After your mom died, your dad let the house and yard completely go. He gets angry if you even hint at the fact that the place is almost hoarder-bad. He says with some kind of ironic pride that he took the time to vacuum the carpet near the sofa where you were sleeping. The sofa was a prize that your family won when you were twelve years old. Now you’re thirty-six.
Your dad and his house provide faint traces of that sense of home that once was there when you’d visit him and your mom. It’s enough to make you feel the tug of the little boy begging to be tucked in. He kills a scorpion in the bathroom for you, but it’s up to you to run the bathwater to get all the dirt, cobwebs and kitty litter down the drain.
You are driving into Austin today to get on a plane to San Francisco.
Everything about the magic corporate conference vacation has changed. You were last here four years ago on a pure vacation, and this town has gotten dirty and grim. The budget cuts in this state have clearly taken their toll. You have changed. You’ve let yourself go, no longer bothering to dye out the grey and daub on the Rogaine. You are married, so your head will get sunburnt as you wander the city waiting for a room to open up at the hotel.
You no longer look young, but catch cute young ladies smiling at you sometimes, then darting their eyes away when they see the ring.
None of it seems to matter–the old dreams. The old dreams of coming out here and being young and single, doing something creative and carefree, having many lovers.
None of it touches you, and that’s what’s weird. You don’t have any old aches of nostalgia for the years that you flew out here on business trips and lived with Lucy. In fact, you hate a lot of it. It’s strange, because you can clearly remember once being romantically enchanted with every single street corner in this city.
Now, all of these people make you sad. They are running from one Thai food place to the next Sushi bar, worshiping this enclave of humanist beauty, where none of the world’s problems can touch them. What matters are things that can never completely fill them up, yet they seem almost giddy with their efforts to hide from the Void.
You don’t even take much delight in observing them. They are all pretty much the same–people of privilege, getting to spend a week or a lifetime of a vacation in an artificial environment that provides the illusion of immortality long past the age when any respectable adult should be deluding themselves that they will live forever.
You work hard to ignore the street people. There are many of them lined up once you turn a corner. In fact, there seems to be so many more street people than there was the last time you came here. And they do not look like they are doing well at all. They appear to be about as ground down as old folks without homes can get.
You might end up as one of them. You have nothing to give them this evening. So, you don’t want them to make eye contact with you and catch your empathy. But, you really love them more than the sport jackets and power skirts all crisply averting eye contact with you inside the conference hall. You suspect that to these captains of industry, you look very much like one of the street people wandering around and yelling outside.
Your heart is out there with the folks who aren’t clever enough to convince corporations to pay them large salaries to muck about in psycho software, then go to conferences like this one to swap stories about it. You heart is with the ones who don’t have trust funds anymore, who ran out of money and time while being young and mattering and relEt.
There are so many of these kinds of people now, but maybe their numbers haven’t changed, just your ability to pretend they aren’t there.
The city is cold, the people are fashionably and unfashionably wearing lots of black and olive drab. This cold city, much dirtier than you remember it, and much cloudier, isn’t filling your heart with any romantic expectations or aching nostalgia at all. Instead, it’s making you want to get back to your hotel room and read the Gideon Bible from the drawer.
But, there is no Bible to be found. The room’s paintings, shower fixtures, bathroom doors and many other elements have all been designed to be chic and modern. There is no room for a Bible in a chic and modern hotel room. This isn’t some trendy hotel, but a large corporate chain trying to be trendy.
But, there isn’t room for Bibles, anymore.
You want to be the one who doesn’t walk around thinking to himself “that lucky bastard, I wonder how he got that girl, that car, that…” and you don’t want to be the one who walks around gloating at those less fortunate than you, breathing sigh after sigh of relief that you at least aren’t that unfortunate. But when you start walking around offering up little prayers that each individual you meet or pass will find all of the happiness and success they are looking for, you seem to create a void, an opening inside that must be filled by something, something that looks an awful lot like the most childish forms of reacting to others.
All it takes is one guy busking on a street corner, calling out to you to set you off and send you down that swirling, slippery path of being incapable of seeing anyone around you as anything but some kind of detractor, set to seize upon you and mock you mercilessly. Any woman smiling at you must secretly be smirking with perverse pleasure at the goofball in the unironed shirt walking towards her, every man of color must be on the verge of calling out to you for money or making some snarky remark.
You become seized with perverse fantasies of grabbing taxi drivers who cut corners around you, and ripping them out of their cabs and pounding their heads into the windshields of their cabs. Then you try to get ahold of yourself and coolly and detachedly observe the processes of conflict that are building up inside of you.
Much the same happened yesterday, only it was that infinite sadness, that welling loneliness that happens when you travel alone, but spend time in close contact with strangers like at this conference. The longer you go without saying a word to someone, the harder it is to say anything at all that wouldn’t be met with odd looks and quick attempts to get the hell away from you as fast as possible.
When you are alone and know that nobody is expecting you to interact with anybody, it’s easy to avoid being lonely. You think sometimes you could go on like this forever.
But it starts to eat away at you when the artificial lights begin to eat up the last crumbs of natural light everywhere in the city. You pass a woman going out wearing lace tights, short black skirt and long, calfskin boots. She has completely given herself over to a fantasy–the image was the ultimate thing for her, and she did everything she could to obtain it, placing her body in painful states to be waxed, plucked and toned.
Evil is the presence of the way the image rushes in to fill the Void vacated by God when man turned his back on Him. You can plainly see that there is no such thing as praying a little prayer to God to keep your mind and heart clean, forgive you of the day’s dirtying, and then cruise on autopilot while you throw yourself back into the crush of humanity.
At one point during the day you feel as if the slightest hint of a malevolent look from a tiny, old street woman could knock you down. This is so oppressive. The very act of getting yourself out of bed to face the strangers getting on the elevator and the ever-watchful security guard standing between the hallway and the lobby makes you weary. The world seems to be a snarling morass of predator and prey. You couldn’t possibly be anything but prey.
The woman going out to clubs and dark street corners is declaring a pre-emptive strike on predators. She is in fact looking for men who can be predatory without a trace of perversion or slime on their faces and bodies.
The people that you pass are all suffering from soul sickness though they may make distinctions among themselves about who is and who isn’t. The primary soul sickness is the urge to worship something else, to chase an image that they’ve made. You are not likely to find success in a city like this unless you hold that image up above all else and say, “I will do whatever it takes to obtain that image, including placing myself in situations my younger, more pure self would have abhorred.”
For most, the image is a life spent chasing new restaurants, plays, movies, concerts, lovers, conversations and attention, while working wherever you can, but hopefully one day finding a job doing something creative or sucking the creative energies out of others.
You pass three stretch limos outside the Macy’s on Union Square. One of them is a hummer and double-parked. None of the passing cars honks its horns at these vehicles blocking the flow of traffic, though you hear a steady stream of horns for any average citizen blocking someone’s path while trying to park. These limos say that celebrities are here, and there are no camera crews around so this isn’t part of some reality show with fake celebrities.
You dine at a simple Chinese restaurant, run by simple Chinese people. This place will never be trendy. The food is simple, and isn’t candied for American palates.
You want to be big, and be part of something big, but all of this seems so very small. You pass three different men screaming at their lovers on these walks about the city. They seem charged with a desire to create and keep drama in their lives as part of their grand image they are pursuing–the life of pretending you are in a movie in a big city. You used to want this life, and thought for sure you were going to get to your own image by way of Lucy. Poor Lucy became nothing more than a piece of the puzzle you were building–a flat, two-dimensional picture with you in the center, being the center of the world’s attention, at least in your own deluded mind.
You begin to realize that each of these people possesses an amazing universe inside of them–and the ones who abide in peace with their own selves probably carry about far more interesting universes than the ones who pursue the image in their daily lives. The old women who mutter along who think they are invisible are no doubt more interesting in their secret lives than the fabulously dressed young men proclaiming their wondefulness and specialness to anyone who will listen.