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New writing will no longer appear so frequently here, its on Substack.
Find me there and subscribe for free or donate if you believe in the project!
The towers they are sleeping now. Sometimes I think about them, below the black void waterfalls flowing down many stories below the imprints. Jung wrote that every person has a shadow life, a life unlived. I wonder if buildings have a shadow life too. I think about the towers inverted and going down as deep into the earth as they previously went up into the sky, through layers of rock and crust and fire—all of it is god’s furnace, but maybe god's furnace is not so different looking than man's furnace, with molten steel and jet fuel.
And where oh where is Blaise Bailey Finnegan III today? Is he sleeping, is he dead? Does he have the lung disease?
And where is Osama? Are he and his hijackers down there too, under the waterfalls going deep into the center of the earth, laughing at us, past the entry gates to il Purgatorio with the message carved in stone Dolente…dolore?
Henry Hudson discovered New York Harbor on September 11th, 1609. Reverend Samuel Purchase met with Hudson soon after and found the famous explorer "sunk into the lowest depths of the Humour of Melancholy, from which no man could rouse him. It mattered not that his Perseverance and Industry had made England the richer by his maps of the North. I told him he had created Fame that would endure for all time, but he would not listen to me."
Manhattan is built on a big pile of shist—that was the joke that the tour guides loved telling, on our high school class trip to the big city. We were little provincial kids, we wandered around the city feeling so glamorous and excited, singing all the songs from Rent. What they didn’t say is that Battery Park City was Adam’s Rib, that the material was taken from under the World Trade Center and added on as a pile of landfill out in the middle of the Hudson.
My old pal Frank, a New York native, has a Black Flag tattoo on his ankle. It has the plane flying into one of the two middle bars. Below the towers, it says No, its not the end.
In September 2001, I had been living in Brooklyn and going to my first semester of art school for about a month. It was my first time living away from home. I kind of hated it. I would bike through the city all night and then show back up on campus, bleary-eyed in time for my eight-hour sculpture class, where we would sit in silence before our Woody Allen-caricature professor, sanding down our “abstract” soapstone blobs until they were baby-bottom smooth. He would sit at the front of the class reading a magazine, saying “that’s it, that’s it, keep sanding.” He was trying to teach us some kind of lesson about patient but it was really just festering our resentment.
On the morning of September 11th, I woke up late for class. Scrambling across the quad I ran into a guy who told me, “Hey man—a plane crashed into the World Trade Center. You gotta go up on the roof and check it out…”
I climbed up on the roof of the Design building. A group of student onlookers were gawking at the smoke billowing out of the tower. I remember thinking it was some kind of cartoonish accident—I imagined a little bi-plane piloted by some scarved and goggled old man accidentally hitting the building.
Then the second plane hit. It came out of nowhere, going so fast. What was happening was starting to become clear.
I went down to my classroom on the 4th floor. There were big glass windows with a clear view of the towers and lower Manhattan. The poor teacher—who was so much younger than I am now—was struggling to hold the students attention and kept saying, “Please be respectful.”
Through the plate glass windows, the towers were clearly visible and smoking heavily. Then the towers disappeared. Someone shouted “YOU CAN’T SEE THE TOWERS!” followed minutes later as the smoke cloud cleared a little bit “THE TOWERS ARENT THERE!” Smoke and screams and horror.
And as so many people have mentioned, that indescribable and terrible smell that settled over the city for months. Was it jet fuel or asbestos or death, or what was it exactly?
I have never smelled anything like that. That smell will stick with you forever.
I dropped out of college and moved back home to North Carolina in December. Art school seemed insane and pointless, not to mention expensive. New York was cold and scary. I found out my dad had been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. He had actually been diagnosed in the summer, but they had waited to tell me because they didn’t want to a dark cloud hanging over my first semester away at college.
I was so happy to be back home.
Seven years later, by a series of random happenstance and accidents, I ended up back in New York. I got a temporary job an archivist at the 9/11 Museum and Memorial. The Memorial hadn’t been built yet. It was my first real white-collar job. I wore a suit every day and got my two dollar breakfast at the diner, double-toasted blueberry muffin slathered with butter, on my way to the black, Death Star-like skyscraper at One World Trade. Seven years after, you could still really feel the direction of the abscess before you saw it—something in the play of shadows created by enormous skyscrapers. It was hard to tell whether you could just feel the emptiness in that space, or if there was something psychically powerful about the site. A crowd was perpetually gathered around the chain link fence, and a blustered looking police officer held them at bay as dump trucks left the place in a steady stream—still removing rubble seven years later to the morbidly named Fresh Kills landfill.
I feel honored to have had the opportunity to listen, sometimes in person, to the stories of the firefighters, family members, and first responders who were there that day. It really drove home how much I had not understood as a teenager in 2001.
We even got to go out on a tour of Hangar 17, way out in Queens, where the Port Authority was storing all the big 9/11 artifacts that would eventually be put in the museum. The twisted steel, the last column, the teddy bears, the melted bike racks.
Everything had been tagged and had the toxic dust carefully cleaned off of it, but the acrid smell lingering vaguely on all the pieces of metal and ephemera in the hangar brought me back to 2001. It took me back to what it was like to be 17, to eat the foods I ate then in the college cafeteria, how everything tasted vaguely metallic after that day, to see how the future closed in with less possibility and liberty than existed before. It reminded me of how I went down to the Brooklyn Bridge that afternoon and watched the people from Manhattan stream over, the women with bloody feet from walking all that way in high heels. Some people were shoeless, and they weren’t worried about getting glass in their feet. No one took any pictures.
And how quickly the flag-sellers came out, almost within hours, sensing the opportunity. I didn’t have a cell phone at the time and how the payphones were all out of order because the lines were tied. It is smells that bring up the strongest sense-memories. They bring up a lot of old feelings.
I get more and more emotional about 9/11 with every passing year.
I hate seeing the irony and the whataboutism and the comparisons to the coup against Salvador Allende in 1973 and the “well of course I feel sorry for those who died in the towers, but”, and now this year, the “well, technically, more people have died of covid than in the towers.”
What do they get out of the irony. The people who engage in this every year remind me of worn-out preachers who still give the same sermon to the same congregation but they no longer believe in it, they do it from ingrained habit.
As I get older, it becomes more and more clear to me how much this one event changed everything, how intensely it shaped my world and even the direction of my life.
The entire sunken world of before is gone, that more innocent world I recognize with affection when I’m watching movies like Con Air and Die Hard and Fight Club.
I’m sure part of it is simple nostalgia for being a teenager before Y2K, but I think actually the world was materially different. And that world and feeling is gone forever and its never coming back again.
“You've picked a funny time to come home,” my friend Ron says. The weather is unnervingly mild for winter, the people are unnervingly mild. Everything is about 70 degrees and breezy, which is pretty eerie. We’re walking along the side of the highway—a truck crunches over some mangled roadkill. We keep on walking. “Coming home really freaked me out, man—all the college students, all the same old people still hanging around doing the same old thing, new people that think that this is their town, their moment.”
After a while, you settle back into North Carolina's woodwork and start to remember what you loved about the lumber yards and Biscuitvilles and empty freeways. The weather. The forests. The skies. The thunderstorms. The humidity. The cicadas. The moon. The glow of some biotech or app company, set back in the woods around the Research Triangle.
“Every time you come back to town I remember how badly I need to get out of here,” Ron grins. He has been living in the mid-sized Southern city for at least a year and a half and he has been talking for a year of that about leaving. He was sunk deep in the quicksand now.
He’s not going to move away, I think to myself. We walk and talk some shit. We share some laughs. We head down the pitted clay toward the train tracks, the good red smell of hot tar rising and filling my nostrils.
There is a certain Southern frequency that must be settled into like silt, like those half-pigeon poses in yoga. Any attempt to glide along with that harried, striving, goal-oriented, use-value time sense imported from the North or another ganglion of capitalism will be met with dissonance. I went away to New York when I was very young, lured by its cultural magnetism. I could have stayed home, or gone to DC, like the others. I regret it. After ten long years in the North, I sense that I have brought some of the gaze-averting, sarcastically-avoidant, hardened demeanor back inside me. Before I had sinned and tasted the forbidden fruit, people had nodded, had interacted with me normally. Now the first thing they ask is “Where you from?” through narrow eyes, the underlying assumption being, You’re not from around here are you. Something within has changed. It is a bad feeling, for a Southerner to return home and be mistaken for a Northerner.
You can make a perfectly nice life here. Tons of people do. They come from all over, for the weather, for the jobs, for the lifestyle. It is not the true South, but a cozy simulacrum of the South, it has its own interesting culture, with convienent access to the mid-Atlantic and Northeast. You can get a good job that pays multiples of mortgage or the rent, a path to the middle class, nice parks, nice woods, cheap enough.There is no need to really leave. And yet, its proximity, its lower-mid-Atlantic-ness, and the fact that it is not so much a hub, but a redoubt— naturally the youth want to go out and see what the rest of the world is all about. They go up to DC to visit. They want to go to college there or move there for a while. And further up the coast is New York, the distant shining crazy diamond, both loathed and loved, like some kind of Magic Mountain that North Carolinians feel the urge to climb to prove to themselves. We're not just simple backwater provincials, oh no, we can be as hard and toughened as the Northerners. Southerners have long ventured to the more-prosperous and intellectual North in search of education and career advancement. But something is always given up in this seeking.
Many people I came up with in North Carolina suffer from a certain restless malady of this early comfort, decency and womb-like goodness, an offshoot of Goldilocks syndrome. This internal needle swings wildly from one side to the other, its not unlike North Carolina’s political history—from hard-right to progressive, for every Jesse Helms a Terry Sanford, for every stronghold of Fusionist power, a Wilmington 1898 Redeemer riot.
Unlike the people raised in, say, some hellish corner of the freezerburned Midwest, North Carolina is not a place you escape from permanently. You don’t want to stay away forever. You leave and then return, with your tail between your legs. This access to coming and going to different worlds so nearby, leads to a feeling of dislocation, a kind of pirating view of the world. Since the time of Blackbeard, NC has been a base, a reliable fort from which to set out and plunder. To go and get that Northern money, northern cultural capital, but to bring it back.
Many move away to Baltimore or Portland or DC for a time, but then burnt-out return home for a time to recover their finances, their connection to family and nature, to the important parts of life that they feel like they lost in the nether lands. They eventually feel stultified by the smallness and familiarity, by the car culture, by the tightness of social life, and spring back out into the vulgar world with renewed vigor to make another go at it. Maybe it’s just the people I grew up with, but those who have this ambivalent, back-and-forth relationship to the state seem more numerous to me than those who have left and stayed gone for good. (This sense of recovery and womb-like peace is probably best expressed in literature in a section of Kerouac’s Dharma Bums, where he posts up on the back porch of his aunt’s house in Rocky Mount, NC—meditating, praying, listening to trains, and sitting in the grass). And some friends, who I assumed had left forever and were successfully rooted in other cities sometimes surprise me when we catch up and, after a couple of beers surrounded by frogs and cicadas on a yellow-lightbulb-lit front porch, they say that one day they dream of moving back home. One day, one day. One day in some future time, maybe. Like Augustine, lord make me chaste, lord make me chaste, but not yet, not yet lord. But for some, that sometime time never comes.
North Carolina is always in a delicate place—it’s cities are always just on the cusp of getting really great. "Its happening, this is the moment!" they were saying about Greensboro in 2004, and I imagine the true believers, they're still saying it. Soon. Every person counts, each individual contributes something. Each small business or person could tip the scales—greatness and community don’t just exist as a huge blob to be tapped into—they have to be actively built.
This fosters a kind of fetish for community-building, for intentionality.
Of course with this comes a kind of self-consciousness and uptightness that kills all forms of spontaneity because an often neglected aspect of community is the ability to be truly comfortable, to act out, to be themselves unintentionally, as most people do for most of their lives, even if they are tapped into the highest levels of monitoring themselves and maintaining a self-awareness.
Its metropolises are like some balkanized social movement that is never quite able to pull it together and keeps saying, “Next time! Next time!” This in-between-ness causes problems. You can move between Asheville and Raleigh and Winston-Salem and Wilmington for your whole life, each has their advantages and disadvantages, but in each one, the walls start to close in. After a time the small provincial-ness becomes too much and the typical Carolinian decides it is time to bust out and heads to Portland, or Baltimore, or New York, or more rarely to New Mexico, or Michigan, or to the actual Netherlands.
The many exiles I know remain haunted by a strange kind of bipolar nostalgia, always longing for the simplicity of life, for the trees and smells and weather and the moon at night and the lonesome sound of train whistles; for the ease and innocence that they remember, while at the same time being frustrated by its reality, not quite the city, not quite the country, but a metropolitan area of forests punctuated by strip malls, hip gastro pubs and universities.
After a few years the crushing reality of these strange cities, the absence of natural community and the absence of family back in the mountains, Piedmont, or Coastal Plain, becomes overwhelming and these lost souls head back to North Carolina to hide out in the womb of the pines—you don’t have to put on airs, you don’t have to pretend you’re into things you’re not really into, you settle back in. Perhaps in a different city than the one you left. But essentially back in the same fabric, like a ratty old sweater—time begins to move again at its proper place; nature and the pines and the sunrise and sunsets are predominant. Boredom returns and from boredom springs creativity, for that is the way creativity is expressed in North Carolina, naturally, not by some sheer force of willpower, but as a way to fill the endless mild afternoons; and you feel safe, and you feel home, and you feel a little bit of missing out on the metropole, but you feel safe and home and your rebel spirit is intact and you are near the mountains and the beach and the people you know and have known forever might be a little bit overfamiliar at times, but you can trust them, fundamentally.
So those who come and go are searching for something that they can’t find. But they also can’t leave. And those that stay at home for their reasons can’t help but wonder what they’re looking for. But they also wish they too could go wander in the big wide world.
As I said above, the young Carolinian, having the access to the culture and life of the mid-Atlantic and the North, inevitably feel the urge to find out for themselves. Unlike the Missisippian or the Floridian, they are not down there so deep that they can't get out, prisoners to geography. North Carolina's culture and development has become infused and blended with the Midatlantic and Northeastern culture to become Southern-lite, a diluted sweet tea.
In this way it is fundamentally split, pulled apart in two directions, and this has only increased as the mid-Atlantic has expanded into the upper South.
The true power of the state lies not in the demographically-shifted little emerging Southern lefty utopias, but out there in the vast pirate land, not in the dinky, bureaucratic state capital, the city that was built not for its rivers or natural resources but because there was a bar there that early lawmakers liked to meet at—and so the capital was built where the bar was and that was where the government would be. There is little difference between Raleigh and Brasilia. The artificiality of that city, a city I have loved. It’s impossible for it to have any true history other than dead bureaucratic history, so unlike the long settlement of any place with true natural resources, a port, a river, some genuine reason for people to be there before the rise of institutions.
Joseph Mitchell, the great-granddaddy of the detached New Yorker reporting and writing style, had the malady. He left his hometown in Eastern North Carolina to make New York his home, and his subject. He wrote magazine profiles. At the end of his life, when he was basically emeritus at the New Yorker, he began working on a memoir about North Carolina that was never published or finished. The New Yorker published a section of it in 2013, and its last paragraph was so haunting it deserves to be quoted in full:
Several years ago, however, I began to be oppressed by a feeling that New York City had gone past me and that I didn’t belong here anymore. I sometimes went on from that to a feeling that I never had belonged here, and that could be especially painful. At first, these feelings were vague and sporadic, but they gradually became more definite and quite frequent. Ever since I came to New York City, I have been going back to North Carolina for a visit once or twice a year, and now I began going back more often and staying longer. At one point, after a visit of a month and a half, I had about made up my mind to stay down there for good, and then I began to be oppressed by a feeling that things had gone past me in North Carolina also, and that I didn’t belong down there anymore, either. I began to feel painfully out of place wherever I was. When I was in New York City, I was often homesick for North Carolina; when I was in North Carolina, I was often homesick for New York City. Then, one Saturday afternoon, while I was walking around in the ruins of Washington Market, something happened to me that led me, step by step, out of my depression. A change took place in me. And that is what I want to tell about.
This same feeling—homesick for New York, homesick for North Carolina—this strange restlessness between the invisible meridians, persists in the present era. Mitchell is now largely forgotten, outside of publishing circles—maybe justly forgotten. He was a middlebrow, middle-path writer who toed the line between expressing himself and making a living. Mitchell was buried in Fairmont, NC, not the New York that endlessly fascinated him and was the muse of his wonderful reportage. One afternoon, I drove out from Raleigh down the tiny backwater roads, lined with tobacco and cotton, to look for his grave. Fairmont was a sleepy, boarded-up little Eastern North Carolina hamlet, untouched by the relentless New South development of the Triangle, Charlotte, and Asheville, around I-40 and I-95. Tobacco fields, a barbeque place, a gothic out-of-the-way town with signs that say THIS WAY TO THE BEACH —> (as if they know Fairmont is just a place you pass through when you’re lost trying to get to the coast). If the town leaders knew how famous their native son was, they gave no indication of it—there were no placards, signs, museums, or even directions to his birthplace or gravesite. I looked all over town, wandering into all the overgrown church graveyards and all the overgrown town graveyards, before giving up and heading to the coast.
Every night, seven days a week, ten Chinatown buses set off from the suburban edges and gas stations of little North Carolina outposts, heading to New York. The passengers will be in the metropole by daybreak. The Yankee always has a soft spot for the North Carolinian—they have family down there, they dream of moving down there. They view Durham and Rocky Mount as their woodland redoubt. Tell some New York City tax or city official that you're moving away back to North Carolina, they exude complete sympathy and understanding, they never question. Take that overnight China bus from New York to Durham, you can feel the layers peeling off the other people. Their ragged, stressful breathing stabilizes and calms somewhere down in the woods of Petersburg. They are bifurcated, they calm, they become different people when they hit the Southlands.
I took the Chinese bus up to New York for a visit. The time was spent luxuriating in the parks, having intense, driven conversations with friends, walking the Red Hook waterfront. It was intense—the moments were jam-packed. The time sense was crowded and cosmopolitan.
The void was edged out and I momentarily forgot that it existed. The pressure to perform well socially is exhausting, only extroverts can find joy in it. And yet, when I went down into the Bowery late at night and caught the half-empty overnight bus headed back to the South I breathed a sigh of relief. On the dark bus, heading into the dark forests, I could let go and once again be unseen, hide in the shadow of the world. The bus barreled back through the mid-Atlantic. At four AM, we stopped at a truck stop in the woods of rural Virginia—a half-dozen unmarked buses were refueling and a human swarm, the riders, mostly black and Asian, milled about with beaten-down eyes on the too-long rest break—it looked like one of those scenes in the apocalyptic Hollywood movies with the crowd at the spaceport with screaming babies, trying to get on the last transport off the dying planet.
At dawn, the bus deposited me on the nether edge of Durham at a BP station. No one else got off the bus and no cabs were waiting, so I called Durham’s Best Taxi Company. A chipper (for the time of morning) Peruvian guy picked me up and we drove through the neighborhoods, which look consumed by the forest, to my house. We got to talking about New York. “I used to live in New York,” he laughed, “It’s great. But it’s a lot to handle.”
I asked why he had left. He sighed the way people who used to live in New York sigh—the sigh that typically precedes a reasonable list of gripes and grievances but secretly conceals an unspoken feeling that they left because they were inadequate, that they couldn’t cut it—“Here, there is more space and time, you know? Life is not all about the money.”
Like certain really great drug experiences, living in New York for a while can taint your perception for the rest of your life, make everything else seem bland and colorless and slow—nothing can compare, walking quickly through brick and industrial neighborhoods with a regular coffee and butter roll, it all becomes part of you, you become part sooty brick yourself. For the rest of your life, you can find yourself making comparisons—any other city, even with its nature or certain perks, can never artificially fill you like the true urban environment can, its palpability, its endorphin rush.
I told him that I had just moved back and my time sense had not yet adjusted. I was still running on the nervous energy—I was frustrated with how slow everything was. He nodded, understanding, “You get behind someone and they just sit there for a while, even though it’s there turn to go. It’s like what are you, asleep at the wheel?”
He didn’t want to raise his kids in New York. He wanted to make more money and pay less rent, reasonable things. I told him I had just moved from Raleigh to Durham—that I was from there but that now, with what it had become, I hated it in a certain way. “I never liked Raleigh,” he shook his head, “It is a bit too much. It seems a lot like Washington, DC.” I agreed, it had changed a lot.
It’s hard to reinvent yourself. It’s hard to be true to yourself. It’s hard to leave your home place or never leave your homeplace. It’s also hard to ever find a way to live in a different way, in your hometown. Jesus said, "you can't be a prophet in your hometown."
The Nazarenes heckled him. The Gospel of Luke claims they even tried to push him off of a cliff.
At a distance from shared pasts and histories, illusions and myths are easier to cultivate.
For this reason, Jesus abandoned Nazareth forever and spent most of his life in Judea and Galilee.
This phenomenon can be experienced contemporarily with bands and art—how people in New York City are so eager to romanticize anything and everything, as long as it comes from outside, if it comes from the South, if it comes from overseas. Bands on tour from Alabama and performance artists from Greece do much better than, say, the cowboy country group from Greenpoint or the writer from Clinton Hill—too close, too familiar, we reasonably hate what's familiar, we feel the contempt.
The Avett Brothers, a country indie rock outfit from North Carolina, represented a different, far-away world before they moved to Brooklyn and were just another band in the heart of capital. They had more credibility and authenticity when they came from somewhere else. The myth takes root in distant soil where the ugliness of birth and the real-world machinations remain shrouded behind the curtain. It is ugly to see how sausage is made.
How long have I been unhappy?
You were happy just the other day.
Using the body with friends in the sunshine
But something's been wrong for a while now
Something undiagnosable by a doctor.
A sense of life no longer being able to penetrate skin or soul
Bad circulation from smoking, cold lizard skin now
The soul seemingly closed for business
Like an old radio with the antenna broken off
I don't receive the messages anymore
Panting from leg to leg like a dog
Lunches, cigarettes, new smells
None of it affects me anymore
Dreams just continuations of the anxieties of the day
No messages, myths, allegories, advice
Even the dead no longer want to visit me there
Whine, bitch, moan, complain
Gasp awake with a bad back
Feel pained to get off the futon
Look at Instagram and deal with the night's messages
Before the pilgrimage for cigarettes and coffee
Like a dog's treat and walk
The only thing that gives me a pepper of excitement
How many adventures (and troubles) can you make
before Scenery is just Scenery
An airplane flight is just time killed over time zones
Wait for them to come by with the coffee
Take no pleasure anymore
On his deathbed in his apartment
Surrounded by priceless antiquities that nobody wanted to buy
The ailing "radical poet" had me over
for afternoon tea
"And you are familiar with my work?”
“Yes sir,” I lied
flattering him as best I could
"I knew all the right people
Now I’m so lonely.
All my friends were famous
now all my friends have passed away"
"Nobody will buy my prints
…you know I was very important
My work was very beautiful.
But now I’m dying
I want to know why I wasn’t more famous?"
"Do you think you could do something for me, journalist boy?
I’d like to get some posthumous recognition at least
Could you be the one
That makes me famous after I’m gone
Ask me about anything and everything
I’ll do my best to answer
As you can tell by looking at me I’m a great man."
To be honest, it disgusted me
I couldn’t stand to see it
At least the unbearable, egocentric old punk types
have the dignity to die forgotten and unknown
I excused myself from his apartment
Repulsed by his hot death desperation
Is there anything as pitiful
as the "radical" "underground" "mimeographed zine"-type
who secretly wants to be famous
I used to dream about work
What is work?
How do people work?
How is it done?
I knew nothing back then
I used to dream about it
And I just kept working and dreaming
And now I’ve stopped dreaming
And I’m still working
The past is dead
The people from that time gone
The glowy nostalgia irrecoverable
Having failed to seize the moment
The only option I have is to slowly rebuild
An inward spiral
Again, the people
Moved to different states
No longer the same people
I don’t even like to spend time with them anymore
Just my truck and my family and the long and lonesome walk
That I’ve made a million times before
Dawns and sunsets that I still don’t understand
Still unable to capture
The significance and meaning in the streetlamps buzz
And to go back
After having missed the angelic trumpet moment
(the one true moment when it was right to return)
I am left with a feeling
of having crested the wave
of having missed the opportunity to act
the desire for a room and silence and time
is all I want now
a place to savor and remember
to bear witness
to save a little something from oblivion
a sliver of what has forever departed.
Flying through the mist down on a damp Highway 17 to Myrtle Beach
Head throbbing from snorting too much Aderall the night before
Eating a Biggie fry and a McFlurry from McDonald’s
Laughing bitterly at myself for sinning and giving in to the sensual
Formerly once vegan
Wondering what the people from the past would say if they saw me now
Having given up completely
Hear something on the radio
The 13th Anniversary of the War in Afghanistan
It feels as if I’ve been Rip-Van-Winkled
Can it really have been thirteen years?
Since I stood up and walked out of my English classroom
Telling the professor that we couldn’t talk about Chaucer while the events of our time were transpiring?
That it had been 12 years since I had marched with 40 people wearing skull masks around Greensboro?
And that we used to walk down Market Street in packs, roving bands
To check our e-mail at the College Library
The world I knew is gone
How can anyone say
“What’s a year?”
Can be everything
Time compresses and expands like an accordion
Joyful or empty and forgetful
A single year
The mystery of passing time
And its silent companion
The world is a different place in the darktime
After replacing light bulbs in the empty house
I walked through the scrub bushes and dunes out onto the big empty
The sky roiling with clouds, a stain of black spreading to reveal the stars
Having sinned so much and now carrying ghosts on my back
All of them revealed themselves in the night sea
I lit a cigarette and tried to stare down the black roaring shapes
But then felt frightened and had to look away
Human heads lolling in the surf
The disappointed face of God
Black masts on the horizon of others coming
Dark water, the fizzing cauldron of life, rushing up against me
The stars revealed themselves in crosses and shapes behind a certain cloud
Flashlights bobbed down the way across the sheeny night mirror of wet sand
I walked briskly down the beach thinking often of turning around and going back to the car
The car, which contained the iPhone, and all my friends and connection to the world
Instead I walked on telling myself I was searching for God
Festina lente, festina lente
No willpower to do anything anymore
But flit restlessly from task to task accomplishing none of them
Unable to do complete anything except a power walk through the darkness
Seeing shapes like upright driftwood in the distance
Scared to realize that they were people fishing in the dark
My rotten restless mind never leaving me
Thinking not of God or stars or letting the rhythm of the clouds and surf and the daunting
black beach houses pass over me
But of all that I told myself I would die if I didn’t accomplish
That I hadn’t accomplished
And of all the people I liked and didn’t like and wanted to see and what
I would say to them when I saw them, the wandering unstable, unrelenting mind
Thinking of the walk back to the car before I had gotten to the end of the beach
What would I eat when I got home and what would I eat for breakfast and what would my next
four months look like, would I spend it alone
I walked to the end
To where the brackish water met the Atlantic
And looked up at the stars and pledged to learn more about Astronomy
And then turned around and walked back down the beach
My shirt drenched in sweat, feeling like an egg cracked open
Though I hadn’t found or spoken to God
I had thought I heard my dead father say “take care of your mother”
When I trudged through the sand back up off the beach
And across the asphalt road to where the car was parked
I got in the car and tried to wait a moment—discipline—before
Picking up my phone
And finding that all the people I had thought about had texted or called
Hard to believe that there was a time
When a massive two story building in a strip mall
Functioned as a youth pleasure dome
I can no longer feel the kind of excitement
The endorphin rush, anticipation followed by total fulfillment
The belief that all desires could be fulfilled
By a day spent in a vast maze of netting, plastic orbs and ball pits
The most advanced hologram video games (we clustered around in awe)
Virtual reality helmets and gloves, four of us
Cooperating to beat Teenage mutant ninja turtles
And the artificial day-glo jungle of the lazer tag arena
Misted in fog, our Platoon, Dien Bien Phu
Swarming with youth running
Past the rows of games
Pizza parties and birthday cake
Like the hidden foot clan warehouse full of half-pipes in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
We went there as often as we could
Being an all-you-can-eat-buffet
The entrance fee was steep
We got older but continued to go there even in high school
Then us good boys, who had once found fun in RPGS, magic the gathering, movies and Exhilarama
Crawled into a wormhole of illicit pleasures
One night, years later, we climbed up the precipitous ladder by the dumpsters
And drank beer and looked at the moon and expanding pine tree line and skyscrapers of Raleigh
across the wood line off in the distance
Having discovered danger and risk diluted the wholesome magic of games
We stopped paying to go to places like that
The next time I went past the building and looked up nostalgically
To watch the kids running in to fulfill their dreams
The light-up sign outside was gone and the doors were locked and the big plate glass windows showed a gutted and emptied warehouse
An independent business built on gamer dreams was perhaps financially unsustainable
It had packed up and disappeared one day like a mirage
Like that disappearing magic store that sold dragon eggs in some bygone YA novel