ant hills & other thoughts

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Photograph: Bruce Davidson

I couldn’t tell you what I was hoping to find that night I emerged from the subway tunnel into the heart of the throbbing city just as the short hand on my wristwatch passed silently over the number twelve. I was a virgin to these streets, to anything bigger than myself and my nondescript hometown whose overwhelming insignificance renders it not even worthy of mentioning. A dark shroud covered the face of the sky, but you wouldn’t even notice if you didn’t bother to check; the sidewalks were daylight. Heavy, brooding buildings watched me silently from above and waited for me to move. People of most every type hustled down the indefinite pavement to some place or another, but didn’t bother to hesitate or even throw a sideways glance in the direction of the skinny, seventeen year old boy who stood gawking at the sheer magnificence of such widespread vitality which smothered the whole city like a bowl of ice cream with too much chocolate syrup. That was me. I couldn’t stop staring at the rich chocolate syrup that oozed from the sidewalk cracks, dribbled from ladies’ dress hems, and plastered the tires of the taxi cabs. It was electrifying. Mesmerizing.

Standing between Broadway and Seventh, at the very core of this disturbed ant hill, I waited for my buddy, Will, who similarly sneaked out of his undistinguished home in New Jersey to meet me here and experience life. I think I was intently admiring the great height of a street sign when Will’s familiar voice called to me from across the road. I watched him weave through traffic like a skilled huntsman who knew exactly his way through this concrete jungle. Will knew New York. Will was constantly strutting these streets through the ungodly hours of the morning, bumming smokes, meeting ladies who were much too old for him, and going to poetry readings, yet still slumping home before dawn, leaving no trace behind but his burned cigarette butts.

“Hey, man!” I greeted him. I tried to maintain the cool, assured countenance Will always portrayed, but inside my stomach and heart joined hands to do the jitterbug.

“Hey, Jack, I’m glad you came. For a minute on the way over I worried you would change your mind. You don’t usually come all the way out here to my town.” Will always said things like that. He’d read a book twice, declared it was his favorite, and claimed it as his own. No one had the right to belong to anything more than Will.

“Nah, I’m here. Where are we headed?” I inquired somewhat desperately as I bustled to keep up with my arrogant friend who had suddenly taken off down the sidewalk with unimaginable determination.

“I don’t know,” was all he said.

It didn’t take us long to find somewhere to go. Although I would have been content to simply sit and watch the neon lights dance outside the theaters, clubs and storefronts, Will was feeling intellectual that evening and we somehow ended up at some gallery for a poetry reading. We quietly slipped in the back and watched a number of eclectic poets step before the crowd of scholarly critics, passionate artists, and some sort of in-between folk, and recite their words of tragedy and regret, of dreams and life.

“Hey, you ever heard of a guy named Kerouac?” Will asked me in a loud, harsh whisper.

“What?”

“Kerouac? Jack Kerouac? He’s a writer. He published his book last fall called On the Road. It’s fantastic, really, completely superb. You ought to read it, you really ought to. It’ll change you for sure,” Will divulged, nodding his head sagely like some ancient Greek philosopher enlightening his naïve pupil to the wonders of the heavenly bodies or the mysteriousness of a thing called the atom. I listened and I spoke.

“What’s it about?” 

“Huh?”

“That book you just mentioned, what’s it about?”

“Well, it’s about this guy on the road, you know. I mean, you just sort of have to read it. I can’t explain it good.” Will waved the invisible question away with his mighty hand of imagined superiority then slipped out of the dim room as swiftly as a fox escaping from a watching eye. I couldn’t tell if Will wanted me to follow him or not. Sometimes he got in these strange moods where he couldn’t understand himself and talked a lot about ambiguous things like destiny, and purpose, and happiness, and if you tried too hard to keep up with him he would get even more frustrated. But I took the risk and followed him outside anyway. He wasn’t in one of those moods that night. He and I were actually on very similar pages. We were too restless to sit, too excited to walk, we had to run, and run, and run, and do something. Anything.

Eventually, after much running and a flask of something that Will pulled out of his coat pocket, we found ourselves in Central Park, screaming to the unseen stars and laughing at ridiculous jokes. We valiantly jumped over benches, daringly stole kisses from attractive yet unfortunately unsuspecting lady bystanders, and schemed up great plans to drive across the country to our promised land of San Francisco. “If this isn’t life,” I remember thinking, “then I don’t know what is.” I even began to wonder if Will had not spiked our drink with something else of his own, for that night I felt such a thrill I’d never experienced. Such a surge of adrenaline had never before been thrust through my veins as it did that night.

“Hey Jack,” Will said shortly after recovering from a violent bout of roaring chortles on a park bench, “Do you ever think that this is why we’re alive? Almost like our whole lives are defined by these intensely brief moments of exhilaration and joy? And we keep breathing just to get to the next moment? And everything in between them is like sleep, just like this odd state of dormancy? Do you ever think that?”

I thought about his inquiry, about how randomly it came about and yet how well it seemed to belong. I looked down to watch the short hand of my wristwatch hover between the numbers three and four. In fact, all of the tiny hands of my watch held completely still, which puzzled me. I threw my head back out of impatience and sighed.

“Jack?”

“Yeah?”

“Do you ever think about stuff like that?”

“All the time.”

“Really?”

“No.”

We spewed into choking fits of laughter.

I remember after what felt like hours, lying on my back with Will in the green counting the number of grass blades I could feel pushing on the surface of my skin. I didn’t reach twenty before I was hooked by some supernatural creature of the night and dragged through the layers of reality into a deep and satisfying slumber.

It is a strange feeling, waking up alone in an unfamiliar place surrounded by people ogling you with a bizarre mixture of concern and disgust painted on their plastic faces. The chilly dew had settled in my clothes and hair and I rose only to feel every muscle in my body scream in agony. They protested loudly and persistently the whole walk to the subway. How I found my way back to Time Square I will never really know. I guess I just felt some new sense of intuition about this city of mine, as if New York really wasn’t so big. Perhaps it was just one of many disturbed ant hills on the great plains of Earth. Perhaps there was more to life than cities and sneaking out. Perhaps the far and distance West held the secrets to living well. And as I stared at my disheveled reflection on the outside of the metallic subway door, an exhilarating thought passed into my brain, reviving my entire being and making me feel warm. Something about the word “California” whispered hope into the deepest corridors of my heart, and suddenly the idea of my nondescript hometown seemed sickeningly impossible. So I said to myself, “Maybe I’ll call Will, wherever he is, and we’ll go see what the West has to offer, in all her beauty.”

I was already halfway to Seventh before I finished the thought.

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