Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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The train clanks and bangs out of Thirtieth Street Station three hours late, past the lighted boathouses on the Schuylkill and the brief glitter of downtown Philadelphia. Then it dives into a forlorn zone of abandoned factories and warehouses ensconced in frozen snow. In the purple-black night, the distant flames of a refinery flicker, and the expanse of row houses stretches unbroken to the ship canal and the brittle, high-towered, ecclesiastic bridges. Worn out by the long journey, Matthew sleeps on the seat beside me; it’s near midnight, way past his bedtime. The train rolls like a boat, pursuing its northward course unhurriedly, as if time — which we have often been told equals even sacred Money — has been stripped of its value and relegated to the scrapheap of outmoded virtues.
We arrive at Penn Station in New York at 2:30 in the morning. I grip Matthew’s hand and we set off into the great, empty expanse to find an exit to the street — a task made difficult by the latest phase of the station’s seemingly endless renovation. For once he is quiet, too dumbfounded to ask questions. Even at this hour, there are more stimuli in Penn Station than the dying West Virginia coal town he calls home can provide at noon.
At last we find the escalator to Seventh Avenue, where taxis wait in the bitter cold. I ignore the hustlers who approach asking if I want a cab; that game was old back in the seventies when I was hacking. As Matthew climbs into the first cab in line, a young guy wearing what looks like a uniform — blue pants with a Metropolitan Transit Authority stripe and a bus driver’s hat complete with badge — approaches and identifies himself as “the dispatcher.” For a minute I’m unsure, and, seizing the opportunity, he asks, “Where are you going, sir?” I tell him, and he holds out an open palm and says, “The fare will be $5.25.” His eye contact is so steady that I wonder if the city has instituted a new system of regulating cabs. But then I focus enough to see through his “official” outfit and say, “That might be the fare, but I’ll give it to the cabby.” Without even a flicker of resentment, the “dispatcher” vanishes into the darkness as smoothly as if Scotty had beamed him aboard some street hustlers’ pirate version of the Enterprise.
Our driver is Asian and eager to practice his English. As we pull away from the curb, I relate the little exchange I’ve just had. He curses fluently, but with a poor accent, and makes me go over the whole thing with him again: “He ask you pay him fare?” “Yeah, five and a quarter.” The cabby shakes his head and chuckles. “Goddamn of a city,” he says.
Turning north on Eighth Avenue, the cabby catches the lights, and we trade anecdotes. I tell him it’s been two years since I’ve been in town, so I don’t know the latest scams. “Two years,” he says excitedly. “Two years you go, two years I come. You make room for me.” We laugh together, then I say, “Always room in New York.” “Goddamn of a city,” he says, “always changing. One go, one come, always changing.” Looking out at the plethora of new peep shows that now define Eighth Avenue in the Fifties, I say, “Changing but the same.” The driver thinks about it for a minute, then says, “Changing but the same, that’s right. Goddamn of a city.”
We get off at the corner and the cab fades down the icy street. Matthew wants to know when we’ll see the Statue of Liberty. Instead I point out a nearby high-rise. “See that building, the big tall one? Way up there, where you see the light — that’s where Grandma lives.” He looks at me in disgust — after all, he is five now and cannot be taken in with preposterous claims suitable solely for fooling babies. Only after I assure him repeatedly that Grandma really lives up there does Matthew accept what I’m saying. He fixes his gaze on the twenty-fifth floor, and the disgust on his face slowly crumbles into awe.
“It’s the kind of depression that derives from a narcissistic wound,” my friend Ellen is saying, explaining why she has gone back into therapy twice a week. Still groggy from the journey, I try to be attentive. In the dim room, my friend’s eyes are bright with unshed tears.
She talks, and, like a lapsed Catholic recalling the liturgy, I remember all the kinds of depression covered by my professional training as a psychotherapist. I conclude the list with that particular depression I know best — my own. Of late, it’s grown beyond all reason.
Although I don’t say so, it’s this depression that’s brought me north. Ostensibly there are other reasons: I need to buy camera equipment, see some editors, get medical treatment unavailable in the mountains of West Virginia. All of this is true, but I’ve really returned from an exile of my own making to see whether the city will embrace me and accept me back into the ranks of its chosen. Only this, I’m convinced, will heal me.
To my surprise, I’ve found that my friends, enmeshed in the vibrant cosmopolitan life I yearn for, are suffering depressions as vicious as my own. Some hurt because they have no children, others because they have children and it drives them crazy. Some mourn the huge amounts of money they have lost, others the fact that they have never made any. Some feel trapped by their nine-to-five jobs, others by a precarious freelance existence. The specifics appear irrelevant to the state we share: a feeling of constant disappointment, of chances used up, of a life lived on the edge of tears.
Global depression, I could call it in clinical jargon to indicate the pervasive nature of the disorder in the psyche. But lately the term has taken on a new meaning for me, suggesting a worldwide malaise shaped by the unconscious link between our suffering and the wounds the earth itself sustains. It seems as if the degradation of nature has produced a dark, subliminal undertow affecting the collective psyche. The earth gasps for breath; the nation gasps for breath — is it any wonder that I, too, can’t breathe? It’s becoming increasingly difficult to separate our personal pain from the transpersonal pain of the wounded planet. Surely it’s naive to think our destruction of nature has no effect on our mood. It’s been more than a century since Chief Seattle predicted that when the big creatures were all gone, humans would die of loneliness. That loneliness is now almost upon us, and no number of channels on the TV can fill the frenetic emptiness we’ve created.
Judy says, “I feel completely trapped. My business is off; I’ve got no friends. I’m going to buy a house on Shelter Island, but even that won’t make me feel better.” I say, “Well, perhaps it might. For a while.” “Perhaps,” she says, taking a pull on her Southern Comfort. Then she gets up and goes into the other room where Matthew is sleeping on her couch. When she comes back, she looks a little rocky. “Forget it, Jude,” I tell her. “Kids don’t help — they only give you more reasons to be depressed.” She nods, but I know she thinks I’m just trying to make her feel better.
There’s no way I can explain to her what being a father is like for me — the despair I feel when I contemplate the wreckage my son and his generation will inherit. I’m firm in the conviction that I have nothing to give him, except perhaps my outrage and cunning, of which he seems to have an abundant supply of his own, now mostly expended on extorting candy or ducking his usual bedtime. I pour myself another Scotch. “You should kiss the ground you’ve got no kids,” I say.
Judy and I have known each other fifteen years. It’s somehow a luxury to sit late into the night comparing our loneliness and alienation and the stratagems we use to survive them. There is a certain symmetry in our misery: mine began when I became a father; Judy’s stems from her childless state. But we can agree on one thing: in the last year our suffering has become unlike anything we’ve ever experienced before. Nothing in the past — not the deaths, the abandonments, the failed relationships — has caused as much pain as the simple act of living does in this dark year of Our Lord, 1994.
I’m walking west on Canal Street in the winter night. The city is possessed by an intense cold. Things are for sale everywhere, and the almost supernatural abundance makes the shoddy goods seem like numinous jewels in the darkness. Surrounded by car stereos, wool scarves, audio tapes, cheap toys, quartz watches, dead fish, heaps of vegetables, herbal medicines, and an endless stream of faces, I remember what I have always known: the city is the Great Mother, the fountain that will never run dry, from which all possibilities flow. Whatever else may change, that much is immutable, and knowing this lightens my heart for a moment.
As the E train rocks north, I notice that a new sign has appeared on the subway. I read it with the attention one might devote to a communication from interstellar space. It’s a public-service announcement from the MTA, the gist of which appears to be that it is no longer acceptable to give money to the poor. The sign carefully marshals arguments against compassion that range from altruistic concern about inadvertently supporting someone’s drug habit to forceful appeals to our innate selfishness. The sign even offers sample replies to give to panhandlers: “Don’t ask me for money,” it reads. “It’s mine. I worked for it.” The depths of a recession seems an odd time to attempt resuscitation of the moribund work ethic, but I realize the MTA is new to the role of spiritual authority, and one shouldn’t expect much from it yet.
The madhouse, a huge, drab building of a shabbiness so complete as to approach perfection, lies in an outer borough. It’s home to several hundred veterans of the state hospitals, where the insane were tucked away until it was decided that displaying them in public might invest the streets with a certain medieval splendor. I’m here to visit a woman I’ll call Barbara, a delusional, filthy, foul-mouthed woman for whom I developed a great affection during the two years I worked with her. I am sitting in her room, picking up the conversation where we left off four years earlier.
The room seems to be underwater. It contains two beds, two dressers, a wastebasket, and a single plastic chair. I ask Barbara how she’s been. “Not too good, not good at all,” she replies. “They came and stole my stomach this time. Took it out through my eyes.” I nod at this — I’ve always taken her “delusions” as attempts to communicate a reality that, while obscure to me, is vital and dynamic to her, at least as valid as what’s on MTV. We chat awhile on this level, then Barbara shows me her latest drawings. They are mere scribbles, lacking the verve and style that once made me prize her artwork. When I’ve examined all the drawings, Barbara lies down on her bed, which is completely covered by a fine layer of tobacco. “I’m much stronger in my mind,” she says, “but I’m very lonely. I’ve got no boyfriends, no friends at all.”
Her words strike close to the bone, and suddenly the gap between us — between therapist and patient — vanishes. I see that her loneliness is no different from mine, or that of my eminently sane friends; it’s just easier to dismiss as a product of her illness. I’m reminded that life outside the madhouse increasingly resembles life inside it; that the great burden of suffering the insane once carried for us has increased so exponentially that now we are all forced to shoulder a share of the load.
Outside Barbara’s room, in the gray corridor, the air itself seems worn thin. Barbara looks me dead in the eyes and says, “What’s going to happen to me?” I know very well what will happen to her. She will die alone in her grim room, or, if she is less lucky, on the locked ward of a city hospital, surrounded by a cluster of beeping machines. But she is asking for bread, not a stone, so I say, “Barbara, you are going straight to heaven.” In a sudden rush of feeling, she hugs me and says, “Thank you, thank you. But Andy, could you come back every half-hour to see me through?”
The beggar enters the car and kneels in the center aisle, his arms outstretched as if he is to be crucified. His powerful voice rings over the subway noise: “I am homeless and hungry and my family is homeless and hungry. Don’t judge me today — do not judge me for being without a home. Let God judge me, like he’s going to judge you. God ain’t on this subway today. I don’t see God here, just mortal people. And if you people have compassion, the transit authority or nobody else can’t talk you out of it. Either you have it or you don’t.” His voice has risen, rich with outrage and unmistakable moral authority. I share his outrage, I share his view, I share a portion of my money with him. But none of this changes the fact that my charity rests on a projection of my own wounds onto others, and that this is not true compassion, only the outward form of it.
The table is set with fine linen and silver. The waiter brings our vodkas and we get down to business: his business, my business, the possibility of our transacting some business together. Neither of us is doing too well, for different reasons, and our meeting in this restaurant, which we once frequented but now can no longer afford, is our way of giving the finger to a fate that seems to be dogging us both as we enter our forties.
Jeff says, “When we talked this morning, I was really down. Then someone from an agency called — they liked my tape.” I say, “Great, man. Does that mean work?” He hesitates. “Nobody wants to commit themselves to anything at this point.” I nod, knowing that routine intimately, and Jeff goes into his money troubles in detail. With two kids and a huge mortgage on a co-op he can’t sell, Jeff is under a certain amount of pressure. When he tells me the numbers, I feel almost lucky — all I’ve got hanging over me are child support and a student loan. And, of course, the credit cards, which are such a given that no one mentions them anymore.
The waiter brings a second round of vodkas. The talk moves to my divorce. Then we turn again to our constant, grinding apprehension about making a living in an imploding economy. But now the second vodka has begun to work and I no longer feel despair. Instead, a philosophical detachment arises, accompanied by a defiant enthusiasm. I realize that I can still make occasional gestures like this dinner until they take my credit cards away — and that might be years yet, because you can get a cash advance on one to pay the other. We’re all going down the tubes, but that’s no reason for sackcloth and ashes, I tell Jeff. “It’s just that we’ve had it hammered into our heads that we’re Americans and can have anything we want. But the truth is we’re all going to be unemployed before long.”
With our third round of vodkas, we cheerfully drink to the imminence of total economic disintegration — the only thing we can envision that might set us free.
The arctic wind rattles the windows of Judy’s old tenement. I sit at the kitchen table reading the morning paper. In the next room, Matthew plays a game of his own invention involving rubber bands, poker chips, and plastic horsies. The paper is full of health-care reforms and business failures. I snort and mutter through the news. The president says the recession is over; I wonder how his perception dovetails with the three huge “downsizings” that dominate the financial page.
Matthew leaves his game to remind me that he wants to see the old trains like I promised. So I bundle him in fifteen layers of clothing and we’re off for the Transit Museum; but first, the morning’s hands-on lesson in deficit spending — another cash advance at the bank.
We walk through the lunch-time crowd on Court Street in Brooklyn. The last time I was in this neighborhood, there were no street people at all. Now beggars are plentiful, all in the kneeling posture that seems so in fashion this season. It appears that what was once feudal is becoming acceptable, even chic, again. I wonder what extravagant penance the homeless will perform next in an attempt to reclaim the compassion the MTA and the media warn us against. Will the coming year bring companies of flagellants on the street? And what will the backlash be: public executions at City Hall Park, the homeless burned at the stake en masse for the heresy of existing in a rebounding economy?
An article I read on “compassion fatigue” comes to mind. I recall the beggar saying, “Either you have it or you don’t,” and inwardly I agree; compassion cannot be exhausted. What can be depleted is the charity we give to ward off bad fortune. Exercised too much, it falls into shards, revealing a hatred for the homeless, which arises from a fear that they are harbingers of our collective future. The current rhetoric about “rethinking the homeless problem” reminds me of another hoary custom: killing the messenger who bears ill tidings. With this in mind, I bitterly give away all my change.
A week in New York has alerted Matthew to the uses of money, and he wants to know why I’m giving it to strangers. We go into a Greek coffee shop for a hot chocolate and a father-to-son talk. I don’t tell him about homeless people, a subject too threatening for a little boy six hundred miles from his mommy. Instead, I explain to him about beggars, a concept for which I’m sure he’ll feel a natural affinity. Without trying to explain why, I tell him it’s always good to give a beggar money.
Matthew listens carefully, quickly grasping the intriguing possibilities offered by the mendicant’s calling. He wants to know if he can be a beggar when he gets old enough to cross the street alone. I tell him he can, if that’s what he wants to do. We discuss how he will spend the money he gets. His plans include ice cream daily and a truckload of toys “so big they will touch God.” When we leave the coffee shop, Matthew smiles at every beggar he sees, apparently happy in the conviction that their days conclude with new toys and endless ice cream.
I arrive at the monastery north of the city in the driving snow, just as the lama emerges from the main house, a tray of butter lamps balanced on his head. I pay the taxi and the car disappears into the storm. Inside, the dining room is dimly lit and cold. A few nuns sit close to the wood stove with cups of tea. Their faces, at once haggard and peaceful, are possessed of a singular beauty, one that has nothing to do with outward form.
The room has a Siberian quality — a place set apart at the end of creation. Yet even in this sanctuary, the relentless suffering now savaging the world can be clearly felt. No effort is made to keep it at bay, for this monastery belongs to Milarepa’s lineage, which through a thousand years has welcomed hardship as the sole goad to wake us from slumber to the true terror of the situation. One should not come here seeking any comfort but the austere grandeur of the dharma.
The lama sends word he will see me now. His room is a little warmer. I tell him about the pain my divorce causes me. He nods, asks a few questions, then says, “Born lonely, die lonely, everything in between just a dream.” He continues, “Any time you feel bad, you pray.” I want to object that I will be praying ceaselessly, but obviously that is the point.
We are going back, Matthew and I, to the mountains that are his home and my exile. We wave goodbye to the places whose names he’s learned and the people he’s met: “Goodbye, Statue of Liberty. Goodbye, World Trade Center. Goodbye, Judy. Goodbye, Ellen. Goodbye, Grandma. Goodbye, New York. Goodbye.”
The city slips out of sight and the train rocks slowly through the deep industrial waste of northern New Jersey. Looking out the window, I see the devastation as a mirror of our inner world, and think that perhaps the only hope lies in a new politics — a politics of the heart, in which disciplined compassion would be the central value. We would recognize that it’s more important for beggars’ cups to overflow than for key stocks to advance on the big board. We would measure progress not in housing starts but in how many useless suburban malls have been reclaimed as farmland. I accept that these solutions are simplistic, naive, and utopian. I also suspect they would be effective. But given our current despair, a politics based on compassion seems a slim hope indeed.
Instead, we’re offered Prozac and health-care reform: Prozac for our “irrational” moods, reform to make the healing arts more “efficient.” Compassion will now be measured out with an eyedropper in cost-effective dosages while factories grind out Prozac around the clock until it is as plentiful as aspirin. Armed with a false, tinny cheerfulness and the ability to function no matter what, we will face our decline.
The train rocks into the future, which, genetically engineered as it may be, will retain all the human frailties that defined the past. The rising flood that is sweeping away our ideological and cultural landmarks is made up of the same dirty, human water afloat with antique hatred, greed, and fear. It’s no longer possible to cross this deluge in the ark of some collective wisdom; each of us will have to fashion our own vessel to brave the storm. As old ideologies deflate like balloons in a dark room where the party is long since over, the only viable politics left us is to hold fast to our personal understanding, honoring it wherever it may take us. On this journey, we will all be beggars, dependent on the compassion of forces we can barely glimpse or comprehend.
I admire Andy Yale’s compassion [“Global Depression,” May 1995], and there is much in what he writes that is true. But it’s a conceit among smart, sensitive, romantic, left-leaning, self-aware people — and I count myself as one — to picture our present era as a unique descent into hell.
Life for the vast majority of human beings in past centuries was utter misery. There was no hot-and-cold indoor plumbing, no nice, clean, sanitary toilets. Half of all children died before they were twenty. Women regularly died in childbirth. Before the Victorian cleanliness movement, people were covered with lice and filled with parasites. In the average Colonial home, people were too busy surviving to worry about such trivialities as sanitation.
Suburban malls filled with junk are inextricably linked to the surplus that allowed the computer I am writing this on to be invented, produced, and sold to me. I must recognize that I have not built bridges, or invented trains, or put in sewage lines or electric wires — I wouldn’t know how. I can’t even build a chair to sit on. I don’t deny the miseries of our time, but it’s important to keep things in perspective.