the following is a very short excerpt from a novella titled, People Who Don't Matter. More sections, already written, will appear in the coming weeks. Thank you.
Series One: OUT
Hello? This sandwich is for anonymous. To go.
Most of the people I talk to in America are homeless. Everyone else is busy. And important. So important! Everyone else is in cars. Walking across the city, I pass from one conversation to the next. I fit right in: scruffy beard, big dusty backpack, clothes salvaged from the gutters of 8th Avenue. The homeless men and I have the same habit of formality, we address each other with meticulous politeness. Ever been to a grocery where everyone uses food stamps? People talk as if they are in church. Walking across the 8th Avenue bridge, I catch up to David, on his way to see a friend who gives him work. He has to use a cane to walk this morning. The day before he missed a step while carrying a mattress, went down hard. The guy he works for has a bottle full of 800 mg pills of Advil. He’s dreaming of ibuprofen all the way across the bridge. Smellies! screams a young man who has stuck his head out the window of his shiny red car.
This is for everyone who ever wished they could paste their own picture over that of the cocker spaniel on the telephone pole, right beneath the words
Make it happen, he says. All I want is to relax at the bar, but the man nearest me is shouting at his buddy beside him. Announces he’s “got a winning concept”. Admits that “there are very valid bad reviews in this world and they are very impactful”. Insists “we are so much greener than them it’s not even fucking funny.” Tells how much his life has changed now that he’s on top of the right Google searches. Talks about “giving it your all”. But mostly he talks about making it happen. You’ve got to make it happen. Make it happen! It is obvious that I have been assigned to the wrong civilization. Make it happen makes me think of rape. Listen, how about this? Is this OK? Is it all right with everyone if I just go ahead and fail? Would that be all right? My attempts at self-promotion are invariably gruesome. I do not wish to learn to speak American English, that dialect of advertising, the vehicle for becoming important. You can win. I abdicate. That’s OK, isn’t it? More for you!
Things I’ll not do. No tennis championships for me. No work as a foot model. Someone else has already written Reinventing Yourself With the Duchess of York. It is unlikely that I will ever be held up as the epitome of health mental or dental. I should probably admit that my senatorial career has already been seriously compromised.
This will have to be the actual version now. Not just some notes jotted down while thinking of something else. Too cool to make an honest effort is an entirely seventh grade excuse. You see, I had intended to become drastically smarter. Somehow I imagined that another several dozen IQ points might just show up. Narrative structure. “A skill set”. I might as well wish to become taller. Or younger. This is the equipment on hand. Which is no excuse. Think of what Matisse could do, in deep old age, with only a pair of scissors. This person, with his limitations, his obsessions, his very limited skills. Telling him to rack his brain, make a concerted effort, will only make everything worse. He’ll only tell you again what he’s told you before. All the while looking terribly sorry. The best chance for this one is to sit quiet and receptive, without hope or ambition, like one of those enormous radio telescope dishes, listening day and night to alien variety shows. People found them interesting, momentarily, many years ago. Then they forgot about them. Just the same, they go on listening.
When I walk into the changing room at the rec center, a guy is standing naked at the sink, covering his body with soap from the dispenser. “Oh, it’s you,” he says, though I’ve never seen him before. “They’re trying to sabotage me. I have to walk miles and miles. They won’t let me on the bus. Look at how sore I got. He lifts his balls to show me his chafed and bleeding crotch. He walks back and forth from the shower and the sink, covering himself with soap, washing again and again. He doesn’t own a towel. He’s red-faced and covered with hair. His penis seems unusually small, but that’s probably just because I’ve watched way too much porn. He shows me his skinned knee. He shows me his toenail coming off. He wants me know how much everything hurts. Later on the custodian says, “You let us know when there’s somebody like that. We got children and old people here.” Clearly the fact that a man is naked, drunk, and ranting is perceived as a problem. “But he wasn’t bothering me,” I say. It’s true. Also it is easier to be patient with naked people. Also I feel oddly grateful to him. As if his losing it was a favor to me. As if he were beserk on my behalf. This world. Something’s got to give. Today he volunteered.
What form is best-suited to saluting the momentary, the uncertain, the highly perishable? What form is suitable for the very probable end of human civilization, for seeking to be human even now? I have always enjoyed small plates. But they’ve got to keep coming until you’ve had enough to eat.
Also: because I am the one writing this, since I am ostensibly the person in charge, I am going to make the rule that is is ALWAYS all right to drink wine with this, even if you’re reading at 7:45 A.M. (As the designated writer, I will attempt to stay sober. In general. More or less.)
Is anyone else entirely haunted by the fact that who matters and who does not is decided entirely arbitrarily? It is not even a matter of race, class or talent, though of course those things may have an effect. It is as if you have a sign over your head that everyone can read but you. And you either matter or you don’t.
I, too, would like to win. I don’t claim otherwise. After all, I’ve done all the other drugs. Now I would like to try success. I could spend an entire long weekend blitzed on it. What does it feel like when a whole room full of people imagine that you are someone who matters? Fucking hell, it has to be better than walking naked down the hall at the baths, snorting poppers in a crowd of admirers.
The principal question posed by America today, or: is it still egomania when everyone’s doing it?
In Tokyo, on the day for three minute speeches, I sat in the back of the room and took notes on my students’ performance. The next speech that day was from the most congenial of the cheering squad, though only so-so at English. The young woman stood at the front of the classroom, her hair and make-up just so, Audrey Hepburn everything, a fortune in shoes, clutching a crumpled sheet torn from a spiral notebook. Louder, please! I insisted. She repeated herself, no louder than before, then dove straight into her paper, clear down to the floor, where she lay sobbing in the center aisle between the desks. I watched in astonishment. I couldn’t believe what was happening. Because I had imagined this scene dozens of times -- but I always assumed it would be ME doing that. I totally failed to remember that other people were even eligible for hysteria. It’s OK, it’s OK, it’s OK, I chanted softly and sat waiting as the other students solaced her, which they did with exquisite tenderness and patience. I believe they felt, as I did, that the young woman had done something exceedingly gracious, a real favor to everyone.
How did this happen actually? How did I end up this far outside, not just left out but opposed? When did this start? When was wandering ordained? Looking back, it’s obvious, though I failed to realize at the time. I must have felt myself going out, but I didn’t know how far I was going. I didn’t know that I was never coming back.
In the beginning I spent all day at the hospital, then went home and wrote letters detailing his health, prognosis and treatment. This behavior was well-received and appreciated. This was the correct use for me. Otherwise my visibility was a source of discomfort to everyone. I was most visible during that the unavoidable moment when each person asked, Did he give it to you? No, I said, again and again. No, he did not give it to me. I do not have it. Then whoever it was would hurry back to discussing his health, prognosis and treatment. But not before I saw their face. Because this was not how it was supposed to work. I was quite officially the bad one. I was promiscuous. And as for him, he was the nicest man. People have their pictures of the world. They love them. They’ll sacrifice anything to save them. Thus did I become invisible after Did he give it to you? It’s only very natural that people were unable to disguise their bewilderment at the news, their looks of confusion and, yes, disappointment.