by Eric Le Roy
We move among them much of our lives, especially people of the cities. At first, when young, we dive in, intrigued and enraptured by as yet unknown entities in which -- like vines of limitless fecundity -- we hope to entwine ourselves. (Some will be poisonous.) Surely, we imagine, as we head out of the station and enter the boundless flesh fabric of New York or London or Tokyo or Moscow, there will be someone there just for us, waiting to be found. We are as Dionysius in a vineyard.
And sure enough, arrangements are made. We always meet somebody. And then somebody else. And somebody else after that. It is this accumulation of somebodies that defines what we end up as, for better or worse.
The crowds of our lives.
When I used to live in Bath, England, and was suffering through the final stages of a marriage I had proved too young, restless, alcoholic, and immature to handle, I thought about what to do. Back then, blind (drunk) romantic that I was, all the big English cities, simply by their names, held great fascination for me. I would sit and say these names: Wolverhampton, Leeds, Manchester, Newcastle, Liverpool, and, of course London (which I already knew very well). Mantras.
So I thought: what if I were just to cut up a piece of paper and write the names of these cities on different scraps and then put them in a box and draw one out. Purely a game of chance. The idea was that whichever city I pulled out of the box, I would go there to live. No second thoughts, no second guessing, no second chances at a different slip of paper. Just go. I would start a new life there. Within a few months I would have a new job, a new girl, and a new set of friends. It was exciting to think about it, though it never happened.
I remember, however, that a serpentine thought crawled into my brain and was more than disconcerting. This is because I realized that no matter which city I chose and went to, the same basic things would happen. The only difference would be that all the people would have different names and faces. Of course, random events being what they are and popping up as they do, I might get killed in one city and survive in another. But in the meantime, what would I call the revolving images in the crowds, the legions of shifting people, and the lottery from which would emerge those women I’d call “Darling”’ and ‘“Honey”? -- all of whom would just appear, like jack-o’-lanterns out of pumpkins or smiles formed from the wood of trees in the forest.
It really bothered me, and it has never stopped bothering me, although by now I realize that it is all a bit silly; nor am I the first person to have thought of such a thing. It’s the same old ‘What if?” question that torments almost everyone sooner or later. Well, I’ve been through a lot of What if’s and my disquiet has never been because of greed alone or the wish to ‘have it all’.
In fact, I think it is the opposite: not needing the ‘many’ as much as finding ‘the one.’It is rather because when we stumble upon the right new ‘partner’, all bets are off. Past disappointments evaporate. Passion bubbles like Vesuvius yawning fire in the morning. All kinds of wonderful resolutions for the future dance in the air like doves in the daylight.
Above all, you feel like thanking something: God. The stars. The tarot cards. Because your initial impulse is that something -- some splendid force that chose you for Membership in the Happiness Club --must be behind all this, something must have made it happen, for you to have met this person that you know you will never quarrel with. And if (against all odds) the relationship actually works long term, and weeks become months which turn into years, you start to feel that this person is indispensable, and you cannot live without them. Like kids making a blood pact together (“Besties always!”), you nick your soul and let it bleed into the other person, and you seem to feel the other person’s soul-blood reciprocating and flowing into yours. Years become decades.
Finally you stand at the autumn gate where the brittle leaves of old, those that once ripened under rains and rainbows, are crackling, gasping, shredding underfoot, and from the distance, you can catch a whiff of balding winter. Your indispensable partner dies.
You mourn and walk in circles. What are you going to do? Suddenly, you realize -- a terrible conclusion -- as you wipe your tears: They could have been anyone. Anyone at all. I found her that day in front of the post office/in the supermarket checkout line/at the bookshop/in the park on a day I usually don’t go to the park; had I turned left instead of right….If I had gone there on a Tuesday instead of that Wednesday; had I attended BC instead of BU.....What made it happen? What intricate, atom-and-molecule bound chain of events led to that marriage of so many years?
She could have been anyone.
The death of the spell.
Then comes another haunting question: how well did I really know her? What was she really thinking about all those years? And if you happened to stumble across a hidden diary, opened it and read it, and you found a different person there -- one tremulously or boldly alive yet buried in this Book of Hours, discussing other ideas, problems, even other loves and obsessions, the nerve-endings of another individual recorded unbeknownst to you and now revealed….what would you think then?
….When you understood, like the back of a shovel smacking you in the face, that you were not the center of her universe, but were in fact sometimes an annoyance and a nuisance, sometimes of no more relevance than the mailman or a busboy at a restaurant, what then would you use to compose a summary of your life with this indispensable person? And what if she spoke, longingly, of some old lover who, in death or life, had gone down a thoroughfare, and she in her heart of hearts still wanted to go looking? But had settled for you.
This is what can happen when you pull an individual from a crowd.
But if individuals come from crowds like deer from a forest, so do these same individuals define the crowd, indeed melt back into it, recede away from you and into the embrace of some larger molecule cluster or cell of life when they leave your existence behind or wave goodbye at the train station.
I often have this feeling when I run into someone I have not seen for a long time and recognise how much they have aged (as no doubt they view me). It is especially true when I see a woman that I was once attracted to and who now has grown older and forfeited what it was about her visible youth that once drew me in. It is like the myriad events of her life: love affairs, marriage(s), children, hopes, dreams, disappointments, achievements could all be stuffed into a small thimble box and put in a drawer. I wasn’t there, so none of it really happened, right? It all went down in the blink of an eye between the time I saw her last and now.
I think it means that two things are at work: (1) we cannot take our own death seriously; (2) we can not fully take another person’s life seriously.
It sounds like a very presumptuous, selfish way to think. But it’s not intended as such; it’s just that we have no control over the eventfulness of other people’s truly private lives any more than we can fully accept our own obliteration. We live in different worlds, and our own world often echoes with sad soliloquies of “If only they could understand !” and “If only they really knew me!” Imagine -- to have been so apparently close to other people with such a paltry exchange of true understanding and such fickle regard for each other’s craved for intimacy?!
The word we have concocted to explain how we try to breach this infinitely distancing gap is called ‘empathy.’ In other words, if you have no legs and I have two or even one, I can sympathize with you, but I cannot empathize, I cannot say “I know how you feel.” Only if I lack both legs also can I say that authentically. Nevertheless, when the plane crashes, all 250 people aboard die utterly and completely alone. On the way down, there is no time for empathy.
Still, in brighter moments, we turn to the crowd for comfort and for collective identity. In my opinion, crowds give proof of the creaturely element -- whatever our ‘spiritual’ concerns or quests might be (carried out in deep privacy for the most part if for no other reason than they contain stuff we would never dare go public with) -- that is our dominant characteristic and the one many people most strenuously attempt to deny.
The truth is that we are animals on Animal Planet. Maybe we have souls and maybe we don’t, and I for one hope we do -- but our DNA is nearly a replica of the average Joe Blow chimp or pig and, proof of all proofs, we feel sheepish when we shit because, well, that’s what the sheep do, isn’t it? And they don’t have souls, do they? (The pastor told us they don’t.) Don’t kid me, guys. I am more like Francis the Mule than I am like Zeus, Jesus, or the Faces on Mt. Rushmore. Maybe I somehow thought I was, until, as occurred once on a hill in Bulgaria, I noticed a gypsy squatting and shitting by the side of the road and happy as a forest dog while doing it. It was one hell of an epiphany because I saw, with blinding clarity, the man in the creature and the creature in the man. And what is more, if there is a God, then it was God who pointed this fact out to me.
We just kind of hope God, who knows our dirty business, will nevertheless touch us on the shoulder and say “Hey, no problem, Buddy. I see where you’re coming from.” Nevertheless, maybe even to ‘hide’ from God as best we can, we send our own incomplete character into the crowd and let them do the work. We run with the herd, we fly with the flock, we swim with the fish. And, in so doing, we seek to absolve ourselves of individual responsibility.
Or we fight back, at first with anger, then with flagging hearts and withering legs. But the best -- or most bloody-minded -- of us, continue to wrestle with the dragon. I have never been what they call a ‘joiner’. And even as the years and whatever I might have accomplished -- either did or didn’t -- pass their path, I understand that I am unique after all, albeit in a sliver of a way, possessing the obnoxiously assertive individuality of a bean in a bag at the supermarket or a snowflake dancing like a wild man as it tumbles from the sky. Or any of the harmless germs that bray out into the air when a horse snorts or a frog croaks. Nevertheless, entirely unique.
I have seen the crowds gathered ecstatically at a Pyramid rally where everyone is certain they will soon be rich. I have seen them at a Tony Robbins festival (on the internet) and in Revival Tents in the Deep South. They display a collective certainty that banishes anything that could be defined as a private doubt. But what is really amazing is the abstract glitter in their eyes, a titanic Conclusion based on the flimsiest evidence, like pouncing upon a leaky raft on a tumultuous sea. Frothy joy in a little room where people literally jump up and down, in full awareness that they, without any efforts at all, now know the Secret and soon will be stuffing their mattresses with Big Bucks. Such is life among the humanoid bowls of plastic fruit and flowers. The ‘nouveau riche’ who don’t have a boot to piss in or a window to throw it out of. And never will, most of them.
It is the same shared experience of high-fiving and throaty bellowing that, in a starker, cruder way, illustrates the murderous jubilation of the mob bent on destruction, and the singular crew-cut and clean-shaven robot obedience of every army that was ever sent out to ‘liquidate’ the village: kids from your own hometown perhaps, but whom now you wouldn’t recognise amid the galaxy of ball-bearing faces in which they have lost themselves and which now represent an irresistible tide of Righteousness United.
It is the blind conviction that universal sameness can unveil collective truth that defines the day I stood atop the Empire State building and looked down at them -- confetti or just a bunch of ants? The crossword puzzle streets of a million squirrelly lives. At that moment, a mere teenager -- I felt no love for anything, only a vague, terror-based revulsion. Whatever the word people had ever meant before then, became gibberish.
I have had a crowd of racists corner me for dating a black girl (long ago), and I have seen the hypnotic bleak-blank stare of unbending hatred that a mob is capable of. In my dark dreams, I have stood before the stoning pit, felt myself being strapped to the stake and the electric chair, and I have looked intently at those crowds.I have listened to them howl with vulgar, unbridled mirth while the stones showered onto me or the flames engulfed me. The last thing I saw was their eyes.
These are the same people with whom I have shared mass jubilation when our team won the title in the last moment. I have hugged total strangers with a ferocity of joy that rarely happens otherwise. In fact, it is in the great sports stadium that 100,000 people can truly share a transcendent emotion that is Good. Or so I believe.
But it is always dangerous.
Thus, along the streets of the cities, putting aside the rancid taste in our mouths and nostrils of a basic cruelty that contaminates our wish to love -- which is the fury of guessing that we ourselves are condemned to never being loved the way we need -- we look for those who will be the champions of our lives, casting our eyes about the very same crowds that we are part of.
Often we don’t see each other. Sometimes we do. A glimpse or a lifetime -- that is what is at stake; such is the possible yield. Wolverhampton or Piscataway. LA or Timbuktu. So reach into the hat and draw out a name. The strangers are waiting for you.
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