Monday, October 25, 2010

The New Yorker

I’ve reached a milestone this year: I have now lived in New York for as long as I’ve lived in rural Pennsylvania, a few years short of 25 years in each case. A long time!

What have I learned in all this time? That unequivocally, without a shadow of a doubt, I am not, nor have ever been, nor will ever be, a New Yorker. How does that work, you might ask? I’d say it’s simply a recognition of what one’s nature is as related to where he was born and raised. From what I’ve seen, at least as it applies to my life, that never changes. Many things have changed about me over the years. Developing different interests. Losing others. Having a different range of people influence me and how I see the world. All sorts of intricate and detailed elements leading into who I am.

But at the end of the day, how I see the world, how I feel comfortable in it, is still based on being from a small town in Pennsylvania. And I like that. Some things are permanent, no matter how much you think you’ve changed, no matter how far away you think you move from certain things. A thought like that would have terrified me in my mid-20s. In my mid-40s, it comforts me.

I remember once at a local bar back in PA in the early 90s, I was talking to a guy who had moved into my hometown about 20 years earlier when he and his young wife had bought a small house down the block as they planned on starting a family (which they did, two daughters). He said something to the effect of, “You know, I’ve lived in this town for two decades, and I still feel like I just moved here yesterday and am not really on the inside of anything.”

It took me by surprise, but now that I’ve spent about the same amount of time in New York, I know what he’s saying. His kids surely felt differently, as they were born and raised in our town. But he wasn’t and still felt that sense of being an outsider all those years later. We’re talking a very small town, too, less than 500 people, so it makes sense that this feeling would be even stronger in a place that changes so slowly over the years. The odd part was I’m sure he could go back to his hometown a few miles away, go to a local bar, hang out with guys there who never left town, and in his own way, reclaim that feeling of being rooted and from somewhere.

He was stating this to me as if I had the answer. At that point, I’d lived in New York close to a decade, and he chose to approach me to say this, despite the fact that there were a half dozen guys in the bar who were born, raised and still in our hometown. I had no answer, just a shrug, and said, “Don’t sweat it. No one really cares.” I know I didn’t. But it was odd that he thought I held the secret to that sense of belonging when I hadn’t live there in so long.

I’d say that’s the bond of childhood friendships more than anything. Kids think they own a town … they don’t. I’ve lived in my neighborhood 13 years now. A 13-year-old isn’t going to tell me a god-damned thing about living here, save how he sees it from a child’s point of view, which is going to be vastly different from mine. I came here with a wealth of life experience, knowledge of other places, the strength to support myself, the ability to compare/contrast the neighborhood with other urban neighborhoods and places. But in that kid’s mind, it’s HIS neighborhood and I’m the outsider. Not just his mind, probably his parents’ minds, too. They’re gauging life with the only reference point they understand.

To which I say I can respect the sense of territoriality, but sooner or later, you’d do yourself a favor to stop being such an asshole. I don’t mind that attitude from kids, but when I get it from adults, forget it. If all you cling to in this world for identity is one place you never ventured from, you got very little to show. (There’s a huge difference between understanding your nature and lording it over someone else as some type of trump card that only you get.) I get dog tired of that attitude in Queens: smugness does not go well with working-class humility. These people think they’re living in a humble fortress, but it’s more like a very elaborate cardboard box that will turn to mush next time it rains. It’s as if they’ve sensed that comfort of never growing up or old through their teenage years, a well-meaning lie, is something they want to hold on to the rest of their lives. If the place they’re from is godforsaken enough, no one’s ever going to challenge that false sense of ownership. But New York City has long been a transient place, whether people want it to be that way or not, the place just rolls over every few decades and becomes something else. If money takes root and becomes the sole entry point to a neighborhood, it may take decades or longer to change. But it will.

The blessing of New York is that it constantly underlines one’s powerlessness. Even if you have money, you see that it gets you only so far. There are so many great equalizers here (the subway, the street, the supermarket, the laundromat) that if you use them, you sense you don’t have this whole thing cornered, that you’re just another person living here, and the best you can do is bob along like a corked bottle on the ocean, hopefully catching some nice breaks along the way. You carve out a little place for yourself, the same way any settler would in the wilderness of days gone by, and make the best of it.

But to live here, you also get that a lot of people here have the exact opposite misbelief: they think they’re gods who rule the universe. Generally, any time you try to get a handful of people on the same page to hang out, it’s like negotiating with warring tribes, each of which is convinced it’s the most powerful. Jockeying for power. Bluffing. Intimidation. False indignation. Each assumes its time is more important than the others. And I’ve learned my time is unimportant. Sure, it’s important to me, but not to you. So why offend you by pretending that there’s some type of premium on it, that when not trying to find a cure for AIDS, or hanging out with David Bowie, or sailing on a yacht in the Hudson, or dining at a four-star restaurant that requires reservations months in advance … I might be able to pencil you in, but I might not. (I’ll often catch the attitude from non-native New Yorkers like myself who came here after I did. The worst thing I’ve seen with non-natives is their adoption of a crass, pushy attitude because they think this stereotype is “how people are” here. It’s a major city. You’re going to find all kinds of people from all over the world. People act like rude pigs everywhere. It’s not a “New York” thing.)

You can guess how I feel about the attitude. Most nights, I make myself free, because I like being free. Felt that way long before coming to New York. The best part about being single, anywhere, is the sense of freedom you carry with you. Believe me, married people with kids envy it, they’ve told me as much. The concept of presenting a fa├žade of importance to anyone, much less a friend, is just something I’ve never humored. People in my life who make themselves hard to reach, sooner or later, I stop reaching. Once upon time, that was cause for great concern and perhaps wondering what I was doing wrong. But I wasn’t doing anything wrong – nor where they. People just fade out sometimes, inexplicably. Imagine the hundreds of people you’d have in your life if everyone you knew from childhood on stayed in the picture … and how little real time you’d have to spend with any of them. (I think I just described why I think Facebook is a pile of insincere bullshit.)

I do know city life is nothing like I expected it to be before I moved here. I had that “Dylan” sense of expectation about moving to New York, that it would change me irreversibly, and I’d become someone else, shedding old identities, creating new ones. Well, to a small extent, that has happened. But to a much larger one, I got through that first decade where you try to shed your skin, then settled back into who I really am, with revisions, as most people do. To this day, I’ll try different things, but I fail to see how that’s any different from me doing the same thing at eight, or 14, or 27. In our early 20s we attach that weight to our ability to try different things, that doing so will present these life altering situations that propel us into different realities.

And I guess that’s true in some respects, but the ultimate reality is every night, you put your head on your pillow the same way you always do, and probably think and feel the same way you have your entire life, whether you’ve lived in dozens of places or only one. I tried to break the straight line of my life by moving here, realized there was no breaking it, accepted it, and saw that no matter how much crazy shit you pull, or where you go, life is a straight line from Point A (birth) to Point B (death), with whatever detours you want to throw in the mix (travel, different lifestyles, marriage, children, divorce, work, etc.). It’s not prison. It’s not a race. It’s gradual movement, unnoticeable most of the time, from Point A to Point B. I look back on any conversations (more like unwelcome monologues) regarding “personal growth” with old girlfriends, and have to wonder how that factors into maggots eating our bodies one day in the ground. Not a morbid thought. Just an after thought. And wonderment over the stilted self-help vernacular people wrap their emotions in to claim victory in mutual failure.

It occurs to me when I write things like this, that some people might see it as negativity. It’s not. The second half of your life, more of the changes that come your way are going to be hard, in the form of illness, loss, death, unforeseen personal problems and disasters. I’m just trying to figure out ways to deal with these things realistically, as opposed to treating them like total destruction that beats you down permanently. If there’s one thing I like about most religions, it’s how they underline that life will beat the shit out of you, and you need something not so much to protect yourself (because you ultimately can’t), but to help you reason out the big picture, that good things that happen to you will always have a bad side, and vice versa. It’s the vice versa that becomes the shit you deal with post-30 in life that requires a different take than “smiley faces all the time.” Sooner or later, you need more than good looks, a nice smile, and a care-free attitude to get by in the world.

So, if you ask me what I’ve learned after all these years in New York as compared to coming from a small town. I’d say be true to yourself, understand whoever you really are, and never become too attached to identifying yourself with a physical place. Because it doesn’t matter if you’re in a small village somewhere or a major city here. You leave one place and never truly arrive in another. We’re all just renting space here, and most likely paying way too much for it, too.

Monday, October 04, 2010

The Late-Night Web Crawl

Saturday night found me watching the tail end of a college football game that didn’t matter. Closing in on midnight. Bored. Laptop on top of my lap. Scrolling around the web in search of old girlfriends, former coworkers, childhood friends and relatives. Googling for images of “best ass.” The late-night web crawl.

Chances are, you’ve done it, too. I don’t do it every night, but every now and then, the crawl rolls around. I’m not sure what the expectation is. You find a Facebook site for someone who has dropped out of your life. (I’m not on Facebook, or Twitter for that matter, and won’t be.) Now what? If you were on Facebook, you would drop the person a line, see what happens. Nothing happens. Nothing ever happens. You “friend” this person who is no longer your friend, have a few slight exchanges, then both go about doing what you were doing, which is living your life without that other person in it in any meaningful way, save as a memory. Facebook has become an unnecessary reminder that our memories are real, and life goes on without us.

There are times when we should all just turn off the computer and figure out something else to do. Even if it’s watching bad TV. That’s something I become more aware of as time goes on, and time spent screwing around on the web does not pan out as anything meaningful. I don’t even want to think about what goes through some kid’s head as he sends out 100 texts a day. What matters to him? What’s real? How do you build any kind of life where you even have a field of memories to refer back to when a vast majority of your time is spent thumbing a gadget that communicates nothing real?

The main reason why I’ve become so anti-Facebook/Twitter isn’t out of any sense of rejecting popular fads. It’s the aggravating realization that these things have become an unhealthy addiction for far too many people. You live in New York, where people walk around with their devices all day, you can’t go more than a few minutes or feet without someone thumbing a device or loudly wrapped up in some embarrassing personal conversation that he should not be having in public. This used to irk the hell out of me but has become so commonplace now that it’s more like an ugly shade of wallpaper than a genuine nuisance.

I remember when the internet first rolled around in the mid-90s, getting on via dial-up and a profoundly slow modem. Having conversations with people from all over the country and world in chat rooms. Man, that experience should have nailed the coffin shut. You couldn’t go more than five minutes without flame wars breaking out, strangers fighting with each other over nothing, outrageous insults … and it was all just unbridled loneliness. And the anger that generates in lonely people. I remember getting into a chat-room conversation with a woman in a small town in Scotland telling me about her life, the highlight of which was kids in the neighborhood smashing her windows every other night with rocks and treating her like the town pariah. And she was one of the more normal people! For every insightful one liner or thought, there were endless waves of unimaginative, angry people with nothing worthwhile to say. Man, this was what, 1995? 1996?

Things only went South from there. I’m not totally hung up on privacy – I wouldn’t be maintaining this blog if that was the case. But things like Facebook and Twitter are just overkill, divulging way too much personal stuff in ways that suggest blatant exhibitionism as opposed to genuinely sharing thoughts and emotions. And does so in such meaningless and inconsequential bursts that it’s hard to make sense of any of it. It’s changing the nature of communication, turning it into a disjointed monologue that makes no sense. I’m not sure what’s being communicated when I overhear a cellphone conversation that’s basically someone saying, “Me. Me. Me. Me. Me. Me. Me. Did I mention me? It’s me. Me. Me. Are you tired of me yet? No? Me. Me. Me. Me. (I don’t give a fuck about you.) It’s me. Me. Me. Me. Me. Me. What? Goodbye. Me. Me. Me. Me. Me. Me. I'm really going to say goodbye now. Me. Me."

I'm always hearing stories regarding how people have become so incredibly self absorbed. People confronted on buses or trains over some outrageous cellphone behavior, and acting as if they are totally in the right, and the rest of the world is wrong for not spinning around their axis of self involvement. A coworker told me of a soccer Dad flipping out on his son's coach, cursing him violently in front of small children, literally threatening his life, the coach calling the cops, filing a police report, gathering a dozen eye witness accounts, then going to the man's home with the league president and a local police offer off duty, confronting the man, telling him he and his son were banned from the league, the guy flipping out again, risking a citizen's arrest from the off-duty cop, even at this late stage of the game, unwilling or unable to admit he was radically wrong in his actions. This is the kind of people we are creating and nurturing with these self-centric devices. People can't determine reality from their own perception of reality. I don't believe that guy was nuts -- I just believe he's become incapable of recognizing or respecting anything but his own point of view.

Myspace was just as bad as Facebook/Twitter and seems to have faded like the chintzy wallpaper of that site. It doesn’t seem to occur to many people that the same will happen with Facebook and Twitter, once some other social networking site rolls in, which is the nature of this age, constant change, not in the interest of enlightenment or betterment of society or humanity. Because someone’s going to make a truckload of money from it. No other reason.

The strange thing for me as a writer is my past keeps following me around. To this day, I’ll sometimes go back and read over articles I wrote for around the turn of the century … and people, to this day, are leaving comments on those articles, some of which are a decade old at this point. I stopped responding about 2005; the editors stopped forwarding me responses around that time. But people read these articles as if they came out last week and respond accordingly. This stuff is radioactive: it never dies. It’s fun for me to read the comments now, especially the insults, which I’ve since learned are part of the deal with any sort of internet exposure. I’m not sure if the people reading don’t notice the “Published 6/28/00” note at the top of the article, or they actually think the writer’s going to respond to something he wrote a decade ago?

Much of what I wrote for the NYPress, mid-90s through the unceremonious canning of much-loved editor JS on Christmas Eve 2001, seems to have disappeared into the mist as the paper was sold at the same time and went through eras and permutations afterwards that suggested hitting the road. (We all should have quite when JS got canned, as he was what made the paper great.) And I wrote a ton of stuff when they started a section called “The Daily Billboards” which existed before the concept of bite-sized pieces of opinion and information flooded the net – we were among the first, and very good at it, too. I’ve kept all that stuff and have PDF copies of all my stories, which is much more than I thought it would be.

What I was shocked to find recently is that all the old newspaper columns I wrote in college are now permanently on-line as part of the university’s project to document all publications from the past, which they’ve done with the college paper up through 1987 (my tenure was 1984-86). It’s been a jolt for me to read that stuff again, as some of it is just the worst shit you could imagine. It was wild stuff at the time, a real departure from typical newspaper columns, but most of it feels like bluster and bad writing to me now. Of course, there is some genuinely funny and well-written material in the mix, but the bad stuff makes me cringe too hard. I just can’t link to that stuff publicly! I know there are people out there who loved what I was doing at the time and remember me fondly for it, but a lot of that stuff is just bad writing to me now. It was a talented kid trying hard to be noticed, and succeeding wildly in that campus microcosm. (The stuff that really makes me cringe was when I tried to write seriously, as humor was my forte at the time. The “serious” stuff is just so frighteningly bad. Twenty-year-olds in college have a bad habit of appearing more substantial than they are. It's just not possible for most people at that age, me included.)

The pain of it? When I went back to read that stuff (and found that my friends on the paper at the time were quietly writing stuff that still holds up well after all these years), I started reading the current campus newspaper, and the editorial writing is horrendous: dull, self-serious, studied, stiff. Exactly what I was trying to refute in my time. I’m not sure if it’s because writing skills have diminished across the board over the past few decades, or they just have boring editors running the joint. But it reads like high-school newspaper stuff instead of kids spreading their wings and having the courage to fail on occasion. I’ll give myself that much: I failed spectacularly when I wasn’t writing solid humor pieces. Maybe that’s another Facebook/Twitter offshoot: fear of failure in terms of actually creating something real, as opposed to comfortably utilizing template communication methods that guarantee uniformity and lack of risk.

I’d rather leave legacies like that, or what I’m doing now, than wasting time on meaningless one liners, insincere Facebook relationships, or getting too far into message boards, which tend to be a colossal waste of time and talent. Hell, what I’m doing now could be considered a waste of time, but I think you gather that I’m at least trying to communicate something other than an insipid emoticon or glib one-liner. I think what turned me away from writing after Dad died was I looked back on what I was doing, and most of it was criticism, harsh and bitter at times, but somebody who wasn’t creating anything of his own, but spending most of his creative talents commenting on other people creating some type of art. It felt like bullshit. A lot of things felt like bullshit after Dad passed on, but that one stuck with me, that I’d rather be the one putting it out there for people to accept/reject/embrace/despise … whatever they felt, so long as they read along and felt something. There’s such a glibness now in terms of how the web works that I’m pretty much OK with anything that takes a real chance, or tries to hold your attention for more than five minutes. I don’t think people who are shaping the web realize how destructive it has become to minimize and sound-byte the entire process … it truly is destroying people’s ability to think, reason and feel beyond anything but the most shallow thoughts and emotions.

So, I guess, an old girlfriend googles my name, comes across this site, reads this, and thinks, “He’s still an asshole.” And I’m fine with that. You can always count on me to be an asshole. I will not let you down! But I wouldn’t know how or what to comment on with an old friend’s Facebook page, assuming I was in that network, shooting back the occasional message that really had nothing to do with anything, but we all felt better in some odd way about life because we were banded together by some website that sees us, ultimately, as a dollar sign. As opposed to our actual shared memory. I’m all alone out here, no social network, which is not much different from a kid with a spiral notebook, writing at night on his bed in a small town in rural PA. Or the same kid sending a story to a college editor his second day on campus and striking gold. Or the same kid doing much the same with a city newspaper and making his way into that fold. It’s all comes down to a guy, alone in his room, trying to fill out a blank page with something worthwhile, that will last beyond the act of reading it. That’s the difference. I don’t want what I do here to be disposable, as so much of it is. And if it’s going to last, I want it to be representative of who I am. Not some fake “everybody’s my friend” template. I think that vibe is what I look for in the late-night web crawl. Not realizing I’m just looking at myself and wishing I was doing what I’m doing right now.