1. A man is heading in my direction, weaving slightly. I can’t make out his features. He’s wearing a parka, hood up. The street is dark and quiet. He weaves closer. I can hear him mumbling to himself but I can’t make out any words. “Move quickly,” I tell myself, but not soon enough, and he has me cornered, my back against a utility pole, his body blocking my way. Maybe I should be scared, but instead I’m angry. I am about to push past him and then I see he is reaching one hand into his jacket. I stop being angry and start being scared. He pulls out a piece of hard candy in a green foil wrapper. “Take a piece of candy,” he says. I don’t make eye contact. I don’t say anything. He waves the candy under my nose. I keep my gaze cast down but I sidestep him, continue on my way, only faster.
2. A man crosses the street toward me. I see him out of the corner of my eye. He’s tall, young, strong-looking, carrying a black plastic bag. He’s wearing a parka, too. We all are. It’s winter. I can feel myself tensing, and hoping. Maybe he’s getting into one of the cars parked along the curb. Maybe he’s detouring up the silent residential street I just passed. “Hey pretty baby,” he hisses. “Hey pretty. Hey. You’re gorgeous. What’s wrong with you? It’s a compliment.” I am wearing my thick winter jacket that comes down to my knees, my floppy knit hat, jeans, flat boots. This would make me laugh, if it were funny. He follows me for the rest of the block, getting a little too close, hissing and making kissing sounds. I am lucky: there is a restaurant on the corner, full of light and people. I stop and pretend to read the menu, and some people walk past, and he disappears.
3. A little girl, maybe five, comes careering around a corner. She is wearing a long pink coat and mittens and a pink backpack with a large fabric daisy attached to it. She laughs like this: “Ahh haha hahahahaha hahahahaha haha HA!” Her mother is trudging a few paces behind, weary, a grocery bag and an oversized purse in her arms. The little girl nearly runs smack into me. She looks up at me and grins. She knows her mother can’t stop her, and neither can I. She takes off down the block, hopping and dodging.
4. I think about instinct and how we interpret it, how much is nature and how much is nurture, or environment. My nature is not to look down or away. My nature is never to run. My instinct tells me to fight, to dig in, to make the other person blink first. It takes a tremendous amount of willpower to refrain from flipping the bird and unleashing a string of profanities. Willpower, actually, doesn’t even work. It is only the knowledge that the man might have a violent streak, or a knife, or worse yet a gun, that restrains me. I think about this and these words, willpower and restraint, and why they apply to me in the first place. I am just walking. I am so caught up in these thoughts that I don’t notice the man in the doorway until I am upon him; I have been unconsciously sticking close to the buildings. I see his face under his hooded jacket. I see him notice me. There is no one else in sight. My body does that thing where it feels like I have dry ice in my veins instead of blood. In an instant, I am more animal than human. He knows, I think, panicking. He knows he caught me. The man smiles and inclines his chin, a casual how-do, pedestrian. I rearrange my face so it looks less stricken. How-do, man in doorway. Me? Oh, I’m fine. You just startled me, that’s all. You just took me by surprise.
I’m somewhere between Tennyson’s famous quote that’s been canonized as cliché (“‘Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all”) and George Carlin’s truest of true assertions that buying a pet amounts to “purchasing a small tragedy,” as you will outlive this life that you’re emotionally investing in (and if you don’t, that’s even worse, since you’re dead).
One of those small tragedies happens to be the uber-flat-faced exotic shorthair Winston, who’s netted millions of views on YouTube and has a few thousand Twitter followers. He’s no Maru, but I’d call him “Internet famous” if that weren’t a boastful reflection on myself and if I just hadn’t spent the weekend at ROFLcon listening to people describe themselves as such, beckoning the bile up my throat. People who’ve never visited my apartment know who he is; strangers tell me they love him. And now when they inquire about how he’s doing, I’ll either have to lie vaguely or explain my situation specifically. That’s the downside of etching in Internet stone something as skittish as life.
Thank you, Rich.
- Mary: gonzalo's internet is going out, he has to wrangle cablevision
- Dennis: matt's having internet problems too
- Mary: christ are you serious
- Mary: what is happening
- Dennis: yes
- Mary: is this it?
- Dennis: i don't know
- Mary: is this the end, dennis?
- Dennis: it might be, mary
- Dennis: it might be
- Mary: there were so many things i wanted to do
- Mary: i had like three posts in drafts
For a long time I refrained from deleting my popular book-reading social website account because as a book-reading person I felt this was the sort of website I should support with my personal information, as opposed to- well, pick one. Also, I like to list things, I have a lot of books, I have a lot of friends who read books. This’ll be great, I thought, as I input my personal information.
Then life got busy and I conked out on uploading book details after I’d added 37 of them—it takes me long enough to organize actual physical shelves—and then there were the books I abandoned partway through, or the books I was too embarrassed to share with my book-reading friends (Mary, here’s what your friends are reading: Essays by Paris Reviewer, Important New Novel by Jonathan Important, Darkly Funny Novel by Rising Talent, Political Insights by Snark Guy. Here’s what you’re reading: an out-of-print economics textbook, an Agatha Christie novel and Tim Gunn’s book about not being a slob*).
So today, as part of my periodic internet-self cleansing (update password here, delete unused account there, unsubscribe from emails over here, change profile information there, etc.), I deleted my popular book-reading social website account, cycled through the usual pseudo-emotions associated with killing any part of your internet-self: are you sure?, this is final, everything will be lost, OK.
A few days earlier I had been talking, by which I mean instant messaging, with a friend who lives in another city. We were discussing our recent reading; he told me some enlightening things about William S. Burroughs’ early fiction, and I made a note to reconsider William S. Burroughs, and I told him about the last great thing I read, which was this, which was so good I am still processing my reaction to it. My friend made a note to obtain a copy and we agreed that he’d have to tell me if he liked it, because I want to talk about it with someone and who better to talk about books with than your friends? We laters-ed, set our green dots to gray, and I felt the happy satisfaction of a good chat and a good exchange of reading recommendations.
I thought about this conversation and hesitated before I clicked OK on the book-reading social website account deletion page. Isn’t that what it’s for, this very thing? Don’t I want more, not less, of the happy satisfaction to counteract the information clutter and the stupid comments and the pictures of my high school classmates’ toddlers, and the schadenfreude?
Then I remembered that I read the last great thing I read because someone at work mentioned it, actually left an IRL copy on my IRL desk, and that “the happy satisfaction of a good chat” is not quite the same as the happy satisfaction of a good chat—this doesn’t mean it isn’t legitimate, just that it isn’t the same. I realized further that what I really wanted was for my friend to teleport here, for all my far-flung friends with whom I have good online conversations to teleport here, so we can make vague promises to meet for coffee or drinks and catch up and talk about our reading and our lives and our reading lives and then fail to convert the vague promises into actual calendar items, because work is nuts this week and I’m going out of town next weekend but yes let’s definitely get together in November. I know, I know, this is one of the problems the book-reading social website is supposed to solve! This is one of the problems the entire internet is supposed to solve! Sometimes it does, and splendidly, but other times the attempt at solution only highlights the fact that there is a problem, one that is probably unsolvable.
So I clicked OK on the account deletion page. Everything was lost. I felt fine. I put the last great thing I read in its place on the shelf. I walked over to my favorite bookstore, where I found this. I carried it home and spent a few hours lazing around with it, and then I located The 42nd Parallel on my shelves and re-read the preface, which in my opinion is two of the finest pages ever written by an American. Do you agree? Do you disagree? I’d love to know. We should get together for coffee, we should get together for a drink, we should do it soon.
*Recommended to me by my mother. I enjoyed it very much.