A fellow called Chris Knapp in The Paris Review, not me. Maybe I should tweet about it, so we both get some attention. And there again’s that jealousy. But it’s really not, not for talent, at least. No, only for its rewarded absence. In that offense does the injustice lie. This Knapp fellow’s talent isn’t absent, it’s abundant, at least in this instance, making me almost afraid to read anything of his else, else that sense be tarnished the way the wrong reader—reading aloud—can undermine a story or the way a new person can start off fine and then spoil themselves. Till we get used to it.
Thought and form of near-Proustian endurance, I’d call the writing, Knapp’s, in partial mimicry, and I think of a should. I should write that story, with a similar pace and cadence, of that day, a single day made from many, that day on the subway deep down dark underground, observative, inquiring, mind absently hyper-aware, of the woman—thin, not tall, heading home from work—who told the young boy of let’s say nine sitting across the aisle from her with his mother to sit his ass down on the seat instead of standing on it and shuffling and squirming and trying to hang from the hand straps like they were monkey bar handles while his mom sat could-not-be-botheredly on the seat beside, her listless gaze moving without an ounce of interest from phone screen to the space before her.
Only the woman didn’t say it like that like we were all thinking, didn’t say sit your little ass down, didn’t say to the mother, with whom she was clearly not acquainted, get your fucking kid under control but pleaded with him instead, exercising a nowadays lost civic responsibility to others, not so much ignoring the mother as not bothering to ask for anything as ridiculous as permission, and pleaded firmly, with grandmotherly kindness, making it a game as if there’d be some kind of treat at the end, talking about how she’d cry if he fell and hurt himself, and his mom would cry too, and that other lady there beside her too, though I think the rest of us had our doubts about that.
Over the mild narration of Teju Cole’s Open City through the headphones feebly plugging my ears I witnessed this exchange and considered the rare, sweet humanity of unseen but often felt barriers being broken down by first principles like compassion and fearlessness and remembered my own feelings of inauthenticity at speaking and even writing in a certain, I don’t know, literary way, recalling Proust again and ramblingly wondering if Knapp was listening to me narrate the way he wondered if Zadie Smith was listening to him at that café in Paris in the story he told, perhaps nodding in quiet assent or even offering a bit of telepathic applause as though encouraging me to continue in spite of arbitrary boundaries, mores, and expectations.
If anyone were listening—Knapp, Smith, Cole, the ghost of Proust, it doesn’t matter, apparently so long as they’re in a position of relative authority or standing to me and my predilections—I might tell the story of how three stops later a forty-something man in baggy jeans and generic football jersey t-shirt hybrid that should’ve had FUBU on it but didn’t stepped out of 1996 and came aboard looking gruff and tough and a little unhinged and slapped the first hanging hand strap he encountered and sent it spinning around the head-level (for him) and eye-level (for me) handrail like he was someone and like everything else in the world, especially that strap, was nuthin, a gesture which, without need of analysis or even conscious absorption indicated quite diametrically the obverse. Oh humanity the beautiful, the cordoned, the perplexed.
I was going back to work on a Friday afternoon, red lining from The Loop, as it’s called, after seeing my therapist, K, who, through my own mild psychoses and manias—overstated, truly—I had come to consider, I realized upon actual consideration as I watched and reflexively caricaturized this man, as something of a friend, oddly, a very particular kind of friend with a very particular kind of role: the person I paid to listen to me once a week, no strings, no expectations, no personae, only paid-for presence, which she did adeptly deliver. I was standing by the left-side doors, feeling far less cynical than that explanation just sounded, left in terms of the train’s direction, which, if you’ve never ridden the El in this grand city, or, I assume, many other such urban subways or aboveways, is typically the perspective from which each announcement of the coming stop identifies the side whose doors will open next.
Mr. 1996 stood by the door he’d just entered, on the side that would in fact open next (Clark and Division), leaning back against the car’s aluminum wall and lifting up a foot to place against it like he’d been out of fucks to give for years, likely since his adolescence arrested, likely in the late 80s, according to my projections. In that posture his eyes remained locked, save for the occasional, menacing glance around the car, on a young black woman with a narrow, high-cheekboned face and sullen, stoic expression sitting in the aisle seat of the backward-facing first row to my left. To her right, in the window seat, sat a tattooed white man who she might’ve been with but wasn’t, as I learned when he alighted with me two stops later. I had the distinct sense that this same mistaken supposition was behind 1996’s violently lustful ire and contempt for the young woman, and the barely-under-the-breath mumbling he began whilst grabbing his sagging denim crotch and baring his mouth’s left front corner of teeth in a wry snarl of a grin that seemed poised to turn to a bark, maybe even a bite.
Lust and contempt, swirling, mounting into a storm of sheer hatred. His tone rose steadily and it became possible to discern muttered semi-coherences of societal critique, such as the extent to which he believed white people were the “real terrorists” and I instinctively felt it was not my place to tell him to shut the fuck up and leave that woman, leave everyone, alone. Such are the effects of an American upbringing, of coming of age in a climate of heavy socio-economic and racial gerrymandering that produced at least two generations (his and mine) overly (sub)conscious of navigating an imagined community of starkly contrasting, distinctly separate but connected neighborhoods just like those of this city, linked by avenues and public transportation, our great equalizers. Visit Chicago sometime and you’ll see what I mean as soon as you leave downtown.
Though we stood no more than five feet apart and no other passengers stood between us and on any other day I could easily have drawn his ire, he never even glanced in my direction and thus all six feet and five inches of me and my upwardly-aspiring lower-middle-class white privilege continued to remain as if invisible to him, unseen, which, it occurred to me, often happened in my life in situations of conflict, whether potential or realized, not because, I mused, I shrunk from brutal, aggressive energies but because I simply stayed put like I belonged there, remaining both very much within and outside such scenes in an inarticulable manner that unfailingly appeared to commute itself rather magically to even the simplest, meanest, ugliest of minds. Or it was just luck and I should tone down my ruminative elaborations. He never did aggress, though, not that I saw, not then, only talked his hateful talk at the young woman, from whose expression the initial pigments of fear had blended themselves into repulsion by the time my stop was announced, but she never broke her focus on a nonesixtent point of nothingness before her, never even fleetingly acknowledged that he had the nerve to be alive.
The tattooed man and I got off at Clybourn, exiting through the verysame doors that had allowed 1996 to enter, and I hoped the young woman would be ok sitting there alone in her scanty white haltertop in the middle of a scattering of other strangers who were by virtue of little more than chance traveling in a temporarily shared direction, largely oblivious to one another’s travails, even while in their midst. I wondered what Knapp thought about matters like invisibility and sleepwalking and how he’d put them and whether the little boy, still through all that evil staredown and blank, disgusted stareaway, being coaxed by Her Majesty the Sweet Lady of Ordinary Kindness to remain seated for the good of us all, would grow up to be like 1996 and stamp his feet in the sand after his initial arrival upon the shores of adulthood, harboring resentment and anger that would continue to grow and fester unaltered and stagnant for years, even decades, never permitting him to venture inland, or if a moment like this with an ordinary deity would imprint his soul and help him consider love and freedom and what those things might truly be and where and with whom and how they might truly be achieved. “If you’re too loyal to your own suffering, you forget that others suffer too,” I conveniently heard in my ears as I climbed the stairs from the tracks up into the sunshine at approximately 3:21 in the afternoon in June, pondering cosmic perspectives and all the ways I, too, fell short, got stuck, only appearing to move.
I went on my way and my thinking moved to how I might one day do the writerly thing and tie this all together, linked by connections found and made, how Knapp thought of a thing as momentous and mundane as his path, struggling to reconcile that unknown otherman’s ability with what seemed, through my scant researches, his relatively young age—and I don’t mean relative to me—how he came to have a piece published in The Paris Review in the first place, with a blurb at the back with all the other contributors stating “Chris Knapp’s work has appeared in the New England Review and the Los Angeles Review of Books. He lives in Paris”—with his wife, he tells us in the story. Maybe it’s a hoax, I thought, adhered to routine and the aloofness it affords, especially at its in-between times when we suppose we know what’s next but similarly suppose we just haven’t gotten there yet.
Why don’t I send a “piece” or two to the New England Review and the Los Angeles Review of Books and marry my girlfriend and move to Paris instead of heading back to the office and a several-hour pause on all the things I imagined I’d write about and do and become. As I thought of that pause, I realized that sense of it, once so overwhelming, that such pauses equated to nothing at all but lost time, nothing but wastes of time I’d only ever retrieve if and when I had the time, ironically, to go in search of it like Proust did and if illness was in fact a form of privilege, though Mahler, I learned through Cole, called it a lack of talent, a notion only a truly privileged man could entertain, whether with or without humor, was now merely a thought, and a rather silly one at that. I wasn’t ill, not certifiably, only at times afflicted, and for a strikingly peaceful moment I basked in the relief of being out from beneath those too-familiar feelings of frustration and wastefulness the way I basked in the instance of sunlight that poured through a gap in the clouds, one step at a time, feet carrying me west along the concrete sidewalk on the south side of North Avenue, making connections as columns of cars streamed by, doing their bit in the city’s choppy dance of perpetual motion. I found myself quite content with my present inability to go and sit down somewhere quiet to write like Knapp, whoever he was, wherever he was going, understanding I was always already heading down the path of my story, any story, and beginning to see how it was writing itself, talent be damned, laughing inwardly at my halting, unfailing desire for permission to begin speaking.
Audiobooks and people, I thought, they each take a bit of getting used to, but in opposite directions. Mr. 1996 seemed like nothing but a living, breathing relic of a time and attitude I could very much remember till he set eyes on the young woman, and from that point on he plummeted into pure ugliness, present as ever, as more of his insides came out and spilled around the people in his immediate vicinity. Narrators of audiobooks, I’ve come to find, almost invariably seem worse to me at the outset and then get better—they take some getting used to. They can’t do anything right at first, not a single thing, from voice to inflection to cadence to rhythm to accent to enunciation. Who are they to interfere with our reading, to tell us how this should sound. But after a time, usually, the sounds become a voice and the voice blends with the story and makes it something else entirely and that might just be where freedom lies, regardless of who thinks they’re better than whom, who sees themselves beneath, and who I am to say so.