Saturday, November 11, 2006

These Are the Days To Remember

Life used to be so much simpler. If someone puked, I joined them, but otherwise I wasn't much of a joiner. Now, when I see people crying, I burst into tears. I first noticed this when televised victims of Hurricane Katrina wept on every channel and I couldn't stop myself from responding in kind. This morning, in the church for Lance Carter's funeral, I'm sitting in the back with artists, musicians and writers I've known through the bar since 1990, the hardest of hard cases. I'm sitting next to a friend who was a little nervous locked into an interview room with John Wayne Gacy, and this guy is wobbling. Everyone looks ashen. At other funerals I've been to recently, everyone looked everyone else in the eye and said, "It's terrible, but wasn't he a great fucking guy?" This is somehow different. When the family walks to the altar behind the casket and the widow, a woman my age, sobs uncontrollably, I burst into tears and I am not alone. It seems polite and nobody feels left out.

This is a significant change for me. As a kid merely dabbling in The Crazy, I took my cue from Nadia Comaneci, whose birthday is tomorrow and who stood stone-faced at the Olympics while girls around her dissolved into damp failures. Hers impressed me as a kind of strength I too could develop and I did. Restraining one's emotions this way comes with a couple of very serious drawbacks, like that the tension between one's passionate temperament and the pressure to maintain a cool exterior create an adult psyche resembling an Easter basket full of sorrow grenades that go off randomly throughout life. Like mine. Another is that when you calmly tell your closest friends you're falling apart they stare at you the way dogs stare at ceiling fans.

Trust me: this is hilarious.

Further, when you've worked to suppress your emotions this way expressing them comes with a complicating shame. I don't watch chick flicks and anything that sets me up for a gratuitous emotional cloudburst earns my undying resentment. Real life offers us plenty of crappy sorrows, fuck you very much; I don't need to watch the pretty, pretty Titanic sink because entertaining myself with tragedy falls really low on my list of Fun Things To Do. Misery makes me more miserable. So sue me, but here I am in middle age, a time when hormone shifts bring the body and mind a veritable cornucopia of wacky side effects. A woman standing next to me in the produce aisle sighs and I feel disappointment reverberate through my body. The air handling system at the library rumbles distantly and I glance around at my co-workers and for the exit. When I was on stage or doing readings every night empathy served me well. This morning, I hear muffled cries during the homily at the funeral of a man I know only somewhat and it doesn't matter who I am and who he was. I feel ashamed as I frantically dab my eyes with paper towels I'd stuffed in my coat pockets last winter before I gave up using paper towels in favor of cloth. I'm sure I look awful because before I came to the church, I had an appointment with Rosanna for a haircut at a salon less than two miles away. Rosanna arrived at the salon pale and drawn, and in the way that only happens in the intimacy of salons, proceeded to tell me very intimate details of her life while cutting off my split ends. Don't get me wrong: I am her friend and her neighbor. I worry about her and hope the best for her. And though I spent many Saturdays of my childhood cutting out Hamlet and Othello paper dolls sitting under the appointment desk at my grandmother's salon, I never understood the almost endless openness of women talking in salons. Rosanna told me things I would whisper in a remote corner of a dark bar, but in daylight, and ten other people overheard. This feeling of exposure pained me. After she cut my hair, I left the salon without any styling, sans hair goo, without fussing - I'm allergic, and scratching is a fashion faux pas. Makeup or no, outfit be damned, I arrived at the church looking like hell, and that's not the way you want to arrive at a funeral.

As an aside: if you want to blend into a crowd, don't dye your hair a red found only on tropical fish.

I'm crying intermittently when the three-year-old three feet away gives up trying to behave and ducks under the pew wall between us. Then she pops up. I pull my collar up over my eyes, then pull it back. My eyes dry a little as I focus on the lively little girl. My chest still feels tight with an effort to breathe evenly and control my emotions but I am playing BOO - PEEK! for all I'm worth with this child I only see at funerals. As an adult fully versed in The Crazy, I know this doesn't make sense, but suddenly I am okay. Boo...peek! Boo...peek! For the rest of the service, I burst into tears only once more.

When we walk outside row by row, the air is warm and sweet. The sunlight grates at first, but as I relax into this summery day in November, I tell a friend I've got to leave now. On the other side of the tiny graveyard I find the New Brunswick Police backing cars down a one-way street and observe traffic gridlocked on the tiny side roads. When I retrieve my car from the deck where I beached it on my way to the church, I find it surrounded by twenty- and thirty-somethings, holding the hands of toddlers in costumes. Traffic is at a virtual standstill as young parents smile patiently on Liberty Street at dozens of happy boys and girls, none of whom expect today to be anything but joyful.

Life has become very complex. I turn down New Street and drive the other way.


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