When asked about how he’s able to tell which students have real talent and which are simply technically proficient, Isaac Stern said, “By listening. The really talented students play with a great sense of urgency.”
This, I believe, applies across the board, and not just within the arts. Inspired people burn.
The man with the clear head is the man who… looks life in the face, realizes that everything in it is problematic, and feels himself lost. And this is the simple truth — that to live is to feel oneself lost — he who accepts it has already begun to find himself, to be on firm ground. Instinctively, as do the shipwrecked, he will look round for something to which to cling, and that tragic, ruthless glance, absolutely sincere, because it is a question of his salvation, will cause him to bring order into the chaos of his life. These are the only genuine ideas; the ideas of the shipwrecked. All the rest is rhetoric, posturing, farce. He who does not really feel himself lost, is without remission; that is to say, he never finds himself, never comes up against his own reality.
— José Ortega y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses, 1929
In a theater it happened that a fire started offstage. The clown came out to tell the audience. They thought it was a joke and applauded. He told them again, and they became still more hilarious. This is the way, I suppose, that the world will be destroyed — amid the universal hilarity of wits and wags who think it is all a joke.
— Soren Kierkegaard, Either/Or, 1843
A woman just sat at my table in the library and started reading one of the dozen or so library books she brought with her. As she read she slowly lowered her head closer and closer to the page until finally, after three or four excruciating minutes, her forehead rested directly on the page, at which point she bolted up and exclaimed to no one, “Oh, wow, I’m sorry.” Then she stood and got a drink at the water fountain. As she walked to the fountain, I noticed she wasn’t wearing any shoes, just white athletic socks.
On her return she started to read Fear of Flying, but then, as before, she gradually fell asleep, this time ending up with her forehand on her hand.
She has a coat with her which is far too warm for the weather.
There’s a story here but I don’t know what it is.
When she arrived, she asked if it was okay if she joined me. Not everyone would do that.
She has dark hair which is up in a bun and she’s wearing a purple bracelet that looks like the sort of bracelet one would wear if one belonged to Livestrong or something like that.
My guess is she’s about twenty-five.
Now she’s slumped over sideways and has her left hand under her shirt, evidently cupping her right breast.
I’ve been trying to decide what if anything I should do. I considered passing her a note that says, “Are you okay? I ask because you keep falling asleep.”
I decided that if I did this, I would also pass her my pen so she could write something back. That way we wouldn’t disturb any nearby patrons.
She has a pink daypack.
It’s possible she’s on drugs.
Another possibility is that she hasn’t slept for days.
Yet another possibility is that she hasn’t slept for days because she’s on drugs.
Now she’s slowly, fitfully, waking again.
My main concern is that someone from the library is going to ask her to leave. The library people do that. And I understand why — they can’t have the library become a place for itinerant people to sleep. But at the same time the woman’s not harming anyone or causing a disturbance. And anyway, it’s not as though she’s sleeping continuously; she just dozes off when she tries to read something.
The breast-cupping business is more problematic. But at least she’s discreet about it. And it’s not as though it’s some kind of autoerotic act. My sense, rather, is that she does it for comfort.
Now she’s scrounging through her daypack for something.
Ah, and now she’s dozing off again.
Another possibility — which I’m dearly hoping is true — is that this is performance art.
I’ve decided not to pass her a note because it may lead to me being obliged to help her.
It’s not that I’m opposed to helping her; it’s just that I don’t want her to become attached to me. This is especially a concern because I’m seeing my therapist at 4:30, which is just a half hour from now, and it’s not as though I can bring her to therapy. So if she’s attached to me, she’ll likely end up standing outside my therapist’s building, in her socks, waiting for me.
Now she’s gone back to being slumped over sideways with her left hand under her shirt, cupping her right breast.
The position she’s in… I don’t think I could hold that position for more than 30 seconds; it requires tremendously strong oblique muscles.
Now and then I glance at the folks at neighboring tables, just to see if anyone is watching her. No one appears to be. Although that doesn’t prove anything. People could be watching her while pretending not to. Certainly that’s what I’ve been doing.
I’ve been thinking of writing her a note in which I ask her when the last time was that she had something to eat.
I’ve also been thinking of taking her with me to Bagel Bob’s. I always go to Bagel Bob’s before therapy because the bagels are served hot out of the oven and cost only fifty-five cents from 4pm on. But again there’s the issue of her socks. Although I doubt the guys at Bagel Bob’s would care about her lack of proper footwear. Also, who’s to say she even likes bagels?
Here, again, I’m concerned about her becoming attached to me. For example, say she doesn’t like bagels. At that point I’m going to have to offer her another food option, or ask her what she likes to eat, and it’s not as though I have time to wander the West Village with her in her socks and, who knows, slumped over sideways and cupping her breast.
God, how I hope this is performance art. Because if it is, it’s the best performance art I’ve ever seen. Maybe that’s what I should write to her: “You are a truly gifted performance artist with tremendously strong oblique muscles and I really like your socks.”
I noticed him long ago. He stands outside the entrance to the F train, at Warren and Smith. Sometimes he sits rather stands, his back against the brick wall behind him.
What he’s doing is begging, although I’ve yet to see him beg. He just stands there, silent. Often he looks down. He has no sign. I’ve seen him there at all hours, which has made me wonder where—and when—he sleeps. I’ve yet to see anyone speak to him, or give him money, or even look at him, although it would impossible not to notice him there.
Two days ago, at about 7am, as I was returning from Starbucks, I found him in his usual spot, but sitting this time. He had his head down and his knees up and was holding a lidded cup of coffee to his lips. He was completely still, as though frozen in place, which seemed entirely possible given how cold it was.
I moved closer, just to make sure he was alive. I watched his jacket for signs of breathing. There weren’t any.
I’m not proud of this, but my next thought was of what would happen if he was dead, what I would need to do—the police, the questions, standing there while his corpse was put on a stretcher and lifted into an ambulance or whatever sort of vehicle the city uses to transport the dead.
For the briefest moment I thought of walking away, of leaving him, or rather leaving the problem he represented, for someone else to deal with. But that was not, I knew, what I would do. This man was a man at the top of the stairs to the F train, as alone as a man could be, whether living or dead. I could not, and would not, walk away.
Instead I took another step toward him and extended my hand, touching him lightly on the shoulder.
“Sir,” I said. “Are you okay?”
“No, I’m not okay,” he said, looking up at me. “But it appears I’m still alive.”
I saw a policeman on the bus today. He had a puppet with him. They sat together in one of the side-facing seats toward the back, having a quiet conversation. The puppet appeared to be made of wood. He wore a policeman’s uniform with a little policeman’s hat. When he talked, his mouth opened very far. I noticed that his lips, which were bright red, had been painted on his face.
At first I couldn’t hear what the policeman and the puppet were saying, so I moved to a seat across from them and pretended to be reading a book. It turned out that they were discussing a little boy who had gotten lost at a party. In the middle of the party the boy’s parents realized that they hadn’t seen the boy in some time. The parents looked everywhere and called his name over and over, but the boy didn’t appear. Soon all their friends joined in, but they couldn’t find the boy either, so eventually the parents were forced to call the police. The officer who arrived was the puppet.
He explained to the policeman that he felt awful for the family, who were terribly upset about their missing boy. Everyone was. He said that there was a chocolate cake on the table that looked delicious but that no one was eating any because of how upset they were.
At this the policeman shook his head and said that everyone probably wanted to eat the cake even more than usual but were stopping themselves because of the boy’s disappearance. “It would have looked like they were celebrating,” he said.
“Oh, shit, you’re right,” cried the puppet, who then smacked himself on the side of his head, knocking off his little policeman’s hat.