Perusing some old files and digitally stored scribblings I came across this oddball short story I wrote back in 2002. I remember it was intended for an anthology of post-9/11 stories, and it was inspired by a daydreamed image of the former site of the tragedy being used as a giant holographic advertising billboard in the not-so-distant future. It’s mildly prescient in the way it’s obsessed with how the then-nascent realm of online socializiation seemed to be taking over our lives. There’s a dated preoccupation with “selfphones” because at the time they were still far from the 100% saturation point they achieved within a few short years. At the turn of the millennium, it was mostly a certain breed of self-important ahole who seemed to think having a phone on their person at all times was a vital part of their identity and daily life (something to think about the next time you set out to smack down a Google Glasshole, I suppose). I wouldn’t own a “selfphone” of my own for another three years.
It’s kind of a mess, this story, mildly lacking in real narrative purpose, but I do like a number of the sentences and the tentative effort to address the anxieties of the new age I was struggling to comprehend. And since I can’t imagine what the hell else I’d ever do with it, I figured why not share it here.
Image: The Future That Never Was. Antoni Gaudi’s proposed 1908 design for a rocketship-like office building to occupy the site that would become the World Trade Center
A 400-ft. image of the Christ appears over the Manhattan skyline, somewhere in the vicinity of the Ground Zero Memorial. He speaks in a booming voice that momentarily drowns out the urban cacophony. This is not a miracle. This is advertising.
“Whether I’m walking on water, or across the burning desert sands, I do it in Tevas®.
Teva®—they’ll save your soles.™”
Just as suddenly, He is gone. But fear not. If you missed Him, He’ll be back in an hour.
I’ve just come from a second-run screening of Elvis vs. Elvis over at the Disneyplex near Times Square. Elvis vs. Elvis is the fourth piece of Holowood product featuring the hillbilly rocker’s iconstruct–in a dual role this time–and depicting the exploits–largely fictionalized–of the King working as an undercover federal agent under J. Edgar Hoover in the late fifties. In the latest installment, Elvis goes mano a mano with his embittered fat future self, who travels back in time to preassassinate JFK and sew up the 1960 election for the conniving Tricky Dick Nixon.
You’re probably asking yourself, why do I bother, why drag my ass out into the big bad world when I could just stay home in Far Rockaway and dripload the whole cinemagic experience via Intra/Vid? Sure, I could come up with a whole line of spew-ha about how I’m a purist who prefers to share the filmgoing experience with my brotherman and sisterwoman, and/or there’s something in the collective unconscious that responds to the hazy prismatic refractions of the mindreel lightshow that is but the pixellated reflection of our shared and long-buried precultural memory, but the sad truth of the matter is, I’m just not I/V compatible. I haven’t got the biochip, not for I/V or anything else, and not just because I can’t afford it. Call me oldskool, call me neotraditionalist or cryptoconservative or whatever, but I cling to a kind of premillennial notion that my body should be the final barrier between myself and ever-encroaching technology. Sure, I’ve got an artificial heart and prosthetic pelvis, but that’s strictly a quality of life mandate. I draw a line at cosmetics and convenience.
I descend into the subway and decide on a whim not to go straight home, but instead take the orange line to my old stomping grounds on the Lower East Side, maybe grab a bite and a quick pint. The subway is like a giant elevator, I’ve always thought. No one makes eye contact, no one smiles at or even acknowledges the strangers sharing the cramped confines that render intimate space a quaint concept. I would say that no one speaks but in fact almost everyone does, a low murmur of one-sided conversations taking place all around me. I must be the last person under a hundred years of age who doesn’t have a selfphone. The latest and greatest in instant communication, tiny implants in the occipital bone ridge and throat that allow for constant contact with everyone anywhere always for whatever. The final step in rendering every human being in earshot indistinguishable from looneytoons murmuring aloud to the voices in their heads.
As I stand clinging to my handstrap, pretending to read the latest issue of Boilerplate on my palm-handy slaptop, a woman right next to me babbles conversational nonsense, an endless loop, the same three pieces of information cycling through her skull. It’s called Cold Fusion…it happens in a glass of water…no, you can do it right at home… Again and again. I’m never sure whether these are distinct and separate calls, or if the same poor schmuck is being repeatedly subjected to her string of manic inanities.
On the seat right in front of me, a kid, barely a teenager, sporting the latest in slamhop gutterpunky strung-out style, rocks back and forth, head practically in his own lap, worrying at the links of his walletchain like a Mafia widow at her rosary beads. The only way I know he’s not simply streetbingo is I hear him say, Hey, it’s Xeno. ‘Zup? somewhere in the midst of his own self-directed ramblings. A girl seated next to him and similarly attired carries on her own subvocal chitchat; after awhile he puts a hand on her knee and runs it up under her pleather skirt so I think maybe they’re actually together.
I remember last century, when the hands-free cellulars first came on the market, an eerie uncertainty at the sight of a smartly-dressed bizchik coming towards me on a downtown street, talking loudly and gesticulating emphatically for the benefit of some anonymous specter. She pushed no shopping cart before her, maintained an air of professionalism and respectability in dress and bearing, yet there she was, locked in conversation with no one, for all the world like any madwoman punctuating the urban populace. Then I noticed the twist of black wire trailing from her ear, the micromike clipped to her crisp lapel.
As I became somewhat accustomed to this forward lurch in progress, still I fell to doubting my own better judgement in the face of homeless schizos. Who’s to say they weren’t bleeding edge techno-evolutionaries with access to up-to-the-nanosecond personal gadget-tech and the codephreakers’ stereotypical indifference to dress codes and hygiene?
Even now, I often experience a moment of unsettling disconnect when someone I presume is addressing me suddenly blurts a conversational non sequitur so obtuse it could only mean they’ve got someone on the inside line. I’ve been at lunch, or on a date–rare as that occasion may be, and getting ever rarer–and found myself shushed in the middle of a fascinating interchange that I presumptuously considered myself to be taking an active part in, having never realized that my dining partner or acquaintance had at some point taken a call. It happened just last week, with my own sister. And no, jokers, that was not a date. I’m not that desperate. Yet.
I’ll be 63 this August, middle-aged by modern standards, yet I can’t shake the feeling that I’m an old man who’s outlived his usefulness. I’m not retired, not even unemployed. Just lazy. Always have been. And anyway, ever since the new administration placed ever-heavier restrictions on the so-called free press under the Loyalty Amendment, I haven’t really had a helluva lot to do, professionally speaking. Which is a pretty good indication of why I’m not doing too well, opposite-sexually speaking. That and the fact that I’m not what you’d really call a social animal. I go somewhere too public, a live music venue or a nightclub, those events I deemed myself too old for a few decades back, even if it’s someone I really like, something I really want to witness firsthand, or have to attend for work-related reasons, I usually spend the whole time just waiting to leave. Riding it out, you know. The movies, that’s a whole different animal, but this little sidetrip, this is an occasion, and even I don’t know exactly what it is I think I’m celebrating.
I rise into the late spring afternoon at Houston Street, and I’m struck right away by that sensation of instant familiarity and utter alienation, not so much like bumping unexpectedly into an old lover as meeting them for lunch when you finally think it’s been long enough, then realizing that there’s not enough time in all of eternity to put the right distance between you and your own tragic archeology.
Has it really been so long? Years? I wander through these streets, the former parameters that defined my narrow world when its borders seemed to be at their most expansive, unable to shake the feeling that I’m out of place, judged as such by every stranger I flash past, wrong and everyone knows it. Guilty, somehow. Of insignificance, irrelevance, a relic of a world where birth certificates were tangible items, something you could hold in your hand while you ran your fingers across the notary’s noble stamp, an existence thoroughly approved. Nevermind I was never quite worth the paper mine was printed on. Just another stumblebum who never lived up to his full potential, never made good on all that early promise, wasted the miracle of his own being on a steady diet of edutainment, junkfood, and day-to-day oblivion.
Everything’s the same but improved, changed for the better in all the wrong ways, a whorepaint façade caked on over the wrinkles and seams and cracks and cosmetic surgical scars. Much of whatever I used to love about this brownstone village has been subsumed by inevitability, and replaced with something suitably in keeping with the Generican Spirit of same-faced franchise that defines the latest age. What’s left is irrevocably altered, overtaken by the gravitational forces of progress and the tidal pull of a generational shift. Fastfood infringement forcefully overtaking the multiethnic urban stew, repackaging and selling it back to us with clever names and a drive-thru brusqueness. Death to the neighborhood and an end to any sense of place.
All hail the McDeli.
On Avenue A, I stumble across a true relic, a sorry site that managed to survive the bullet train of urban evolution more or less intact, beneath the radar, between the wheels. The Pharmacy, which used to be just that, sometime in the late middle of the last century. My local watering hole, before I fled for safer climes and a one-time only wife-and-child scenario, how I came to be living alone and more or less forgotten in the ass end of Queens, out past the useless ruins of JFK. Many an empty night spent here, spent like a shell casing. Stepping through the convenient time portal of an alcohol blackout, night after night of a life that belonged right where it ended up, on the cutting room floor. Let the others cuss and kiss and fuck and fight. Content in a corner, a quiet observer of the distant humanity swimming boozily past my eyes behind aquarium glass. Fodder for another unwritten novel, another searing expose forgotten on the brain’s back burner.
I press my hand against the cool filth-frosted glass of the front door, letting out a lungful of regret and mild anxiety before I push on through.
Entering a public space has always been a tricky endeavor for me, that moment, half-true and half-imagined, when all eyes in the place seem to swivel my way. The sudden awkward lurch of feet that no longer feel like my own, like a quadriplegic learning to maneuver his prosthetic exoskeleton, or a screenwriter taking the stage at the Oscars. Out of my element in the out of doors. Probably why I like the movies. The anonymity of the darkness, immersion in a crowd of likewise lonelies, one cave for many hermits.
I sigh again on the other side of the threshhold, a soft breath of relief, utterly beneath the notice of the only other souls inside, the bartender and a blobby gray shape over at the end of the bar near the jukebox.
The girl working behind the bar—and I say girl because if she’s eighteen I’m a Pulitzer Prize candidate— is cute, too cute for the dayshift, which means she’s got to be brandspanking. I try a smile, expecting nothing, which is exactly what I get. She doesn’t even ask what I want, just stares at me blankly and keeps dipping pint glasses into a sinkful of soapy water, waiting for me to come up with something, a joke, perhaps, or a line, or just an order. I can tell which she’d prefer, give it to her straight, no chaser, no charm, no hint of personality to muddle up an otherwise utterly conventional and yes, generic transaction. Forget for a second that we’re just two people, the only two people–no wait, there’s the grayish blob–but anyway, ostensibly two humans sharing the same choked, mist-clouded airspace. Nevermind that we could treat each other as something other than consumer/provider, two automatons enacting a process of exchange and nothing more. Anyway, that was the level she wanted to keep it, and who was I to argue? Just customer number whatever, maybe only the second of her whole customer service career. Either way this was no auspicious occasion, that much was decided the moment I wandered in her door, written off in an instant as just another lonely broken man with nothing better to do of a midweek afternoon than drink his life away in her indifferent presence. Not that she was wrong, but it wasn’t like I was a regular, here or anywhere, not anymore. And anyway, hadn’t she practically sneered at the sight of me? Am I that bad? Am I sneerworthy? Or did paranoia throw that mask on her pretty, featureless face in the long shadows of this insufficiently and emptily nostalgic New York afternoon? And is it wrong, nevermind futile, of me to long for a long-forgotten and quite likely mythic era of manners and mores and other interpersonal societal conceits?
So I order a seasonally appropriate pint of pale ale and kind of watch her without watching her, as she’s the only reasonably interesting thing in sight, if you don’t take into account all the tawdry knickknacks and knock-off gewgaws that are somehow meant to infuse the place with a sense of premillennial authenticity but only serve to underscore the nationwide urban franchiseness of the establishment. A medicine cabinet full of old steel and glass syringes, shelves of ancient prescription bottles, brown and nearly opaque, their rubber droppers rotting in murky and mostly anonymous liquids, yellowed and crumbly quaint cardboard signage advertising the wondrous modern miracles of a bygone age, every last bit of it minted in and factory shipped direct from Hong Kong, or Korea, or Taiwan, or Indonesia, a subsidiary nation of hapless worker drones supplying the world with its endless stream of unnecessities, the petty trifles meant for nothing more than set dressing in the places where we waste all our excess of precious time.
She’s the kind of girl, I can’t help noticing, that I really would have gone for forty, thirty, maybe even twenty years ago. Anyway, sometime well before this particular make and model rolled out onto the showroom floor. Does that sound crass? I know it does, and you can bet that doesn’t win me any points in the woo-pitching department either, not with women her age, my age, or any age in between. She’s got this wild hair, newer than new and I thought for sure they’d done everything there was to do with hair way before the century flipped, razored here and braided there and dyed and streaked and cornrowed and blown out and it’s like fifty different hairstyles all at once, it’s the United States of hair, a freak-flag for the fuck-you generation, and I’m more than tempted to give it a one-finger salute. Yet for all this inspired contempt part of me wants to fuck this girl more than it wants to see another sunrise. I sip my beer and try to think about something else.
The blob at bar’s end is slobbering on itself as snorts and snorfles and odd grunts that could be construed as words or at least attempted phonemes emerge from its face at irregular intervals. I’m not being rude here, not trying to at least. I honestly cannot tell, not from this distance and probably not with a photon microscope, whether this being is male, female, indeed if it falls anywhere on the gender scale. Just barely recognizable as human, distinguished by its ability to remain upright on a barstool and nurse some toxic concoction. Its very existence seemingly defined by its patronage. Suddenly, it shouts something, hi-viscosity spittle spraying from its facial orifi, sprouting bulgy black optical orbs from the folds of its flesh as if from nowhere. It’s trying to communicate with me, I think. It seems to be angry. I realize I’ve been staring. Bourgeois politeness failing me at a none-too-crucial juncture. Anyway, I look away. I hate rudeness. Really. Giving, receiving, the whole cold contemptuous process that is fast becoming the most common form of direct eye-to-eye interpersonal communication between humans. I want to go over to this person, whatever it is, to apologize, shake its hand, buy it a drink, give it a hug. But I imagine that it smells. Whatever. I certainly didn’t mean to piss it off.
I finish off my ale and order another one, injecting a hint of distant familiarity into my words. Nothing. The bare shoulder is so cold I swear I can see steam pouring from its pores. If I haven’t won her over yet, I’m never going to, I guess. The masochist in me thinks it might be fun to stay all night, or at least until shift change, gathering a beery buzz and testing dusty methods of thawing out the icy femme. If tonight’s a no-go, I can come back tomorrow. And if that’s a bust, the night after. And so on. Not to bed her, not for some silly notion of conquest, empty-headed Holowood bullshit tradition of the octogenarian and the ingenue. Just so she’ll see me. And so I can see her. Two human beings coincidentally sharing the same time and place on a planet teeming with more than enough facile, soulless uncaring shits to keep the machinery of social exchange slick and thickly lubricated. The realist in me knows that tomorrow night I’ll be at home watching lo-beam digiporn in 3D surroundsound. I could always invite her to join me. Write her a love poem on a napkin, slip her my analog digits with a wink and nod. Watch her heart melt from a darkened doorway up the street with a zoomlens ocular implant I neglected to mention earlier out of slight embarrassment, and which I assure you is nothing more than a necessary tool of the journalistic trade.
Amazingly, when I look up from my second beer and this prolonged reverie, the boozy blob has sloughed off its barstool and shambled out into the deep blue evening, leaving me, my barmistress and a boisterous platoon of East Village neo-hipsters, an army of replacements for me and my kind, or more likely, the children or even grandchildren of my replacements. They throw me a glance each, like they’re sharing it, passing it down the line, a glance that sees right through me to the mirror behind the bar where they can check their hair. Looking them over, I realize in an instant what I’ve always really known: I was never this hip, never really hip at all. Just another poseur who came late, left early, and made an impression on no one. From the way they greet my unfriend, the way they grope and fondle and otherwise violate her–not at all against her will–it would seem that every one of them is her boyfriend, or girlfriend, a sudden gust of chummy intimacy sweeping through the deepfreezer and bypassing me entirely. My long-ago nights here at the Pharmacy were never like this, or rather they were exactly like this, me, perched alone in a reality once-removed, a stammery social clown unable to locate a point of entry into the sweet warm bosomy banquet of true fun.
I slink off my barstool, leaving a ridiculously generous tip, as if that will somehow compensate for my lameness, like I can buy my way out of a gray and shambling existence. Who am I kidding? She’ll sweep that stack of Sacajaweas off the bar without the barest thought for the man who left them, barely remember if it was a man, or anyone, or if that money just appeared from nowhere, another chunk of her inheritance, a payout of the gathered interest on her natural blessed birthright.
Outside, it’s one of those curious spring evenings where the temperature drops an unexpected ten degrees as soon as the sun skips town, and I zip my threadbare jacket against it. Jesus is back, towering over the skyline, or maybe it’s just the young Kris Kristoferson, selling me jeans or a sportcraft or a new brand of carcinogen-free tobacco products.
I’m halfway to the subway when I see it, a hulking mass in mid-collapse, a gray shape with black orbs disappearing under fleshy lids as it lays itself down on the sidewalk in slo-mo, Its fellow citizens, those that share its short stretch of the world, hurry past or skirt around it like more trash to be avoided, ignored, to be picked up later, by itself or somebody, else left to rot. I hesitate, who wouldn’t, then I go over and kneel beside it. I was right. Beyond human, and even that’s just a suspicion based on lack of contrary evidence, I still can’t tell what the hell it is. Whatever it is, it seems to be having a seizure. I feel around for what I hope will be a hand, find it, a rough, dry, paw-like appendage, and give it a squeeze. I try to tell it, this person, that everything’s going to be okay, even though I’m none too sure. The black orbs have rolled back to pure white, and a pinkish tongue is lolling from blue/black lips where fresh spittle mingles in the corners with ancient crust and cankerous scabs. All of the panic and fear of this being seems to be flowing from that paw and into my own hand, up my arm and straight to the center, the hungry pit, gorging myself on all that anxiety as if it could provide some kind of sustenance. I try to let go but I can’t, not because its grip is too tight; mine is.
I look up from that fright-twisted face, its life visibly receding, and reach for the arm of a passerby, a man in an expensive trench coat who narrowly and deftly evades my entreaty. Please, I’m saying, and a couple of people actually glance over. Could someone…Please… Over and over that word… You’d think I was speaking another language, the response I get. I tap the hard ridge of bone just behind my ear with my free forefinger, the new universal indicator for Can I borrow your phone? or something. Please, someone, call…somebody. Call…whoever you call. But no one hears me. Every one of them immersed in their own life-or-death banalities, babbling away into the aether, aware of the two hunched and desperate figures in their path in only the vaguest, most peripheral way. They can’t help. They’re all somewhere else. Tapped into the infinite invisible infomist drifting all around us. A world that I’m not part of, a wave that crests above me but never breaks, billions of potential friends and neighbors who won’t give me a second glance because they know without even having to consider that I’m not, never possibly could be, one of them. Swooning from my own desperation and the ebbing pulse of this seizure-gripped being’s death-terror, my eyes futilely scour the nearest reaches of Houston Street for something called a payphone.