6 Aug

goodbyeIn David Foster Wallace’s epic, monstrous, some would say tortuous and incomprehensible tome, Infinite Jest, a film is made that is so addictively entertaining, that it makes viewers lose interest in anything else. They basically become vegetables who can no longer take care of themselves and who eventually die.[1] This plot is interspersed with a second one set in an addiction recovery center. The parallels are obvious: entertainment, especially mindless entertainment can be as addictive as heroin. But where drugs and alcohol have twelve-step programs, and whose uses are regulated by the government, entertainment is a consumable without oversight.

Wallace, who died in 2008, would have been mesmerized/horrified by our seven-year-later world of endless apps and Netflix binge watching. (Even the word “binge” borrows from the world of drug addiction.) Recently, a man tore a tendon in his thumb after playing Candy Crush all day for six to eight weeks. How different is he from those who view the eponymous film Infinite Jest and become completely oblivious to life?

I play Candy Crush (amongst other games) and watch Netflix, and have been known to binge watch Netflix in my spare time. So who am I to criticize? Well, who was Wallace to criticize? In the new film The End of the Tour (Final Grade: A-), Wallace, as played by Jason Segal, recognizes within himself the same addiction that he skewers in his novel. He doesn’t own a television, and claims that if he did he’d sit in front of it all day. When in Minneapolis, his idea of sightseeing is going to the Mall of America. When a fan invites him over to her place he asks her if she has a television.

His interviewer in the film, David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) protests when Wallace claims to be like everyone else. Obviously the man is a genius, he wrote a novel with 388 footnotes![2] Of course Wallace is not like everyone else: he’s an acclaimed writer, the voice of a generation, he won a freaking Genius Grant. Still, there is something quite Middle American about Wallace the man, as opposed to Wallace the writer. He loves TV, action films, junk food, fast food, driving. He’s a slob. His teaching method is affably critical rather than dickishly disparaging. He is decidedly middlebrow. For someone who could easily be a snob-and-a-half he’s a generous, kind, decent man, almost fearful of offending others.

At one point Lipsky asks him why he doesn’t live in New York. Wallace dismisses the city as a bunch of egos bumping into each other.

New York of course is that, but it’s also more. It’s corned beef sandwiches, pierogis, matzo ball soup, pho soup, borscht, egg drop, wonton, dim sum, dumpling trucks, halal trucks, smoothiemobiles, Shake Shack, Juniors, the Second Avenue Deli, Sardis, Katz’s, Chinatown, Little Italy, Astoria, Greek diners, street fairs, Soho with its tsotskis tables, Chelsea with its galleries, Brooklyn with its hipster havens, Coney Island, Yankee Stadium, wherever the Mets play, the U.S. Open, Madison Square Garden, Barclay’s, tourists and tour busses, jaywalking between trafficjammed cars, Pakistani cabbies swearing at Indian cabbies, the Met, the Moma, the Frick, brownstones next to vacant lots, 21st century ghettos pockmarked with 19th Century mansions, every language under the sun, a smorgasbord of words, a modern day Babel, the sexiest, smartest, richest people around, the ground zero of ground zeroes of the one-percent of everything in the world, not to mention The ground zero, fat cats rubbing elbows with anarchists, stray cats rubbing their heads against your leg, the abominations of smells, hello once again it’s trash day, stop blowing smoke in my direction, something died in my wall, the delicate subway bouquet of shitpissvomit mixed with the mélange of decaying homeless veteran, the stultifying heat of a hundred degrees and ninety percent humidity, the coal your soul becomes when this is mixed with a stalled rush hour train, the catcalls, the meat markets, the dates upon dates upon dates with vacant vapid waifs and meatheads, waking up at five when the garbage truck starts compacting your bag full of lo mein containers, pizza boxes, hot pocket pockets, the news that the mayor wants us to compost – compost! – what are we San Francisco? – we aren’t San Francisco, we’re New York with Central Park and Fifth Avenue, Macy’s and Bloomies, and you can just about look up everywhere you walk, just look at the old buildings, most of which need a hefty sandblasting, but still, look at the weird ornamentations, the gargoyles and grotesques, the windows where other people make their lives, people with more money than us, better jobs, better husbands and wives, more beautiful children who go not to private schools but private academies, who get to retreat in August when the oven is set to broil and the therapists have fled the nuthouse, the Hamptons – that mythical land to the East, Gatsbyland, a land flowing with milk and money, or up to The Vineyard, not any ol’ vineyard of course, end of summer furloughs from the prison of the big apple, worms squirting forth from their overpriced, undersized, half-eaten, browning piece of rotting fruit, then coming back for dinners at Bouley, Jean-Georges, Union Square, Daniel, Per se, Le Bernardin at night and making money during the days, masters of the universe, power attorneys, financial miscreants whose deeds of derring-do always go unpunished, all next to the peons at the ass end of capitalism, under the faucet of shit, those who have the title Assistant appended to their title, the administrators, bartenders, cheesemongers, dogwalkers, educators, filers, Gromkos, hostesses, insurers, janitors, knishers, longshoremen, marketers, numbercrunchers, organicgrocers, pillpushers, qualitycontrolers, retailsalesprofessionals, secretaries, therapists, urologists, veterinarians, webdesigners, xylophoners, yelpers, and zinniagrowers.

And when it becomes too much for you, you crack or leave, or crack and leave. If you leave, you escape from the Supermax to a minimum security prison. Some place not as noisy and noisome. Where you can breathe and think and be thankfully alone without necessarily being lonely.

Wallace would have gone mad in New York. He wouldn’t have written two words. This city is its own addict maker. Everything can be eaten, seen, done, every drug can be smoked, snorted, popped, shot up, or drunk. You wanna fuck everyone cuz they’re so beautiful, eat every meal, run madly through every park. It is an infinite buffet of Stuff To Do. New York is the Black Card of Entertainment and its evil cousin – Distraction. Every day we say we will do better, do more, eat less, run these many miles, stay on budget, get to bed at a decent hour, come into work on time, quit smoking, drink less, find that right person who will make life at least tolerable, get a dog, a cat, a goddamned gerbil to keep us from going crazy, a better apartment, a fern on the window sill at least, do the dishes, scrub the bathroom floor, make the bed, do your own laundry and not send it out every week for thirty bucks, write more, party less, join a gym, walk over the Brooklyn Bridge because you’ve been here for ten years and have never done that, find a barber for life, dress for success, be happy, be happier, be happy-ish, pretend you are happy for those around you, lock yourself indoors when you can no longer bottle up your misery, leave.

There’re a million other places in this country where you would be happier, where you could live in a larger space for less money, where you could make a life – a real life, distraction free.  Would you miss New York? Sure. Like a phantom limb or a morning smoke, those who leave this city are distracted by the absence of middle of the night car alarms and lack of dog shit clinging to their unnecessarily purchased $500 shoes. But like any addiction our tolerance grows in the absence of re-upping. We fiddle less with our fingers looking for that smoky companion, taste less the whiskey, are not bothered by sobriety or sanity. Here we are all addicts. We are the prisoners and the jailers both, surrounded by likeminded junkies whose fixes are laid out from the Bronx up to the Battery down, constantly assaulted by too many things to do, see, eat, fuck, to have and to hold.

But then you don’t leave.[3] Something catches your eye that reminds you that New York can distract you from its own distractions. Someone helping a woman carry her stroller up the subway steps, and you recall how New York is really friendly under that gruff exterior. The light between two buildings, falling onto your face like a wink and smile from god. Partying like tomorrow they take away all the fun stuff, and waking up the next day somehow miraculously feeling great, like you own the world. A face captured in a sideways glance, on the subway or at the end of the bar or getting into a cab in Chelsea, a face that is just as lost and lonesome as yours, and you want that person to be with you, to share the greatest addiction you’ve ever known – living in this shitshow.[4]

[1] The novel is a comedy.

[2] Technically endnotes.

[3] Or technically, I don’t leave. In case you thought I was going anywhere, I’m not. Part of this is due to my never getting a driver’s license, I know I know I know so shut up about it. Part is that I have no idea where I’d go. Not back to Chicago, tried that, didn’t work. Not L.A., because that’s like a suicide watch waiting to happen. Not SF because it’s just as expensive and distracting as NY. Not the south because the south scares the shit out of me. So I dunno? Vermont maybe. Also, I just don’t have the money to leave. And I don’t know how to survive anywhere else. Also, where can I get my pho? Do Vietnamese people live anywhere but New York? And as a Jew, will I have to start answering for my people’s supposed killing of that dude over there with the holes in the hands and crown of thorns? Will my sly, post-ironical sense of humor play in Peoria (no, I’m not moving to Peoria, that’s just a turn of phrase)? Will my politics make me a pariah? Am I simply trading the heroine of New York for the methadone of Milwaukee (God, please don’t make me go to Milwaukee!)?

[4] Tomorrow you can leave. Just one last day. One more, I promise tomorrow…tomorrow…tomorrow…

One Response to “Leaving”

  1. Kiko Jones August 7, 2015 at 11:55 #

    New York will only let you go from its cold, dead hands, Jacob.

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