A gentleman asked me — as a pickup line — to tell him my life story. I demurred; it’s not really my style, and anyway, he only asked more or less so he could tell me his, which by his own admission is absolutely standard and, without being too cruel, banal. If the most exciting thing you’ve done in 25 years is to move to Williamsburg…well, don’t go around asking other people their life stories.
This is the opening of a letter I began writing to my aunt but never sent. It was, in it’s essence, a very long meditation on why I dread leaving New York, why I love it in a way I have not and cannot love another place (at least not in this country). I am revisiting it after reading this atrocity, (written in San Francisco, and the example par excellence why that place is the bane of my existence) but we’ll get back to that.
The reason I love New York is very simple, though it takes a long, long time to explain correctly: My animating feature does not depress people here. In a city of 8 million people from all over the world a) no one gives a fuck and b) the people who do are interested. They get it. Shit sometimes happens. We’ve all done things we’re ashamed of, lived through things we wish we hadn’t — but then we absorb them and move on.
Everywhere else I’ve ever lived or been, I find myself apologizing to people for the lesion through my spinal cord at the T5 vertebrate: I’m sorry I’m limping. I realize it’s very unattractive and not appropriately bourgeois, and that it’s distressing you with its social inappropriateness now that you’ve noticed. Please, insist it’s ‘all better now’. Quite naturally. Young people with good educations are like milk — nothing could be purer. (If only you knew!)
I certainly do not need people to be interested in me. The lesion is just a reality, like black hair and white skin and an unpleasantly large ribcage, or any of the other absolutely uninteresting features that constitute my physical manifestation on the planet. I am not more proud of it than I am of my weight or my height or my cup-size, or any of the other G-d given things on loan to me for this mortal holiday. (I am not ashamed either, though other people frequently take it upon themselves to be ashamed for me). I am not my disability — I find the idea insulting to my ability to irritate and alienate people by my personality alone.
But it only recently occurred to me how very deeply uncomfortable it makes so many other people. Really? you’re asking. (Yes, but you don’t realize how profoundly irritating and unpleasant I am in real life. Also, I have a second head and smell like living death).
I noticed this because suddenly when I was asked about it, I found that people were actually listening to my answers. And then, instead of insisting in that deeply uncomfortable way so many people always do that it’s ‘all better’ (when it so manifestly isn’t — and who needs it to be? Do you think I wake up in the morning thinking wow, what a great day this might have been if I weren’t crippled. It’s 90 degrees and sunny. Fuck my life? No.) their response was ‘wow, that’s so cool.’ Which is, quite naturally, exactly what I think. Fuck YEAH it’s cool I taught myself to walk again (even if I did it badly). Fuck YEAH it’s cool having no gag reflex — want to see how fast I can chug this Coke Zero? Want to park in this handicapped spot? OH WAIT, YOU CAN’T. Suckers.
And then something really magical happens; they share something about themselves that’s as ‘fucked up’ as my lesion. That’s the thing, if I had to pick, that makes this the most worth it. That’s my superpower. That people, very interesting people, totally fascinating people will deign, again and again, to expose these beautiful and hidden parts of themselves to me as though I deserved it. Listen: Everyone has secrets — my great gift is that I have to wear some of mine on the outside, where other people can see them.
A mentor of mine said you can’t really start to talk to someone until you’ve already been talking for two hours. People — reporters, mostly, because that’s who the advice is meant for, though I’ve whored it out to others (sorry HF)— almost universally balk at this. Who the FUCK has two hours? But because I work with a tape recorder in long interviews I can tell you, with empirical evidence, that the first hour you spend with someone will reveal nothing about them you couldn’t more easily glean from a glancing pass on Facebook. It’s at hour 1.5 that a survivor suddenly mentions the DP camps, hour 2.25 that a Chabad rabbi confides that he doesn’t really know if he likes his job. It takes that long for someone to really believe that you are listening to them — because the legions of people who don’t like to listen or don’t know how will have killed the conversation long before then.
I have a pet theory about people that readers of this blog may be familiar with: that we are all the same, 6.7 billion poured plastic people, painted different colors but with all the same animatronics underneath. I do not mean that to diminish the individual — only that we’re all in the same image, with all the same on/off switch waiting for us at the end.
(By the way, I do not subscribe to the idea that everyone is lovely and fascinating if you only give them enough time, though many many people are — or at the very least, they have something there to worth seeing)
Secrets are the same too. Your deepest secret is your deepest, tochna. Everyone, I’m nearly sure, has the same capacity for fear, and for shame, which together pretty much sum what we keep secrets for. They feel it as acutely as you or I feel it. And yet, so many people, a really repulsive and disgusting and unfortunate number of people have been so absolutely privileged to never have been touched by poverty or illness or violence that they forget that the world is not perfect or fair (and so much more beautiful for being neither!). They’re disproportionately the ones you meet in wealthy and well educated circles. (The fact that the majority of people I went to college with and the overwhelming majority of people I went to graduate school with came from intact homes when 50 percent of the country is divorced is just more evidence of the same).
I’m telling you, I have to put whole right hand down my throat to convince these people that BAD THINGS SOMETIMES HAPPEN, because I’ve somehow managed to scrape my way into a world so obscenely privileged that it CANNOT BE FUCKED UP FOR NO REASON. Global warming and the Bronx, sure, but not real life. That’s how brutally out of touch we are with one another, how far removed, how manifestly disinterested in experiences outside our own. Which is the only reason (returning, as promised, to the aforementioned atrocity—if you haven’t gone, now is a good time to visit this link, loathe as I am to drive them traffic) that these books would be published and a however-many-hundred word review of them written and all of it consumed and discussed and, disgustingly, defended.
This is how we came to forget that when your biggest problem is spinning the globe and getting bored and maybe a little existentially lonely where you landed, a) you’re an spoiled twat and b) absolutely disqualified from writing a memoir. We’ve all become like tourists who hate the spicy native food. Anything grittier than that might be ‘shady’ or ‘depressing’ or —curse of curses — ‘un-relatable’. Increasingly many people, legions of otherwise intelligent and articulate people have no fucking idea how to listen. If they did, they wouldn’t write the books in the article above.
The fact that the gentleman in the opening anecdote was only asking to tell, the idea that you could come up to a fucking stranger and ask them to lay their life bare for you and expect that anyone would respond honestly, that you devalue experience that grossly—it’s a pathetic joke, born of this tragic generation of ours that thinks that to Google someone is to know them. And yet we’ve tossed it all out there, pearls before swine.
And then — and then there’s this. From authoress Sloan Crosley, in case you have to run right now to the Strand and snap it up (because undoubtedly all the library copies are on hold for the next 15 months):
Running throughout the book is an undercurrent of feeling lost but pressing on. There is the knotted mess of Lisbon streets, an essay about the diagnosis of Crosley’s spatial processing disorder, and the final, wrenching piece about coming to terms with stolen goods she has been receiving and the otherwise committed man she has been dating.
You guys — she has a DISORDER that makes it hard for her to fill in bubble tests. Then she had to come to terms with some stuff. Objects. Things. It was WRENCHING — because you see, they weren’t really hers, these presents. Can you imagine what it must be like to come to terms with expensive presents? CAN YOU? (I wonder what their terms are: Land for peace? Nuclear disarmament?). I can only envy her strength.
May nothing unfortunate ever befall you, Sloane Crosley — you don’t deserve it.