The other morning I was walking my kid to school and we crossed Court Street in Brooklyn in front of a car that had an interestingly shaped air-freshener hanging from the rearview mirror. It was hanging at a slight angle behind the windshield, and so I looked at it for a good few seconds, in effort to confirm that it was what I thought it was. Sure enough: it was a cardboard air-freshener in the shape of fist with a raised middle finger. Like the giant foam hands they sell at sports games or Key West or wherever.
The guy driving the car had a Yankee cap pulled low on his forehead, and there was a kid in the passenger seat who looked to be about the same age as my kid. I figured they were on their way to school, too.
Silly as it was, the air-freshener gave me a chuckle. I enjoy dumb jokes and foul language and the expression of dissatisfaction with the world. So I had a smile on my face when the driver and I made eye contact. I’d been staring through his windshield for a bit longer than people usually do, I realized, and he’d have had no way of knowing that it was the air-freshener I was looking at. He glared at me. As I should have only expected.
I felt compelled to let him know what I was smiling at, though. To let him know that I was not some creepy goofball—or, well, that I was not some creepy goofball making faces at him and his kid through their windshield at 8:00 in the morning for no reason at all.
Of course, there was nothing to do. I was not going to pull my kid over the car and ask the guy to roll down his window so I could explain myself. I considered for a moment that I could make a fist and extend my own middle finger, and point to it and then to the air-freshener, while widening my smile to say, “No, I’m just complimenting your taste in interior auto decor!” But that seemed likelier to exacerbate the situation.
So I just turned away and finished crossing the street.
But I’ve been thinking about a lot since, because of the way the experience (which, haha, that’s a big word for it, isn’t it?) epitomizes what I see as the dominant characteristic of the human condition—the extent to which we’re all cut off from each other all the time, walled off by the fact that we can never fully understand other people and what’s going on inside their heads, and so essentially alone in the universe. Here’s this guy in his car, inside this box of metal and glass, and he’s with a kid, presumably his own kid, and in many ways probably just like me. And there I was, ten feet away, visible to him but sealed off by the metal and glass, but also with a kid and simply wanting to express something friendly, a unifying sentiment: It’s okay to both have kids and also be cranky and find joy in foul language and aggression. (Light aggression, at least from my point of view. I don’t know—maybe the guy goes around punching people in the face in real life.) But there was no way I could get this across. Not in the situation as it was. Probably never, actually. It was like the internet, too, with its famous exacerbation of the difficulty of conveying subtlety and tone. Everything is just so ripe for misunderstanding and strife. Everyone is lonely.
I’m making too much of this, I realize. But it reminded me of a favorite passage from a book that I read recently, Saul Bellow’s novella Seize the Day, which is wonderful and great and I highly recommend reading. The book tells the story of a man reaching a crisis point in his life because he is struggling with money and has invested a lot of money with a man he is not sure whether or not he can trust. It’s a sad book because the protagonist is a sad man. It’s also about the anomie particularly associated with New York City, where it takes place. And the real core of his sadness comes to light toward the end, on page 91.
Was everybody crazy here? What sort of people did you see? Every other man spoke a language entirely his own, which he had figured out by private thinking. He had his own ideas and peculiar ways. If you wanted to talk about a glass of water, you had to start back with God creating the heavens and earth; the apple; Abraham; Moses and Jesus; Rome; the Middle Ages; gunpowder; the Revolution; back to Newton; up to Einstein; then war and Lenin and Hitler. After reviewing this and getting it all straight again you could proceed to talk about a glass of water. “I’m fainting, please get me a little water.” You were lucky even then to make yourself understood. And this happened over and over and over with everyone you met. You had to translate and translate, explain and explain, back and forth, and it was the punishment of hell itself not understand or be understood, not to know the crazy from the sane, the wise from the fools, the young from the old or the sick from the well. The fathers were no fathers and the sons no sons. You had to talk with yourself in the daytime and reason with yourself at night. Who else was there to talk to in a city like New York?
Wow! Right? Awesome! I think those are some of the most powerful, true-seeming words I have ever read! I read them again and again and they take my breath away every time. Bellow is one of a handful of writers I can think of who best gets to the fullness, the whole thing, of what it’s like to be a human being living and thinking on the planet earth. (He is sometimes a little dense for me, because I am not the strongest reader, but it’s always worth it, the pushing through.)
And so as depressing as this truth is, the fact that we are all forever cut off from each other. The punishment of hell itself, because we so badly want to be able to meld our minds with other human minds like Spock can in Star Trek—if only to be sure that the other minds are in fact like ours. If only to be sure that we’re not surrounded by robots, or that we’re not the robots ourselves, programmed to think and feel that we’re human like in Bladerunner, or the dupe in a giant scheme concocted by Ed Harris like in The Truman Show. Or even just to be able to say, “I’m laughing with you not at you” in a way that is sure to be believed. As depressing as this is, our inability to ever break through the walls of metal and glass and skull and flesh that keep us essentially alone, when someone is able to reach out and come close, by writing something that resonates to the extent that that Bellow passage does, it’s the best we can hope for. It feels like the reward of heaven.
This is a big circle, I guess, this thinking. And less profound, probably, than it seems to me this morning after three cups of coffee. I’m certainly not the first to have noted it. It’s why blues music works, too. I suppose what I’m most trying to get at is how the fact that each of us is essentially alone, that we’re all born and will die that way, that itself brings us together in a way that can actually be heartening. It’s the opposite of depressing. It makes you think, yes, actually, maybe I could be in love with almost anyone. People, with their silly, aggressive air-fresheners and the frowns on their faces and all, really are the greatest fun.