Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Modesty shields, the fury of street people, and yearbook quotes

So I was wrong when I said that the giant Roman-numeralled wall clock that looms above my breakfast nook at Union Station is "flanked by marble statues of men in breeches who probably helped write the Constitution or something." Turns out, they're Roman Centurion soldiers, and according to Roadside America, the sculptor was asked to put "modesty shields" over their previously exposed "packages," to use the website's quaintly prim terminology. However, as the site helpfully points out, you can spy a glimpse of one soldier's "package" if you walk into Uno's Pizzeria as far as you can, almost to the door of the kitchen. So it wasn't Founding Fathers up there at all -- it was pantsless Roman soldiers.

In other words, never ask me to identify a criminal in a line-up. I will probably misremember him as having worn breeches. 

While sitting there yesterday morning, a homeless man approached me, and I thought I'd make up for all those times I've walked right past the guys begging for money -- or, not begging, but asking, sometimes saying they "just" need 70 cents (knowing that a frazzled passerby will just round up and give him a dollar, rather than count out a bunch of coins) or telling you what he needs the money for (bus fare, lunch). And then some of the really crazy ones don't say anything... they just sit there with a cup, being crazy. 

When the guy came right up to me, while I was sitting there outside of Starbucks like a princess, I thought I'd erase some of my karmic debt, and give him not one but two bucks. He took it with stiff hands that felt as if they had rigor mortis. Right away, a woman -- who looked as if she might live on the streets, too; she walked with a cane and was carrying too many possessions to just be out for the day -- approached me, and at first I thought she might want some money, too. But instead she chastised me. "You shouldn't have done that. He just got two dollars outside. Just now. You shouldn't have done that." I instinctively smiled at her, like the clueless suburban dope that I am, thinking maybe she would laugh it off or warm or soften toward me. But she just shuffled away. And I sat there thinking, huh, what should I have done? Afterward, I'm sad to report that I felt almost relieved -- as if the street people themselves had told me not to give my money to them. I'm a terrible human being and I am going to hell.

I was also wrong about the guy who sits on the stone steps and says, ""Goodmorningma'amGodblessyouhaveagoodday..." He says, "Goodmorningma'amhowyoudoin'Godblessyouhaveaniceday." It's admittedly a subtle distinction, but I strive for accuracy in most of my endeavors. 

My current Metro book is Chuck Palahniuk's "Stranger Than Fiction," nonfiction pieces; so far I've read articles about such topics as the Testicle Festival in Montana, where people eat bull balls dipped in ranch and perform acts of jubilant sexual exhibitionism on a stage as truckers whirring by on the nearby freeway honk to show their appreciation; and one about the underdog sport of amateur wrestling, a longsuffering brotherhood whose members recognize one another by their cauliflower ear. 

In addition to reading on the Metro, I also read for about half an hour every morning outside of my "secret" Starbucks. As you can see here, sometimes there's only one person in line! This was during the morning rush-hour commute at Union Station! I cropped this photo in such a way so as not to give away the places to the left and right of it. Hey, I got a good thing goin', man.

I apologize for the scattered, nigh-desultory nature of this post, but these days it's a rarity for me to post something in the middle of the week at all. I find, after starting this job, that I tend to save it all up until the weekend, and then unleash one unholy glut of text upon you. I hate to give you less than my best here, but I had these photos just sitting around on my camera and needed an excuse to share them, so I thought a post full or Metro-commute snapshots might be appropriate, as a wee hors d'oeuvres course until what will surely be another massive, essay-style post or two this weekend.

But lest you think I'm content with chatting of superficial things and merely weaving city-life vignettes -- here's something a bit heavier, to expound upon more in a future post. A beloved friend wrote me an e-mail in which, while praising some of my recent digging-out-of-the-holeness (new sort-of job, new volunteer gig, no more pre-gaming with trunk booze), he made it clear that to him (and OK, to me, too) these are achievements that are firmly in the terrestrial realm, everyday, things that society has told me I should want and do:

All of those wonderfully progressive things you've experienced recently. ... They are all good things for you, but they are also all things that are distinctly part of the normal world. A world that is far less than what I want for myself... and far less than what I've had in the past. It is also far less than I know you're capable of.

Here's where I suppose I could defend myself, say that I've matured past the point of naive idealism, past wanting my life to be a bohemian novel or a poem or a love song. But you know what? He is absolutely right. I'm aware of what I want my life to be, and of the kind of person I want to be. I don't need to be Employee of the Month, or 300 days sober and speaking at high-school assemblies about drunk driving. I don't need to have some local reporter do a profile about me and all the community service I've done, I don't need to run a marathon or do yoga at sunrise every morning. (I'm starting to notice that I pick on "yoga at sunrise" a lot on this blog; hmm, a topic to explore another time, perhaps.)
That doesn't mean I'm going to up and leave my gig, not volunteer, start drinking too much again (I know he especially wouldn't want me to put the booze back in the trunk). I need to pay bills -- so I work. No publisher or literary agent or magazine editor is exactly clamoring to pay me to write short stories right now -- so I do boring stuff for cash. I need to stay alive, and for others on the road to stay alive, and I need to be healthy -- so I don't drink and drive, I don't bomb my liver into oblivion before so much as entering the front door of a club. 

But I also need to live. Not follow some Martha Stewart, leather-bound, organized-with-color-coded-tabs itinerary of productive shit to do for each day... but live

You know when you hear some old song, and it reminds you of some crazy late-night adventure, of someone you loved even though you knew it was stupid, of some hijinks you got up to with now-long-lost friends, of standing in some exotic foreign place or surrounded by dramatic landscape, standing by the ocean or on a rooftop or driving out on the open road -- and you get that swelling in your heart? The kind of life I want is one filled with moments like that. 

There were times in my life when was I was barely alive. For example: When I lived with my manic-depressive then-boyfriend in a ghetto one-bedroom apartment and had a boring-to-me (yet quasi-prestigious) job with the marketing department of a software company, living without romantic love or sex in a $1,200-a-month cubbyhole a stone's throw from where I was born and grew up. 

I think most of us know it when we're living versus not living, i.e. breathing but not living, with italics.

I'm not saying that in order to live with italics I need to time travel back to San Francisco or Greenwich Village in the 1960s or something, or be a hobo and ride the rails, or a crack whore with a hell of an autobiography to tell. What actually matters isn't the details so much as just how you live it.

I can live a full and richly textured life, or a pallid and wan one, or a middle-of-the-road one, or a whatever one -- but whatever kind of life it is, I need to take that experience and turn it into words. Words that will help people or, at the bare minimum, help them feel less alone. I need to make deep and meaningful emotional connections, and cherish the ones that I've been lucky enough to stumble into during this short life that I've been given miraculously, improbably, inexplicably -- and I need to let them resonate, reverberate, shake me awake. I need to have moments of sublimely heightened experience, of abysmal and crushing despair, of tedious monotony, of obscenity-sputtering stress -- and take those moments, all of them, good and bad and so-so and holyfuckingshit, and turn them into art. 

In order for me to be living the kind of life that I want to live, I need to do that -- because no matter what, I will always be a writer. Even if I never dig out of the hole that this blog is named for. And even if I do; even if I win goddamn Employee of the Month -- I'm still a writer. That fact is immutable. 

Because to paraphrase Oscar Wilde in that quote that every high-school senior used in his "Memories" blurb at the back of the yearbook (the ones who didn't use the Kerouac one about all the mad folks) -- there might be a lot of us down in holes, but some of us are looking up at the stars.

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