There was a time when, though my path was rough,
This joy within me dallied with distress,
And all misfortunes were but as the stuff
Whence Fancy made me dreams of happiness:
–Samuel Taylor Coleridge
I’ve been waking up at 5 a.m. these last two days. It must be the time change. It’s 7 o’clock in Chicago at that hour. When I wake up, it is relatively quiet, and I begin to believe that I can develop an affection for this city. It is still dark, but there is blue in what you can see of the sky. My Brazilian roommate is asleep in the other bed, one tanned thigh thrust over the covers and a mass of bright brown curls on the pillow. I wonder what time she came in last night. I don’t even remember her name. I’m never in the room when she wakes up, and she’s never there when I go to sleep.
The waitress with the English accent says, “You’re coming here earlier and earlier,” even though it is only my second morning in the diner. Her attempts at chumminess bother me; I feel obliged to leave a dollar in tip even though I only have coffee and toast. She is about my age and so are the other waitresses. I would like to know what she is doing here? Did she come here for the same reason that I did? And what reason is that?
The diner is not ideal. It is much too bright; there are too many fluorescent lights and everything is white — the floors, the walls, the ceiling, the tabletops, and the shirts and aprons of the waitresses. It is almost blinding to come out of the dusky light of early morning into the whiteness. And you can tell that it is a fake diner, a faddish place, just opened, designed to attract tourists and other lost people who will pay too much for mediocre food just to get off the streets even if it only means exchanging them for a false brightness, a false friendliness. I go there mostly for the fresh strong coffee which the English waitress keeps my cup filled with and the corny music which at that hour stirs up melancholy feelings inside of me.
My mother once said, “Why do you always go away? It’s like you don’t want anyone to see you, to know what you’re doing.” Or something like that.
I’ve always wanted to go away; it was a genuine need. And when I was away I was never homesick, even when it was very bad with me. To go away, to live independently from my origins is part of my ambition. And I am ambitious by nature even as much as I try not to be.
I realized one day — or perhaps it was in the course of many days, months? — that I had been slumbering, for eighteen years; only a small part of me had really been alive and alert. And if I were to live at home, I would fall into that slumber again. I would be like the caged chipmunk running on its wheel, running fast, the world will go by in a whirl, but I would be going nowhere.
There is a notice up on the bulletin board in the foyer, for a front-desk person. I would only have to work 20 hours a week, and in exchange, I would get paid minimum-wage with my own room in the hostel. The offer is tempting. I need a place to live, and some kind of lucrative employment. My money won’t last forever. But the thought of living in this place is discouraging. It used to be a hotel, The Virginia. It’s hard to tell what kind of a hotel it was, whether a small luxury hotel for rich travelers or a one-night haven for desperate, weary, harassed people on the move. If it were ever a luxury hotel, it must have been a long time ago because just a half block away there is a cluster of adult theaters and strip joints.
The rooms are small and the walls are tall. There is little natural light except in the kitchen. And it’s impossible to cook in the kitchen — there are no stoves or ovens, just two microwaves that seldom work. And can I stand the sight of so many new young faces, coming and going, so enthusiastically aimless in their wanderings?
And if I take this job, I’m afraid of becoming a certain type of lost soul who goes from city to city, feeding on the glamour of living in a foreign place. Because inevitably, these front desk people are miles away from home.
There are so many soulful-looking young men here — tall lean ones with dark thick unruly hair and touchingly shy, awkward manners; or, blond fair-skin ones with angular faces and intense gazes that always linger longer than is appropriate. And when I pass one of them on the stairs or in the hallway, I notice myself passing into one of two extremes, either exaggeratedly casual or severely introverted and moody. It’s ridiculous when I think about it. I laugh at myself.
I will sooner fall in love with the Fool than with Romeo.
And my perpetual hope is to find the person who will sooner fall in love with the Fool than with Juliette. That’s my idea of the romantic miracle, and it’s not marvelous unless it’s a miracle.
A person’s past is full of what is gross, feeble, stunted, extraneous, and above all, random, like a collection of defective births.
I spend the whole day walking up and down these astonishingly steep streets — some of them seem near vertical. I have managed to walk all the way down to the bay and back, along two streets. Sometimes, I am tempted to catch a trolley up a particularly steep hill, but I resist and trudge on. There are few “For Rent” signs along these streets, but the ones I see I note down conscientiously. After you climb a couple of these hills, you leave the downtown area and with it, the noise and the shops and the pedestrians that crowd the sidewalks. There’s more breathing room as you get closer to the bay, and the view is perfect on top of the hills. I hardly know what I see; I’m intent on ferreting out the “For Rent” signs which are not always in the most conspicuous places. Even though the weather is mild and the sun lights up the whole landscape evenly, I am not so light-hearted. There is envy growing in me, of the people with the nice apartments along the quiet peaceful streets, with the spectacular views.
The manager of the hostel is bald, completely bald because he has shaved the hair that would have been on the sides, close to the scalp. I see him at least once a day when I go past the front desk, either in the morning or the evening. His trim moustache and goatee make him look more educated and cultured than he is. When he is in a bad mood, you can hear it in his voice and his intonations — so full of scorn and contempt; he is almost rude to the guests that he waits on. He might slam a drawer shut and repeat Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! for no apparent reason. He must be in his late thirties and maybe that accounts for his frequent tantrums. I sometimes feel his eyes on me as I go up the stairs to my room. I am now a familiar figure in the hostel.
I have come to a point in my life when expectation is acutest, other people’s expectations. Everyone, even complete strangers, is curious about what I will do with my life; they see me at a crossroad and are anxious to know which path I will take. They want to know whether I’m going to be a success or a failure, and depending on their idea of these two states, I’m going the right or the wrong way. And maybe it is all this expectation that has pressed me onto the thought of my finite existence. I am nervous for my future; this is the side of me that responds to the expectancy that other people have woven about me. Expectation, it is a terrible, tyrannical burden that makes you want to flee to an uninhabited corner of the earth and live in total obscurity.
What to do? The question has taken on an artificial complexity — there is only one thing I have to do, and that is to stay alive, keep body and mind together.
If I’m not looking for a place to live, I’m standing outside of restaurants poring over menus posted by the entrance. I look for the cheapest dish on the list and if it’s over five dollars, I pass on to the next restaurant. I only eat lunch out; I skip breakfast most of the time, and for dinner, I make myself a peanut butter or cheese sandwich. I’m beginning to see every restaurant, every shop, every commercial enterprise in the city as a trap, a means to part me from my money. If a proprietor is friendly and particularly solicitous (and he is rarely that) and the surroundings are congenial, it is because very soon he expects me to fork over a considerable sum of money.
Once I went into the diner during the dinner rush. I sat at the counter on a stool so I didn’t have to tip the waitress as much. I ordered a plain hamburger.
The manager came over to where I was sitting and heard what I had ordered.
“Wouldn’t you like some cheese with that?” he asked.
“No,” I said.
“How about something to drink? How about a nice tall shake? We’ve got chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry. You just ordered water, didn’t you?” He smiled at me insultingly. I remained silent and felt as if I’d been caught doing something shameful. He moved away, still smirking. When my dinner came, he delivered it himself, with a flourish, as if I’d ordered the most expensive item on the menu.
“There you go. One hamburger, plain, and one water. Enjoy.” I could have enjoyed the hamburger, as meager as it was, but he had made it impossible. I ate as quickly as I could, paid the bill, and left, and I am sure the manager was watching me leave.
The people who have a place to live, a place to work, who own businesses are more desperate than the people on the streets.
What a humiliating experience that was. What am I doing here?
I don’t have to do this. I’m not really destitute, and for that reason, maybe there is some dishonesty in all of my experience. I could go back home, find respectable employment and live a predictable life. There is plenty of familial support for that. But that would also be a pretense. I have lost the faith, the faith that is necessary to live sincerely in that milieu. I’ve tried. I planned and rehearsed the part that once came to me naturally and easily. It was as if I woke up one morning and forgot how to walk and had to think about how to put one foot in front of the other.
What do you do once you’ve become skeptical of everything? You try to rescue one or two beliefs from the wreckage — sort through the teetering structures — build a little makeshift shelter.
Yesterday, I saw a large brown cockroach behind the toilet when I came out of the shower. It started to scurry this way and that, but I scurried faster.
At last I am in an apartment of my own.
There is something pathological about what I am doing, or maybe it’s just the opposite: I am trying to recover. I have an overriding wish to be left alone, not to be alone, but to be left alone. It is a wish, a desire, a necessity; it has become everything.
After all, what do you really need? Bodily sustenance, and a few decencies that you’re used to. In the center of a great metropolis, if you’re alone, no one gives a damn and that’s the way I like it.
The building I live in is at the bottom of a hill. It has six floors with a carpeted stairway and an old-fashioned elevator with an accordion-like gate inside the door. I live on the first floor in a studio apartment next to the manager, Jenny. Across the foyer is another apartment that belongs to Ross, who owns the bar that takes up most of the lower level of the building. Across the street there is another tall building. I think it’s some kind of old people’s residence.
The Tenderloin begins on the other side of the street. It is the part of San Francisco that I’ve been warned against. I will have to go through it to get to the public library.
It is definitely not enough to see with your eyes, or hear with your ears; though all of your senses may be straining to perceive what is in front of you, it will be to no avail. So, often, I am wearied, fatigued with seeing so much without perceiving anything.
It is fall, and that in itself is a source of pleasure and happiness.
My door opens immediately out into the foyer where the elevator and the staircase are situated. Chained to the wall, next to the elevator is a steel-framed chair with a round red plastic-covered back and square seat. Sometimes, in the morning I find Jenny sitting there when I come out of the apartment. She sits in that chair like some people might sit out on their front porch. Other times, Leonardo, the building handyman is sitting there, taking a breather, or waiting for somebody. I noticed that chair from the day I signed the lease to rent the apartment, and particularly I noticed how it was chained to the wall. At the time I surmised that the management (Jenny) was afraid that it would be stolen by one of the tenants if left unattached, and I wondered if things left unattached or unattended routinely disappeared. It was a clue to the character of the apartment, the neighborhood that I was coming to live in. It is just one more thing, among the many, that I wonder about.
When you get to wondering about things, there is no end. It could be done all day long, everyday. You can wonder about things that are completely familiar to you, like some piece of clothing you’ve had for years; or, you can wonder about things that are strangers like the rusting bench press up on the roof or the potted artificial plants on Jenny’s window sill smooshed against the glass. A whole day goes by in wonderment. And I think wistfully: “If I could just sit here like this, for the rest of my life. Because I feel it slipping away, and so much has already slipped away from me.”
There was a time, not many years ago, and compared to that time, I now feel old, when I exulted equally in the joys and griefs of living and of the world. The glimpses of wretchedness did not depress me. The awful perceptions were mellowed to something beautiful, and so, the whole world was beautiful. I wanted to be a receptacle of all this beauty — experience, any experience was necessarily a rich, happy adventure. I felt like a strong, immutable spirit, an indestructible element that would always be. Horror never entered my vision, then.
The typical coffee house staff is a repository of floundering youth who do not know and who may never know what to do with their lives. I have just joined their ranks. I have counted six college graduates so far, including myself, and we all have impractical degrees. To them, and perhaps to me, this sort of job is a halfway house between our youthful expectations and our destiny. I think it’s because we hold work so sacred that we have taken such fluffy jobs. The job is not work, it’s an income stream that will hopefully enable us to start our life’s work. We want so much from work, and almost nothing out there can support the weight of what we want.
Going through the Tenderloin was not as harrowing as anticipated. The streets were dirtier, the sidewalks streaked with dried urine, and the faces of the people looked as if they routinely endured violence of all degrees and kinds. Still, there were stores, restaurants, apartment buildings, like everywhere else though here, despair was blunt and did not hide behind luxury.
Just a block from the public library, I passed Hastings Law School, and the sight of well-groomed, youthful people walking about briskly and purposefully was strange after the squalor of the rest of the Tenderloin.
I wandered through the high-ceilinged library rather aimlessly. I’m looking for a book of true things. I cannot even imagine what this book would be like, but I will know it when I find it. Until I do, I will have to sift through the dross contained in most books and carefully cull the fine gold particles, put there by the author in spite of himself.
I checked out a slim volume of film criticism written by Wim Wenders before he became a famous filmmaker.
The cars go by incessantly day and night; it’s the proof of the existence of the most diverse and unconnected destinies.
Only around 5 a.m. is there a relative quiet though even then the cars go by.
Daybreak is signalled by the cacophony of garbage trucks outside my window blasting fitful sleep. And with increasing frequency the heavy front door is wrenched open and left to swing shut with a thunderous rattle from the grating covering the glass. The fat pot-bellied chihuahuas start waddling back and forth through the narrow hallway in Jenny’s apartment and I hear the scratching of their paws on the wood floors soon followed by bellows of obscenity from Jenny herself.
About mid-morning the noise lessens. When I am in my small kitchen I hear the T.V. running next door, the sound somewhat muffled. Occasionally, I hear Leonardo in the foyer or knocking on Jenny’s door — his Italian intonations unmistakable.
At twilight and evening, the prostitutes on the corners come out one by one like stars.
I once got off at a metro station in the South Side of Chicago. I think it was mid-January and the temperature was well below zero. The strong wind whipped up the snow on the ground into the air. The sky was an oppressive light grey. Even heavily bundled as I was, it was still very cold. The stairs leading down from the tracks were strewn with refuse, the walls heavily graffitied. The paint on the turnstile that led out onto the streets was chipping badly. I looked about me and across the wide street and saw crumbling buildings with windows boarded up. That was the chief characteristic of the neighborhood. Few cars passed. I saw only one pedestrian, a thin black man in an inadequate army jacket, hunching from the cold. Several yards down from the station exit was a squat building which housed a liquor store with neon lights flashing in its barricaded window. A car pulled up and someone got out and ran into the store. It was then that I noticed a small black dog running about rapidly near the entrance of the store wagging its tail furiously at the person who got out of the car who paid no attention to it. It was a young dog, not a puppy and not yet full grown. Its short black hair was not enough protection against the cold, and by the looks of its scrawny body, it was terribly hungry. Every once in a while it whimpered, but it did not stop trotting quickly back and forth near the entrance of the store, sometimes stopping briefly to sniff at something on the frozen ground.
The bus I was waiting for came into sight. Even after I boarded the bus I watched the dog through the window, still running about frantically. I felt desperate, like the dog. I was afraid, of the inevitable end that would come to it, and of what it would suffer up to that end.
The worldly ambitions of my extreme youth and ignorance were replaced by other-worldly ambitions. Where is this other world?
I wanted to live off the beauty of the world; my life was to be one long song.
I am not so old. I’m in my late twenties; yet, something has changed for me. Living is no longer a romance. Life’s shabbiness is exposed.