A Tenement Apartment for Ideas
Look how we are—
The raggedly pretty,
The eccentric many,
Gold in our veins,
Fear in our hearts,
And hope that glimmers in our glassy eyes
Shining back the colors of the street.
Let me be teal,
And you chartreuse,
And you a fiery pink.
And let us hope that when we cross
Our colors don't subdue
But bleed with vibrance
And the contrast between us
Makes the brightest me
And the brightest you—
All for that perfect Story.
Some nights I feel overwhelmed and affected by a profound mood, like a wild fire whose certain cause is always uncertainly defined, and with such matching heat and passion that I feel my entire self rendered, running free and clear. I am translucent, showing bone and marrow, an exhibitionist of hopes and sorrows. And I have no will to move the world but that it should move me, runny and delicate, and vulnerable to every sincerity that promises some depth, in which I might relearn my own profile, and for which I open all my secrets.
But sure as rain, with time enough, I cool. And in the night, dwindling embers turned to ash, my maudlin manners congeal again, so I awaken in the morning, thick and dense, opaque as the blanket that covers my face from the dawn. And though once I cried for some grand thing, now I lie against the cold morning, shameful and embarrassed. Who should see me so naked? And that I dared to show it. Who am I? And the perfumed self I was that still lingers faintly on my breath, smells now like a gasoline, a numbing sadness, a great regret, that I can never choose to simply be that self which shame had fled and made so free.
What's nice about the occasional camping trip or excursion into the deep outdoors isn't just that it grants us the soothing comfort of "mother" nature—an epithet which is as much propaganda as it is truth. Mothers, the nurturing life-givers, the founts from which our spirits erupt skyward to condense into our transcendent selves. A gentle and loving condition bestowed upon that world from which our ancestors emerged. But just as much as it can be nurturing, nature can also be cruel. And the balance it strikes can be no more judged than the artistic value of a sunrise or waterfall. Nature is what it is exactly so that it can be as it is. There is no greater intent for us to grasp at to lobby claims of favoritism. "Mother" nature just as easily feeds a warbling chick in the early dawn as it would tear it apart by the talons of a dusk cloaked raptor. And life bestowed is as miraculous as death is indifferent.
We do not rejoice in nature because it is forgiving and kind. We do because it releases us from the hazy confinements of the world which we have moved ourselves into. Because nature's cruelties are without malice and our survival of them breeds respect rather than enmity. A mountain climber does not hate the mountain that caused her so much pain. She reveres it, as much for its own awesome nature as for the transformed spirits of those who can reach its summit. Our communion with nature is not in seeking the shelter and warmth of a mother. It is to embrace the nostalgia of our trials as children. At a time when our minds were closer to our natural selves. And especially of the period when every new discovery revealed in some way the emerging reality that we could mold the world around us, and shape the consequences ahead of us. When a human being discovers that she can rely on her own self.
This is what nature offers to us, with its simplicity of purpose and unwavering indifference. We learn to turn inward towards the instincts that nature itself carved, alongside the canyons that whip across the land. And with them, we discover our own agency. For among the myriad marvels of nature, the greatest of them was to teach a thing to believe in itself, whether true or false, and from such miracles, we develop a self to rely upon. We are forced to reseek that primitive sense of discovery that comes from realizing what we can achieve when nothing else matters. That is the truest joy of visiting the outdoors, spending a night beneath the billions of shards of starlight, with the river's polyphonous monologue lulling us to sleep. It is in this world that we remember who we are, this world where we must be exactly what we are so that we can be exactly as we are.
As we walked towards the Spring St. uptown 6, we passed by a tall young man leaning against the matte green subway entrance railings. He pressed a small antique film camera up to his eye, stoic in the face of teaming pedestrians interrupting his line of sight. It wasn’t until after we’d walked past and hooked around to descend the staircase that I noticed the girl seated on the sill of a street-level door opposite the photographer. Her back was slouched against one side of the door casing while her thin legs were bent so her feet could rest against the opposite moulding, bracketing her crumpled body between the recessed architrave that hid her from the busy foot traffic just inches away. She held her phone casually in front of her face, elbows resting on her inclined thighs that flowed into two peaks of bare kneecaps exposed through the fraying tears of her black skinny jeans. She split her gaze between the phone screen and the camera lens, her fashionably waifish body in the practiced and aloof poise of an aspiring social media influencer, as if curling up in the early afternoon beside a shut door facing the sidewalk were some mundane SoHo pastime. We could only guess that it was a consensual photoshoot, though the voyeuristic gaze of strangers would probably not be far from the actual inspiration for the setup.
Down in the station, we swiped past the turnstiles and waited briefly behind the studded, taxi-yellow platform ledge before boarding the next 6 train. Stepping into the interior, we rode along in an older model car that had developed enough rust and grime on its metal trim that it would surely make any passenger who still remembered the novelty of that particular model’s introduction some thirty years ago feel irreversibly old. The train filled with more passengers at each stop, claiming its typical indeterminate mix of European and domestic tourists, Chinese immigrants, and passengers of various other ethnicities who all shared the defining weary mien of local New Yorkers. As the car filled with people, the pattering of their chatter grew like a rainstorm rolling in, until shortly after pulling away from one stop, a young and wholly innocuous passenger with a blocky frame and wearing a tattered baseball cap suddenly raised his voice above all the rest and began reciting a tragic plea for charity which outlined his desperate circumstance in such urgent detail as to reveal his inability to secure shelter for that very night—all of which was prefaced by the admission of shame that some panhandlers will lead with in order to imply some lack of familiarity with begging that would be more effective if it weren’t used with such prevalence. And as usual, the shock of his sudden monologue commanded the attention of every passenger as they all fell quiet with the awkward silent deference people momentarily give to panhandlers in lieu of any actual charity or attention. But once the man had weaved his way unsteadily up the car and out the doors at the next station, the passengers surely and slowly resumed their prior conversations, putting the recent encounter with an uninvited reality behind them and gifting even the lone passengers on board a swift return to the inconsequential banter that works like novocaine against the unnerving self awareness of being cramped together with so many strangers.
We clattered up Manhattan’s east side, tolerating the frequent stops along the local route for the comfort of catatonic inattention, all the way up to the 68th St. station, where we finally disembarked and surfaced with a small group of other riders. A pair of young women preceded us and walked ahead as we stood pivoting around in search of the Central Park treeline, which happened to be in their same direction. As we began walking behind them, they stopped and spun around—two plainly pretty girls in their early twenties, lacking the subtle apathetic self-possession of New York natives, and one of whom was wearing a gray sweatshirt with Nantucket written across the chest in a heavy collegiate all caps slab font. They reversed course, and as we crossed paths, I overheard the girl in the Nantucket sweatshirt relay to her friend in disoriented frustration, That’s why I hate the subway.
INT. OFFICE LOBBY — DAY
A typical busy morning at a Manhattan office. Mounted on a wall is a TV airing cable news coverage.
Officials continue to investigate the tragic events which unfolded yesterday at a New Jersey mall where a man opened dialogue with crowds of shoppers and engaged in civil debate. Reports estimate that close to 60 people were forced to listen to the mass-speaker before law enforcement intervened and ended his verbose rampage.
The president is set to make a speech tomorrow in the aftermath of what is looking to be the worst mass-speaking incident in the nation's history.
INT. OFFICE KITCHEN — DAY
A few co-workers are gathered around the coffee machine.
God, can you believe the news.
Ugh, I know. Such a tragedy.
It’s like every season, we get one of these psychos.
Well, you know these mass-speakings aren’t even the worst of it. I read that every day, over 30 people are engaged in debate-related conversations, most of which disproportionately affect affluent urban areas.
Yea, and you just know nothing's going to be done about it.
It’s the National Forensic Association and all these debate lobbyists buying off Congress.
Yea, but even if that weren’t the case, have you ever met one of these speech-advocates? They’re insane. You can’t talk to them about anything. The only solution they ever offer is to “give everyone easier access to quality educations so they can ‘defend their opinions’ in the event of an important discussion.”
God, that’s so true. I don’t understand why they can’t just buy a gun and settle their differences like the rest of us. It’s like arguing with people makes them feel important or something.
SEAN pulls out a 92FS handgun from behind his back and brandishes it casually in one hand while he sips his coffee from the other.
Yea, probably trying to overcompensate for something—if you know what I mean.
A fourth co-worker, CLARK, walks over to get some coffee.
Hey, what’s up guys?
Nothing, just talking about how mass-speakings wouldn’t be an issue if everyone just had a gun.
Well, I mean, honestly though, you can’t solve the problem by forcing everyone to own a gun. This is a mental health issue. There are tons of law-abiding Americans who legally engage in debates every day.
CLARK, are you messing with us right now?
Yea, man. Seriously. You sound like an NFA lobbyist. How much you getting paid to say that?
I’m just trying to have a serious discussion about a serious issue. Voicing your opinion is a Constitutional right protected under the First Amendment. You can’t just have the government force everyone to settle their arguments with guns. Do you seriously think that letting everybody walk around carrying firearms wherever they go solves anything?
Dude, calm down.
What? I am calm.
Listen, CLARK, it’s whatever if you want to debate in private, but… you don’t—you don’t bring your arguments to work… do you?
Free speech laws make it perfectly legal for me to bring my opinions to work and express them in a civil manner.
Whoa, dude. You’re using a lot of rhetoric right now.
I’m exercising my right to free speech.
CLARK, you’re starting to scare me.
How am I scaring you? Just because you don’t want to openly and honestly discuss an issue, you’re scared?
CLARK, stop. You’re at the office, man. You can’t just walk around speaking your mind like this.
Are you serious? It’s people like you who make it impossible to find a solution. If you think mandating guns will stop debates, you’re delusional.
Dude. He’s going off the deep end. I think he’s getting ready to say something dangerous.
ARRIE pulls out his handgun and ERIKA follows suit. The three of them train their guns at CLARK. A crowd of other employees have begun to gather around the incident, some of them cowering, some of them with their hands covering their ears, some of them ready to draw their own guns.
My god, CLARK. Please just calm down.
CLARK, I know things haven’t been great at home between you and Emily. I know work has been stressful lately. But you don’t have to do this. We don’t have to have this argument.
What the fuck! I’m just trying to talk to you guys.
What do we do? He’s trying to draw us into an argument. He’s not even hiding it anymore!
Just stop talking, CLARK. Stop trying to engage us!
You stop pointing your guns at me! I’m not the one in the wrong here! You—all of you–you’re the ones who are—
SEAN pulls the trigger on his handgun and shoots CLARK in the head. CLARK crumples onto the floor. SEAN is in shock.
Oh my god. Oh my god.
Jesus. Sean. You shot him.
Dude. You saved us. He was about to start a discussion with the whole office. Y—you’re a hero.
The other employees start to applaud. A smile creeps over SEAN'S face.
MATCH CUT TO
INT. EXECUTIVE OFFICE — DAY
CLOSE-UP of SEAN as he sits in a large leather office chair, his head tilted back and his eyes closed. He’s moaning softly. His head jostles rhythmically. ZOOM OUT to slowly reveal SEAN in a nice looking suit, sitting behind an expensive desk, masturbating in his luxurious private office. An ornate gold name plate at the edge of his desk reads “Sean Porter III, President, National Rifle Association.” Suddenly, the phone rings. He answers.
Hi, Mr. Porter. Sorry to bother you, but I have Senator Klein on the line asking about a donation to his re-election campaign.
Ugh! Fine. Put him through.
In 1992, Bill Clinton ran against George H. W. Bush during the presidential election. I was six at the time and had only been a US resident for half of those years. It would be many more birthdays before I or anyone else in my family, other than my US-born sister, would become citizens. Suffice it to say, I had little understanding or concern for what was going on, except as it applied to the Democratic allegiance of my teacher at the time. Authority figures are important in Chinese culture, and teachers rank high on the list of early-life authorities. I remember she had a Harry Truman bobblehead paper weight on her desk engraved with his famous quote, "The buck stops here." I had no idea what the quote meant, but as a six-year-old immigrant, it was more the oversized bobbling head than the political platitude that won my interest.
I was living in Hoboken, NJ at the time, a pretty left leaning city. The atmosphere of the area favored Clinton, and I think it must’ve subtlety influenced my own sense of how things were meant to be when he eventually declared victory over the Republican incumbent. A six-year-old immigrant doesn’t give two shits about reading lips or new taxes, but I can guarantee they will give anything to feel like they fit in.
Four years later, Bill Clinton ran for reelection against Bob Dole. It was 1996, and my family had moved to Montville, NJ, a predominantly conservative township. I was ten and relatively new in town. Though still too young to understand policies or platforms, I was much more aware of the social tensions that politics tend to muster out of people. This time around, the affair felt more ubiquitous, like everyone had an opinion. Most importantly, I was keenly aware of the support Bob Dole was receiving from my peers, particularly my neighborhood friends and the "cool kids" whom I envied for their access to legitimate AOL accounts (oddly enough, these same "cool kids" would eventually become my first introduction to Jay-Z and DMX, not the kind of music I imagine Bob Dole would approve for tweens). I remember their support for the Republican challenger felt very threatening to me because it directly conflicted with the happy memories of Clinton’s first victory that unintentionally became part of my childhood. I didn’t understand any of the talking points, but Clinton had been the president for the majority of my life in America, and the world seemed fine to me. I remember the long albeit furtive sigh of relief I enjoyed when Clinton again clinched that election.
Years later, I revisited those strange memories where politics managed to briefly sneak its way into the formative experiences of my childhood, awkwardly nestled alongside memories of prank phone calls and anxious nights of praying for snow because I hadn’t finished a book report, and I became aware of a shameful realization that has strongly influenced my political thinking ever since.
In 1996, when I secretly rooted for Clinton, it wasn’t because I was a liberal, a Democrat, or a progressive. In fact, it was the very opposite sentiments which ironically drove me to favor the liberal candidate. I was being fundamentally conservative. Without policies or platforms to guide my judgment, I was relying solely on past experiences and a fear of change. For me, Bill Clinton had come to represent a good, stable constant in the political arena. The only reason I didn’t want Bob Dole to win was because I didn’t want the familiarity of Bill Clinton to be taken away from my world. It had nothing to do with policy, beliefs, platforms, or reason. It had everything to do with maintaining the setting I had gotten comfortable telling my story against. Clinton was simply the way things were. This, I realize now, is the very essence of conservatism. You can look it up on Wikipedia if you’d like a deeper analysis. What I’ve come to realize through those childhood memories is that Conservatism isn’t defined by the policies or parties you support, but rather the other way around. Conservatism is a basic desire to hold onto the familiar and traditional. And sure, political parties, ideologies, and platforms have arisen from that primal desire, institutional symptoms we now carelessly label conservative, but the truth is that Conservatism doesn’t belong to one party. It is a reliance and preference, regardless of practical benefits, for the way things have always been, and in that way, it can afflict Democrats and Republicans alike.
I often think back on the fear I felt during the 1996 election, that somehow the world could only change for the worst if things didn’t play out along the track I’d grown accustomed to riding. That simply because Clinton was the president, he deserved to stay the president. I still enjoy marveling at the irony of my naivety. But these days I also wonder, if I hadn’t been confronted by that serendipitous dissonance between established party politics and fundamental philosophical underpinnings, would I still be clinging to candidates because they felt like the comfortable positions to support? Would I just be using policies, parties, and platforms to justify what is fundamentally nothing more than a desire to maintain my own sense of continuity? And how many people out there have still never had to confront the possibility that the reason they lean left or right has nothing to do with politics, and everything to do with keeping their inner child reassured that the world will never change in ways they don’t understand?