Thursday’s with Nobody
New York is a glamorous city, constituted mostly of nobodies. They crave the lights, and if they tell you differently, they’re lying. Only dreamers come to New York. As a matter of course, few people have control of their lives. You live at the whim of your boss, your landlord, your grocer, the stranger, the judge, the bus driver, the mayor who won’t let you smoke. On the other hand, you live at the whim of your whims, and that is the most exciting thing there is.
— Charlie LeDuff
At midnight, a crowd began to form outside of a small bar across the street from the north end of Tompkins Square Park. Inside this bar were fake palm trees and disco balls, and wall-to-wall twentysomethings spilling drinks on one another. Even if the crowd outside knew that, they still wanted to go in.
It was a busy night in Alphabet City, and crowds like that were on every corner from 14th street to Houston: smokers telling stories; people on their phones hatching backup plans (“Hey, where are you?”); packs of eight or more migrating to some newer place, already paring themselves off into twos. To an outsider, all these people seemed to know each other already, and trying to engage someone in that flood of dress shirts and cocktail dresses was like trying to drink from a fire hose.
By two-thirty a.m., every car in the street was yellow. The red-faced congregated at the corner of Tenth and B. By that point, they all looked overdressed and bleary-eyed. The scene resembled the end of a wedding, or post-prom party. Men hailed cabs; the girls stood in packs, waiting. A slim brunette took her shoes off and put them in her purse.
A half an hour later, they were all gone, and Alphabet City seemed emptyÑnothing but dark brick facades and fire escapes and air-conditioners that dripped water onto the sidewalk.
I was alone and drunk in an electric town where the electricity had just turned off. Home was a small studio apartment that I shared with three male models. I headed to the train station, wondering what time the sun would start to come up.
At Second Street, a man staggered across the intersection, heading east. There was an unnatural bend in his knees, and he kept his arms raised out to his sides. He moved the way someone might move if they were trying to corner a small animal. The man stumbled over the curb and into the empty street, then back up onto the sidewalk and over to a flight of stairs that he used to steady himself.
It took a block to catch up with him and start a conversation.
At first, the man had trouble forming complete sentences.
“Rick,” he said.
“Wife. Kids. Two. Beautiful,” he said.
And a block later, “Sculptor. Brooklyn. Forty.”
By the time we’d gotten to Bowery Street, his story had come together: He’d left his wife and kids in Ohio to move to Brooklyn and become a sculptor. That night, he’d gotten drunk on wine and decided that a walk to the Upper West Side would clear his head. He wore New Balances and a Smiths T-shirt.
At Lafayette Street, he headed north.
Every few blocks, Rick would stop and point at a pile of trash bags or an empty newspaper dispenser, frame it with his hands like a movie director, and say, “Madness. I love the madness.” This statement evolved into “You can’t sell madness to the world.”
Through the gates of the storefront we passed, I could see a magazine article the owners had laminated and put in their window to display what celebrity had shopped there. Crowds would be there when they opened in the morning.
We walked twelve more blocks, and then Rick unzipped his pants and began urinating in the middle of the street.
I decided to catch a cab.
In the taxi, I craned my neck out the window to get one last look at him, and then we turned the corner and he was out of sight.
The ride up Third Avenue was stop-and-go because the driver couldn’t get in a rhythm with the traffic lights. The image of Rick stuck with me, and hit a little bit too close to home.
Like him and so many others who moved to New York, I had left behind friends and family and a relationship to chase some idea of who I could become, turning my back on tangible aspects of life to court my own potential.
One night, a week later, I begged off from friends to go home and scratch ideas on a piece of notebook paper.
I watched a young girl trying to teach her puppy how to walk down the steps of her parents’ brownstone. How could I describe this? I wondered. How would it fit into a short story? My cell phone rang, and I ignored it to drift through eddies of free association, an acid trip of self-importance. When I called my friend back, she didn’t answer.
The more moments I had found myself alone like that, the more I worried I’d one day be a forty-year-old absentee father, peeing in the street.
As twenty-eight closed in, I began to believe in the nobility of men that live steady and unremarkable lives for the sake of raising healthy, well-adjusted children.
A few months after the night with Rick, I moved to the Lower East Side, and the images of what I didn’t want to become tripled: hipsters and trustifarians everywhere: rooftop parties filled with the young and smartÑeach armed with a shotgun-mind filled with ironic witticisms and self-righteousness.
At a party in Brooklyn, a well-dressed twenty-five-year-old drank from a forty-ounce bottle of Coors Light and talked about his blog. He explained that he’s “like Calvino, or maybe like a literary Andy Kaufman.”
One night on Orchard Street, a man and woman discussed an independent film that you could tell made them feel cool just for watching it. “Yeah, it was great,” the guy said. “But great with a lowercase ’g. ’”
The worst part about moments like these was knowing I’ve thought or said things that were similar. Realizations like that made me want to enroll in a trade school in the Midwest, or become a pharmaceutical salesman, or somethingÑanythingÑelse.
On an individual level, most of these people are good at heart. You compliment the songs on their iPods and laugh at their crass jokes, and they’ll be your friends. But on a group level, they’re a constant reminder that you are just like them. It’s a collective: all of us from the same sixty or so colleges, reading the same things, watching the same shows. Our voices are almost interchangeable, and it’s maddening.
I rebelled with silence. I stayed in, or avoided talking about things I cared about. When people asked what I was up to, I’d respond “Oh, nothing” or “The same old shit.”
At a tapas bar two blocks from my apartment I listened to a twentysomething brunette trying to explain an idea to the man she was with. It was a lofty concept about how the events in our lives are always linked regardless of whether we can see the connections or not. After a second pass at breaking it down (the first time smiling, the second time with a more serious look on her face), she said, “You know?”
The man she was with said, “What are you talking about?”
“Nothing,” the girl said. “Forget it.”
That’s right, I thought. Keep it for yourself — for those nights when he’s fast asleep and thoughts are gripping you so hard that you feel like you’ve had a hundred cups of coffee; for those nights when all you can do is just lie there, feeling your breath against your arm, working through memories, and coming up with what you should have said to someone you knew five years ago. Then, when the day breaks, realize that there are some things you’ll just never share with anybody.
The thought felt rotten. I didn’t want to believe that isolation is the only way to preserve your identity.
Then I found a group of people too weird for groups, too earnest to masquerade, too fearless to give up. Their voices were so different; it made speaking seem OK again.
On Avenue A, a few traffic lights north of Houston, there is a bar that hosts an open-mike night on Sundays. At nine p.m., participants congregate at the top of a narrow flight of stairs and pay four dollars to gain admission to a dim room only a little longer and a little wider than a subway car. There, they put their names in a tin coffee can and wait to see who’ll get the chance to perform. Twenty people are picked; each get eight minutes to do whatever they want. In the eleven years of this event, performances varied from men and women telling stories and jokes and poems to one man who painted his penis purple.
Everyone comes for their own reasonÑsome of which are hard to understand.
Halfway through the night, a skinny man with a psychologist’s beard and flat panels of black hair on the sides of his bald head took the stage. He curved his hands around his eyes as if looking out in the distance or pretending to use a periscope, and then shouted, “Feeling nervous.” To combat his jitters, he began to pace back and forth while kicking his right leg up to the height of his shoulders. “Loosing up,” he said. When properly warmed up, the man gave a clipped narrative of an argument he’d had with his landlord. He described how he owned a screaming pillow, and then simulated how he would mash it into his face to muffle his cries. “It’s like that,” he said, “only more intense.”
The concept of bombing doesn’t apply to people like this. His entire act was an awkward moment of silence, punctuated by even more awkward moments of silence. As I watched him, I wished that the emcee’s egg timer would break, and that the bearded man would continue on for hours.
A few acts later, a blind girl removed the microphone from the stand and said, “I’m not really up for comedy tonight.” She went on to deliver a broken soliloquy filled with grief and wavering strength. It touched on anal sex, her anger at going blind, and how her casual relationship with a man from Arizona had ended with an e-mail that morning. Toward the end of her time, her voice cracked and I thought she was going to cry. No affectation from her.
The blind girl was followed by an athletic-looking man in his late thirties. In a Thorazine-soft voice he told the audience he could grasp what the girl was going through, that we all face troubles. “I’m having a tough time, too,” he said. “But,” he let slip, “at least I’m not blind.” Nobody laughed or groaned because it was clear that he didn’t mean it in a malicious way; it was just a byproduct of thinking out loud to a room full of twenty strangers.
Shifting gears, the man sang the blind girl a few bars of Paul Simom’s “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover,” and then began in on his own life. He talked about how he didn’t feel grown-up, about his gambling addiction, and about how caring for his newborn child caused him to miss placing a bet on the Kentucky Derby. He’d planned to bet on the eight horse, he said, and the eight horse won. He batted around explanations: luck? Karma?
It was August, and the Kentucky Derby is run on the first Saturday in May.
One by one, these people got up and laid themselves bare. Never before had I seen such a strong blend of confusion and sincerity. It made me realize that candor is far edgier than irony could ever dream to be. I wanted to walk down Rivington Street and dare hipsters to come and deal with some of this shit.
The next day a friend who’d gone with me said, “I’m gonna be living off of that for a month,” and I knew exactly what she meant. In a city where people give so little of themselves–where if you show an interest in someone, they question your intentions–that night provided more interpersonal drama than I’d been privileged to in the previous six months. I felt full and, for a while, didn’t need to look around for what I was missing. But by Wednesday, I knew I wanted to go back the next weekend.
The second week lacked the blast of novelty the first week had provided. But my acclimation made it possible to notice things I couldn’t have noticed before. Many of the same people return week after week; they’ve formed a community. They knew each other’s names; knew what to expect from their acts. Walter, the man with the screaming pillow, said hello and shook my hand.
The blind girl told a story of how a cab driver mistook her for a hooker; a man with an elaborate mustache provided a warning about the dangerous chemicals the government was putting in turkey products. From the notes and scraps of paper they referred to, it was clear these people spent the week thinking about what they’d do. These Sunday nights put a purpose behind their everyday living. It gave them meaning. To that degree, they lived the way I live.
A blond-haired girl in a denim skirt gave up on her act and said, “This stuff works in comedy clubs,” before stomping off stage.
She may have been telling the truth, but this wasn’t a comedy club. Jokes about J-date weren’t gonna cut it. Nor was holding on to traditional notions of success and failure.
That place, on those nights, wasn’t like anywhere else. It was a clubhouse for a small collection of oddballsÑtwitchers, ranters, conspiracy theorists, hacks; in short, some of the least marketable people on the planet.
It was the first time in New York that I felt at home.
Ben Cake graduated from Kenyon College in May of 2001, four months before the collapse of the twin towers and the American job market. Since then, he has read a lot of books, filled a lot of journals, and slept on a lot of floors. After spending a very good year in Doylestown, PA, working for The Bucks County Writer and other local publications, he moved to New York City, where he works as a copy editor and lives in the Lower East Side. All signs of life are welcome.