This writing, god damn it, is a kind of penance, agony and atonement, a way of grappling with the world, with existence, against the odds, flying in the face of the exigencies of everyday life, groping for the right word, the just word, trying one after the other, hoping that everything will fall into place with a click, like cocking a pistol or locking a strong-box, hoping against hope that the vague becomes vivid in the telling. That somebody else gets it. Quist used to tell me, "Shallow thinking isn't gonna lead you to deep thoughts, poot. Go on and do a little living, then come back and show me where you've been." That was nearly forty years ago. My head was as empty as my pockets. I walked everywhere, miles and miles each day, from Elmont to Hempstead, from Dutch Broadway to Garden City, sick at heart, juiced on poetry, thinking that I was gonna come into contact with something called "reality" directly, unmediated, like an effin mystic. You need a tuning fork inside your head to have that happen. I had nothing up there. So I kept on walking through the suburbs like a lost dog. I could see the world around me but I couldn't see myself in it.
Now, forty years later, the reverse is true: I can see myself in the world, but the world around me has grown less distinct. It's hard to tell the pedestrians from the cars, the music from the noise, or the smell of food from the smell of garbage. Hell, the whole world smells like cooking grease and bus fumes on 32nd Street. Impressions fly away like shy birds before I've had a chance to identify them. Photos don't help, photos are merely a suggestion of what has been seen, diced and digitized, little tabs. The other night John took a picture of The Roller and me. We're on top of the Shelburne Hotel over on Lex. Behind us you can see the Chrysler Building sticking up into a blue sky. It's around 6:30 and there's a private party going on in the background. The Roller and I are still wearing sunglasses. It's a tight shot, our two faces take up the whole bottom half of the frame. I've got it archived on a memory stick.
It's hard to take recorded reality, it always feels like a cheat, twice removed. I swim with the human tide on my way to work, through Korea Town, past the tourist buses and food delivery vans, the smoking kitchen help and petite Asian women in impossibly high heels, letting existence run over me like rainwater, heading east, into the sun, thinking to myself, a real person in an unreal world. No. An unreal person in a real world. No, I realize that neither formulation will do, as I grapple with the world, groping for the right words, hoping against hope that this time they will fall into place with a click.
The Roller is grinning. His cheeks are round. We're looking into the camera. He used to live in the city, just north of here. John took the picture. He lives on the west side. Tom is sitting across from us, lately having been laid off. We're drinking. It's the end of June in 2010. The open rooftop bar is jammed. It's a beautiful evening. I look at myself in the photo. I'm wearing a faint smile, dark glasses, short hair, a white sport-coat and a purple-striped button-down shirt. The Roller is all in black. My collar is open, he's wearing a neck-tie. Our waitress is short, blonde, friendly, cute. The Roller shows us photos on his iPad. He and his wife went up in a hot air balloon in Charlottesville for her birthday. There are pictures of them drifting over the green hills of northwest Virginia. It too was a beautiful day then, the sky is blue behind the colorful balloons. At one point in the flight, they were as far above the ground as we are, here on the roof of the Shelburne. We can see a long way off. What does it mean, to do penance? Penance for what? I mean, what was I thinking?