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  LIFE AS A LOSER #101: "LIGHT."  

 This column is about loss. This column is about healing. This column is about renewal. This column is about silk boxer shorts with hearts on them given to me by my gay uncles.

This column is about loss.

There is this guy named Carlos. He used to live next door to my friend Eric. He was a friendly sort, always smiling, genuinely open-faced and welcoming. I wouldn’t call him a friend exactly. I didn’t really see him that often, and we never really shared a conversation that delved much deeper than the Knicks or whether we’d rather have sex with Kirsten Dunst or Denise Richards. But he was always there with a handshake and a corny joke. Nice guy. When he left the room, I completely forgot he existed. An economic casualty of this wretched climate, he left New York as 2001 ended to move back in with his parents in Pittsburgh to recompose himself and figure out his next move. To be honest, I didn’t even know he was gone.

Last weekend, he returned to town for a series of job interviews, which was the practical reason, but really just to be back in New York, where he could walk the streets and feel alive again, catch that buzz that’s unexplainable to anyone who has never woken up here. I met Eric at his apartment, and there was a knock at the door. Carlos walked in. His eyes met mine, we grinned widely, and I hugged him closer than I would have thought possible, to the point that his spine was in genuine peril.

Six months ago today, at 11:30 a.m., I walked 101 blocks south while the rest of the city was walking north. I had to meet Eric, who, two hours earlier, had been running for his life before he’d had a chance to sip his coffee. Nobody remembers the old miniseries The Day After anymore — it surely scared the piss out of me when I was eight — but one shot from it has always stuck with me. Jason Robards knows his daughter is in downtown Los Angeles, where a nuclear warhead had just landed, and he jumps in his car and drives there with little regard for anything but her. And here’s the shot: We have an overhead glimpse of a freeway, with downtown L.A. in the background. Blasting from the surface is a rapidly expanding mushroom cloud. On the left side of the frame, cars are bumper-to-bumper, people are screaming, honking, firing weapons, pulling into the ditch, frantic. On the other, there is Robards’ car, careening toward the disaster, single-minded, as the other side of the highway looks at him with a mixture of confusion, pity and fear. I felt like that on September 11. Those who noticed me at all looked at me with suspicion and a weird envy. He clearly doesn’t know what’s down there.

Everyone knew Eric had been the closest to the World Trade Center, so our entire crew met at his apartment. By the time I arrived, Eric had the soot cleaned off and wore a statement of calm so serene that it was obvious it was only a matter of time before it faded forever. I was relieved. I don’t think I could have handled seeing him three hours earlier. We stared at the television for hours, took whatever phone calls from loved ones that could make it through, and then, in an example of the muted shock of the good-hearted, everyone left to try to give blood, to do something, and only Eric and I remained. We sat in silence. “Let’s go to the roof.” We had spent many nights with The Buildings up there, and somehow, it just seemed right.

Carlos was up there. Of course he was. Where else would he be? And there the three of us stayed, until 2 a.m., just talking. We walked from one of the roofs to the other, from where The Buildings had once stood and the smoke still billowed to the nearly deserted Bowery below. We even joked. I pointed out that any car that drove down the Bowery, since it was off-limits to anyone but military and police personnel, was by definition more important than any of us. I started waving to them. “Hello, important people.” None of us cried, or grasped any of it really. Carlos talked about how the sound of the explosion — being unemployed, he was home — reminded him of gunfire back in his homeland. Occasionally one of us would, like we’d just watched the Patriots win the Super Bowl, shake our heads and just say, “Man, I can’t believe that happened.” I wondered if the subway would be working; I had to work the next day, after all. And then we were tired, and then we slept.

And on we moved.

I wrote a piece for another Web magazine about The Events of September Eleventh two weeks afterwards, and when I read it today, I am embarrassed. It is so naïve and stupid. It is overdramatic and maudlin and full of self-righteous “things will never be the same again” platitudes. And for all its pomp, it shows very little emotional grasp of the situation. It’s all about me, and how this changed life for me and my friends, and how Different Things Are Now. It reads like a 10th-grade research project. The simple fact is, it was the worst thing that any of us have ever experienced, putting our trifling trivialities to pathetic shame, and none of us knew how to deal with it. None of us, six months later, have really learned how.

This column is about healing.

I have come to the strange realization in the last couple of months that I am pleased with my life. This is an unfamiliar realization. With this realization comes the nagging feeling that I’ll inevitably find a way to screw it up again, probably worse than the last time, but nevertheless, I am content.

This is a smug content. This is the belief that I have overcome great obstacles and come through the other side, cleansed, purified, enlightened. I am now ready to progress to the next stage in my life, where I handle life’s pressures and the mind’s insecurities with grace, aplomb, and steadfast discipline. Before, I was another person, confused. It is now that I am who I am. Listen to me. Why are you smirking? Seriously. I mean it.

I have hurt many people. Often, I didn’t realize I was doing it, but that is a piss-poor excuse. I have been careless, reckless, unworthy of the trust others have placed in me. Todd McCarthy, the film critic for Variety, once wrote a brilliant review of the film Gods and Monsters. He praised the quiet yearning of the film, and Ian McKellen’s sad, lonely, but brave protagonist. And then he commented on the performance of Brendan Fraser. “Fraser does everything he’s supposed to. He shows up on time, and says all of his lines correctly, he doesn’t trip over any of the furniture.” I am shambling through life, hoping that showing up on time is enough, wanting not to cause trouble, trying desperately not to trip over anyone’s furniture. Yet every time I turn around, I’ve just knocked the futon through the coffee table.

Who am I to say I will not do this again? I mean well. My heart is pure. But is that enough? In the last month, I have crossed paths with a frighteningly high number of people whose hearts I treated like a cat with a wingless fly, batting it around, enjoying the diversion, apt to toss it away with little warning or recognition. Why have I done this? I do not know. It has been years since I’ve seen some of them. I come to them, and I tell them that I am different, that I have learned, that this is a new day, and a new planet, and can they not see that my heart is pure? And they do not believe me. I do not blame them.

But this is a new day. This is a new planet. There is hope out there. The world is a big place, and people scamper about, looking for peace and absolution and love and love and love. What was it Bill Macy said? I have so much love to give. I just don’t know where to put it.

I want to be a rock. I want to be counted on. I want to be a consistent presence. Have I learned nothing? Can I be trusted again? Have I been through enough? Have any of us? Do we stop searching? Do we ever give up?

This is a sick heart. The wounds have often been self-inflicted. I ask that they be cleansed. I ask that they all be cleansed. I believe they can be.

This column is about renewal.

I was in a cab with a fellow Midwesterner the other day. She, too, has been jerked around by this city, had to question herself, wonder whether her lifelong dreams intersected with brutal realities at the precise wrong time. Since she moved to New York, I’ve noticed a difference in her eyes. She doesn’t look older, or weary, or sad. She just looks, oh ... tougher. This city has made her look at things more closely, not jaded, just with more logic. This is of course part of growing older, more mature, most commendable, yes, yes, but there has always been a glorious childlike innocence about her that isn’t lost, exactly; it’s just been pushed from the foreground, like a spotlight behind stained glass. You know it’s there, strong as ever, but there’s something in the way now, something that somehow makes the light seem that much more powerful. We were heading uptown after a movie in Times Square, just passing the south edge of Central Park, and she stopped me mid-sentence.

“Look back at that. Look with me.”

I turned my head and saw all the buildings, and all the people, each with their own unarticulated histories, the skyline, the activity, the segmented chaos, the vitality, the grandeur, the sorrow, the zest, the regeneration, the AWE of it all. It captivated me as it always had. I was lost again, and I knew exactly where I was.

“Look, Will ... it’s New York. We’re really here.”

The spirit of this place is alive. It is stronger than ever. It is invigorating, intoxicating. It makes us feel that we are a part of something larger, that we can reinvent ourselves in the same way the city constantly reinvents itself. It can roll with all the punches. We can roll with all the punches. It is a living, breathing entity, with bruises and cuts and scars and shit and blood and pus, and it moves on, and we move on, and we breathe and talk and connect and disperse, and laugh, and grin, and cry, and lament, and lament. Just when we don’t want to go on, we can’t go on, it’s not worth it, it’s not worth it, dammit, IT’S NOT WORTH IT! ... we go on again, because we cannot stop, because we cannot stop.

We don’t know what it means. We don’t know what the next step is. We know we hurt. But we build it all back up again, and we try to find whatever it is we look for, what we need, what we seek. On we trudge ... how could we not?

This column is about silk boxer shorts with hearts on them given to me by my gay uncles.

About a month ago, I went to visit my uncles in Philadelphia. They’ve lived in this beautiful condominium for 20 years, but those blasted fiscal restraints have forced them to sell it while they can secure an adequate price and live comfortably, the way they’ve earned. We had one last big hoo-ha a month ago, where the three of us sat on their roof and drank kamikazis and slurred our way through a final goodbye to a roof that has opened many doors and never closed one. Any roof worth its salt demands it.

I had brought a big pile of laundry with me, and while we were folding it before I left, I noticed Uncle Dave slipping in this gaudy, very gay pair of silk boxer shorts. I raised an eyebrow. “Well, we certainly don’t need them anymore.” I wasn’t sure what this meant, and I wasn’t going to ask. I just accepted them and made a silent vow never to wear them. I mean, I’m, like, a football fan and stuff. Yar.

A week later, I sat alone in my apartment, writing. These days, when I write, I wear a doctor’s lab coat I stole from a hospital where I used to work. Don’t ask me why. I peeled off my tainted-by-capitalism work clothes, threw on the coat and glanced in my closet. The boxers stared back at me. Hey, I want to be comfortable while writing, and they were silk. I put them on.

I turned on my CD player. I’ve recently become helplessly smitten with the new album from Andrew W.K., a metal-pop keyboard Danzig nerd whose twisted yet wistful view of life is masked by power chords and catchy choruses that roll around the brain for weeks despite themselves. Something about his music makes me want to strip off my clothes and prance through the streets, spreading joy.

Track 7. “She Is Beautiful.” Nasty riff. Stirring beat. Wanky guitar solo. Lyrics vague enough to apply to anyone and anything. “I never knew girls existed like you/You’re giving moves that hit from hit from both sides/When you hit like that, you melt my eyes/I look at your face, I don’t know what to say/Everything I got, it’s feeling so good/Only thing I live for in the whole wide world.”

You know how a great song does that, right? When somehow all the worries and insecurities and pressures and anxieties and fears ... they all just kind of (POOF!) vanish? I was going to say they melt away, but that’s not accurate. They’re just ... gone.

I hopped up from my seat, in my lab coat and my silk heart boxers, and I danced. I screamed the lyrics into the mirror, looking like I Am Sam, just ridiculous, but living living living, screaming, full of it all, dissolving into the moment, everything peeling away. Past is prologue. Present is prologue. The world never stops. We are all lost, but we are lost with ourselves, and there is something beautiful about that.

Who knows how long we’ll be able to dance like that? So dance. Just dance. I’m begging you ... please dance. Dance like tomorrow brings joy and faith and love. Dance while you can. Dance before it leaves us all.

I have hope. We always have hope. And I will dance. I will always dance.



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