3:15 p.m. The latest I’ve set out on this F Train. And it’s crowded, not that I mind. It’s just different having that press and shared air at the start, different from the other days.
Down the way there are a group of girls, young women really, dressed in tights, down jackets, a slouch beanie here and knitted hat there, all in assorted heels. They’re talking up their upcoming evening, laughing and vamping. Beside them sits a middle aged couple, Pakistani I think, staring quietly into that middle distant place we all default to; he in a brown tunic and padded winter coat; she in a turquoise sari and parka. Through the windows I see the sparks of welders working on the elevated tracks.
At Smith-9th Avenue a group of young men board. They’re dressed in tight pressed jeans, crisp sneakers and more down jackets. They prop themselves near the young women. And both groups get right to it, to that flirt, dance and play of looking but not looking at each other, to that posturing that won’t admit interest or concern. And at 4th Avenue, a frazzled haired woman in a tweed trench coat pushes her way between them, also avoiding everyone’s eyes. And I think how we, New Yorkers, are expert at checking each other out on the sly, spying at each other from the periphery. But I wish it weren’t so, or that we didn’t do it so much. Because, while I get that catching someone’s eye can offer an invitation or confrontation we aren’t necessarily seeking, I think we go too far, acting as if acknowledging someone would rob us of something in this rat race.
I mean, aren’t we all voyeurs and exhibitionists?
At least a little bit?
At least some time?
… Now that’s unexpected.
I’m feeling self conscious about who’s looking and not looking at me, a touch of the observation effect in reverse. And my pen stalls as we enter the subway tunnel heading to 7th Avenue. The Melvins aren’t helping. Their song Lividity is playing on my Ipod. The track is sparse, not much more than a bass droning in a void. It’s got me feeling exposed with nowhere to go. But maybe that’s what I need to finally get to writing about: Faces?
You see I’ve been on this trip about faces, wondering about face time, face feeding, face place, flat image. And this is where I’m going, or where I’m at: I don’t think we’re supposed to see our faces as much as we do. It’s not how we evolved or what other animals do. Turn back the clock five hundred, a thousand, ten thousand years, and we’re back in the time before mirrors were everyday. You don’t even have to go back that far. Just 190 years ago there were no silvered-glass mirrors, no mirrored mass production. Same with the copied image. That luxury didn’t become available to the masses until the invention of photographic film 135 years ago. Before these technologies, most of us didn’t see ourselves with regularity or resolution, couldn’t replicate or transfer our images in oil paints or otherwise. No, we were restricted to what we saw of ourselves in nature, and even that was perilous stuff, Narcissus showed.
But I think we’ve forgotten this, forgotten that we evolved eyes forward, on the look out for danger, food and sex, forgotten that our lives are in front of us, forgotten that, for a long time even after our monkey minds conceived of polishing stones and volcanic glass, what we thought of ourselves were our bodies, maybe a touch of mouth, nose and cheek, but not our faces. Just check out the cave paintings at Lascaux and Namibia, or that fat bottomed girl, the Venus of Willendorf.
The original image essentially faceless.
And by now it’s an old story. Our inventions have gotten out of control. Like salt, sugar and fat we’ve grown sick from feeding on our faces, faces we haven’t yet evolved to digest, still face intolerant. And here’s the rub and paradox of the face trap, and why I think face time is so perilous, and what I’m so clumsily trying to say: I think that when we look at our own faces, we can’t help but use on ourselves, the same awareness and perception we apply to figure out and communicate with other faces. However, unlike any other face, we actually know what’s going on inside, at least if we’re being honest – which admittedly is a big if. So we see how much we front when we’re falling apart, hiding what we believe needs to be hidden, showing what we feel needs to be shown, ever editing, airbrushing and photoshopping ourselves. And I wonder if this has undermined and accelerated the erosion of trust not only in ourselves – in who we actually are – but in our neighbors, since we figure most everyone’s fronting the same false face.
Still, we keep returning to our faces, telling ourselves that our next look will be our last, that we’ll finally reach that face place, that relief is just one last look away. Any recovering addict knows the signs of dependence, knows when they’re in the dragon’s claws: the obsession, the constant preening and posing as we labor and suffer over our reflections, painting our lips, trimming our beards, clothing our skin, ever in search of solace no mirror can provide. And by now in this journey, it seems that most of us have been consumed by our avatars, altogether dominated by the flat images pretending to be the 3D me, although we know that actions speak louder than looks, or, at least, they should.
And who doesn’t feel the weight of their face in the torrent of the Information Age?
And I’m not saying that faces aren’t powerful and essential. Just the opposite. All five senses reside there as does the mind. The face is the window to the soul. A face launched a thousand ships. Such is face power. But as Uncle Ben warned Peter Parker, a.k.a. Spiderman: “With power comes responsibility.”
West 8thStreet – The Aquarium. 4:39 p.m.
The station’s interior is decorated in this tacky aqua blue latticework. I head over the footbridge to the boardwalk, hopping over a toppled over fence. Blocks away the Cyclone sits still dark and skeletal. Around me, there’s stalled reconstruction, sand piles, barbed wire, wet rust, the smell of an electrical fire. I spot a puddle and bend down and look into it. I’m there: brown skin and eyes, beard and Yankees hat, but translucent and mixed with fuel oil and mud.
The squawk of seagulls turns my head.
I walk onto the beach. I see a young woman in jeans and a loose brown sweater running barefoot, again and again, at the seagulls I came to find. And I think that’s her, that’s who she is. And I imagine myself as her: eyes watching the birds scatter, heart pounding as her feet grips the wet sand, as her warm breath and raw voice, but not her face. Of course her girlfriend’s filming it all on her phone, reducing the moment onto a screen and launching it up to take up crowded residence in the Cyber Slum lurking above us.
It makes it less, flattening the moment.
But the lawyer, I am, pushes back, reminding me, myself and I: Who am I to judge? I don’t know these women or what they’re up to. Maybe sharing the image will do some good. It’s what the best artists do. Like Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother: that iconic photograph of Florence Owens Thompson, mother of seven, destitute pea picker, stranded on Highway 101 in 1936, caught in the wrath of the Great Depression. Ms. Thompson’s face seems to want nothing from the camera, seems not to even see it, but her face nonetheless teaches, teaches us just how far our country will let us fall. So reflection isn’t inherently bad. It can be beautiful, be important and edifying. No, my problem is that our littered and teaming images have become noise and pollution.
I turn away from the women to the surf and let the ocean fill my ears.
4:54 p.m. My phone vibrates, and I flip it open.
“Hello, hello, is this Mr. Hueston?” A female voice, tired and hurt.
“Yes, this is Mike Hueston.”
“Oh thank god! I’m so sorry to bother you on a weekend.” The tired voice catches its breath. “But my grandson Devonte was arrested today by the police for burglary and my friend, Elaine, gave me your number. And we’re here, but they won’t let us in to see him. We don’t know if he’s hurt. Oh god, there’s an ambulance outside!” The hurt voice catches its breath again. “We need a lawyer. My friend said you could help us. We’re at the 77th Precinct. They said Devonte and his friends broke into a house. They arrested him three times now. And he’s just 17, but they won’t let us see him. He’s just a boy. Don’t we have a right to see him? And it’s Blockhead. I know he’s in there. He keeps harassing Devonte, always stopping him and searching him. He won’t leave Devonte alone. Can you help us, Mr. Hueston?”
Now this is odd. There’s a pentecostal drawn into the sand, and I step into it before telling her I’m not available and refer her to a colleague whose number I provide.
“How much does he charge?” Anxious voice unnerved.
“You’ll have to work that out with him.”
“Can we pay later?” Haggard voice losing hope.
“Please talk to him about that.”
“But can they do this?” Voice failing. “Just hold him without allowing us to see him?”
“How old is Devante again?”
“17.” Voice just about giving up.
There’s no easy way to say it. “I’m sorry mam, but after 16, a child loses that right, and he’ll be treated as an adult.” My voice is callous to my own ears. The voice fails over the line until I hear: “Oh God no! No! No!” Then the voice whimpers quiet.
“Mam, please call my colleague.”
“Ok, thank you, Mr Hueston.” The voice hangs up.
I put my phone away and look down at the pentecostal. Stepping inside of it was sardonic. Then again when would I get another chance? And it seemed appropriate given what I do and how often I meet people in various states of hell. But it’s not a joke, not at all. And I conjure the image of Devante: a poor, young black boy I’ve never met; a boy caught stealing what he didn’t have the support, education, and above all hope, to believe he could earn; a boy, like so many of the boys I represent, craving cash to buy into that savior image that can’t save them, but which they still seek, because it’s all they believe they have or possess, an image of themselves aping the celebrities and algorithms of the Silicon Age.
Boys led astray from the real shit they’ve got to face, charmed into putting on black face for others’ profit.
And I think of how so many of us have been wounded by image, buying into unsustainable gratification, consumption and excess, buying into flat images no human can actually ever become. That’s why, despite how much I admire actors, acting seems so perilous to me, so radioactive, a profession where people are rewarded for mimicking feeling, mimicking life. And I recall that wild girl, LiMei, back at LaGuardia who starred in our high school’s production of Julius Caesar, and the time in homeroom when she took my hand and held it to her breast as she acted out the lines:
Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Off all the wonders that I yet have heard,
It seems to me most strange that men should fear;
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.
It’s funny how the mind works. I haven’t thought of LiMei in years. But here I’ve dug her up along with some of Shakespeare’s greatest words about: letting go. And I hypothesize, pontificate and theorize we weren’t meant to remember all that can be saved and uploaded, that we weren’t meant to have actual recall of our lives, that we were meant to lose portions, misremember segments, distort and build on others, and continually fragment and reuse memory, creating new grooves and vistas, never static in time.
And what LiMei did was a power move. But that was her thing. Like the time she fucked me in Sheep’s Meadow, straddling me as our friends played frisbee. I might as well not have been there as I looked into her emotional mask, into that daredevil grin surrounded by hair so black it shined. Because it clearly wasn’t about me, just her, and the reaction she could draw from me, or perhaps the role she saw herself starring in. Whatever. LiMei was the first person I knew, really knew, who believed she was a celebrity, flattening herself and holding her avatar up to be beheld and consumed. And I remember feeling something I would later describe as disappointment about this girl, whose talent I admired, but as far as I could fathom, put herself before her art … and ultimately before people.
I’m sitting on a pile of logs, watching an old man feed seagulls that are twisting around him like a living tornado. And I imagine myself as him, as my hand tossing stale bread, back bending, feet walking, lips smiling; but not the seen smile, but the felt smile. And it strikes me that I often overlook that we actually feel our smiles, as we do all sensation, and that smiling isn’t an image or a pose, but a way to communicate happiness to ourselves.
It’s getting real dark. I head back to the boardwalk. The street lamps are still down from Sandy, which adds to the night. For a hundred yards or so, it’s just the lights of the Aquarium’s entrance, Brighton’s high rises, and the occasional cigarette embers. It’s hard to write in such darkness. And I imagine Ms. Margolin reviewing what I’m scribbling, certain that she’d give me a pass with that smile she loved to share with me. And I remember her hug and kiss goodbye when she went on leave to have a baby. What a terrific hug. The smell of her perfume was like butter and cinnamon, but better. And to this day, I hope she felt, as I hugged her back, just how much she meant to me, hope she felt my thanks, since it was her compassion and patience and steadiness that got me healing after my parents’ divorce and the brutal assault my mother suffered, unbeknownst to me, at the hands of my father…
That past, present and future is for another day.
Today is about faces.
And I look around to see the people near me. We’ve turned into silhouettes of ourselves, high def gone low res. Puddle like. Puddle people. And it occurs to me that we didn’t evolve with forever light and that darkness may be important because we need to be relieved from the clarity of day, like the erosion of memory. And at the end of that thought, I’m struck by the quiet around me: just the surf accented and a lone Russian voice. And I see the image of my Russian professor, Ms. Feodorovna, leaning against the podium in her stockings and heels, half librarian, half spy. One of the most interesting things she taught us was how the verb “to be” «быть» (byt’) in Russian is barely used in the present tense and how in speech it’s not pronounced at all. So instead of: “I am walking” a Russian says: «Я – иду» (Ya idu): “I walking.” I noted that Russian got right to the action, to the verb, without the redundancy of the extra self, emphasizing and acknowledging that we are what we do, not what we say we are.
Here I am again at the puddle I gazed into earlier. But I’m now featureless, one with the puddle. And I think of The Melvin’s Lividity, and the canvas such emptiness offers us. No face deluding me, freeing myself to see the actual me.
I’m struggling to remember a thought I’ve lost when a woman comes aboard at Avenue X carrying her sleeping baby. The woman’s:stroking-her-baby’s-hair-beautiful. And I think how she’s never seen her face like this. She can’t and be aware of it. It would make it something less. Then I watch a family come aboard at 18th Avenue. Mom. Dad. Big and little brother. And I see their faces as they cannot. Faces imbued with emotion and thought and memory and observation. And I call myself out for checking them out on the sly, as I’ve done over and over again today. So I amend my earlier criticism about how we don’t meet people’s eyes, which I knew was ill formed when I wrote it three hours ago. For while it’s often true we don’t acknowledge each other because of ego. It’s also about face power. Since to observe someone changes their nature as it does ourselves. The observation effect at work again.
So observation is a responsibility.
Stevie Wonder’s Past Time Paradise plays as we approach Carroll Street, and I notice my foot bouncing to its synthesized strings, conga drums, Hare Krishna bells and gospel choir, while Stevie sings:
They’ve been spending most their lives
Living in a pastime paradise
They’ve been wasting most of their time
Glorifying days long gone behind
They’ve been wasting most their days
In remembrance of ignorance oldest praise
* * *
Let’s start living our lives
Living for the future paradise
Praise to our lives
Living for the future paradise
Shame to anyones lives
Living in the pastime paradise
And I know I’m reading into this, reaching and pushing to connect one thought to another, but I can’t help but think: Shame on us for holding on to the images of ourselves, as if the best moments, the most critical, aren’t right in front of us. And I turn face front to my life, my life at this very moment, looking out at the mix of strangers near me: the long haired girls, bald men, hipsters and homeboys, and I’m racing with words and words are racing in me. And I look at my hand holding a pen, writing on a pad.
So I write, so I am.
Pushing my drama again.