John is telling me about his two friends, both professors at Rutgers, who’ve recently left Manhattan to live in New Brunswick.
“They say it’s heaven,” says John.
“I doubt that,” I say.
“It takes five minutes to get to campus.”
“But then all other minutes are spent living in New Brunswick.”
John also works at Rutgers and makes a long daily commute, which he hates, from Brooklyn, which he hates, too—but I live in Brooklyn, just south of him, and I don’t want him to leave. I hate these two New Brunswick friends, this idiot couple I will never meet, who lived on the Upper East or West Side—John tells me which, but I aggressively forget—but gave it all up and are urging John to consider the same.
I’d agreed to spend an entire Wednesday in New Brunswick because a poet we’d heard of was giving a reading that night on the Rutgers campus. I’d see what there was to see of that town while John worked.
On the drive out I say, “Just get a car. Or use my car.” We were in my junky Volvo, rattling toward the Verrazano Bridge.
“Driving is more expensive than the train,” says John.
“It would cut out an hour or more off your commute.”
“I’d have to rent a monthly parking space.”
“Just park on the street.”
“Cars get broken into in my neighborhood.”
“The cost of a broken window or two will be less than renting a parking spot, don’t you think? It’s a trade off.”
“New Brunswick doesn’t require those sorts of trade offs.”
The arm at the tollbooth doesn’t raise and we are stuck, unable to pass. Cars line up to honk at us. It’s deep into rush hour. A cop comes to my window.
“I have the E-ZPass,” I say to the cop. “Why would it suddenly not work?”
“Don’t know. Give it to me,” says the cop.
A familiar fear creeps in. Much of my life in Brooklyn is spent trying to avoid this particular type of embarrassment. The credit card that is handed back declined, the ATM rejecting my request, the account overdrawn.
We are instructed to pull to a narrow lane in between tollbooths. The offender lane. The cop returns with scanner and holds it up to my E-ZPass.
“It’s deactivated,” he says.
The cop writes me a ticket, confiscates my useless E-ZPass, and takes fifteen dollars for the toll. It’s all the cash John and I have on us.
“It costs everything we have just to leave New York.”
There is no traffic in New Brunswick. We park and walk across the campus—a green and glowing brochure of a place. White students in shower sandals and long shorts walk past in packs. John’s office has a large window facing what could be called nothing other than the quad and so I’m able to sit and watch while he shuffles around his office, opening and closing drawers, gathering things or looking for something. Couples pass his window, groups of girls, obligatory Asians. The students all wander down the manicured path with no visible self-consciousness, no awareness of me, and I am so near, just beyond one pane of glass, at their eye level, staring. At first, I mistake their self-focus as an affect of youth, but it is more than that. I can see on their faces a specific kind of pride; they walk with the belief that they now belong to a bigger world and their confidence arises from the scorn they feel for their previous selves, stuck somewhere smaller, their parents’ house, their hometowns.
I am familiar with this feeling having felt it for the first time when my fourth grade class visited a place called Communityville. We were bused out of our small farm town to the suburbs surrounding the Kansas side of Kansas City. There, inside a large warehouse, was a replica of a town, including a flower shop, a grocery, a pharmacy, a doctor’s office, a bank. Every student was given a job; the jobs were assigned based on a form filled out before the trip that asked you what you wanted to do, who you wanted to be, what was your most special skill. Everyone was given the same salary. It was supposed to be a lesson in responsibility and citizenship. This is what the world would be like. I spent that day pretending to be a reporter. I had a cameraman who followed me as I did interviews with my classmates. They told me what it was like to be a police officer, a clerk, a business owner. I saw into the future. The world got bigger. I saw further. My vision sharpened. When we returned, our classroom seemed smaller, too small. I’d been naïve, worrying the wrong worries, mistaking them for having meaning, worth, while the real world waited out there. I moved for high school to a bigger town in Kansas and when I left I felt sorry for everyone stuck in the farm town, people who nominated prom queens, people who—it suddenly seemed—did nothing but play at a toy life, and then I went to college on the East Coast in a big city and thought, oh, now, here it is, the real world, and then I moved to New York City for graduate school and felt the lens enlarge again.
These smug Rutgers students were at the top of the cycle I knew so well, striving boldly toward a bright light, not yet aware of the anxiety coming, not yet aware of how curated their college life was. I knocked on the window that separated me from them, but none turned to look. I said, but not out loud, You are not brave. You are not making your own way. You are not out on your own.
When I look back to John, he has a pile of bookmarks on his desk.
“Here, these are for you,” John says.
“I don’t want those.”
“You said you needed bookmarks.” And I had said this in a recent email to him.
“Those are just random bookmarks you happened to have around your office.” I pick up and hold out the bookmark from Greenlight, a bookstore in Fort Greene we both frequent, as evidence.
“Oh, you want some sort of special bookmark.”
“One that feels worth holding on to.”
“You want all your bookmarks to be so special.”
“I want them to be from you.”
“These are from me.”
“No, like, you thought of me as a specific person in your life and got me a bookmark that in someway indicated that.”
“You are an idiot.”
“Just take these bookmarks.”
“Just give me a better bookmark. I want something I can’t get anywhere else.”
John has work to do and so I leave him in his office. I’ve parked illegally in the faculty-only lot, but when I get to my car there’s no ticket on my windshield, even though a campus security guard stands at the entry of the lot. She points to my car and politely shakes her head and then smiles, letting me leave with no punishment. She’s won an annoying point for nice New Brunswick. I’m glad John is not here to see this. I don’t need him to remind me of how this interaction would have played out in New York.
My one-minute research reveals that a downtown possibly exists around George Street, so I drive there and try to park, which is both difficult and expensive, allowing me to rescind New Brunswick’s one little point. I intend to roam around the town, but instead decide to eat a long lunch and read until John is free again. The restaurant I choose is big like a Wal-Mart and empty at noon. It is as impersonal as a display case. The flowers are fake; the silverware glints at me too eagerly. My bowl of spaghetti arrives looking like the official encyclopedia entry for “spaghetti.” The John in my head says, You want all your spaghetti to be so special.
A man comes in and now there are two of us seated in the restaurant. I am behind him and so I can watch without him noticing. He orders just a glass of wine and when the waitress brings it he tells her how he usually orders something else, but the weather is warming and so he’s changing his habits and isn’t this a better wine for a spring day and what was her favorite spring day wine and don’t such questions matter when the seasons are felt so deeply as they are here in New Brunswick and doesn’t the waitress agree (she does). I return to my book. It is only when I look up a few minutes later that I notice something is wrong. The waitress is sending me distress signals. The man is still talking. She wants my help. I look at my watch and begin to time the interaction. He speaks at her for twelve minutes and twenty-two seconds before another server recognizes the situation and calls her away. A cell phone materializes and the man calls someone who doesn’t answer. He calls a second person and speaks to them for two minutes and forty seconds. He calls a third person and talks for thirteen minutes and twelve seconds. Then the waitress is obliged to return to check on us. The man hangs up his phone and engages the waitress again. She angles her body toward me and scoots, hips first, away from him as if I’d lassoed her around the waist. She is young and pretty. Blonde. His voice follows her to my table.
“I’m sorry, sir, please excuse me, I have to see if this lady is ready for dessert.”
“I’ll wait,” he says and turns around, facing me for the first time. I see that he is the sort to have a collection of windbreakers in his closet. He has a widening forehead, beady eyes, and a thin, angular face—all of which are a lonely, white man’s requirements for residency in your New Brunswicks, Norwalks, Hopewells, Tarrytowns, Newtowns, Danburys, Stamfords, Scrantons. He was a Richard Ford without the blue eyes; yes, my beloved Richard Ford, great defender of New Jersey white life, who wrote, in praise of his fictional Haddam, “We all need our simple, unambiguous, even factitious townscapes like mine. Places without challenge or double-ranked complexity. Give me a little Anyplace…with stable property values, regular garbage pick-up, good drainage, ample parking, located not far from a major airport, and I’ll beat the birds up singing every morning.”
Good drainage. This man in front of me was certain to place too much value on good drainage and so would John, my dearest John, who would love to leave Brooklyn behind in exchange for nothing more than good drainage and sprinklers on his own lawn.
The waitress is in front of me. “Can’t I get you some dessert?”
“No,” I say. I want out of this restaurant.
“No,” I say. In New York City, this woman would have been ruder, clearer, braver.
“On the house?” She smiles pleadingly with me, but I’m already signing the check. I didn’t help her and I never will.
John once went to Ireland and sent me a postcard that read, “I believe I was meant to live here. And whatever the truth of that statement is, it is undeniably true that New York City can go to hell with its heat and humidity and bad air and garbage and utterly boring people, a class in which you are, as we’ve already many times established, included. I know you love New York. That is fine. Because you can have it in all its horror. I will stay in the Irish countryside with 60-summer-degree temps and the best air you’ve ever breathed and beautiful rolling fog and tide that washes in and out like a motherfucker.”
The auditorium is all carpet. The poet reads poems about dogs. The poet feels strongly about dogs and the emotions of dogs and what dog emotions can teach us about human emotions. A dog poem ends, another begins. There are many students in the audience, no doubt bribed into attendance with the promise of extra credit. A young woman in front of me watches a television show on her computer, she laughs not silently to herself and then offers her headphones to her neighbor. The poet is tall and white, with the requisite bald forehead and weak chin. We are his public; we reflect his image back to him. He’s going to be reading to us for a long time. John is next to me. I look at him and can tell he’s not listening. His face reads attentive, but he is elsewhere. Everyone around me is being very nice. Everyone claps. No one is paying attention. Once, in Manhattan, John and I had to step around a body lying on the subway stairs. I asked John if he thought it was a dead body and he’d shrugged and said, “Could be,” and then we went on talking about whatever we’d been talking about and it was only later, days later, that John said something like, “Shouldn’t that be reason enough to hate New York City? That we’d see a possibly dead body and not care at all?” I think of this while looking around the room of nice New Brunswick people all pretending to care so much. I want to go home.
The poet begins to say something about police brutality and then reads a poem about Eric Garner, killed by the NYPD. This poem is about poems as acts of empathy and that a poet should try through writing to put on the skin of another. But this poet declines to do so in this poem. He says he declines to think from the perspective of the police officer, the murderer. The poet feels too much rage. The poet wishes the police officer a life of misery; he hopes that every morning the police officer wakes to a further collapsed life. A man stands up and cheers. He could be the poet’s twin. The next poem is about a dog.
The reading goes an hour over schedule. Mercifully, John races me through the reception, introducing me to as few people as he can get away with. We offer no congratulations and drink no wine. Outside, we are finally free. The air is cool and scented with flowers just in bloom. John drives and I roll down my window and watch as New Brunswick sinks back into the night. It’s late, but I’m awake with disdain.
“That poet made me so uncomfortable,” I say.
“Why?” says John.
“That Eric Garner poem. I was just cringing through that whole thing.”
“I wasn’t really paying attention,” says John.
“It was terrible.”
“The poem itself?”
“Yes, but also it was terrible watching this old white guy speak so self-righteously about the plight of black men.”
“Should he ignore it altogether?”
“No. I don’t know what I’m saying. It just made me feel weird.”
“What would have made it better?”
“He should have acknowledged that he was writing as a rich old white guy in New Brunswick. Maybe it is a little insensitive to co-opt all that rage.”
“He is allowed to be angry about injustice.”
“I know. But he should just first say something like, ‘Hey, I am inextricably part of the system of prejudice that creates the reason for anger in the first place, but I’m still angry and so I wrote a poem, knowing it will change nothing.’”
John does not laugh, nor does he seem to want to continue this conversation with me.
“I’m sure he knows all that.”
“Yeah, yeah, he probably does.”
“You are also part of the group that benefits from that system.”
“I know,” I say.
“I am too,” says John.
But I’m not listening to John anymore because he is being reasonable and decent and fair and so there’s no point for me, alive with anxiety, to keep talking to him. I don’t know the right way to think through the dread I’ve felt all day. In my mind I create a version of this poet who speaks as if he were in the trenches, when really he is untouched, tucked away in docile New Brunswick and I have this made-up man stand in for everything I dislike about everything and I try to see myself as somehow better. I must be better than him. But I wasn’t in the trenches either and never would be no matter where I lived, no matter how I lived. And yet I’d somehow convinced myself that by sticking it out in Brooklyn, by being poor, by riding the subway, that I was somehow trench-adjacent. Me: so self-satisfied as I stroll down Franklin Avenue in Crown Heights, my newest Communityville. Me: just popping into the coffee shop where they roast their own beans and the beautiful baristas all know my name. Something about just living in Brooklyn helped me evade questions I didn’t want to answer, questions that New Brunswick forced on me. How small is my world, how limited my vision? What bigger world waited and would I retreat before I found it? How naïve was I now and how would I be made aware?
But just as I think this, we’re back over the Verrazano and the Manhattan skyline bursts into view over I-278 and then I’m distracted again and whatever I was worried about a moment ago can be delayed as the spectacle of the city draws me in again and again I am blinded and again I’m filled with the feeling that real things are happening here and I want to throw my arms out wide and say, take me back, let me in, I haven’t given up, I haven’t given flight, I’ll stay, I’ll think things through, I’ll do better, I do not want a smaller life; and, although he doesn’t say so, I know John is happy to be home too because when I point to it all rolling toward us and say, “Isn’t it beautiful?” even he agrees, “Yes, yes, it really is beautiful.”