|Juan Muñoz, Last Conversation Piece|
I'm sitting across from James at a hookah lounge in Astoria. It's about 2:30 in the morning. James has revived some since getting out of work at 11:40, and now we're discussing dystopian fiction, The Economist, "Two Bad Neighbors" (The Simpsons), and the chronic grievances of the progressivist (which have lately come to include vituperative disagreements between progressive cliques).
I pass the hose to James and he leans forward and rests his elbows on the table.
"Listen," he says. "I'm going to give you James's Three Predictions for 2015."
"Shoot," I say.
He holds up a finger. "One. In the next six months, there will be another national outcry over the death of an unarmed black man at the hands of police officers."
He blows a few smoke rings.
"Two. In the next six months, there will be another mass shooting in a public place."
I don't say anything. He exhales the rest and hands the hose back to me.
"Three." He pauses for emphasis and gives me a grave look. "The Pirates are taking the pennant this year."
The smile he's been trying so hard to suppress breaks loose. James slaps his palm on the table and laughs his contagious laugh, and the man smoking by himself near the entrance looks up at us from his laptop.
* * *
"The kids I'm teaching this year were mostly born in 2003," he tells me. "So pretty much all of them were conceived within two years of 9/11."
The speaker is Jeff. We're talking a walk through the woods in West Caldwell and smoking cigarettes to hold the mosquitoes at bay. (We carried our butts in our pocket back to the park entrance.)
"I mean, I get it. People were scared. I was scared. I watched the plane slam into the tower from my dorm room. It seemed like anything could happen after that."
I interject to recount some of the rumors floating around then (and mostly forgotten about today), whispering of an impending attack on some other high-traffic site in the New Jersey/New York area toward the end of October. A friend of mine was claiming she had it from a very reliable source (who was informed by another very reliable source) that the Willowbrook Mall would be blown up on Halloween 2001. (It sounds crazy, but those were a crazy few months. Any horrible thing one could imagine happening seemed possible, even probable.)
"Everything was suddenly uncertain and scary, and the parental instinct must have been to shelter and protect your child from it," Jeff goes on. "That's my theory for why I have kids who act the way they do. I have so many students don't even want to try something if there's a chance they might fail. My students want me to do their math problems for them. I've had them break out in tears in the middle of class. 'I can't do this! It's impossible!' One day I listened to a girl say this, and I had a look at her scratch paper. It was completely blank. I told her 'come on, you have to give me something, you have to try.' And she just sobbed."
He talks about Common Core and budget cuts. We arrive at the edge of the Passaic River and stop for another couple of cigarettes. The mosquitoes are mobbing us.
"Sometimes it's definitely worth it," he says. "Now and then I do get the satisfaction of seeing a breakthrough, helping to make it happen, and knowing I've gotten through to them, made a difference for them. But lately I'm thinking about getting my masters and working as a park ranger somewhere."
We listen to the wood thrushes. An ebony jewelwing lands on a sapling at the edge of the river. Its color is bluer than the sky and deeper than the ocean.
A minute later he asks me—as someone who dabbles in astronomy—how I would convey to a skeptic that the space program is an important and worthwhile investment, and that sending probes out into space benefits the world.
I say I'm no longer absolutely certain it does.
A solitary bird is singing a strange song somewhere in the distance. I tell Jeff it's a Bicknell's thrush. Its entry in All About Birds reads:
Population data are difficult to gather, but because of the small range and restricted habitat, it is considered a high conservation priority. Listed on the Audubon Watchlist and on the 2014 State of the Birds Watch List, which lists species most in danger of extinction without significant conservation action.
I get around to asking him how things went when his band opened for Catch 22 a few nights ago.
"We were great," he states without the faintest note of a boast.
I had a feeling.
* * *
"I promise I don't always ask big questions of everyone all the time," Amy assures me. "But do you really need to go back to St Thomas? What's keeping you there?"
"I do need to return this time, yes," I answer. "I have a lot of stuff back there. The plane ticket is already paid for. I don't want to screw over my boss and my coworkers by just disappearing. I've made friends there, and when I leave, I'm never going to see them again."
We turn into a massive but mostly empty parking lot on the western edge of Philadelphia.
"And...I don't know," I continue. "I do want to give it a little more time. See if I can make it work, I guess. Something amazing could still come from my being there."
We get out of the car. Amy's phone is buzzing. Before she answers it, she looks at me over her shoulder. "When judging if something works, it helps to have a definition of 'success' and to identify the criteria that determine it," she tells me, and then takes the call.
We go into Lowe's. She has to get a key duplicated.
When we pass through the checkout line, the register is out of paper. Though the man watching the doors has observed the whole transaction, we have to wait for the cashier to saunter over to the supplies closet, retrieve a fresh roll of tape, saunter back, and print our receipt so the man watching the doors can review the documentation and verify the purchase.
The sky is a livid green. It's going to be a hell of a storm when it finally hits.
"I think," I say, picking up where we left off, "When I can walk out my front door, look out at the Caribbean Sea—it's right there, literally across the street—and say to myself nope, this just isn't worth it, then I'll be ably to conclusively say that it's not working and it's time for me to leave."
"That's fair," Amy says. We get back in the car.
"Or, hell. Maybe if I could just got laid down there, I'd be happy."
Amy considers this. "For all those late-night Gchat sessions, in a lot of ways we're still total strangers," she says. "It's strange how little we know about each other, how each of us works and what each of us needs. In my case, I'm not the kind of person who can just hook up with someone. For me, physical intimacy is inseparable from emotional intimacy."
"Well. I'm not terribly discreet about my emotions, either."
* * *
Sam and I just sat at his kitchen table and talked for four hours about modern art, cities, books, virtual reality, natural disasters, the psychedelic dream, love, life, all and sundry. This has to be recounted in the past tense because I can't recall many specifics. After all those dusk-to-dawn hallucinatory tête-à-têtes we had throughout our twenties, I think he and I habitually lapse into a similar mode of conversation even when we're (relatively) sober: we speak in fragments and circuitous tangents, finish each other's stalled thoughts, and leap from topic to topic the way the chemically cross-activated brain uncontrollably lights up the latent connections across every meridian of the overlapped realms of the physical and the abstract. (Cf. Moby Dick: O Nature, and O soul of man! how far beyond all utterance are your linked analogies! not the smallest atom stirs or lives in matter, but has its cunning duplicate in mind.)
Another quote: during the denouement of Neil Gaiman's Sandman, Destruction remarks, "Entropy and optimism: the twin forces that make the universe go round." I'm not sure if Sam has actually read Sandman, but he enjoys a full, implicit understanding of the wisdom in this. He can talk about the likelihood that some crippling natural catastrophe will rock civilization during his lifetime, and in the next minute he'll speak with glowing eyes about the unimaginable artforms awaiting our transhuman descendants. He sees no contradiction. One of the two might happen. Both might happen in their course as overlapping events in the general sequence. But Sam looks to the future and recognizes that one way or another, it's all going to work out, and he wants to see as much of it as he can, no matter what's on its way.
Sou desu ne.
* * *
Later on Caroline and I take a stroll in the otherworldly light of a mammatus sunset to pick some blueberries from a bush tucked away in a corner Clark Park.
We could probably pigeonhole Caroline as a hippie if we wished—and were we to, we'd have to admit she's abnormal specimen of that brood. Many or most hippies would affirm to a belief in the "spiritual"—that there are separate worlds of matter and of spirit, that the body is a vessel for an eternal soul, and the immaterial things we cannot see are of greater significance than the material things we can.
But Caroline is a convinced materialist—probably not due to any conversion to a philosophy extolling empiricism over intuition, but because she is in love with matter itself. She adores living bodies and all that they do. All that they do.
For the last several years she has been employed in various positions throughout the medical field. Earlier this year a large part of her job was visiting paralyzed patients in their homes and administering digital rectal stimulation—in short, putting her finger up their butts to help them poop. She never once spoke of it as something she reviled.
These days her work mostly pertains to wound treatment and care. She tells me about a recent patient with open sores around his anus and genitals that fell to her to examine. The man was a survivor of bowel cancer, she said, and so he voided solid waste by way of a stoma. She describes how assholes that are no longer in use look different from assholes that are regularly passing feces. Then she plucks a blueberry and places it delicately between her lips.