I walk around town in a daze, dizzy, fat, unalterable, faltering at the corners when I have to step off the curb, trying to keep my back straight and move along before the lights turn red. Heavy traffic even now, at midday. People with dough burning up the planet.
Somebody is walking next to me. Is it Jesus ushering me to heaven, whistling “Angel Band?” Nah, it’s some teenage kid on one of them scooters. He rides with one foot balancing his weight upright and the other foot pushing against the pavement, getting up some good speed with each thrust. It’s like he’s got two wings on him the way he weaves along the white lines. Making me envious, with my tired legs wobbling away. Watching the kid exercise his freedom is about as close to worshipful as the city makes me feel, remembering Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men and the funny movie the Coens made out of it. Nothing to the story except the big deal allure of drugs and money. Then the reclusive geezer writes about a father and son walking through an empty apocalypse and gets a gig on Oprah. Who knows what to make of it? I guess people think it’s gonna come to pass like that, the last days of man on earth.
The arid waste -- Texas, Arizona, Mexico -- may have its own beauty -- I’ll acknowledge Ed Abbey’s view of canyons, cactus, and flash floods -- but it freaks me out. The wasteland stretched out below Jesus when Satan performed his temptation routine. Turn this goddamn desert into arable land and the world will bow down to you. That shite’s not for me. I’m a city person, despite my love for woodland critters, taking comfort in the shadow of the Vampire State Building on a sunny day, costumed hawkers looking to sap my dough in exchange for a view. They should know by now that I’m a native unlikely to pay twenty-nine bucks to go up top looking for the big ape.
Listen poot, you worked in midtown, you existed in an urban bubble, you thought you were so cosmopolitan, standing in the center of the civilized world. Multi-lingual shutterbugs behind every street sign. Piles of restaurant trash waiting for pick-up. Good-looking young turks smoking twenty feet away from the entrance to their scaffolded building. You were working in a comedic bowl, breathing in and out like an effin mammal in water, trying to keep from sinking, desperate to keep your nostrils clear. Eating prepared foods, riding underground trains. A midlevel executive in the media business. Hah. If it wasn’t for the kids, you would’ve sunk like a pair of cement galoshes and settled down there, under the Hudson, along with the jumpers and sewage.
After the rain, the river is brown. The mud and slime look like my digestive tract after a lasagna dinner. Hard to see anything. Groping blindly for remnants of our famous literary culture -- books, magazines, commemorative programs handed out in once-full auditoriums, convention badges, posters, postcards, ticket stubs -- buried in the sludge. Ah yes, once this was the center of it all, this gilded island, now way past its prime, where the young and foolish could remain so and get paid for it. Now it’s a rest home for the rich, kept tidy by their police. You don’t belong here any more, you were just lucky to have stepped in the stream when it was still moving, when publishing was still a game one could play with a certain insouciance. Now it’s drudgery.
Even the rich care about sales figures -- Amazon this, Amazon that -- unlike the old days when they could sit on their fortunes and act like benefactors. I listen to people talking about Anthony Doerr’s new novel -- the excitement is real, but I’m not sure if it isn’t more about the potential sales and less about the book itself. Booksellers need a big hit for summer, one they’d prefer wasn’t schlocky. Doerr is a class act. I remember the attendant noise surrounding Harriet Doerr’s second novel because of her age and the success of Stones for Ibarra. Those most excited at the prospects for Consider This, Señora were those who hadn’t read it. That didn’t stop them from recommending it wholeheartedly. Sales are sales.
Now I walk around town and let angels pass me by. I’m nowhere near as old and tired as I seem on this humid late May afternoon. I turn up my hearing aid, cock my head so my good ear faces the harbor, and listen for something fateful in the breeze -- another chance? another stab at life? another list of titles? Shh. Shh. Not yet. All I hear are the excited gulls following a trash barge out on the quick-running river.