Letters From a 21st Century Cynic

Letters From a 21st Century Cynic

Long lines of buses pull up along skyscrapers downtown. The 63, the 54, the 74, the 71, the 21. Coughing coal black on the street and spitting people out onto the curb and swallowing more. We stand beneath the lights of the bus station that stay on even during the day. These are hybrid buses with pictures of blue earth drawn on the side expected to save the environment from their smog. We are told that buses are better than driving – for the environment, for the cityscape, bravo for public transportation! But we wish silently that we could live in (or live through) the clean and happy future we were promised would be coming soon. Buses are all we get for now.

The noise of morning traffic rises with the clamor of construction, of car horns, radios playing news and music and the voices of those who sing along. The screech of brakes, the rattle of hubcaps, the cell phones and police sirens. Someone yells good morning! to a friend across the street.

Humans of the future will look back on this primitive time and laugh. They will look back at our violence, our pollution, our noise, our wage slaves and their love of work. They will laugh at us forced to live these primitive lives. Or they will pity us, perhaps, if they are generous. It is our mission then not to be cynical or complain, but to record a message of hope and hopefulness, a scribe of optimism or what the old folks called idealism before it died long ago. So when people look back at us from the future they will know at least – we did not go down without a fight.

I ride bus 63 to Grand Avenue, passing buildings more than a century old made of red brick, long windows open partway. A woman wearing a shawl is whispering about the Z- to her friend sitting beside her. But who are the Z-? And where did they come from… But – surely you don’t believe in fairy tales?A shadowed figure holds their hat out for money on the street. Another figure squats and relieved themselves above the sewer. We watch it all from the window.

At the top of the hill I pull the line and exit the bus. The morning air is warm and humid already. It has an almost somatic nature when we breathe. I go to the small apartment at Dale Street where O- is waiting with leftover food and drink. Leftover from what? I had dinner with my parents last night, she says. They sent me home with three cardboard boxes, and a plastic container for soup.

It’s important to see your family when you can, she says. You never know how much time you have left with them.

This is true. We watched our grandparents grow old in hospital beds. And soon our parents will suffer strokes and slow legs as well. And then someday it will be our turn. We will take their place on the couch with pops in our knees and endless sighs and groans. Our youth will look at us the way we look at them. This is hard to comprehend this in the moment – how to predict the future, understand what it holds, or even picture it in the mind’s eye. We know it is coming. But cannot know what it will look like. This is our curse.

Not really, O- says, shrugging. She smiles at me with her head cocked to the side. Things grow old and die, she says. This is constant. This is rather easy to understand, so long as you aren’t afraid of the dark.

Her apartment is painted white. The walls, ceiling, windowsills, even the floorboards of the floor. She is lying on her back on a bed with white sheets. She looks up at me upside-down with her arms crossed behind her head. The front window is open facing the street. Green plants hang from hooks in the ceiling and sit along the windowsill. The sun is shining through. With a breeze and the bright sounds of the street outside. A toddler (unknown) laughing in their stroller, a dog barking at a rabbit beneath the brush, a motorcycle engine revving, the opening and closing of doors. I stand at the window in the light of the sun. The street moves on without us.

Oh – the beautiful people of the street! I see them in sunglasses with their shoulders exposed, pushing strollers, driving convertible cars, sitting with expensive cocktails on patios to hide the secrets in their hearts. I see them. And then I see the homeless populace on the other side kicking dust and asking for change. We are divided by more than just sidewalks and tar. They’ll take a cigarette if we don’t have any money. The difference between those who are outside to enjoy the weather and luxuries of modern society and those who are outside because they simply have nowhere else to go…

The secret in the hearts of patio people – those good people who might support social programs at the polls and voting booths but only support themselves in their daily lives – the secret in their hearts is this: Unsheltered people in their neighborhood are not their neighbors, no, never! what a blight…

But also: Should all the homeless people die quietly in the night, the streets suddenly free of panhandlers, dope addicts, the mentally ill, and every other manner of down-and-out human beings who do not fit the mode of model society in the morning, these good and beautiful people would not only refrain from asking where their unsheltered neighbors had gone, they would breathe a deep sigh of relief, secretly grateful that they will never again have to see those people with their shopping carts and their bottles and their tents; secretly grateful that they will never again have to pat their pockets and shrug guiltily when they are asked for a dollar, change, or something to get a bite to eat.

That’s so ugly, O- says. What an ugly thing to think. How can you think that about people? Do you really have no faith in your community? Just because some people have money, a full stomach and a warm bed they automatically lose their empathy, their morality, their souls?

There is a joke about the inadequacy of humans. It goes like this: A man trains to be the strongest man in the world. He goes to the gym daily, lifting heavier and heavier weights. He pushes himself, builds muscle, his body growing as strong as it can possibly be. After years of training and countless hours spent in the gym, he achieves his goal and becomes, officially, the strongest man in the world.

The very next moment after winning his prize, with his arms still raised in the air, the ceiling caves in and crushes him, killing him instantly.

There are variations on the ending of this joke – sometimes it is a ton of bricks that fall on him, or a tree, a truck that barrels through him, or lightning that strikes him where he stands. Or a bear then bursts through the door and eats him. In one, the strongman dies immediately of a heart attack, which changes the nature of the joke, but only slightly. The point being that as strong as he is as a human being (the strongest human being on the planet!) there will always be something much stronger – even the strength of the strongest human being on earth pales in comparison to so many other things around them.

But this is less of a joke and more the truest parable of humankind. We are so unsatisfied by our weakness (our egos will not allow us to come in second place) and so we try and find ways to become bigger, stronger, faster, smarter, etc. There will always be something stronger, faster, smarter than we are. This is our greatest curse: We are smart enough to comprehend these inadequacies but not smart enough to be at peace with them. A bear is not concerned with winning an award as the greatest, strongest, most dynamic, or most interesting bear it can be. Life is the only reward. It is simply trying to survive or protect the lives of its young. It is no contest a bear is trying to win when it mauls an intruder, this is simply its nature. So too does lightning strike, so do trees and bricks fall (our endless wars with gravity!), and so do heart attacks come as a natural piece of our physical, earthly, existence. The more we try and conquer these things, the more we discover the depths of our deficiencies. And – if this want (or need) to win contests is simply a part of human nature, then we are a very silly species indeed.

Our greatest strength – that which allowed us to become the de facto rulers of the planet despite our deficiencies – is our ability to work together. Our ability to build communities, help each other. Strength in numbers in practice applies to more than just brute strength. It is the joining of bodies and minds far more powerful than any single body or mind, and much more important than any show of individual achievement.

The paradox is: We remain obsessed with individual achievements.

I am a newborn. Soft and fresh, poked and prodded by the nurses in a New Jersey hospital. Then, wrapped in a powder blue blanket that smells of talcum and lavender soap I am given to my mother to hold. She holds me to her chest and her cheek and whispers sweet things into the side of my head.

I am three years old, my first memory of yellow lights passing on the street as we drive on the highway.

I am in the third grade (eight years old), in math class, pissing down my leg after the teacher refuses to let me go to the bathroom. We are learning how to divide small fractions. The girl sitting next to me screams. I run quickly from the classroom to hide in a bathroom stall. But it is too late. I turn nine years old the following summer. I attend my first funeral. A wrinkled, powder-white face is connected to a thin body dressed in silk in a box in front of me. It smells of flowers, and talcum, and lavender soap.

I am in the seventh grade now (12 years old). I think all the problems of the world could be solved if only I were good-looking, athletic, witty like them. Life before this defined only by the games, the music, the media, the freedom of childhood, the yet unwritten potential for great things in the future.

I am held in this moment longer than the moments that came previous. And I realize (if I did not realize it then), that it is the first time I ever felt truly alone. The weight of this feeling keeps me grounded, rooted here in this moment and I am unable to look away. But then –

I am 12 years old. The boy who is 14 and rides a scooter around the neighborhood has his hand in my shorts and is squeezing and I am surprised to find I have grown. Hot and hard between my legs. He asks me. Is this wrong? But I am unsure of how to answer. This boy is older, confident, proud. I am self-conscious, awkward, but it feels new and exciting so I let him pull and squeeze. I close my eyes. Pictures of the lunch lady from the cafeteria at school, her round hips, white apron come into my head. I open my eyes. Two birds are sitting on the lowest branch of the tree in front of me. Two more are sitting on the highest branch, chirp-chirping. I let him pull and squeeze until a rush of heat comes into my cheeks and everything inside me pushes forward and out like new toothpaste from the tube the first time it is used. He wipes his hand on the grass.

We were melancholy before. Or felt rather depressed about the brief nature of our existence. We were not scared of non-existence (because there is no fear of that which we will not comprehend), just made sad by the prospect of loving only to say goodbye. But we are no longer depressed. We have come to embrace this fact, and we finally understand what the weight of time, the sense of passing moments, and the feeling of being alive really means: We finally understand impermanence. And so too do I understand why I am happy with O- in this moment here and now:

Place (here) and time (now) have come together to make it so. I am lucky.

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Letters From a 21st Century Cynic