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Sunday, July 26, 1998
By Paul Ford
It's okay. I was in a mood. Thanks for the phone calls and emails. Particular thanks to Ms. Teufel, who called offering to hire me as a houseboy. I couldn't make out your number on the answering machine--please call again.
It cheered me when I received three emails which read, "I don't know if you're being real or not. But it seemed real." That's the point of the Subway Diary--to fiddle with perceptions, blur the boundaries.
For the record, it was real, and your kindnesses were appreciated.
I'm a fictional character to most of you. That's one of the reasons my mailing address is on this web site; I want to demonstrate that I'm flesh and blood, as well. I do this because there is energy in the oscillation between what's real and what's written, and I find inspiration inside that oscillation.
It's why I write who I am--frustrated, boring, overweight--rather than who I wish to be. It's why I added sound, to put a voice with the text. When the Diary started to gain more readers, I almost took the address and phone number down. I did take down some entries about my job. But I like the aesthetic risks of truthfulness--even if I'm sometimes lying--and I want you to ask yourself, "do I know this person? Or do I only feel I know him?" It's why I write this.
I broke a rule and created yesterday's entry at work--but work, lately, has come into my home every weekend, and almost every night. Blurring the lines in the other direction seems a minor sin, and I typed without guilt. Prior to yesterday, I never wrote an entire entry at work, although I have sent ideas home via email, fixed little errors, or written rough paragraphs.
Work is the locus of my frustrations, but it is also valuable and edifying, and I am not inclined to find another job. Sometimes it can make me bored and exhausted and deeply frustrated. I started out with the best intentions, a very different person, on December 5, 1996. Yesterday I felt like I was lying in a puddle of my own hypocrisy and failings.
It was nine. I'd been there twelve hours, except for the hour when I went out for two drinks. Both contained rum, lime, and some mystery alcohol, and went straight to my brain, then crawled around between my ears. I have a high tolerance, but not for rum, and I felt far away on the lounge sofa, talking about advertising with well-dressed people whom I don't know well. I became drunk and depressed.
I went back to the office and typed for a while, then put aside the freelance copy and the "corporate narrative" for the accounting firm. I popped up NT EMACS, and clubbed my left hand over the shift key. A half hour of key-clicks later, as a single, pathetic, Sinead O' Connor-style tear rolled down my soft left cheek, my friend Lou called and asked if he could stay at my place. It felt marvelous to have a friend appear, suddenly, to remind me that I am likeable and good. He walked over to my office, then we went to Brooklyn and I set up his futon. He read the entry and laughed and told me I should definitely post it online. I spoke the entry into a Real Audio file, but decided it would be too much for even the most patient reader. Perhaps I'll put the sound up later, for future readers. We got to bed around midnight. I woke up at 3:30 AM and went back to work, feeling worn, with a sore throat, but better.
I'm going to put white Letraset lettering on my shoes, since everyone looks at your feet in New York, especially on the subway. The left shoe will have "R" and the right shoe will have "L." Both letters will face out, towards the reader. The point? You are perceiving me from your own angles. My left and right are not the same as yours. It's like a diagram of the eye, where the image is inverted after travelling through the cornea. That's how we you and I see each other, and we rely on the brain to straighten things out.
Trying to control that straightening process, I've been censoring the diary. Using it as a large research project in audience understanding. Worrying about being seen as sexist, or stupid, or dramatic. I've gotten a few emails complaining about staleness. The lack of edge, a weak-kneed quality to the prose. I agree. I've been trying to control who I am by controlling this web site. It needs to work the other way, with the energies of my life flowing into the words. And I should worry less about what you think.
Remember the entry from May 1? Where I joked about Nike creating May Day Sneakers? I played with the idea of "revolution," and the way the drama of cultural change is co-opted by advertising.
My money was placed where my mouth is, and I swallowed. The direct-mail copy I'm writing this weekend is about a "Revolution in Energy Savings."
It tells the truth. It's an honest, ethical campaign. It's a good service, and if I lived in the target market, I'd buy it. A copy writer can't ask for more. And I like that kind of writing; I pound it out like I stumped out yesterday's entry, with a different kind of excitement connecting the ideas.
But some time soon I must decide. Do I want to be the character in the May Day entry? Do I want to be the Subway Diarist? Some synthesis of the two? Or neither? Back to my Venn Diagram, where the boolean Pauls compete for dominance.
The Subway Diary asks its readers to have a relationship with the material. All writing does. But the Diary, because of its intimate-fictive oscillations, also forces readers to question their relationship with the material, to decide what's real, what's not, and what's between.
That's why I call this a "diary," even though you could easily make the Subway Diary into the Subway Journal, or the SubZine. A diary is more personal, it's more evocative, goofy, and embarassing than a journal or magazine.
Making you question my writing, I thought I was clever. But now, it's clear I need to ask myself the same questions I ask you. Who is this person? And which part of him is real?