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the same things never change

05.14.2013

“Except on nights like those I never felt poor.”

On more than a few afternoons now that the weather is warm I take the train into Manhattan, up to the East Forties and Fifties, to walk the blocks and smell the rich. They are there in their suits and skirts, chic cars newly washed or just new, trimmed cuts, wonderful perfumes, along the wide walks of Madison and Park and in between streets crisscrossing, on the pews of St Bart’s and St Patrick’s at the lunch hour, and many of the most visible with a stirring natural grace, and some of the most heartbreaking countenances.

I circle on foot the Waldorf-Astoria, peeking inside at the doors, imagining the ballrooms, and think back to all the plebeian concerts I’ve been to, packed like pigs through security gates into vulgar arenas where we sang along with the crowd. Of course, we had rock ‘n’ roll, one of the saviors of the middle class, it made us big. But rock ‘n’ roll only lasts so long, through your youth, maybe into your late twenties, where I am now, when you start the search for other, more meaningful, somber, subtle ways of singing.

I am twenty-nine, the last of a decade. Joan Didion, in “Goodbye to All That,” writes about her bad year in New York–when she was twenty-eight. The next year she published her first novel. Working into the nights now that are not so cold I walk out onto the patio and breathe in the humidity, summer storms that remind me of Wyoming and fertile valleys, horses and women. I’ve never felt poor, but always felt terribly sick with middle-class-ness. I’m not sure I despise the bourgeois norm like Barthes or Sartre, but I do wish they were more stylish, weren’t so inept at what Richard Rodriguez calls “Taste, which is, after all, the insecurity of the middle class.”

The fact that it is so hard for us to choose–to choose for ourselves what we want for ourselves–is only reinforced by our economic situation. Never comfortable, never having saved quite enough, close enough to the orchestra seats that we are always staring in that direction, immersed in a cultural pride we are never able to satiate, a system of belief our faith alone cannot satisfy, we must constantly search for more and better employment, forced daily to make the most banal decisions: which brand of toilet paper is best, which fashionable item is on sale, what’s the best deal, don’t drink tonight and no lunch, pick up an overtime shift because you need the extra cash, walk the blocks to save the two-fifty there’s dinner at a friend’s at the weekend, Christmas is coming, tickets to the west coast.

On Saturdays before work or Sundays at brunch I am in the West Village, sipping coffee outside on a bench watching cars pull up to disgorge yellow-dressed girls pink-and-white-shirted boys everyone in sunglasses and black SUVs, enjoying another day of leisure on the quiet side of the island. Writing is a leisure sport (so is boxing), and it’s not envy, it’s the calculation of opportunity. How many more will I get? How can I get more? Didion wrote that in 1967, and almost fifty years later rock ‘n’ roll is no longer exciting and new, the weather in New York still brings on clear-eyed yearnings for the Pacific, and it’s the same old show (after six months just as six years) for the lonesome child of the Golden State.

“…pleased me obscurely, and so did walking uptown in the mauve eight o’clocks of early summer evenings and looking at things, Lowestoft tureens in Fifty-seventh Street windows, people in evening clothes trying to get taxis, the trees just coming into full leaf, the lambent air, all the sweet promises of money and summer.”

Didion

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