Rough Plans to Go Wrong
Out the window, the massive apartment building that has been of no interest for thirty-four years is being repointed or resurfaced or sandblasted, whatever it's called, one by one every building on this block has been upgraded, spruced up, made new, though they are all unspeakably ugly and always will be, they've been freshened to reflect the invisible presence of money, the money of companies, all of them sinister, some of them under investigation, that have bought up the neighborhood from more artlessly grubbing slumlords now dying of old age, and this has instilled in those of us who have lived here a long time the identity of vanishing residue, potential targets for harassment or insultingly small buy-outs, we will either finish our days in apartments that disappear right after we do, or move somewhere stupid, and what did we expect, after all, in this restless world?
That building has a single front entrance, but it's covered in scaffolding overhung with dense grey mesh and from the window looks much larger than it is, it appears to stretch on endlessly down the block and resembles some maritime monstrosity, a freighter under repair. I assumed for a time that three or four houses were joined at their seams, after this mesh covered everything up, and I counted them, counted the stoops, and no, there's only the one house, looking like several, because the scaffolding extends above the entrance of the building on the right and a window of the building on the left. Surely in the past, the remotest past, I observed people living in that building, watched them through their grimy windows chewing snacks, watching television, masturbating, going mad, at some distant moment I must have had some curiosity about what went on in those apartments, but what happens when you stay, and stay, and never really leave, though I've attempted many times to get away for good, is that you stop noticing, stop caring about little shifts and signs, and gradually start living elsewhere, namely in your head, and only belatedly, absurdly, for whatever reason, become cognizant one day that the whole environment has altered in a drastic way, as if it all changed into something else overnight, while you slept.
The sandblasting commences at eight every morning, followed by air hammers, followed by the whooshing of a ribbed plastic hose that sucks dust and plaster and chunks of brick, a noise that has something weirdly human about it, like a giant wheezing, malefically, hoping to drive us all mad, drive us out of our houses into the street, where we would do what, exactly? Wail, cry, gnash our teeth, overthrow the government, take back the night, or rather, the day? Instead the days and nights slip by without a murmur, taking with them who we were today and yesterday, leaving a bit for tomorrow to dispose of. One day the ruckus will stop, probably soon, and we'll forget it ever happened, which in itself points to something dulled and habit-worn in the way we live, enduring things as long as we have to, forgetting them when they finish messing our brains up, and the same, I find, is true about people, for example Jill Ashford, who had a boutique in one of the basement apartments for six or seven years then moved away, replaced by a laundry, now the laundry seems to have been there forever, and but for a piece of misdelivered mail I found on the stoop this afternoon addressed to this Jill Ashford, I would have forgotten her existence altogether, who knows if she is still alive, or if so where she is, likewise the little gang of neighborhood thugs who terrorized the block for years in a desultory drunken way, employed as torpid building supers and avid spies for landlords, one by one they became more spectral and scarce and finally were no longer seen, having outlived their own malevolence and gone to wherever such people go when cities have no further use for them. Florida, perhaps.
Yesterday at lunch Marie-Louise asked if I go to a lot of parties, or go to the movies, hang out with friends, how did I spend my time? I had gone to a party the night before, had even had several drinks, which I almost never do, but I don't normally go to parties, I never go to the movies, I wanted Marie-Louise's even-handed attitude to lever me out of the dreary matters stewing in my head but "heard myself say" (do people hear themselves say things?), "I hardly have any friends, almost all my friends are dead, at this point", Marie-Louise laughed and said, "My friends are dead too, I open my address book and page after page, all dead, first it was AIDS, now it's life," then asked if I had seen a particular movie, which she described. "Sometimes you see something good. But why always want the best thing, sometimes when you get the worst thing that's fine too." She meant this in a general sense, not only with respect to movies.
I had not seen the movie, set in the 1950s, I think, or the 1940s, in New York, it was a film about a writer who either believed himself a genius or was thought by others to be a genius, a writer who couldn't control himself or contain everything he imagined seething inside him, who just wrote down anything that came into his head in torrents, in a state of galloping anxiety lest all the white man genius things inside him go unpublished and, more importantly, unrecognized; and a publishing house editor who calmly trimmed this Niagara of verbal incontinence into books he could publish. Marie-Louise said the film was shit. "But the photography was very good, showing people going in and out of Grand Central Station, the hats they wore, the shoes and so forth." I think the story behind this film still had some currency in my youth, which has drifted so far into the past that my mind only glimpses it in shreds. And (yet?) there are moments when existence feels so motionless and my entire life so utterly uneventful that the shredded past and the static present might as well be the same thing. I seem to remember something about a refrigerator, that this genius tormented writer, at one especially tormented juncture, perched himself on top of his refrigerator, writing the whole time in his habitual frenzy, like a bright chimpanzee.
The writer depicted in that movie still had books in print throughout my childhood, my adolescence, and then he was utterly forgotten about, so much so that another writer with the same name became famous for a while, completely erasing the popular memory of the first, except that the first was known as Thomas and the second one as Tom, so the slightly longer version of the name remained distinguishable, and vaguely recognized, as the name of a forgotten writer, and so on, by this time the second writer has also faded considerably from public view, a slowly evaporating totem of bygone times. Now he's remembered for the "dandyish" outfit he always wore, or wears, if he's still alive, as the first, dead writer is remembered for having the longer first name, and for climbing on top of a refrigerator. I think it would be possible, now, for a third writer, calling himself Tommy, to replace both Thomas and Tom in whatever mental space they occupied, in whatever minds.
For some time I have been faltering. Unable to see the path ahead, as if a path ahead existed previously. I can only see what's inevitable, but picturing the inevitable is a form of piling-on that does no one any good. Sometimes we lose our nerve, lose it to all manner of unanticipated blows: damaged health, wrecked finances, even the untriggered onset of despair, which is always available, one doesn't have to come up with reasons for it, the world is full of them. Sometimes people squeeze despair like the proverbial lemon to make something wet and delicious resembling lemonade, quite often they just can't. Not everything is a matter of attitude. (To speak objectively, if that's even possible, I can think of at least five ways I'd change my life to make myself happier, if I were able to, and I'm not able to, not now, maybe never.) But I have learned not to despise people who claim otherwise, such people seem wiser than those who make hopelessness their comfort zone.
I don't know how, for instance, George, who lives on this street, who recently turned 80, who once seemed robust, even offensively so at times, with his old-school tales of womanizing and vaguely right-wing attitudes, his sundown martinis and endless cigarettes at a restaurant around the corner, and now looks stooped and spectral on his brittle bones, would continue breathing in and out, much less hobble his perilous way down five flights to the street, to walk the Afghan hound that will probably outlive him, unless he believed, somehow, that tomorrow won't be worse than today, that nothing new will go awfully wrong just yet, that his darkening eyesight won't fail entirely or the final neoplasm announce itself with urinary blood or lumps on his pelvis, that he still has time before further calamity, to walk the dog and negotiate the sidewalk with the diminished gait that scares me when I see it, since I remember an earlier George, a George full of what he undoubtedly called "piss and vinegar." A George who was sly and full of rebarbative opinions and fitted his cigarettes into a sleek onyx holder, who sometimes wore black silk shirts open to the waist in summertime and still considered himself a dashing rogue, a George, in short, who wasn't afraid.
That George was an actor, gainfully employed for many decades in one of the longest-running off-Broadway shows of all time, and the current George, for that matter, still finds paying work from time to time, on television, though the demand for octogenerian actors is limited to nonexistent. George reappeared last week, with the most recent of four Afghans he's had in the years I've known him, after two months in hospital and another month recuperating at his son's house. I don't know where the dog has been in these months, and in fact never knew George was gone, until he showed up on his stoop a few days ago, shrunken, fragile, declaring himself thrilled to be back here. He spoke of his return as if he had regained something truly wonderful. I imagined the grim horror vacui of decaying memorabilia, broken furniture, and old newspapers that's been described to me as George's apartment, and realized what a blessing it must be, in George's situation, to find something like that wonderful. We have been neighbors for half my lifetime, almost half, and in that improbably vast time I have learned this about George: he acts, he's a hoarder, he was married a long time ago, and has a son living somewhere in Pennsylvania. That's it, that's all.
I learned about the hoarding, which I might have guessed at, from Celia, the daughter of Emma. About Celia I have little to tell, except that she looks like someone who has had drug problems, that kind of ruined beauty, and a rough life, whereas Emma, I think, has lived rather safely, in slightly eccentric, middle-class comfort, these many decades, lived within her margins, so to say, attached to fervent leftist views and astringently formalist aesthetic judgments, while holding various academic posts in the city. I would guess that Emma was beautiful in her youth, though that was mostly gone by the time I met her. I would guess that her late husband had money, though perhaps not endless amounts. I know even less about Emma than I do about George. Emma is another resident of this block who has managed to live eighty years, a writer of some distinction whose mind is now in sporadic retreat from itself, causing her daughter to come from wherever she was to move in and look after her, into the five story house Emma prudently bought with her husband in 1950 or 1960 or whenever it was, Celia says Emma has good days or good hours followed by times when all becomes blur, and fog, and terrified confusion. The house is falling apart, Celia says, there were even strange people Emma had collected living in some of the rooms when Celia moved in, she's gotten rid of them now.
I used to run into Emma on the sidewalk all the time, the same way I used to run into George, randomly, and like George, Emma clung to her opinions about various things as if they were extremely valuable, expressed them with such tenacity that I always agreed with anything either of them said, or tried to, since I never much cared about the things they considered important, and it's nicer to agree. Where do opinions go, when we're gone? I sometimes avoided running into George, over the years, I probably also avoided Emma on a few occasions, changed direction or crossed the street when I spotted them from a distance, took advantage of their failing eyesight, not always, of course, not even usually, but lonely people love to talk, and sometimes other lonely people cannot bear to listen, since the loneliness they have in common is the one thing they have to avoid mentioning and the only thing they really have to tell each other.
These details, the hoarding, the fog, the strangers in the spare bedrooms, have been forming a collage of the worst that could happen in my mind for quite a long time, a picture that sinks my spirits when it slips into view; when you're young you feel immune to the common fate of all, later every glimpse of how the body loosens its hold on life becomes a cautionary tale. Is this the right expression? Caution implies certain outcomes can be avoided, but there really is only one way to avoid old age. As Marie-Louise said at lunch, "People want a happy ending, but there isn't one." Yet she seemed, as she said it, happier than most people, happy to be eating a vegetable roll and grilled chicken on a skewer, happy she could see the plate in front of her or the movie about the genius, happy she wasn't dead like all the friends in her address book. Maybe it does come down to a question of attitude, when many options have disappeared, perhaps especially when it's unclear which options are altogether gone, what wishes still have a chance of coming true, and what's a pointless fantasy.