THE NIGHT LIFE
James Moats - 05/30/2004
A long time coming, this one.
No matter how long you search before finally landing a job, it never seems to take more than a day or two for the new routine to wear a groove in your being. The tides roll in every morning, back out at night and there must be uncut diamonds in that water, for the rate of shoreline erosion is mind blowing. It's not about the money and it certainly isn't the job. I don't know what it is. Time is the spline that holds it all in place. Without it, the layers of your life just seem to separate. It starts slowly, the corners curling up, but before long, the thin framework starts to warp. Before you know it, everything is hanging on by the last frayed corner, lashing out at whatever crosses it, whipping uncontrollably in the wind.
And let me tell you, it's gusting pretty hard out there.
You spend your days serving up plate after plate after plate of unique insight and perspective to your uninvited dinner guests, repeatedly filling their glasses with the grease that keeps your machine from grinding to a smoking halt. How can one be expected to have an appetite after clocking out, much less the will to stand over a hot stove, preparing another unique and interesting self-sustenance casserole?
There has to be a better way.
On this particular day, there was no work waiting for me. I woke up early again. Stay up late, wake up early. Every day. I watch people sleep through life and wonder if they will ever learn to miss what they are missing out on every day. The solitude, the peace of mind that comes from a steaming mug of chai as the sun comes up. What's wrong with me? What is right with everyone else?
I stare at my crooked feet, crossed and propped on the banister of my small, hotel room style balcony. From up here on the twenty-ninth floor, I can see surprisingly little. There are so many other buildings, skyscrapers tall enough to block out most of the eastern skyline. A two-inch wide sliver of sky that is visible directly ahead, lights up the smog and haze in an array of the most interesting colors that reach far out in a halo around the boundaries of my peripheral vision.
This is what every approaching armageddon looks like, the canvas behind every plywood facade, according to hollywood's end of days scenario.
The wrought iron railing always leaves flakes of rust and faded black paint on my heels, but I don't wipe it off anymore. This is my time. It is valuable. It is precious. It is all I want to have left.
This social experiment brings daily bewilderment and an amusement to me that is slightly out of focus. Outside this crummy apartment, every morning and most evenings, with a different point of view than the small children that line the sidewalks below, the hustle. The hustlers. The bustling shuffle from point A to point Z. Every weekday, I don the suit, the tie, the loafers with tassels. I am everything that is wrong with everything. Another white guy with big ideas and galoshes to protect against splatter from those stepped on. I am affluent.
I own a parking space, for christ's sake.
Two, to be exact.
Each evening, with my briefcase on the exotic leather, heated, vibro-soothing, self-adjusting seat beside me, I drive to the outer limits of the city. A car park on the north side, the furthest single point from both work and home, an extremely important detail in this experiment. The neighboring slot to the right of my parked and gleaming Jaguar is space 575, which is home to a seventies model Chevy custom van that I refer to as the phone booth. The inside was long ago stripped of all creature comforts, now plywood scraps are affixed to the rotting floorboards with drywall screws, which provide a barrier between myself and the pavement below.
Here, I change my clothes.
This statement rings true in the most interesting ways.
Here, I change.
I dunk my head into a plastic mop bucket sitting in the back half of the phone booth, used to catch the stream of rainwater that trickles down from a bad seal in the van's ten inch square, gray tinted skylight. the day's sweat and hairspray meld with the dank brown water to give the immediate appearance of filth and neglect. And rightly so.
I catch more than a few curious glances as i shuffle down the suburban sidewalk. The image that i bring to mind, the character that i channel after the change is usually Bub, the captive research subject from 'Day of the Dead'. My swagger, today, is more drunken than zombified. As you might imagine, in a neighborhood such as this, the drunken swagger is much more disturbing and attention grabbing than would be the stiff, dragging limp of a rotten, stinking, undead creature.
The do-gooders could easily misconstrue the latter as an opportunity to reach out to some poor, unfortunate, disabled soul. The opportunity to reverse the bad karma that seems to be magnetically attracted to affluence. Maybe it's time to help organize a new shelter to be opened twenty or thirty blocks from here. Isn't there someone to give these charitable donations to?
I wait for a city bus that usually doesn't stop.
I walk thirty blocks to subway station. I had may as well have a force field around me, ten feet in diameter. Those who look my way, stare hard, waiting for me to notice and absorb their glares. Their eyes curse and spit at me. The rest of them either don't notice or purposely divert their attention to less disturbing objects... a fast food wrapper, balled up, smeared with ketchup, dried crusty and brown, attracting ants, a few cigarette butts with silvery orange lipstick rings around the gold filters, fliers on the walls, crookedly taped up in a running by, hand slapping the wall fashion, a gesture, which apparently is not necessary, as the "post no bills" and graffiti laws of this city go wholly unenforced.
I see it all.
I feel it, too.
The train ride would, for all intents and purposes, shorten my morning and evening commute, if I didn't intentionally get off at a stop that is almost an equal distance in the opposite direction of my east side armpit apartment. There are places I need to see.
Places I need to be seen.
I keep jobs in the evenings and on weekends, never anything intellectually stimulating or too challenging... There are well defined limitations to what opportunities are available to the impoverished. Those without hope are rarely given any discernible reason to seek it out. The work that has been deemed acceptable for someone in my evening state, or more aptly the positions that I have been deemed acceptable for, generally only make me more physically dirty and beaten down.
When my day life ends, it ends. There is cash in the phone booth, from a meager allowance that ensures the rent is paid every month. Otherwise, I have to work for everything else. In the night life, if I can't find work, I don't eat, or I beg on the streets during those long commutes.
I am becoming well rounded.
On the average day, I wake up around 4:30 or 5 AM, and by 9, I have walked six miles, ridden the bus or the subway another fourteen miles across town, walked eight more miles to the phone booth,
and driven my Jaguar up to the valet station at my office tower, which is twenty-two miles from my apartment as the crow flies. I spend an executive's work day perched in my top floor office, catered to on every level, a two hundred dollar business lunch is the usual, but sometimes I order in.
There are days in which I must escape the conceptual boundaries set forth by the design of this little experiment of mine. A couple of times a year, I charter a flight to some place where I don't speak the language, separated by miles and miles of land and sea and spend a long weekend outside a luxurious suite, feet up on a marble banister, watching different children shuffle down a different street.
My moment of weakness only means I will have to get more dirty, walk further, and take on additional work when I get home, there is a natural balance.
And this is the heart of my experiment, my daily routine for the last twelve years. I guess it is hardly an experiment anymore. I learned what I wanted to learn within two weeks.
I have flown in private jets to the far reaches of the planet and I have hitchhiked across and around this continent. I have panhandled in more than twelve countries.
I see it all.
And I feel it, too.