I remember a teacher calling my name through a fog of meandering thoughts, and seeing all the faces in class turn to look back at me as I sat there bathed in late afternoon light. I remember the teacher asking me a question, the same one she asked me before. Before I awoke from a delicious slumber among the dolphins, with everyone giggling. The question was, “Who was Washington, D.C. named after?” I said I didn’t know. “Could it be Thomas Jefferson, for example. “No. I don’t think so.” Abe Lincoln? “Doesn’t seem like it.” She went down a long list and I said no to every suggestion. Then someone kicked my ankle and said, “Washington!” “Oh, yes,” I said, “George Washington.” I stayed after school that day and wrote down the name Washington five hundred times on the black board. When I got through a long row of scribbled letters, she would erase it with a sponge and tell me to continue. I was aware that this “work” she assigned me had no point, no trace of learning whatever. I knew the answer all along, a silly question to be sure. I was being punished for drifting to the back of my mind to enjoy the strange, dreamy figures coming and going in my vision. A thick fog lay over the sea, which tumbled to shore just below me. I was discovering the beauty of solitude all on my own.
But Mrs. Vaughan, my third-trade teacher, was paid to make each of us suppress this inner theater. She wanted us to live in the arid plateau of consciousness, where we were made to listen and follow instructions, and obey her words. We did a lot of writing in her class, some of it interesting, most of it busy work. It was the busy work I liked best, because the more I did it, the easier it was to slink away from the tedium of the hour and discover that foggy coast where my mind was free to wander all the way to Europe.
Solitude is full of sea gulls and crabs scurrying out of the foam before it melts into dark, gray sand. The sea floor descended quickly into a realm of echoes and shimmers, of long gray shapes slipping out of one’s attention. I was inches above this world, hovering like a dragon fly, ready to dart away at the shadow of a low-flying bird. I was vulnerable, impinged upon by so many particles of sensation coming up out of the depths. I could hear voices mumbling, making an almost sense that sounded like my mother talking in the bedroom, or my father whispering to himself as he oiled his garden shears in the basement. I heard other voices as well, a neighbor’s scolding tone speaking to her son, who was my age. I heard a woman laugh in the void an arm’s length from me, as she took her lover into her arms and held him tight. I knew her from somewhere. She was a dancer in a club downtown, a stripper, who wore pasties and a G-string, and silver-lame high heels. And she wore this outfit home under her raincoat, and took off the raincoat to dance by herself in the kitchen with a cup of coffee spilling drops on the floor as she whirled around. Men stood in the alley and gazed upon her with infinite longing, and we could all hear her sing. I was only ten but I remember what we saw was forbidden. But I didn’t know why. She lives in the back of my thoughts and her voice is musical, even when she laughs.
When the boom box was invented and carried on the shoulder with the volume turned up to heavy metal, it made me think something profound was happening. Something that signified a fear of solitude, of an inner world. The music sounded like the machines on a factory floor pounding sheet metal into fenders and trunk lids, a kind of stamping-plant cacophony that was better than silence. You could hear the black kid blocks away as he moved in the rhythm of the music. Then Sony’s Walkman came along, and everyone had ear buds and a silent plastic box on their laps in the bus, or on the table during lunch. Their heads bobbed, their eyes were half-closed as they dreamed into the gaps of the song, the sharp-edged, often plaintive voices that tried to understand something about love or sex or despair. But the lyrics were always the same, and followed a close formula of rimes and thoughts, and the music followed a few simple chord changes over a nearly monotonous percussion. I never bought a Walkman. I never had a boom box or ghetto blaster, as it was often called. I understood the power it conferred on the owner; he was a source of magic, a fountain of hypnotizing syllables and drum beats.
When my father took the family car in for an oil change, the little greasy radio on the windowsill played the same monotonous pop songs, one after another. The mechanics were young and their jobs were mind-numbingly repetitive – a valve cover gasket, a set of points, a wire reinserted into the heat sender, a clogged radiator hose. Always the same, never anything different or challenging. They were all high school drop outs in their early twenties, chewing on a tooth pick, wearing two-day old bristles, shocks of black hair hanging in their eyes, hollow cheeks and white teeth, tiny scabs on their fingers and wrists. The music was their only escape and no one could turn it off. Not even the boss. It had to play constantly during the morning and afternoon, until closing time. It said nothing to them; it was the noise, and the diluted syllables that kept them from experiencing the full extent of their barren lives. The sound was a drug that dulled their ears and made their minds go flat.
There was no question that being young was to be miserable. One had no money, no power to say no, no way to change things for the better. You swept floors at the drug store, stocked cans in the supermarket, washed cars, or typed in an office the same letter over and over, changing the date to the next day, then standing at the copier to run off memos. You didn’t want to know your thoughts; you avoided what you already knew and didn’t want to hear it play back to you as you wasted your time making just enough money to keep you in gas and blue jeans, enough money for a movie and a date at the burger joint. That’s all you lived for. You had no idea that the future was already laying plans for the same kind of tedious, low-paying jobs for everyone, young or adult, starting out or waiting to retire.
The future was not going to promise you anything different. You were going to sit in a swivel chair in a room full of other workers and perform some menial task and wait until five o’clock. And if you let yourself drift, as I had done in class way back when, an office manager would know and stand behind you while you hurried through your busy work, fearful he would say, “Come with me.” You could tell he was behind you because your desk was suddenly dimmer and no one around you dared look up. The floor boss was just like the teacher I had; he was there to enforce an empty consciousness in which you performed some simple task for a meager paycheck.
So when the cell phone came into use, it was no wonder to me that every lonely, unhappy soul I passed was either gazing into the tiny window of the phone or holding it up to check for any messages or unanswered calls. Now everyone seems to have given up on an inner life, a realm of voices drifting out of the fog of the sea.. There was the world of people like you all shuffling along with eyes averted, a world no longer interesting or worth exploring. Value and interest shriveled from a boom box to a wafer-thin electronic box you could slip into your shirt pocket or a jacket. No one could live without it. It was the only way to avoid one’s self and live in the abandoned daylight world. It possessed a potential for magic, but not much of it; it was the medium of a desired surprise, a change of minute reality. Nothing it could bring you would alter your life; but it wasn’t important to expect such a miracle. You were holding in your hand an object that would vibrate (if not ring) and open some fragile channel to the realm outside your unwanted subjectivity.
If you think about it, the daylight world we know is almost entirely made up of clothing and jewelry stores, delis and shoe shops, here and there a take-out counter of fast food, a newsstand with rows of cigarette packs and a few cigars. There was concrete and cracked sidewalks, parked cars, dirt, parched gutters, cops roaming around in patrol cars, security cameras over the bank doors, cold dark entrances to a movie theater, fire engine sirens in some other street. Everyone staring down into a cell phone hoping for a message, a vibration, a momentary escape from the sordid, stripped-bare reality that is now the modern city and the condition of modern life. I’m one of the few who saunters along without a phone, occasionally laughing to myself over some funny memory, or oddity I might notice around me. I love my solitude and wouldn’t trade it for anything. But I know that the culture I live in dreads solitude and punishes the criminal with isolation cells, and considers disconnection from the manufactured reality of TV and radio, cell phones, the internet the worst torture to inflict upon some recalcitrant inmate.
To be alone in this society is to die in the arms of your own self, an unthinkable condition. But the moment a storm cuts off a city’s electricity, and the darkness of night sweeps in, that’s when you see people looking around as if for the first time, suddenly, momentarily liberated from their fear of self. The dark comforts them, and makes a candle something momentous and beautiful. When the lights come back on, everything shifts to an alien world that you can only escape from by checking your cell phone for missed messages.