Performance Spaces 20 On Not Caring I find that I often struggle to no avail, even with the writing of this essay. I have sat each night for the past week staring at the notes and corrections I, and others, have written on the original version of this essay and have fretted and worried about finishing it. The result of all this fretting, however, was not production, but was simply more fretting:
“In a fight between you and the world, bet on the world.”1
This is to say that the forces of the universe are such that no person can overcome them. Take the physical laws of the universe. Every time one jumps, one is struggling against gravity, and gravity wins every time. I find that this is something that I have accepted. When I jump I do not expect to hit a cloud before coming back down, I know that there is a limit to how high I will go.
I then imagine myself in the workplace as a person inclined to struggle. No matter what situation I find myself in, I would still struggle to attain a higher and better one Take the stockbroker who sets his initial goal to earn just enough to get by. Once he gets to that position he wishes to reach yet another level of wealth, and then another, and so on. This person is never completely sated. Even once this person has reached the top, has become the CEO, there still is no feeling of completion. The excitement would have come from the chase, and what can one chase from the top?
I like to think of struggle as wet cornstarch. Squeeze it and it will form a solid mass, but relax and it becomes akin to a liquid and can be manipulated. When I observe trees I see that they live in this relaxed manner:
“I like trees because they seem more resigned to the way they have to live than other things do”2
Trees do not struggle. They do not long to uproot themselves and walk like animals. No, they stand in the forest swaying with the breeze, their leaves change with the seasons, and they do not fight it. They are completely content with their situation. Whether they are in the middle of concrete in the city, or in the manicured dirt of the park, or in the freedom of the forest; they are content to allow nature to have power over them. In this age of Jerry Springer, Dr. Phil, and myriad other venues for airing one’s complaints and problems; it seems that we are inundated with the suffering of other people. It is an undeniable fact that people do suffer, yet to make a spectacle of it does not appear to be in anyone’s interest. Learn from the tree; on occasion a limb might break off in a heavy storm, but the only complaint from the tree will be a creak, after that it will return to silence. Even the death of the tree is beautiful. It lives a long life, then dies, falls into the forest, and becomes part of the soil.
Caring too much simply creates tension, and because there is only so much one can control, that tension is misplaced. Do not squeeze the starch, relax instead and let it flow a little more freely:
“I don’t know, I don’t care, and it doesn’t make any difference.”3
Caring too much is what creates the tension; not caring allows one to focus on the things that are more important. To be at a desk job constantly chasing the promotion and the raise drains one’s focus from the things that truly matter. The reason one sits at the desk every day, theoretically, is to support one’s family; to earn money to allow one to do the things one cares about. This money then goes, in part, to furthering the education of one’s children, who end up on the same path. On this path the focus becomes too narrow, and in the end it blocks out the opportunities to do what one truly cares about. Being as such, one cannot fight for fortune as it is traditionally thought of:
“…it is better to be rash than timid, for Fortune is a woman, and the man who wants to hold her down must beat and bully her..”4
If every person is focused on beating down fortune, everyone focuses on winning instead of getting what he needs. Take Kenneth Lay and his Enron cohorts, for example. They focused so much on winning that they didn’t allow thousands of people, and in the end themselves, to get what they needed. If they had instead acted a little more like a tree, they might have been content with their earnings, and would not be in jail for the next quarter of a century.
Once More Down Main Street I’ve known Marilyn Monroe and James Dean for as long as my memory stretches back. You might know them too if you’ve been to Sag Harbor. They don’t move a whole lot, especially for such big stars. They stand there day after day, week after week, unfazed by neither the summer torrent of the nouveau riche nor the dead quiet of the winter. Marilyn stands there, knees gently bent – probably because her dress is too tight to part them much – and smiles out at Main Street. It’s the type of smile that pleads “Love Me” - the type you’re likely to find coming from any number of high school girls. It is not the smile of the skilled tease; it appears to me to be more the smile of the girl who can’t help but prey upon the desires of men. But this observation comes only now as a retrospective readjustment of the original. Back when I when I first met Marilyn she was just a happy lady behind the yellow mechanical horse.
Off her right shoulder stands James Dean, leaning against the wall, legs crossed. His leather jacket hangs open and his arms are bent in front of him holding a cigarette in the classic Rebel Without A Cause pose. He too smiles out at the street, but he doesn’t need you to love him, he knows you do. Even the first time I met him, at around the age of five, this was clear to me. Even though that cardboard cutout of James in the window of the Five and Dime was faded, I could still imagine him walking down Main Street, flicking his cigarette butt to side and ignoring the looks he got form the passersby.
Those cardboard cutouts have been faded for the fifteen odd years that I’ve known them, and I don’t know how long they’ve been there, but maybe they’ve always been faded, and if they weren’t, were they ever for sale? I wonder whether they once were items that could be bought for five or ten cents. Now it seems incomprehensible that no one would have bought them at such a price, being that people usually pay thousands of dollars to have cultural artifacts. Maybe the owner was simply a fan and decided to pay homage in the best way that he was capable of. In any case, it seems poignant to me that they’re faded, because all that truly remains of them is the collective memory that people carry with them, and these memories are indeed faded. All stars that die young stay young forever, yet the details of who they really were are no longer so clear. Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Elvis (both Young and Fat), and John Lennon, amongst others, have their frozen visages stationed across the globe on t-shirts, posters, and cardboard cutouts.
That yellow mechanical horse Marilyn and James stand in front of has always presented a bit of a quandary. I’ve always felt too old to actually ride it, even when I was young. I never felt that I was actually part of the target audience for it, even when I did, on occasion, ride it. It might have been that my brothers were certainly of age for it, and I, being the older one, was by default not. I’d still throw in a quarter every now and again when I had one in my pocket, or if my parents were close enough by so that I could obtain one without too much hassle. In retrospect it really isn’t that great of a ride. Who needs a horse that’s too weak, or perhaps too stupid, to even move down the street? Placing the quarter in the slot was more of a penance: my commuter’s toll for walking down Main Street. Every time I put a quarter in it went towards my Sag Harbor citizenship.
But the horse isn’t yellow anymore, there’s a newfangled one there in its stead. He still rides up and down, frozen in a perpetual state of gallop. He’s certainly more realistically colored than the last one – I have never known a horse to be canary yellow - but something about him is lost. It just seems that whoever put it there is trying too hard, who would dare say that town needs an update? Someone tried to update town when they tried to replace the old neon “Sag Harbor” sign on the movie theater, much to the indignation of the townsfolk. Main Street wasn’t the same during the months when that sign was down. Suddenly the cracks and the unevenness of the large white edifice of the building became exposed. For the months that the sign was down, town just seemed a little less vibrant, a little less perfect, a little less my home.
Even though the sign came back, it hasn’t been the same. It’s as if I noticed someone’s acne on a day they didn’t use concealer, the next day the concealer may be on again and the blemish covered over, but I can no longer help but notice the pimples. There are the brownies, the teenage rent-a-cops who patrol Main Street during the summer, causing traffic and writing tickets for the Lamborghinis that have been parked for too long. They annoy everyone and intimidate no one (who’s scared if you don’t have a gun these days?) Down on the water are the docks and the sailing community along with the Breakwater Yacht Club where I sailed for two summers and bent a mast when we capsized. Then there’s the 7-Eleven, glowing brightly, eternally contradicting the seasons. In summer it feels like a slice of arctic winter, and in winter it feels as hot as a summer day in the desert. Each of these, amongst myriad others, is a relic of my Sag Harbor landscape.
This all comes to me as I sit drinking my coffee and feeling cool in the café in Oxford, Connecticut. The girl behind the counter, he name tag reads Sonja, is rearranging the quarters in the donation board. At first I thought she was heartless enough to be slipping them into the tip jar, but I realized that she was simply flipping them around so that the tails side was showing. I wonder if as a child she picked up a quarter from Main Street and was enchanted by the eagle on the back and is now, far away from home, paying her toll. There aren’t as many Eagles as there used to be, now it’s the Georgia Peach, or trees being tapped for maple syrup in Vermont, or the first flight in North Carolina faces the customers. The images on the backs of the coins remind me, as I sit feeling a little homesick now, of my Main Street, and that I will live my life somewhere between the smiles of Marilyn Monroe and James Dean; between that neediness and that ice-cold confidence. The coins serve as reminders to anyone that visits the store that they will always live on that old street, even as it turns into a faded cardboard cutout of a memory.
Moving Years after we had moved, we still called it The Big House.
Mr. West had The Junk Pile in front of his house. My parents always told us that we couldn’t take anything from it.
The living room had the biggest window I’ve ever seen. It looked out onto the backyard and it was beautiful, but I was sad when the birds hit it.
I was playing t-ball in the yard with DJ when I leaned over to pick up a small plastic clip that had fallen off the t. He hit a home run, and then my face.
I remember Chris, he prefers Christopher, spending a good amount of time at the house as it was being built. By the time I saw any of the semi-finished rooms I was just signing off on an agreement. I didn’t care.
Grandma’s house in Sweden was home for a little while. I can’t place which house in America I was living in at the time.
There was a berm in the back yard that had a few trees planted on the top of it. It might be because of my fascination with words, but it was always clear to me that it was a berm, not a hill. Perhaps the “berm” is the cause of my fascination with words.
One time Chris and I grabbed a couple things from The Junk Pile. We scurried back to the two large pine trees in my yard and sat there in the shade. We had to put our indeterminate rusty objects back in the pile, but Mom and Dad didn’t yell at or threaten us.
I don’t think I’ve ever picked my own room. By the time we’ve moved in it’s always been understood whose room was whose.
Maybe when my dad designed the house and the berm he designed it not to stymie advancing tanks, as they were often used for, but rather to keep DJ out; the berm does border his property. I was about twenty feet from it when my nose was split open by DJ’s aluminum bat.
There’s always a battle for shotgun in the morning. Chris usually makes it out the door first and gets the seat.
I remember my neighbor’s mom Lori crying outside The First Sag Harbor House. It was strange; she was, after all, scary/crazy/a witch. When people asked me what exactly was scary about her I was at a loss for words. My dad hugged her and consoled her.
We have moved so many times that I truly have trouble separating all the houses in my memory.
I can drive now. I got my license some six months after I could have. I did it on one of those same whims that encouraged me to rush out the door every once in a while for shotgun, but only once in a while.
Our twelve-foot table is one of the pieces of furniture that has traveled with us for about as long as I can remember. It makes home a home.
My neighbor and I bought a pair of radio headsets with the notion of fusing the two houses together with technology. I only remember ever using them once.
When we were living in the Second and Third Sag Harbor Houses my dad was designing and building a house for his brother. He did the same for my uncle years before when he designed both the First House and my uncle’s house, which were side by side.
The first day of school in Sweden was a cold January day. I walked the fifteen minutes to school with my dad that morning. The sky was pitch black, though the few feet of snow on the sides of the path did an ample job of reflecting the light from the street lamps.
My phone rang and my dad told me to put on my headset. I sat on my stairwell and we chatted: “What’re you doing?” “Uh, sitting on the steps.” It was the only place where we could get reception.
Whenever I went to visit my uncle, driving down the joint driveway that eventually splits, with one fork going to my uncle’s and one to the First House, I was always reminded of the time I spent sledding in that driveway in a big snowstorm.
In Sweden my brothers went to an experimental school that was started by a good friend of my mom, but I was too old and went to regular public school. Because of this my brothers didn’t have to walk to school, and they got to sleep longer. It was alright though because by walking I got experience more of Sweden than they did.
I remember climbing through the living room window out on to the deck in the First House.
I remember my mom telling me to put the junk back on the pile, but I don’t remember my dad saying anything.
At the Swedish school, in math class they didn’t have enough copies of the book for me, so I used a different one. I didn’t mind, I still did the best on the test, but my mom didn’t like the idea.
There was a brownish red stone floor in the kitchen of what I think is the second house we lived in, a rental I believe.
Whenever we sit around the table the seating arrangements change. One of our parents always sits at the head, usually my mom, and the rest of us sit where we like.
The superintendent of all the schools in Östersund, my mom’s hometown, where we were living, is a friend, so when he had us over for dinner one night she mentioned that I had to use a different math book, much to my embarrassment. His home, by the way, sported the same headsets. They were in the box that they came in and also looked rather unused.
Whenever we move it’s easy to tell who packed which box. I tend to throw all my stuff in as quickly as possible, while the ones my mom and Chris pack are usually easy to identify by their orderliness, clear labeling and legible handwriting.
I don’t think I used that headset ever again. I was going to ask my dad to see if we could figure out how to get longer reception for it so I wouldn’t have to sit on the stairs, but he said we had a phone and that it worked better anyway.
Whatever room I end up with when we move turns out to be okay. In the Third Sag Harbor House I was in the basement, but it was still nice because I had a view of the water and my own door to the outside.
Moving next door was about the easiest move we’ve made. Everyone packed at their own pace, and in their own style. Chris took his boxes first to the room he had already picked out. I still have boxes left in my old room because we haven’t rented it yet.
In the third house (I think it was the third house), a rental as well, I remember throwing up one the second floor near the stairwell. I remember being disgusted and fascinated by it. Dad explained rather matter-of-factly that the reason I could recognize certain food items was because it used to be my dinner. I remember my mom suggesting that I should try to hit the toilet next time I get the urge.
I didn’t start looking at colleges until the end of the summer before senior year, I didn’t feel like I had any reason to. People call college the big move, but I’ve been moving all my life, and besides, it was still a year and half away. My mom yelled me at more than once because I was doing my college applications too slowly. My dad didn’t really say much about them.
One day Chris came into my room and tossed me my laundry, I just left it in the laundry room - the laundry room is for laundry after all, and Chris will clean it anyway- and I saw him scoping out the rooms for the next move, this one involving my going off to college. “My couch would fit better in here” he mused. A little surprised I replied, “I’m not gone yet. I haven’t even applied”
Sunlight is for Wimps Freshman year. Those first few weeks of high school are something else, aren’t they? After a couple of years stewing in hormonal agony I finally lead my fellow classmate to ThePromised Land of Older Girls (and Learning). Of course, the problem with the Promised Land - as Moses before me discovered and generations to come will discover as well – is that once you get there you have to wait outside. But that worked out, because, you see, in that first year - before girls – I did a lot of homework.
Naturally, I navigated my way around the homework eventually and some time around the end of freshman year was finally spending my time with girls - or at least spending time hoping to spend time with girls, that dangerous first foothold over homework. The battle between homework and girls was like a boxing match between Joe Pesci and, well, a real boxer; Pesci might scrap for a round, but the only thing slowing the outcome would be how long it took for the boxer to stop feeling bad for such a little guy and to just knock him out.
Now I never boxed, wrestled, played football or any of those all-American sports featured regularly on teen dramas. This may be because I’ve never been to a school that offered any of these sports. It could also be because the aforementioned group I lead to the Promised Land, well, we consisted of seven people – the biggest graduating class ever, at the time.
I have been harboring a secret theory, however, that neither of these are the reasons why I never starred in a teen drama or played those American sports; it’s because I’m Swedish. Or Both Swedish and American. Or half Swedish. It’s hard to tell what I am sometimes, but even on days when I decide I’m Swedish, people often still don’t understand what I mean; we don’t make chocolate, we don’t make watches, and we don’t offer good options for overseas banking, that’s Switzerland. However, if you would like to get taxed at 50% and up, we got you covered. Those familiar with the Old Milwaukee beer commercials always connect me with the Swedish Bikini Team, but that doesn’t really work for me either; I don’t like shaving my legs and I don’t look good in a thong. But fear not, there are plenty of very tall, very blond and very pretty people, and you can even see them on the one day that the sun actually rises. The children run from bed, as excited as Christmas morn, to get a glimpse of it because they can’t quite remember if it’s actually real, they haven’t seen it in so long. After that the nation dives right back into it’s Seasonally Affected Depression, though I’m not sure it’s right to call 364 days without sunshine a season. Oh, and never say to a Swede that you’ll see them “bright” and early, that’s just downright mean.
Aside from the stereotypes, there are certain seemingly reasonable expectations people have of me when I tell them that I’m Swedish. For instance I met one gentleman, a teacher, who had done his doctorate in Sweden on Centerpartiet, the centrist party in the government. He started questioning me about it, but I quickly informed that I knew little of Swedish politics, and, as long as we were making assumptions, I reminded him that I was an apathetic teenager anyway. Besides, just because they speak English doesn’t mean the typical teenager knows the capital of Montana – it’s Missoula right?
I wonder if it would make it a little easier if I just identified myself with IKEA, that store with cool stuff that breaks a year after you buy it. However, if I do say I’m IKEAN I don’t want people to think that everything made in Sweden is of bad quality and breaks all the time – if you look closely that stuff’s actually made in China. Everyone knows IKEA and that it’s Swedish so there would be little confusion about my true nationality. Even with that cleared up, if someone doesn’t have the time to really get to know me how will they decide if they like me or not? There aren’t any real stereotypes to help make those snap decisions about Swedes, and if you don’t have stereotypes, what do you really know about a person? Everyone knows that the Italians are fiery, the English are reserved, and that the French smell, but the Swedes aren’t really anything.
Actually, I think I have story that might help categorize us: in the early 17th century the king commissioned the Vasa ship as a grand display of Sweden’s power, spending 5% of the GNP on it. On it’s maiden voyage, or maiden sinking, all three masts, sixty four brass cannons, and four hundred and forty five passengers sank less than one nautical mile from where it set off in the harbor. It was like the Titanic, but more efficient; if you’re going to sink, why not do it close to home so that everyone can see it and you don’t have to later suffer a subtitled Leonardo DiCaprio crying and flailing about in the wreckage? So I guess you could say that we’re efficient, though everyone knows that that title belongs to the Germans.
Another little story I do know about Sweden is how we picked our capital. When the original one was destroyed in the 12th century the good people of Kalmstad did what any civilized nation does when it needs a new capital: they put all of their valuables in a hollowed out log, floated it out to sea, and decided that wherever that log ended up would be the new location. The spot of the new capital was called Stockholm, Stockholm which means, I think, “thank God that log didn’t get caught in a current and run aground in Africa, for we are a delicate and fair skinned people.” In my younger years I attempted to recreate the founding of Stockholm by sticking my most prized Lego in a Baby Ruth bar and floating it in the bathtub. My fully Americanized parents didn’t quite understand the nationalistic ceremony and switched me back to diapers, even at the age of four.
Now some of you may not realize this, but reindeer are real. I did see one get hit by a Volvo once; seeing it’s bloody carcass lying there gave a whole new meaning to Rudolph the “Red Nosed” Reindeer. They’re pretty heavy animals, I’m not sure where exactly the whole flying thing came from, so it was a good thing the driver was in a Volvo.
The Volvo is another product that people generally correctly recognize as being Swedish. It’s a boxy, but safe and trusty car. Now that may be good to keep a new driver safe, but for a guy that abandoned school for women it doesn’t really work. It’s not a car for wooing women; it’s a car for starting a family – which is perhaps doubly why it’s not a car for wooing. I’ll have to get a sexier car, but in lieu of that I guess I’ll just go back to doing my homework.
Performance Spaces “All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their entranes and exits;
And one man in his time plays many parts,” – As You Like It, Act 2, Scene 7 I’m not sure whether it was getting up at 4am or of it was the leg cramps I got from sitting in my seat with “extra leg room” that really reminded me that I was going on a vacation. To top it off there’s a crying baby, and I want to tell it to be quiet. When the parents decided to go on vacation why didn’t they leave the baby behind? I usually ask myself when a baby starts bawling on a flight. Surely they don’t need to take it along to catch some rays. I wonder whether I should, against my better judgment, vocalize my question, but I stop myself and realize that before even the age of one I myself was taken on a couple of trips and odds are I cried too. However, I didn’t stop myself just because of the hypocrisy of my agitation, I would have stopped myself from saying anything even if I had felt justified.
On a transatlantic flight it was nice to be able to lie down on the floor in a sleeping bag and sleep, but now I’m older and I get to sit up and get cramps in my legs. The exit row is always the biggest row in economy class, which could perhaps solve the cramping problem, but you have to be big enough to operate the door. This means that anyone sitting in that row is going to be a little wider and a little taller than the average passenger. This seems to negate any possible extra comfort that would be gained by having those few extra inches of space. A few inches of length are gained, but because you have to sit with other large humans a few inches in width will be lost.
When the plane lands a good number of people clap. I can’t imagine that they didn’t think that they wouldn’t actually make a safe landing (why get on the plane then?) At least there’s someone there to appreciate the clapping, when people clap at movies I wonder if they’re just wishing that they had been at the Theater instead.
I’m not sure if he was in the exit row or not, but a rather average looking man wearing one of those flower print shirts that scream “I’m an American tourist” sitting a row or two behind me on a small transit flight kept attempting to strike up a conversation with a fairly attractive woman. She was rather monosyllabic in her replies, but he persisted anyway. At one point he was explaining to her that whenever they travel, no matter where in the world, they always seem to meet someone from his wife’s hometown in Texas, which “can’t have 300 people in it.” “But I’ve never been to Texas,” replies the woman. I couldn’t help but clap.
I’m sitting in Nassau Coliseum (they don’t pretend to have extra leg room here), and half way through the opening act a girl in the row in front of me gets up and starts dancing. I look around and I can see only one other person on my side of the stadium that’s dancing and I think why in front of me? I have to lean around her to get a view of the stage.
At this point I’m thoroughly annoyed. I can’t figure out why she won’t just sit down like everyone else. Even worse is that at slow moments in a song she’ll attempt to continue dancing. Points at which no normal person could find a beat or rhythm that they could dance along with. She continues, apparently to her own rhythm, shaking and writhing.
The most peculiar thing is that she has three seats to herself. It seems unlikely that one person to her left and one person to her right would, out of all the thousands of people, be missing by mere chance. It seems equally unlikely that she would buy three seats simply for herself. 500 or more dollars seems like an awful lot to pay to do a little dancing in a 2-foot by 9-foot space. Did she then plan to come with two friends who, utterly embarrassed by her dancing antics at the last concert, decided to leave her at the last moment?
Bob Dylan comes on with a band unrecognizable to me, and probably to the rest of the crowd (certainly no one came to see them.) He plays some new songs, and then a few classics, standing at the keyboard the whole time. The woman in front of me keeps dancing, now in the aisle (I guess three seats just wasn’t enough), to songs I’d never dreamed anyone could dance to; Tangled Up In Blue never struck me as a dance song until then.
I notice, though, that she keeps stopping to let people pass her in the aisle, and I find myself thinking quit crowding the dance floor! I’m on her side now, but I don’t really know why. Dylan gets a standing ovation despite the dissatisfaction of some of the people in the crowd. Drunken fans were yelling at him to “PICK UP THE FUCKING GUITAR!”
The most famous and powerful seat dispute of all time is of course Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat on the bus to a white person when it stopped in front of the Empire Theater in Montgomery, Alabama. Why would whites even set it up that way? On the school bus the cool kids and the rebels always sit in the back. Then again, on bigger busses that just means you’re sitting next to the bathroom. Now, sitting on the back of the bus, as blacks had been forced to do, was not in and of itself a bad thing. It was just another point of control and degradation.
There is something to be said for riding in the front, though; everybody wants to ride “shotgun”. There are complex rules about when shotgun can be called, or once it has been called whether someone else can take it by force. There’s nothing really that great about sitting up front. You’re close to the radio, but the driver usually controls that anyway, and you don’t get that much more leg room. I guess the one benefit would be that you don’t have to touch anyone. The interest in riding shotgun could be a holdover from the days when riding shotgun actually meant you were holding a shotgun, sitting in the passenger seat of the stagecoach, guarding the precious cargo from robbers. It’s both a show machismo and a way to keep everybody else out of your space to a much stronger degree than just getting your own seat. What Rosa Parks said was that no one had a right to keep her out of the space that should be equally shared by everyone. I wonder if anyone clapped at the end of that fateful bus trip, it would have deserved it a lot more than any pilot did for his ability to take autopilot all the way from JFK to Aruba.
The cab ride from the airport was rather unusual. The driver pulls up from a couple hundred feet up the road, where he has been watching his colleagues play dominoes. He shakes our hands and introduces himself as we enter the van. I don’t usually expect such formality out of a cabbie – the name “cabbie” itself denotes a certain informality. I appreciated the gesture; we were, after all, going to be spending the next twenty minutes together.
The amount of time you spend in a place has a lot to do with how you interact with other people that are in that space. In a bathroom, for instance, there is an obvious self-consciousness about the fact that no one is supposed to say anything to anyone. If you were to walk up to a urinal, you wouldn’t take the one next to someone else if it could be avoided, and the most interaction anyone would have is perhaps a throat clearing to make anyone else aware of his presence. In an elevator, a place where an even shorter interval of time is spent together, there is generally a deathly silence, which is even more awkward because there is no task at hand. In a cab, however, it is not at all unusual to strike up a conversation with the driver if the drive is long enough. You might get to know each other a little, if you’re getting picked up from the airport, a little local history might be imparted. You become a friend of the cabbie and if you’re on vacation, you give him a call when you need a ride again (at least back to the airport.)
There’s a similar situation with the barber: he needs you to like him along with what he does to your hair so that you’ll keep coming back. Conversely, you need to keep him interested so that he does not lose focus on your hair, so essentially exactly what you talk about is in and of itself of no importance. This is not to say that it is as premeditated and cynical as all that, but that there is a certain level of performance involved when sharing space with people. With the cabbie and the barber it is that of pretending to have something to say, and in the elevator and public bathroom the opposite.
Despite this it seems that attempts have been made to make conversation possible in public bathrooms. Certain urinals have a divider between them to give some sort of privacy, but they’re not tall enough to hinder anyone over the height of five foot six from checking out their neighbor – if that’s what they’re supposed use is. So they’re really just giving a false sense of security, moreover they are left low enough so that two men standing next to each other could, if they so desired, converse with each other. There is, however, no chance that a conversation could happen between people sitting next to each other in separate stalls. If you’re in a stall next to another person then there’s just too much privacy, and who knows what could be going behind those doors.
In a hospital a thin curtain often separates patients. They have the separation, which suggests that they should not interact; yet they also potentially spend large amounts of time with each other, a time in which two people might get to know each other. Essentially they are sitting in the adjacent bathroom stalls for months. They can’t see each other, but can hear, and in the worst cases, smell each other.
There was an olfactory Got Milk? ad campaign out in California. It consisted of placing advertisements in bus stop shelters that contained strips of material that smelled like fresh baked cookies. The idea behind this was that whenever someone has cookies they want milk as well. Not many people took to this idea, however, for it simply made commuters want cookies. This campaign was therefore scrapped almost as soon as it was started. Is smell just too invasive, too powerful? Every day we are inundated with advertisements overloaded with visual and aural stimuli, but hardly a soul complains. Times Square is a shrine to this sensory overload; over two million people crowded into it on the eve of Y2K, perhaps to get their last glimpse at the Great God of Neon before all electricity went out forever. Imagine if all advertising contained an aroma; Times Square would smell like Cup O’ Noodles and Coke. It is hard to imagine two million people crowding together to get a whiff of that.
It’s funny the types of stories that come out around thanksgiving as we all crowd around, eating, listening, talking, and seeing. Apparently about two years ago my uncle was walking around the streets of New York City, his home, and a van pulled up to him. It wasn’t a cab, and nobody shook his hand, instead a man inside asked him if he was Jewish. He replied that he was, and he was promptly grabbed, thrown in the van, and had a yarmulke and tallit thrown on him. Apparently a band of extreme Jews had accosted him because he had not been giving the proper show of his Judaism.
The seating arrangement at thanksgiving is one of those things that remind me that, hard as I try sometimes to not be, I’m still just one of the kids. This year I ended up at the kids’ table (ages 25-14), and I find myself acting just a little younger than when I sit with adults. I realize a little performance is taking place in both spaces, and it’s not that either of them is false, but each space demands its level of maturity.
I’ve moved about a dozen times. I think because of this I haven’t really accumulated a great glut of possessions. I personally own only the essentials: a bed, toiletries, clothes, and books, I don’t even own a yarmulke (I better watch out for the crazy Jew-bandits.) This could be why when people (you know, family) come over for thanksgiving I don’t really know anyone. In moving did we forget to bring some people along?
Sitting there so close to people who I’m so far away from creates its own tension and the necessity for another level of performance. Second (third, fourth, twice removed?) cousins who live in Oregon, and, from seemingly just as far away, based on how often we see them, New Jersey. But it’s all necessary; to share a familial bond with someone you don’t even know; to get over the baby crying on the plane; to get over that crazy chick dancing in front you, and at the end of the performance to just get up and clap.