Willy Wonka has an especially creepy moment when he asks Charlie what happens to the boy who got everything he ever wanted.
“He lived happily ever after,” Wonka says.
The lack specificity is disturbing, especially since they’re flying in a glass elevator after a traumatic tour through what is essentially a sweatshop. It hints that there is such thing as utopia and that a chocolate factory is not it — or, at least, that just owning the factory leaves something to be desired.
Usually we want things to happen in the world and they don’t happen. The most poignant example is in sports. Fans want a certain outcome, but the large majority of them don’t get to see the world move in that way. So when it does happen — when your team does win the championship after a 30-year drought, which happens to perfectly bookend my life — you get to experience something that is rare: Bliss.
I always felt it was silly to tie so much of one’s life to adults playing games, but it isn’t really about that. Our world moves in many ways that are satisfying or gratifying, but not perfect. We often get outcomes that are close enough. But when the Royals won the World Series, I got the outcome I wanted. For an ever brief second with two other Royals fans, the world had done exactly what we wanted. We, of course, had no bearing on how history played out. It was just the universe working itself out in this magical way, even though it had to work itself out in some way and it just happened to be this one.
I don’t like using sports as a metaphor for life or for anything beyond what it actually is. I covered sports for long enough to know that it isn’t a microcosm of our society; it doesn’t capture poverty, sickness and inequality. Instead, sports alleviates it; it distracts us from it. There are winners and losers and heroes and villains, and it gives us something to talk about. The stakes are low, but maybe that’s exactly why we can invest so much of ourselves in it. The worst that can happen is that the team loses and we all go home and drink; the best that can happen is that we see a cosmic event in which the world turns on a dime for our desires. It’s hard for me to say that without sounding like I’m making it more than it is. But just to make it clear, it is the organized and professionalized equivalent of a pizza falling from the sky and landing in your hungry hands. There is nothing romantic or glorified about it; it’s just something unlikely happening in your favor.
But back to Wonka’s question of whatever happened to the child who got everything he wanted. We don’t get to see what actually happens to Charlie. But if his world works the same as ours, Charlie probably went back to the school the following day. He probably had homework and his grandparents probably passed away eventually and perhaps his mother found a new husband, whom Charlie would’ve had to get along with. But maybe we can give Wonka the benefit of the doubt; maybe he knows what he’s talking about. Maybe he’s saying that when you get everything you want, it isn’t actually everything you want. But even so — even if it’s just a baseball team winning a few games or a small promotion at work — maybe he’s saying we’re allowed to lived happily ever after. We’re allowed to enjoy it. After the Royals won, it seemed especially empty. My initial reaction was, “This is it.” I hugged my fellow Royals fans, got in a cab and went home. It was 1 a.m. The view from the Manhattan Bridge was, as always, beautiful.
I am ready to admit that New York might not be inherently special. It’s tempting to want to assign an ineffable quality to a place. It makes for good prose. It allows the ineffable to be unsaid, an effort to be spared.
I have seen more of this city than ever before. In my fraught return, I have tried to fill my days with meaningless activity, and often that has taken me to subway stops I only know because of maps. It’s easy to forget that maps almost always describe physical locations. But it’s also easy to forget that maps almost always lie; they are representations to help our feeble human minds understand how the earth transforms over the horizon. But, really, the ink on a map is just symbolic of what’s there; when you see Canarsie or East New York or Flushing, they are either much further or much closer than you might think. But that doesn’t matter if the colorful lines representing train tracks don’t connect you and them; if they do not connect, then it’s hard for them to be real to you.
But I digress to my story about all the places I’ve found myself in the past half year. Yes, it’s been half a year and the seasons have turned twice. In the spring I often biked to the Brooklyn Bridge. The perspiration seemed to matter much less when the activity at hand was merely to avoid any further thought. In the summer, I found myself at the Rockaways, where beach season was over and the locals were starting to reclaim their homes. Never before has a place so close felt so remote, so lonely, so separate from the routines I’d built up to survive the days. And in the fall, I found myself in Bay Ridge, a quaint neighborhood with town houses and gas stations and car dealerships. I removed the last remnants of my previous life in Bay Ridge; I told the car salesman that I’d take his price if he could get us out of there in 10 minutes. He did it in 12, but I took his price anyway and ran away with his cash.
You see how easily I romanticize this place? Much like a Swiss watch, these places have names and they have stories and they have histories. They are finely engineered to survive as a part of this grand city, even when the median income barely tips thirty-thousand. These are places where people churn through their days in order to have a home and some food, and maybe some money left over for booze and drugs. Some might find this lifestyle sad or uncivilized or even unstable, but if there’s one thing I have learned in the past percent of my life, it is that stability is never an option. Perhaps there’s a certain amount of stability that a faith in God or a peace with Buddha would bring, but I’ve found that the very definition of believing in such an almighty being comes with a great amount of stress and instability. It causes fractures in one’s intellect, not to mention the grief in one’s soul. So all I’m saying is that I’ve found survival is the natural order of things. We live to survive, and everything else that brings comfort might be an illusion.
Of course this conclusion brings me a great amount of anxiety and it’s probably intellectually dishonest to say that I actually live with this world view in mind. If one keeps thinking about maps and how they are always inaccurate — and, mathematically, every flat map is technically inaccurate — then it might bring a great amount of dismay because the vast world in your head only exists as symbol of reality. And even if you go to Bay Ridge or the Rockaways and see for yourself that it exists in the way the map describes, the problem is that these images fade and deteriorate until the map is still the best description we have of the place. But we, of course, refuse to believe this because we’ve imbued meaning upon these places and a flat map with lines and dots cannot possibly capture the truth of what it means for these places to exist. In fact, I want to argue that these neighborhoods are almost purely constructed of ineffable feelings and effable memories, and everything else is just concrete and asphalt that happens to have stood the test of time and hurricanes and developers.
So perhaps New York is not inherently special, but only meaningful because the maps are so wrong and the best maps are in our heads. The maps on paper will get you from one land mass to another and from that one river to that one canal. But the maps could not possibly describe what we see when we pass by a subway stop knowing exactly what exists 50 feet above. It is not just pipes and concrete and a thin later of human excrement, but it is also a thick ether that we individually construct as we cry and laugh and stumble past each city block.
I once feared that other people had claimed my city and that it no longer belonged to me. But what a silly fear that was. It belongs to me and it belongs to anyone else who has spent an hour limping down the street in ill-fitting boots, looking for the nearest bar that will serve four-dollar well whisky until eight p.m. while the bartender listens to your earnest story about loss and sadness but, ultimately, triumph.
It has been nearly half a year since my return. And honestly, despite the thickness of these paragraphs, I can’t help but think that the last 1,000 words are like the a baseball: hard enough to kill but hoping desperately not to be unwound to the core.
I leave the Halloween party early. I close the door behind me and it is silent. There are new babies on the first floor of this building, I was told. It is supposed to be quiet in the vestibule of this building. Babies expect their parents to protect them from the world, and it’s common courtesy for the rest of us to make that possible.
I sneak downstairs. I enter the outdoors. A chilly breeze. Children in masks. They ask, “Is there candy in there?” To which I say no, because trick-or-treaters should not enter a building in which babies are trying to sleep.
I walk up the street, toward my apartment. The wind penetrates my coat. I can feel the sickness coming back into my lungs and poisoning my breathing apparatus with thick, sticky, opaque mucus. My legs, weak, my arms, held tight to my body, my head, kept warm by this silly wig. Only two blocks to go. And now only two blocks, minus three steps.
Just moments before, someone would’ve cared that a foreign organism was, again, turning my body into its host. In fact, they did care and they told me to go home and get better. But now, in the open air of the Brooklyn night, the zombies and the zebras and the princesses pass by and I am vulnerable and helpless. I cough. Spit out some mucus. I can breathe again. OK, one more block.
I can hear quiet voices of people telling me I should get home quickly, that I should rest. They would want me to go home to the cocoon of my apartment, my bed, my dog. And it would be common courtesy for the world to keep quiet, so that I may rest and my body may fend off this nasty bug.
But I don’t want to do that, not quite yet. Instead up heading up my stoop, I keep going. The voices go away. No one knows I’m here. No one knows I’m doing this.
In the open air of the Brooklyn night, the zombies and the zebras and the princesses pass by and I am free. I cough, spit out some mucus and I disappear.
Sometimes we spend our lives mindlessly filling up the gas tank, winding our watches and spinning the laundry, and barely thinking about the process. We just want to survive. But then we look inside the vestibule of spinning clothes, and we see a little penny, riding around the metal surface and eroding away at the fabric.
“Huh, how did that get there?”
It was, of course, because we were procrastinating. The thought was that we would take the penny out of our pockets later — once we had escaped to a place more suitable.
The penny begins to clank louder and louder against the inside of the machine. Peek inside, and there are now three pennies. We didn’t even know about the third one.
It is then that we think: Perhaps we should have taken out the pennies earlier. But the clothes still spin and the water still flows.
The time is nearly up. Nearly time for the dry cycle. But a small tremble, perhaps from the nearby highway, shakes looks the remaining pennies from pockets and cuffs. Hundreds, maybe thousands, pour out and bring the machine to a slow crawl. The pennies push the door open, and detergent and copper come spilling out. If you squint, they almost look like milk and honey. Tastes worse, though.
The door dangles by its hinge, but the pennies and the detergent is flooding out. We don’t remember putting in this much soap, or having this many pennies.
And then, finally then, we think: Why have we procrastinated? Does not every place require survival? Why must we think it is only this place that we will wait out?
We reach into our pockets and find a few pennies that have made their way in. We take them out. And we hope that, in the mean time, the machine’s door stays on its hinge and the pennies and detergent don’t drown us.
This is the final day of my month-long project of writing a post every day. Of course, I haven’t written every day. I’ve missed weekends and weekdays, for no other reason than that I didn’t want to write that particular day.
I’ve often fantacized about having a life so simple that the only battle of the day would be whether I could muster up the enthusiasm to put together a few hundred coherent paragraphs that would make up a halfway decent story. My first job out of college, all I did was write. But I never felt life was simple. Rather, I felt it was complicated and scary, because I often felt I had to produce content that was worth the money I was getting paid. I often felt I didn’t do that.
But when I write here, I feel like I’m creating valuable content — or at least saying important things. Over time, I’ve learned that people will pay for the stuff that means the least to you. I suppose the fantasy I mentioned earlier has more to do with people paying for the things that matter to me. But that doesn’t seem to be how we parse out our money.
Today I sat in a room of people, all at least twice my age, and heard them talk about things that mattered to them. Many of those things did not matter to me, and I wondered if my theory proposed yesterday had any bearing. The world, to them, seemed smaller — smaller than the state of Connecticut, and perhaps even smaller than ths corridor that connects Hartford to New Haven. I was frustrated by the lack of greater perspective. One man, noticing this, said to me, “Alvin, don’t get old.”
By that, I wonder if he meant that I shouldn’t let the world get small to me. Because when the world gets small, we talk as if we know exactly how to fix it. We act as if we can control it, which we’ve learned that we cannot. I think, if anything, we’ve learned that we should respect the vastness of the world, and perhaps stare in awe of it, when it is necessary. Sometimes when I talk about the world, or the universe, I wonder if I’m talking about God. Some Christians take pride in being able to describe the characteristics of God. These characteristics were gleaned by apostles and disciplines and kings, supposedly because God spoke through them. But in their writing, one can’t help but see how these authors were influence by the universe — by the nature of, well, nature. I can conceive — and in fact, have by default, started to believe — that God may have worked through nature, or with it. After all, their brains aren’t made of spiritual dust. And perhaps because of his apparently control of the universe, I often have a difficult time parsing out the difference between the universe and God. Maybe this is approaching the buddhist believe in things — but I never thought this differentiation (and in fact, many other doctrinal differentiations) important enough to make much of a statement of it. In fact, the core of what I believe seems to be just that: belief. I have fully accepted that there is a gap between my belief and an objective reality. The only faith I have is that there is a tiny string that connects the two, and on the other side of that string is my creator.
It’s funny that, on the very last days of this exercise, I have inspiration to write about such grand things as God and the universe. If I did this six years ago, I’d have no trouble mustering up 5,000 words on this topic, filled with both personal and academic references that made a solid point about, well, something. But those firey passions seem to have dulled, and it seems far more difficult to pin down emotions or thought anymore. When that man told me, “Alvin, don’t get old,” perhaps that’s what he was referring to.
I have an inkling that freedom, the universe and God are all connected in some way. It is still amazing to me that we exist on this flying rock that is suitable for life, and that we could conceivable travel through space and reach other rocks. There is this thing called ths “Overview effect” which is a cognitive shift that occurs when you see the earth from outer space. Part of the realization is the fragility of everything we know to be our world. But I wonder if that also creates a sense of freedom — the sense that, no matter how backward our world is, there are so many other rocks out there, and perhaps God has creates on a few others out there. Perhaps there are greater truths that those other beings could provide.
But with all that freedom, I have chosen to do something that is eluded me for quite some time. I haven’t been able to finish writing a book. I’ve gotten 10 pages in. I’ve gotten halfway through. I’ve gotten 40,000 words in. But never finished.
I wonder if I could view the world from outerspace, I would have enough to write a novel. For now, I will only have to write with the delusion that I’ve been there, and hope that God doesn’t smite me down for writing about a creation of his that I have yet to experience.