I knew I would be back. I don’t know how long I’ll be here for, maybe just a month, maybe two, three… but since the day I left New York I was able to foresee that this city would be my final destination in the US. I wouldn’t allow myself to leave otherwise. The circle must be closed.
I remember Paul Auster, the Saab of American Literature, saying that he would never move out of a city that had about 75% of immigrants. I abandoned her two years ago, and I’ve had the feeling of lacking in something ever since. Now that I’m back I realize that I don’t love New York as a husband loves a wife, but rather as an indomitable lover; a kind of lover that will always be there, but whom I can’t be with too long.
The moment I cross the Williamsburg Bridge I feel like I never left. I also feel that nothing can ever be the same. The York is always New. Not even the people who spend all their life here can fully understand this place. It could even be said that, as in any complex system, the more you know the more ignorant you feel about it. After this month I’ll have spent exactly the same amount of time in New York as in Los Angeles (a year and a half in each), and I still feel like an ant in both of them.
After hitting the merciless asphalt jungle comes the realization that during the past three years all my fellow grant receivers have somehow found their way, and they seem to be pretty comfortable with their well-deserved stability. In contrast, I have moved out from three different cities and recently quitted two jobs. Right now my perspective in life is a month of wild craziness, followed by a return home to a country in crisis…. As usual, I can’t help questioning my decisions and myself when I see other people’s destinies. But no matter how deeply I might regret my choices, I can’t really give in to convention either; as schizophrenic as it may sound, some sort of daemon tells my pessimistic self that I’m making the right moves, whatever “right” means anyway…
One day, checking my luggage in search of quarters for the laundry, I find the papers from which I randomly decided whether to remain in Oakland or not. Just for fun, I play the lottery once again, and the draw insists in that I should have stayed there. Maybe I shouldn’t have left. Maybe I’m destined to go back to the Bay someday.
It’s Sunday. I read the newspaper in bed, on the phone, with one eye. I see that Vila-Matas, the author whom I’ve been trying to copy for years, is doing a virtual chat with his readers. Anybody can pose questions. I want to ask something. He has been one of my major literary references since adolescence. He actually inspired me to start writing about my life and journeys. So I submit the question: “How much of your work do you consider travel literature?” I expect something spectacular like: “All of it”, or “None of it”, or “This is a stupid question”, or “Writing is mental travelling”, or “You are an idiot”.
But I don’t get any feedback. However, someone else asks another absurd question about travelling, and Vila-Mata’s answers like this: “Traveling is good, but not always”. I take it as an advice for me too. He actually hits the spot. I needed something like that. I’ve been wandering around for so long that by now I’m starting to suspect it isn’t really benefitting me anymore. Maybe I’m losing my references. Maybe I already lost most of them somewhere along the way… After 4 years, beyond half an Odyssey, it might be time to go back to Ithaca.
Man is an animal that exaggerates.
I move to Grand, the only L train stop in Williamsburg I haven’t lived at. Now I have a check on each of the subway stations. I’m a complete hipster, I guess. At least my dreadlocks still keep me looking like one. The moment I cut them, I will need a few more tattoos or much thicker glasses to keep up. But I’d like to think that I don’t care about that anymore…
In just two years Williamsburg has changed completely. The gentrification process has generated brand new skyscrapers at the shore and a few tall apartment buildings in front of each L train stop. My current home, for example, is a World War I building surrounded by three recently built blocks of condominiums.
The phenomenon has to do with the newcomers populating the area; namely rich kids studying at NYU who have almost nothing to do with the people that turned that area into the coolest place on earth. Also, the initial hipster pioneers have either left due to the rent increase or settled in an old rent apartment, and now regret the holes left by their facial piercings. The urban tribe, with all its totems and tattoos, has started to fade, and nothing seems to be there to replace it yet. It won’t take too long though.
“Men are the new women”, I read on a shop window at the Meat Packing district. It is in a red brick building, close to the High Lane and surrounded by paving stone streets spotted with dark puddles. The already classic Sex and the City look. I can easily picture Sarah Jessica and her girlfriends fighting those stones with their retardedly high heels. I can see their gay friends helping them and laughing out loud. I actually see that very scene reproduced at the line for the Standard Hotel. We are all trying to get into “Le Bain” an exclusive nightclub on the top floor. When I get to the door we realize it is gay night, but that doesn’t change anything. I’m honoring Dionysus no matter what.
As soon as I get in I realize that the place is packed with girls. For some reason they love being surrounded by gay friends, they feel better understood, less harassed, and therefore more liberated. Unaware of her mythical status, I meet Sophia Lamar, a transgender icon from the eighties who thinks that the party sucks compared to the ones she usually plays the diva at. She tells me that the best thing about the place are the bathrooms, where you can take a shit with a birdsong soundtrack and views of the Lower East Side skyline. You will also be observed by the neighbors as your shit goes down the toilet. At the terrace the floor is synthetic grass, and there are waterbeds scattered around. Sophia tells me that she loves being surrounded by gay men because they have great taste. “I just tend to refinement, and cities with substantial queer concentrations have that, it’s a fact”. The drunkenness erodes the night and I end up stepping into a black puddle like a Sarah Jessica, before throwing myself up into a taxi. Brooklyn is only 25 $ away.
Joe’s Pizza. The best pizza in the city, in my humble opinion. I look at the floor and see a twenty-dollar bill. Just there, hanging out, all alone. Nobody else sees it, not even the guy who’s standing by it. I pick it up discretely and look at the guy, who is totally oblivious to what’s going on at his feet. I ask if the bill fell out from his pocket and he looks at me with surprise. “Yeees, I, I, I think it fell out of my pocket, just now, yeah…”. The precise moment I read in his eyes that he is not the legitimate owner of the bill is the exact second he takes it from my hand. He thanks me for the twenty-dollar gift, and I go on to order my slice of fresh mozzarella pizza. At first I regret what I just did, but after a few moments I start feeling proud of my instinctual reaction. Since I was a kid I wanted to be a good person. Despite my countless defects and mistakes, I’m glad to see that at least my gut reaction, my moral inertia, is that of a person I would approve of. Regardless of the dangerous cynicism that occasionally besieges me, sometimes I surprise myself acting like someone I might want to be friends with.
New York in the summer means insomnia. It feels as if I didn’t fit inside my body, as if it was one size too small. Energy excess. Oxygen shortage. Suffocation. I wake up in the middle of the night with the face right in front the air conditioning. It’s impossible to sleep under these circumstances. Onanism could be a good idea; I need to let go. I need to relax. Then I watch Sahme, a film about sexual obsession, thinking that it may calm me down, but it actually increases my primate instincts… It also leads me to understand that cultural production is progressively getting closer to my generation, that the style, the themes, the characters, start to be similar to what I’ve been exposed to. Everything is talking to me right now. The brother-sister attraction reminds me of the final part of Musil’s Man Without Qualities, and how unleashed desire is an unfightable enemy. Freud now shows up to tell me that everything in life is about sex. How about sex then? What is it about? It’s absurd; it’s about reproduction, that abominable mirror of existence. Sex is about sex too… An end in itself… That moment of anesthesia… The culmination of painful desire… Be careful what you wish for… Topics and unfinished thoughts… Mental masturbation…
I go get some beers at the deli downstairs. It’s already 3 am. The night is brutally sultry. The clerk, from Yemen, opens the door and tells me that “life is hard”, just in case I hadn’t noticed yet. I nod in agreement. He is smoking inside; he doesn’t care. It’s a Wednesday. I take the beers and, as I pay, my inner voice tells him: “Yeah, there’s a lot of bad moments, but I guess we have to learn to enjoy them too…”. The clerk looks at me with a bizarre expression, and with utmost solemnity, he utters: “If you don’t like winter, move to a warmer country”. There are two kinds of adaptation: accepting + staying in, or rejecting + moving out. Both are equally hard, but the second brings about more life, I guess.
Bryant Park. Summer Film Series. Roman Holiday. Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck. Billy Wilder. The place is packed. People set up pick-nicks, drink beer and sweat copiously. Girls watch the movie with a smile on their faces, especially at the beginning and the end, when all the royal paraphernalia is displayed. They sit on their buttocks stretching their necks and blinking a lot. They open their eyes as much as they can and whisper among each other. I’m fascinated by the feminine world, by female gatherings in general, by big groups of women. There’s something adorable in how they worship that movie all together. They want to be princesses; they want to have their hands kissed.
When Audrey Hepburn recovers her royal condition I turn around to see people’s reaction and realize that all the girls (80% of the crowd) have their face shining, fascinated by the aura of not only the princess, but of cinema itself. Even though it is just a technical reproduction of a film that was shot almost sixty years ago, this cathedral of light has kept all its magic. The same actress who’s playing a princess in Rome played an aspiring actress just a few streets from Bryant Park, at Tiffany’s… some months ago I watched Breakfast at Tiffany’s at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science in LA and I saw the same illuminated expression on the old ladies watching it. Watching Hepburn again makes me understand with how much power the myths of the fifties project themselves to the present. Just two weeks ago I saw people cheering right after Marlon Brando’s famous line in On the Waterfront: “I coulda had had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody”. Instead of a bump, which is what I am. Let’s face it. I haven’t found my way yet. Cinema has just been a detour…
It’s Saturday and plans start popping up… But I decide to stay, to not do anything, and try to enjoy the circumstance of being alive. Celebrate life by doing nothing; value it just the way it is. Out of the blue, someone calls inviting me to go to Pennsylvania and help with the Obama campaign for universal healthcare. I accept. I want to be part of this country’s destiny…
That very same night I step on a rusty nail while walking on my rooftop and have to go to Woodhull hospital to get the tetanus vaccine. I hear that they recently amputated the wrong leg to a patient there… I talk to the nurses there to see what’s going on. All I get is New York sarcasm. There’s a woman who doesn’t want to take her clothes off, another one who doesn’t want to get dressed… Too many people, too few doctors…. 5 hours go by before I get the shot. They only charge me 15$, because I qualify for the homeless aid. Now that I experienced the need for the so-called “Obamacare” I won’t be able to help campaign for it…
But despite all that I’m still grateful. I’m actually grateful for everything, for having the life I have, for not being in the situation of so many patients that go through Woodhull’s doors every day… All the suffering that life can produce… I remember Annie Hall: “Life is divided between the horrible and the terrible, and I should be grateful for being just among the horrible…”. We have the natural tendency to always think how things could be better, but not the opposite. Existence is a kind of balance between gratefulness and regret.
The only thing the world will never tire of is exaggeration.
A self-diagnosed Munchausen syndrome would be the paroxysm of hypochondria. It could also be a way of curing it by reductio ad absurdum. The paradox of contraria contrariis curantur, or the equally paradoxical: similia similibus curantur, would make someone who diagnoses him or herself with the syndrome of pathologically inventing syndromes automatically sane. A little dose of bad can be good.
I started to overcome my own hypochondria the moment I started extreme self-diagnosing, almost ridiculing myself to the point of absolute self-awareness. That is a similar paradox to the kind of freedom drawn from the resigned acceptance of total determinism.
According to Aristotle, Tragedy is healthy because it supplies a little dose of anxiety that helps us channel pity and fear, and therefore compensates the difficulty to let go emotions in a civilized society. In a more rational dimension, Borges and his horror pleni, his games of reason that allow us to experience Funes and not have to assume the consequences of being him. We just know it’s there, that there’s that possibility. Little aggressions. Catharsis.
Xavier Rubert reminds me that impatient people like myself tend to try to say everything every time they talk, and that, by doing so, always end up saying the same; and always wrong.
I move out, again. This time my final destination will be the “Sitcom”, a friend’s apartment nicknamed like that because a ridiculous amount of characters have appeared in it. I myself have been one of those characters a few times. I actually slept there once… on the couch… with two more people. The place has two floors, an editing station, a recording studio, an interior balcony, and is located in North Fifth and Berry, right in the middle of hipster territory, again. I can’t escape myself.
But let’s admit it, I basically rented this place for one reason: Carnapau II. I wanted to put an end to my American history with a carnival. All the people I love in New York show up on a Saturday night at the Sitcom. There’s a watermelon filled with rum, cigars and cigarettes being smoked, masks, glitter, wigs and loud music being played. Thanks to the analgesic effects of alcohol I reach the moment of loving everybody, despite everything. One of those moments when one is able to accept the differences, the difficulties, the tragic essence of life, and embraces the world as it is. Oceanic flow.
But none of that is really applicable here. We are a group of privileged youngsters with our minor problems trying to navigate a fast changing world. A few of us recently formed the Boat Team: Sara, Marta, Franc and I. We got drunk together in the middle of the Hudson. We got close to Miss Liberty and saw the skyline from absolute freedom. Mr. Sunday’s parties kept us connected and now the four of us end up on the rooftop contemplating and the immeasurable magnitude of Manhattan in the distance. I feel such a connection, such optimism, such love, that every bit of hangover is justified. Everything bad in life disappears with gregariousness and friendship. Little communities. Teams.
I propose the New York Film Academy to teach a class on Greek Tragedy and Cinema for them. It will look good on my C.V. and besides that it will help me clarify what I think about that… I studied there, it’s a very particular school, but it serves a purpose, (especially for people like me, who don’t really have one).
I end up teaching a few seminars and showing some shorts I sneaked out from Sundance. They love it. I feel good. Seeing those kids trying to do what I already gave up on I think to myself that: “Life is what you do while you aspire”. But I pretend to live all the possibilities in life… like Simenon I want to live it all. Vargas-Llosa once said that people love literature because they would like to live all the lives, but they can barely live one. Thus my irrepressible tendency to read and write…
“Dad, how much is 14×7? I don’t know, google it”. I hear this and understand that soon I’m not going to be surprised by such an answer. When I google it not only I receive an answer, but it also comes in a calculator. I’m offered both the fish and the rod.
I decide to go back, for good, pretending to start a new life. I have the neurotic syndrome of the perfect new beginning, that ideal utopia projected in the future… But deep inside I know it’s going to be exactly the same, no more, no less, just my uncomfortable nature in a new context. I’ll be able to start from scratch, yes, but I’ll probably end up in the same place where I am now. Or maybe not… Who knows where I’ll end up after I realize that I don’t fit in my own country either… I feel like a salmon, swimming against the river flow, going to my origins, where a sort of death awaits (the worst economic crisis of the last 50 years). Is not that I like swimming against the current; it is against the fish that I like to swim. It is hard even for myself to understand my own moves. I’m constantly trying to interpret my actions in order to understand my character. That is, I guess, one of the reasons that justify this futile autobiographical exercise…
Some sort of intergalactic super chord must have broken today. Something is wrong with me and I don’t know what it is. I’m sure there’s a name for it: a symptom, a syndrome or just a plain disease. I don’t know what got into me, but I know that it is my last day in the York and that I have a pilgrimage to do. I will visit Kurt Gödel’s tomb in Princeton.
“Curt” in Catalan means “short”, and Gödel was the mind that short-circuited formal logic forever in the Vienna of 1931. I jump on a train and go to New Haven in a quest to find the graveyard of this apostle of paradox. As I get to the cemetery, I read another apostle of paradox through his alter ego Johannes Calimacus:
“The supreme paradox of all thought is the attempt to discover something that thought cannot think. This passion is at bottom present in all thinking, even in the thinking of the individual, in so far as in thinking he participates in something transcending himself”.
With this passage Kierkegaard (Borges once pointed out that his last name means “garden of church”) makes me think that in my fragmentaries, as in my life, I only know how to stop when I stumble upon a paradox, when I create an unsolvable problem to myself. At first I tend to feel desperate, but then I give up and leave it alone until it dissolves… I like leaving things unfinished.
As I walk around the graves of the many luminaries buried in Princeton I understand, better than ever, that is through something incomprehensible like Gödel’s theorem that we can attribute a starting and an ending point to reality. That is the only Archimedean fixed point we can aspire to. If we want to be coherent, we will always be incomplete. And now, as Dante does with Ugolino, I will leave my thought eating itself here… The flame can’t stop burning.