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Wednesday, July 31, 2002
By Paul Ford
“One of the blessed crowd.” Also, Yeatsian economics. An essay.
I have never placed or answered a personal ad, but, at intervals, they fascinate me. On a weekend day in January, 2002, I went onto Salon's personal service the first of two times, to look at the messages.
I was there, in the office of my mind, to place a personal ad for a fictional character, and to make him as abrasive as possible. But why pretend? I was there because I was lonely. I half-filled out an ad, felt hopeless, gave up, and proceeded to reading the site, looking for women 10 miles or less from 11231.
About 3 pages of miscellany in, most of it sort of sad and familiar, someone jolted me - her subject line was "wishing for the cloths of heaven." Which means:
Aedh wishes for the Cloths of Heaven
By Yeats. The repetition and the consonance of the last few lines - you can only whisper it by the end, and if you are me you end the reading of it with your mouth a little open, almost silent. It fades in the final syllables. The curtains are slowly lowered to coincide with the sunset. The excitement of the allusion was that I'd only read this poem a day before, and it produced the sort of glowing recognition that I feel with certain sentences by Don Delillo, or the doctor stories of William Carlos Williams.
Of course I clicked, and opened her file. She described herself a “do-gooder lawyer,” 30, and her photo was in black and white. She sat on a bench in a garden and smiled, attractive and confident. There was a question asked by the form: “Why should you get to know me?” and her answer was something like:
Because I've worked out a lot of things, and as a result, I think I've become a pretty interesting person with a lot to talk about.
And I thought, I need to write this person. It cost a few credits to do this, which I could buy with a credit card. A price on loneliness. I backed out of the page, and right below the do-gooder lawyer was another amusing profile name. I clicked on it, and saw my ex-girlfriend.
I hadn't spoken with her in months. I didn't recognize her right away - it was a strange picture of her, in lipstick, looking older than I remembered. She was looking away from the lens, bare-shouldered, without a shirt. I knew the camera she'd used.
I took a moment trying to decide what to do next. Then I read the ad in terror, checking the turn-ons and turn-offs for references to me, expecting to see my faults listed as explicit turn-offs, for the turn-ons to be a list of qualities I lacked. But there wasn't much specific; mostly she listed the bands I never cared about and registered her desire to have children. We'd never discussed this, but she was 5 years older than me, and her friends were filling up with babies, so it must have been there.
I went out for a walk to think it over, and forgot about the woman with the cloths of heaven. I came home and called some friends. “What were you doing on the personal ad site in the first place?” one said. “You can't condemn her.” But I wasn't, I really couldn't, it was just a shock to see her there, once so important and now just an another anonymous seeker - like myself - except I was satisfied that she was single.
The next afternoon I went out with a new friend and told her all about the personal ads. We got drunk and after a few hours, sitting in a bar at dusk, we made out, and we walked around the dark of late night Brooklyn, and I fell in love like that. I didn't ask her up and she didn't invite herself, and she took the A train back to her apartment in the city.
She had just split from a boyfriend of 9 years, was still living with him in an uncomfortable apartment limbo. I was working a tech writing job in downtown Manhattan, and I would sneak into the bathroom in the afternoon and think of her while leaning against the wall with the light off, my heart beating. Then I would write long emails, the kind I wrote in college, which said everything but. I wrote them hoping that what my words would be like a vase, that what I did not say would become like the emptiness inside a vase, that she would see this hollow and want to fill it with herself. But my words were not like a vase. Or even a bucket.
She said, “I don't think I can make any promises,” and I said, “That's all right; I'd just like to keep you in sight.” Two weeks later I fell out of love, and a month after that she moved to Germany, back with her family. The day before she left I embraced her, standing by the 2nd Avenue stop of the Ftrain, and said, “keep me informed.” She promised to do that and went off to close her bank account. I walked home low in spirits.
Then, last month, I remembered the do-gooder lawyer, and I went back to find the ad - my second time in the personals in a year. Of course her ad wasn't there. My ex-girlfriend's ad still was, though. I didn't look at it, this time.
That ends the story, what little there is. It has a plain moral, if you go in for morals: take action when you see something you want. Don't get distracted by the past or by vague hopes - or even by what appears to be there and immediate in the moment. But I missed that lesson, and so I have to make do with a smaller, less sweeping one: I am compelled towards Yeats-quoting Brooklyn women who work for non-profits. It's good to know.
Like the lovely do-gooder lawyer, I've also been working hard on myself, so that I might also be worth knowing, and more than the sum of my neuroses and fears. As a consequence, somehow in the last few months the loneliness which was surrounding me like an aura has vanished, to be replaced by a new comfort in my own skin, barring the occasional week of frustration when I have multiple bicycles stolen. I lift weights. I wear an old T-shirt and a pair of jeans and putter around Brooklyn. My hair is growing back in, wild shocks of it sticking up. Since it's grown in there's much less gray to be noticed. I'm not as old as I thought I was.
Somewhere in the last few months I stopped asking what do I need? I didn't find an answer, just stopped asking. I'd been after the cloths of heaven, sure that if I had them I'd gain the world's heart, the lover's heart, comparing my life to that of millionaires and geniuses and finding myself unworthy. From 1995: five Internet startups, grand theories, complex relationships. I wrote, in 1999:
The only sustaining ritual in my life is work, the coursing flow of handshakes, meetings, proposals, bound together by language and emotion. I wanted to tell him of the fear I feel because my skin is going bad from sleepyness and New York air, the crinkling at my eyes, the gray hairs, the feeling that I am decaying, and that there is only one chance, that I cannot come back as something better. (Tourist)
Once I even went to Dinner with a Billionaire. It's a long story, but I learned today that he's facing prison time for insider trading, his fake-lithograph picture in the morning's Wall Street Journal. He told me I was an impressive young man. After dinner, two years ago, I sent him an email, hoping he would show some interest in me, give me a job. He didn't. I wanted the cloths.
A week ago on Atlantic avenue I saw a woman, 60 years old and with brown wrinkled skin, wearing an open-backed dress and a huge wrapper of brown cloth on her head. I've thought of her every day since, one of the most wonderful things I've ever witnessed, her walk, pride, her neck, the bareness of her skin against the heat. Or the way rain presses down tall grass, or the smell of other people, their monkey-grimaces and primal smiles, and myself right in the middle, one of the blessed crowd, the music we make.
All these people, all that noise, thrilling - not every moment, but so many moments, more than my fair share. And at the same time I am ashamed of my joy, ashamed to take such pleasure in the things: Magical Lottery Number books, the hug from my friend's daughter, the complexities of computer programming, the voice of my nephew on the phone, dogs with soft ears, afraid during a business meeting because I want to yell out in happiness to see these other, new creatures, find out what the man talking about Intranets is really thinking, if he's sad or happy, have him tell us how proud he is of his son and daughter, age 6 and 9, get some good dirty stories.
I keep this hidden, under the bed, often even from my friends, and they hide it from me, but I see it in them as well, their faces - wrinkling a bit around the eyes as we all get older - gleaming at the discovery of a gargoyle watching from a ledge over 5th Avenue, or their rapture at the spice in the sauce on their vegetables, or describing, again, the scene they love from a film with their mouths open and eyes shut from laughing.
It is simply a feeling, I know. Means nothing. There are rats and cockroaches, nuclear weapons, failed foreign policies, and bicycle thieves. But I remember my grandfather, whose funeral brimmed with hundreds of people, the church overflowing, the funeral director losing his patience. My grandfather could not have been loved more. He fished, collected minerals and stamps, made jewelry, belonged to Lions, and made a fruit salad with each bit of orange, apple, and grape cut to the size of a matchhead with his eternally-sharp fish-gutting knife. His hands were always a blur. He wanted to see how it turned out, loved science fiction on television, and was going to live to see 2000, all those zeroes. He was not perfect, but he was perfect to me. He didn't make it by a few months. I saw it in for him. I put a glass into the air.
The same Wall Street Journal issue with the picture of my billionaire acquaintance, who now faces a decade in jail, had on its front page news of the ridiculous, pendulous stock market, the swinging price of the cloths of heaven. I gave, give them up, but not entirely - you have to live, you have to save for retirement - and being poor I have only my dreams, for my friends, for whoever wants them, for you, for the young woman on the bench in the personal ad (whom I will never meet). Yeatsian economics: sure, here are my dreams, and please tread softly.
This essay was partially funded by Dean Kuwata.