Notes from Underground
Life as it is lived today underground at times feels impersonal to the point of sterility. This atmosphere results not only from the dire warnings loudly and constantly announced over the loudspeakers in every car, contrasted with wistful advertisements recommending schools for dental assistants or college degrees, but also the atmosphere of trauma within which we have regularly lived has dampened nearly any sort of spirit of connectedness that might be mustered. No one can remain light for very long under these conditions, while the efforts of the nightly tv comics elicit more of a sense of generosity and determination than shared hilarity. The homeless on the train asking for change this week seemed a notch more desperate than usual. Maybe it's just the full moon. Obama's promises of hope notwithstanding, now hovering on the edges of the future, even spontaneous pleasantness and brief polite interchanges, while intensely welcome, still feel strangely alien, or even surreal, after a few moments. Next to me, near my seat, two very small children cling to a vertical metal supporting bar and act themselves, that is, very silly. The parents smile warmly towards them and chat about quitting caffeine. The wackier the children behave, the more serious the passengers become, certainly not annoyed, since the kids were not in the least bit being disturbing. The children were happy, that was all. These moments reveal our social conditions far more than any news broadcast will ever be able to encompass. I think about the bank teller that I go to regularly who demanded I rewrite my signature to match my ATM card even to withdraw a small sum of money and the man who asked for five dollars for the seat he has vacated in Barnes and Noble. It was a try at a joke, and my silence made him add; "Only in New York." Crossing the street in Brooklyn after leaving the train station a car cuts me off rudely. As we hurtle towards a holiday unlike few in many decades in New York, it will be awhile until we feel the emotions that we might expect after such a startlingly uplifting election. I think about my visit with my old friend Alan today and how the conversation, once again, turned towards the Weimar era. We talked about novels by Alan Furst, Tana French, Joseph Kanon and Candace Bushnell that point up moral ambiguities in times like these, recent and long ago. On the bus home, I think the subway is a good metaphor for how I see this period. For the moment, most emotions have gone underground, and as we move inexorably down a dark tunnel, over a route we know all too well, while images of light at the end of that tunnel have yet to appear, we think about them as they have been suggested, yet we seem to endlessly slow before arriving anywhere, holding mainly to an attitude set to endure what is likely to remain a bumpy ride for quite some time.