and said that I was with a client who seemed to be in crisis. She said I should get away from him, for my own sake, and I told her that sounded wildly irresponsible.
Eventually she picked him up, or somebody did. I don’t remember the hand-off. I just remember thinking that it’s not going to get better for him. This is going to be his life. Being scared of other people and other people being scared of him.
I went to graduate school, which was a bad idea and a bad look. On the whole, academics may not be bad people, but I find them (and by extension myself) to be obnoxious, and those in the social sciences are the worst of all. It’s a self-congratulatory disaster and if you leave it you’ll spin around looking for the identity that you abandoned when you began.
I went to conferences in important cities and sat in hotels, confronting the limits of my attention span. Out of boredom I asked confrontational questions and ate at restaurants I didn’t want to. I revisited the tedium of being a sober person in a bar. And I spent hours- literal hours!- not smoking weed.
I went to one of these gatherings in D.C. one year. No real reason to. My friends were going, I think that’s all, and I had a buddy living there. I fidgeted through talks that were desperate bids for tenure, grasps towards upward mobility, or the ‘masturbating the whale’ of established names. It sucked. It’s ego junkie shit.
I took my white privilege for a walk with my advisor and smoked weed on the sidewalk. A man was walking towards us, eyes wide, holding himself, wrapped up in a greasy coat. He was crying. I was transfixed. He saw this.
He stood in front of me. His mother was dead. That was it for him. A crushing fact. Everyone else was dead too, the remainder of an equation. He sobbed. We embraced and held on, for longer than I have with most people. I don’t remember what I felt. Maybe I felt important. Or cut open. What can you do?
You leave. These things should stop the world but they don’t. That man’s sorrow should have been an emergency, but it was just an inconvenience. The woman I was with didn’t have time for this routine misery, and I had nothing to give aside from that moment.
Worlds end all the time. Some people have to endure this in public, and nothing stops but them. Fryers fry, trains roll on, the dead lie in rooms full of dripping fluids and beeping machines. The right thing to do would be to tear it all apart and go down with them.
People would say that’s unhealthy, but none of what we live through is healthy. They’re not really talking about health. They’re talking about convenience, and not even for themselves, but for whoever sits above them, cursing the help.