I’ve been on a minor Jim Carroll kick lately. Jim died in 2009, at the age of 60. His book, The Basketball Diaries, is the best memoir about growing up in New York that I’ve ever read. The follow-up, Forced Entries, one of the worst, in which it felt like he got too far into the hip “downtown” Manhattan scene circa early 70’s and wasn’t doing much but name-dropping and heroin. The heroin experiences in TBD are actually sort of boring and detract from the book. He captured the rough-and-tumble essence of growing up working class (and white) in Manhattan, a place that’s dead and gone as he is.
He put out a few albums at the turn of the 80’s, but the song that will live on is “People Who Died” in which he outlines, in gruff punk tone, all his friends dying far too young due to misadventure, drugs, murder, bad circumstances, etc. It’s a tough song from a tough kid …
… that sounds like complete bullshit once you’ve grown up and experienced routine death swirling all around you. We’ve all had that experience, when we were young, of glorifying the deaths of similarly young friends, in car crashes, drug episodes, suicides, etc. The experience at that age makes us feel tough by extension. Some of us see ourselves in that sort of toughness and don’t picture ourselves “living to see 30.” Well, most of us do. Most of us live way past 30, two or three times that, and shabbily when our attitude was “won’t live to see 30” once upon a time. Life is longer than you think, before it ends in a moment.
I’m sure there were many points in Jim Carroll’s life where he didn’t expect to see 30. Or 40. Or 50. He barely saw 60, after years of failing health due to drug-related illnesses. It’s heartening to hear that he moved back to Inwood (the northern tip of Manhattan) where he spent most of his formative years, although he had to be running into the same hipster and high-rent onslaught most of us have in the past decade. Far from the touch-and-go, working-class Irish hood he grew up in back in the 60’s. The place he moved back to was a distant memory of the place he grew up in.
This time last year, I was pondering life from the vantage point of someone with a hole in his belly and a huge question mark as to how his life was going to move forward. That was a strange few weeks, where nothing seemed certain and every day was a bit of a struggle to move forward.
As it turns out, that hernia and the under-active thyroid the family doctor found were two of the best things to happen to me in years. Spurred me to drop 60 lbs. Have managed to keep most of it off. At the time I laughed at internet accounts of gym rats who came back “stronger than ever” from their hernia operations. Well, I’m not stronger than ever, but I’m in better physical condition now than I have been since my 20’s, mostly due to carrying so much less weight. Life gets easier when you’re in good health, which is a given in our youth, but something that takes work thereafter.
That’s the good part. Bad part has been Mom dying. An old college friend going through the death of his father. One of my aunts dying, leaving only three of that older, World War II generation (out of 10) that raised us. A few friends going through similarly rough rides with aged parents nearing their time.
“People Who Died”? The reality of the situation is not a punk song. You lose that energy when it starts to happen often enough that rarely more than a few weeks pass without the news of someone you know dealing with death. I can scoff at “People Who Died” now that I have so much more experience with this. Losing your parents goes a long way towards demystifying all the darkness we associate with people dying. Bury your parents, and real fear becomes going through the world on your own. Not some boogie man chasing you with an axe. Even if you’ve equipped yourself to go through the world on your own and have been doing so for years – just the knowledge that the two people who looked after and thought about you all the time are gone is a real blow to the senses.
I remember when we were kids, and a situation with a bully or other tough guy presented itself. The worst and most common thing that kid would say to intimidate you: “I’m going to kill you” … usually at some appointed time to help build the sense of dread. Yeah, well, they never killed anyone. But that very real sense that this horrible thug might end your life came down on your head like a ton of bricks. That fear of death, at the hands of a monster. We weren’t old enough to discriminate between murderous rage and idle threats. At worst, we might get our asses kicked which, in itself, carried some type of “cool” cartel for surviving such a harrowing episode.
Passing time and the nature of the world make any bully look farcical. Keep on living and you’ll see what the world can do to you and everyone else. Take pot shots at your physical and mental health. Wear you down with disease. Suspend you for months or years in treatments that are just as brutal and terrifying as death itself. It seems like burning hell when you or a loved one goes through it, but you look around and realize, it’s been going on forever. Your parents grasped the same knowledge when they got older; it’s not unusual or in any way unnatural.
But it doesn’t make it any easier when it happens to you. All it does is signify your movement into a different phase of life. Look at it as coming down the other side of the hill that you spent the first half of your life going up. You can’t see these things as clearly when you’re on the ascendant side of the hill, but they become all too familiar on the other side.
What changes come from this? I can’t really say for sure, but I have noticed in the few months after Mom’s passing, I am so less patient with people. I don’t know what it is, but things that rarely got under my skin surely do now. Something as minor as noticing that there are douchebags in the gym I go to spitting chewing gum into urinals. Just knowing there are people like this in the world, and I have to be around them. We’re not talking Nazis; we’re talking people with no empathy or manners. Who are legion in this world. The smartphone jackasses dotting the public stairs and sidewalks during rush hour. The people at work getting into intra-cubical conversations more appropriate for dockworkers than sane adults.
It goes on. The good thing about Mom was she was a very hopeful, sweet-natured person, even to the end. And it seemed like she had a better grasp of this stuff than I do, or at least if it bothered her, she didn’t dwell on it as much. She had the ability to switch her mind off when it veered into darker territory. I still do, too, but I can’t help but noticing in the wake of her passing that these little things that have nothing to do with me have been cropping up on daily “pain in the ass” lists I keep mentally. Which signals to me that I’ve been dealt a severe blow and am still feeling the effects… which is normal. You meet someone who’s recently gone through the death of a parent and that person is all optimism and bursting rays of sunshine … you’re probably dealing with a sociopath or someone on a very high dosage of medication.
My patience has grown pretty thin, too, with people in my life. I have no time for people who have no time for me. The same closing of the ranks happened when Dad passed on, that sense of finding out who in your life really cares about you and who doesn’t. And I gather some of this is dealing with people who don’t have this kind of experience, who think the death of a parent is something you feel bad about for a few weeks, and then everything is fine. Not quite sensing the full gravity of the situation, and that it isn’t all-day weeping and chest beating, but more of a lifestyle change that takes months and even years to fully assimilate. I can guarantee that some of the people I’ve had issues with recently don’t grasp this simply because they haven’t experienced it for themselves. There’s no point in vindictively predicting, “One day they’ll understand.” Of course they will. I didn’t understand any of this before I experienced it either. My sense of support was just as hollow and ill equipped.
I don’t want any of this to sound as if the world must stop because my Mom passed on. If anything, I want it to sound as if I’m grasping that the world stops for everyone who goes through the death of a parent, and now I get it. And I guess that lack of patience I now feel is directed more towards people who seem so self absorbed and unable to grasp even the most basic tenet of death – that the world will go on without us. There is no empathy in people who think it’s funny or “someone else’s job” to pick their chewing gum out of a urinal, or weave around them on a crowded staircase because they just have to type this text right now at 5:05 pm in a midtown Manhattan subway station. It gets tiresome and mildly abrasive to be around people this clueless about life.
Death makes you aware of other people, that they’ve gone through or are going through this, and you’re now part of the same tribe. I was going to write “unfortunate” tribe, but that’s not true, again, it’s just the way of the world. I gather some people are born empathetic, but I suspect most of us need to have life beat it into us. If anything, I can see down the road and grasp that sooner or later, I’m going to find myself less irritated by the assholes of the world. Simply because I won’t have time to waste on them, and that’s something you become much more aware of on the other side of the hill. But it’s something to work through when your senses are frayed and tested as they are by the death of a parent. I guess empathy is the one thing I’m aware of now that’s completely missing from a cool song like “People Who Died.” It captures the anger and blind rage around death, if nothing else, but those feelings tend to come and go pretty quickly. I don’t know if Jim Carroll beat his parents to the grave or not, but these days I’d be more interested to see or hear what he created with that knowledge.