Et in Arcadia Ego

Poetry is an art of imitation... that is to say, a representing, counterfeiting, or figuring forth--to speak metaphorically,
a speaking picture...
--Sir Philip Sidney, The Defence of Poesie

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Saturday
Oct252008

WHERE THE STREETS HAVE TOO MANY NAMES

Too often, Cross found his restlessness irresistible. He found himself wandering all over Manhattan, usually below 14th Street, for no good reason-he could hardly afford to partake in the city's pleasures these days. He started each day lately resolved to accomplish this or that task (or towering stack of tasks); invariably, he went farther on the train than he intended, and walked toward vague destinations for vaguer reasons that shifted as he approached them. Had he been out West, he would have simply gone for a drive, but here there was no strict equivalent to the aimless road trip. Come to think of it, gas prices what they were, he couldn't have afforded that either.

If these jaunts had been about playing the flaneur, as he had done so often before, he would have enjoyed them without pause. But they were driven by anxiety and dread, and as the weather grew colder he knew he could not indulge them much longer-which fed the anxiety and dread. It wasn't nameless, this fear, but Cross tried to pretend that it was. Acknowledgement of it only intensified the despair he felt, a despair not so much closing in as threading the labyrinth, leading him deeper into the dead ends instead of the ways out.

Cross knew, too, that the city, for all of its charms, its absurdities, its energies, often tinged that despair with a rosy tint. New York was never boring, and the sense of pure potential-of pure possibility-was the city's oxygen, the freshness that enabled you to breathe in more than just bus exhaust and split-open trash bags. But the city more and more seemed to be designed for three types: the Six & Seven Figures, shadowy characters but for the glint of their shoes and handbags; the Immigrants, who propped the tent of their poverty with the termite-riddled pole of the American Dream; and Trust-Fund Twentysomethings, who walked the streets like so many open windows, nothing but vista. Even if that last group didn't have a trust fund, they still bounced back from New York's blows with an alacrity that Cross, having stepped over into middle age, could no longer fathom.

Strolling through the Village, East or West, Cross could count on navigating shoals of these, NYU types, mostly; they made him feel as if everything about him was too late, too late. What frustrated him was that it wasn't too late-what terrified him is that one minute from now, it would be. I should have come to New York ten years ago, thought Cross. No, twelve. 1996. What was I doing then that prevented me from simply doing so? Cross shook his head, but he knew precisely what prevented him: his twenty-nine year-old self. That Cross would have no more struck out for New York than he would have the moon. Out West, the moon was nearer.

The financial meltdown that daily fed the autumn flames cast the streets in a perilous light, all glitter and doom (the depressing possibility, however slim now, of defeat snatched from the jaws of victory in the election didn't help matters). Tough times would doubtless wreak a few changes in the city, but Cross, who was planning to begin a serious job search and hourly plotted to escape the monk's cell that had been his home for nearly three years, couldn't help but feel that his time here was coming to an end. He had always lived with this possibility, and he wouldn't be the first person to feel the heel of genteel poverty on his fingers as he clung to the cliffs of Hamilton Heights. People were forced out of New York (or, fed up at last, the balance of struggle outweighing the brilliance, fled) every day. Cross would be no different... and that, he was disgusted to admit, was the cruelest fear of all. You're no different.

For what was the point, if not to have proven different? The old desires and dreams stirred, raised their battered faces, their bloodshot eyes. When Cross arrived, he told everyone that the outcome didn't matter-whatever else, he would have enjoyed the pleasure of being a New Yorker for a while. He had the degree, the ostensible reason for being here. Yet it was a lie-Cross knew that if he left before his real goals were accomplished, it would be failure. And if not really failure (for as long as he lived as he chose, as long as he refused to fall back, as long as he survived to do what he felt was within him, it could not be called failure), it would feel like failure.

Cross knew, too, that the damage done these past months, the damage that he pretended was behind him, was the real name for his restlessness. But he did not yet know how he would throw it off. He could not imagine being healed, yet he did not imagine he could accomplish anything without being healed. Work was a distraction but no balm. He kept waiting to feel, not healed, but improving-as if he stood at the foot of a his own hospital bed, gazing at a chart, murmuring, I see we're improving. But he wasn't. Physician, he wanted to scream, go fuck thyself-how the language of "healing" and "wounds" disgusted him in any case. Why don't you just man up, he said to a passing glimpse in a darkened storefront, and accept what it is you must do? What you have no choice but to do?

Cross despaired that he would ever resign himself-but wasn't it resignation that was needed? Wouldn't these hours of wandering soul, the hopeful hopelessness that was the city, the feeling of being lost in the mirror of self-reflection-wouldn't these dissipate when he was at last beyond his disappointment? Oh no, sang-spoke Peggy Lee in the back of his mind, I'm not ready for that final disappointment.

He had told her-even now he could not think of what to call her, as all her names burned his tongue-that she had robbed him of his dreams, leaving him nothing but goals, items to be grimly crossed off an orderly list that stretched into his future... If that was so (he felt it so) why was he still so haunted? What could haunt him, these things that had never lived but in her lies and his belief, but dreams?

Once again, he walked down West 10th Street. He had resolved to avoid it, but here he was, once again, walking past the lovely brick facades of former centuries, toward No. 11. As he drew up to it, past the ivy that clung to the fissure that separated it from its neighbor, he saw how the windows were still papered over. The construction notices were gone (and how he had made hay with that, asking, suspicious but willing as ever to give her the benefit of the doubt, what was going on with their future home; how coolly she had explained that they owned the place at the back, that all the renovation was going on in the apartments that faced the street, that it would all be over soon and they would move in...). The façade was still dark, darker now at this end of the street, between the weak glow of the streetlamps.

But Cross knew that one day he would walk, helpless, down this street, and look up to see lights in those windows, and books on shelves, and paintings, and the laughter, of lives that once he thought would be his. He would look up, and catch a glimpse of what had been taken from him. He wondered what he would do-that even if he managed to survive and stay in New York, if that sight wouldn't make him flee at last, free from the intolerable rage that would flare up, the rage that wanted to tear the whole city down around him... or if he would keep walking, searching for the numb release of all the other streets, the other streets, the other streets.

 

 

Reader Comments (2)

again another wonderful post This one makes me sad and lonely and remember forgotten dreams of my own

October 25, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterL.

Have you tried venturing to the outer boroughs?

And even if you're in the arms of someone's baby now/I'll take a great big Sidecar to you anyway

Sorry I forgot about your birthday.

Seriously beautiful piece.

October 30, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterpappygoodwill

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