Once, when I was much younger, I brought home an English paper that I had written. Across the top my teacher had scrawled, in red pen, the score of 97. I showed it to my mother.
“What happened to the other three points?” she asked me.
The student life is ridiculous, and I was born for it. I was born to read four hundred pages a week, to read authors whose work I missed by majoring in – of all things – sociology in college. I was born to haunt libraries with my laptop, wringing meaning from past experience, gazing for hours, one could argue, at my own navel. To stay after class and listen, with hunger, to the professor tell me anecdotes about working at the kind of New Yorker that no longer exists. To sit at the edge of a party with a plastic plate of cold chicken in my lap while I argue with a fellow student about what makes good writing. To hit the campus gym at night and to wander back, past the hot dog vendor dozing in his booth, to my apartment where more books await.
Heavenly, but also hellish. Learning is not some pink-hued abstraction. Maybe small children learn without pain. But at thirty-three learning is the process of destruction, tearing down earlier assumptions, welding together with white-hot flame ideas which once stood separate, excavating a hole in the self you’ve built up, painstakingly and sometimes haphazardly, over the years. A self you’ve leaned on, though you knew its precarious structure. And if I’m self-indulgent tonight it’s because that self is under fire, it’s disintegrating, and I’m confused.
Confused in New York, which contains everything save comfort. I have no routine, everything and everyone is fresh, and I greet them with humming, crackling nerves. The only comfort I’ve found is the solitude waiting in the room with the closed door, the hum of the air conditioner in the window drowning out the harsh sounds. A pile of books on the table.
Three cups of coffee and my eye hasn’t stopped twitching all week. Twelve essays by Edmund Wilson to read, or rather to study since reading sounds more passive than the work expected of me, the work that Wilson himself put into his writing; the ideas and the structure built around them, a piece of art that both inspires and depresses, for the cold light it casts across my own writing.
I don’t understand the confident man. At moments I respect, then deplore him. Above all I envy him, and I study him for the hairline crack, and when I find none I try to imagine, without much success, what it feels like to be such a man. I’m always three points shy.
I’m my own arch villian. For too many years I let the insecurities keep me from passion. Even now, in the dream come true, they wrestle me from confidence. And I let them. By now they’re old friends; I curse them while silently praising them for “keeping me humble”. I hold on to them to ward off arrogance. I hold on to them to clothe the emperor.
And speaking of confidence: here they come, pouring from the depths of the 116th St. station, pushing through the doors of Butler Library, clambering down the steps of Avery Hall. They’re pulling bags over their shoulders, brushing hair from their eyes, clutching cell phones to their ears. They’re bending over omelets at the Deluxe, clustering on the steps of Low Library, sweating on the treadmills at Dodge. They’re swinging bags of toothpaste and toilet paper from Duane Reade, avoiding the clipboards of Democrats for Kerry on Broadway, tossing footballs on the South Lawn. They chatter, they mill, they rest, sunbathing on the squares of grass lining College Walk. They’re everywhere; the fresh-faced undergraduates of Columbia, their youthful confidence a personal affront to me, who cannot imagine the balls it takes moving to New York at the age of eighteen.
I’ve always surrounded myself with older people. I’ve told myself I did so because of the shared maturity and wisdom. Nitwits my age, I reasoned, could never understand my struggles, my elaborate battle scars. But I’ve come to realize in the past few weeks that there was a more defensive reason. With older companions I could perpetuate my self-image as a young man. And as this young man I could pretend that I still had all the time in the world; time left to accomplish the ambitious goals that I set out for myself, that I fantasized over, that lingered always on the fringe of the future. In the company of undergraduates the fantasies fade.
I know that I’m still young. Enough. These fears, of falling behind, of never catching up. They’re old friends, too. They’re comfort, they’re familiar.
And the casual cruelty of the young, who refuse to flatter my ego by acknowledging my presence. Pipsqueaks. My vanity, bruised, finds refuge in the required reading of the fall semester. Back to Edmund Wilson, that arrogant son of a bitch. Wish I had read every single book ever published. Maybe then the three points…no matter.
So it’s only in the periods of transit, from home to campus, from class to class, from lunch to library, that I engage with the throbbing mass of undergraduates. As my anchors to Columbia increase and strengthen I’m bothered less often by the invisibility I had felt settle over me after my move. The lack of eye contact, the absence of – say it – boys cruising me fed my self-pity. When you’re new to New York, I reasoned, you do not yet exist. I had not realized the importance of people acknowledging my presence, had underestimated its effects; my life, my body, my face noted, acknowledged, seen.
I’ve been thinking about this absence of eye contact. It’s not about rudeness; it’s self-preservation. There are millions of people in New York. I don’t think I ever really grasped how much larger New York was than San Francisco until I walked its streets, felt the relentless march of crowds passing, the ubiquitous couple wandering in front of me, blocking the sidewalk, the angry young man stepping on my heels.
It’s self-preservation not in the sense of safety, but of sanity. One must learn to filter out some of these people. It’s a denial of reality. With blinders on we carve out our niche; our lives gain more meaning and significance, we matter more.
I had promised myself that, on some profound levels, I wouldn’t change. I swore to keep the sweetness, the Midwestern integrity, the relaxed air of the West Coast. I had resolved to keep my eyes open, to see everything, to take it all in. It seemed vital to being a so-called writer.
Why then do I walk down Broadway, realizing several blocks later that I’ve ignored nearly everyone I’ve passed? Why, for the first time in years, have I started wearing headphones? Didn’t I swear I wouldn’t? Didn’t I resolve to listen to my surroundings, to observe, through all five senses, my new city?
But with my headphones, with my music, I can retain some sense, if only a fraction, of my inner life. I can narrow my focus. I can ignore the clipboards of the Democrats for Kerry, the pleas of the homeless on the train. I can keep myself sane. I can return to my room intact.
But then an email with a photo, or a phone call. And homesickness descends, a heaviness settling behind my eyes. And it’s not some rigid sense of masculinity that prevents me from crying; it’s not the tough guy within. I just haven’t found the private switch. And so, every couple of days, I feel myself pulled down, into the small comfort of my bed. And I fight against it. I do the one thing that seems to work. I leave my room, I put on the headphones, and I walk.
I head downtown, along Broadway, my pace at a steady clip, passing nearly every other pedestrian not because I’m in a hurry but because speed pushes me forth from the crowd, out front, where I’m a little more alone. And the music, an old mix by Deep Dish, pumps lightning through my sluggish blood, adrenaline fueling emotion, neurons firing, serotonin flooding over the sadness, and I’m twenty, thirty, forty blocks from home. I pass Lincoln Center and veer right, where Columbus Avenue becomes Ninth, and I push along the edge of the Theater District, heading for an AA meeting on West 45th, if only to give myself a destination. And I pass a bar, glancing through the picture window, noting in an instant the all-male clientele, the rainbow flag tacked up over the bar, the man near the window who locks eyes with me. And he nudges the man next to him, never looking away from me, nudging once, then twice, then pulling hard on the man’s shoulder, to spin him around, to make him look out on the street just as I pass from view.
This cheered me up in a way no book could. I will admit that this is the thing that brings me out of the college town of my neighborhood, down to Chelsea or the West Village or Union Square, feeling less ghostly once I’ve been seen.
There are two or three times I have felt at home in New York. They were moments when I stood with a friend on the sidewalk, on Broadway or downtown on 14th St, moments from descending into the subway, still talking, still things to say, the night quickening, warm fading twilight. And the crowds push past us but we hold our ground, and in that second, words rushing between us, I felt I belonged. I felt that in some ways I had always been here, standing on the corner with a friend, a home waiting for me uptown.
One of those nights my friend and I were on Christopher Street, the night before Labor Day, an electricity coursing through the air, the sidewalks choked with people, awake, expectant. And as we neared Seventh Avenue I saw a man emerge from the crowd, walking towards us with deliberation, his feet unsteady, his gaze unfocused. As we passed he leaned in to my friend, whispered something in his ear, then continued on, weaving back into the crowd.
“Did you know him?” I asked.
“What did he say?”
“He said, I care about you.”
On the uptown train I couldn’t stop thinking about the man, his story, where he had been drinking, the person he’d been thinking of as he stumbled past us. Feeling something so strongly that he had to whisper into a stranger’s ear, to make contact. And I was jealous of my friend. I wanted, unreasonably, to hear such an intimacy whispered in my ear. A drunken man, a city, murmuring something pathetic and sweet to me, something to puzzle over as I made my way home.