Saturday, January 10, 2009

Sound Crimes - Essay

The lady downstairs hears moaning. Why she’s not embarrassed to tell anyone this is anyone’s guess. She hears thumps. She hears clacking like scattering jacks on a parquet floor. Or rapping on the door with one knuckle. She writes letters to the apartment’s management company. They came and inspected the floors. Two men, while we were drinking coffee, looked at our furniture, at the little tab of carpet someone tucked beneath the short leg of one of the chairs to mute it. No telling what seismic event registers below, from a shifting of weight before a pork roast or plate of spaghetti above. They look around and make sure there are no how-to videos on clogging, no evidence of any dark rites of flamenco.

The only thing she’s listening to is me reading. The only clattering around here comes from the keyboard.

This makes me wonder what she’s doing down there. What realm of monastic silence is she sequestered in? She must not crack a window to let in the incessant blasts of the trolley horns. The throb of the rooftop dance party at the Hard Rock Hotel across the street doesn't penetrate her walls, I guess. This woman must not watch any program more torrid than San Diego City Beat. Her pulse must be thready.

I’ve thought on many occasions of inviting her up. Our landlady told us the previous tenant moved on account of this woman. And he was a manager at a fancy restaurant, accustomed to needy clientele. Of course I think our downstairs neighbor’s old, though I don’t know why I should. Like you, I bet she wears her eyeglass on a leash. She would say she was staunchly against rock music and gender-bending haircuts if a man-on-the-street-type reporter happened by. Then I want to think she’s one of those women whose hair color is unidentifiable, between blond and gray, who favors cardigans, and who answers the preachers on the television as if directly addressed. The kind of woman you imagine drowning children in the bathtub with a tight-lipped smile-- Tidy. Then, I imagine someone whose apartment is about to be seized, or a mother fresh from hosting her first child for only a few weeks, (SIDS, her OB tells her, as if the acronym imparted something more specific than “died.”) And this phantom noise, from somewhere, is a fresh invasion--impatient fingers worming into dry holes in the body, a livid pink fissure admitting germs into a scab.

If only that sound would stop. What on earth could they be doing up there? Do they have to do it now? Have they no thought for anyone but themselves? If I saw them, I’d strike them in the head, maybe. I'll kill them.
That’s what this person’s telling themselves. Barely hanging on, comes to mind, and I'm inclined to think more charitably.

I want to invite a crack team with seismographs, and shotgun microphones, and devices a jillion times more sensitive than the ear drum’s tympani. The kind of scientists who hunt ghosts on television, with doctoral degrees which remind me of conferring the rank of police chief on my friend with the plastic gladiator sword in the woods behind my house growing up, or of Huck Finn’s dauphin. The kind you want desperately to be studying something rather than just listening to the dark. They’d be green in the night-vision camera, their pupils white as mothballs, their mouths agape. They’d hear the ten-finger typing I’m unreasonably proud of, my honest-to-god laughs at Michael Chabon’s indulgent jokes. That’s it. The refrigerator may hum again when all along I’d forgotten it was silent. There are times when I run the dishwasher.

Then we’d have something to show the woman: scientific proof; quantifiable data even. Then we could get somewhere. Because how can I argue with what this woman hears? How can I prove all the noise I’m not making?

Our landlady’s going to stand trial for our sound crimes, for disturbing the peace in our home. I think there will be testimony. We don’t know whether to offer ourselves as witnesses for the defense. I’ve already thought of what I would say, and it sounds lame, guilty. Worse, it’s more shameful than kicking up a racket:

“I’m a writer.”
“I barely watch television.”
“As to the moaning,” I’d say. “That’s none of your damned business.”

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

I Hate Myself When I'm With You - Essay

Observations from a Chuck Palahniuk reading, from the Rant tour 2007:

I feel lousy for Chuck Palahniuk. Everything else aside, he just wants us to have a nice time. Fun. For this to be the opposite of every other boring reading where the author is nervous, where his voice carries the inflection of a thousand readings, like some high school kid in a play who has practiced his lines in front of the bathroom mirror for weeks. Chuck hands out plastic hamburger dog toys. At the end, he scatters rubber dismembered limbs into the slavering crowd, who is hungry, really-and-no-fooling hungry, for actual flesh.

I feel sorry for him because he’s straining at his soft-shoe to keep us entertained. These people that love him? Well, they also sort of hate him. These strangers, they know Chuck and they want to be his friend. And so do I. But I try and remember the difference. And these strangers, they’re half-right. We do know Chuck a little. In all the tales of the real molestation of fake rubber child dolls, homicidal chefs and sexual misadventure by pool filter, some of Chuck comes through. And he’s nice. He’s sad and he’s funny and he loves people in all their varied and grandiose humiliation. So it’s hard not to think each of us can make a connection with him in a two-minute meeting at a book-signing. But we can’t. He can’t know all of us. That’s assuming that Mr. Palahniuk would even care to know any of us. He doesn’t have the same relationship with us we have with him. This viewing glass is one-way. But he tries to like us all in our clamoring ungratefulness. He has trivia contests and takes questions. For a while, the social contract holds. People who shout out answers are rewarded properly and the losers cede to the winners. But then the crowd gets impatient, greedy:

Why won’t he call on me? I want to ask the most incisive question, so he knows I get him and what he’s doing.

Why won’t he love us more effectively?

Sometimes, Chuck, we swear we don’t know where this relationship is going.

The truth is, Chuck probably wishes he were anywhere else. The truth is, Chuck is finding it harder and harder to keep smiling. The truth is, we are more than a little bit the kind of people Chuck writes about, only we think we aren’t. Sure, it's all right for us to be the brave outcasts, the dissident about which he writes, but never the stupid, the mean, those dumb bastards given to the thoughtless, obsessive repetition of behavior.

Not us, Chuck. We get it.

So, as you probably guess, the crowd begins to devour Chuck. We get away from him. The thing he started, well, it kinda turns on him. And people are shouting and hooting while he talks and reads. This guy that we love so much and who we made a bunch of mundane sacrifices to see and hear, like driving up from Rhode Island, like finding someone to substitute-barista for us, like standing in line for two and a half hours with nothing to do but lean against a brick wall, this is the guy we shout down. This is the guy we can’t wait to top with our quips. This soft-spoken man who writes about violence, this paragon of maleness who is perhaps homosexual, this man who writes about the worst in us so we can see the best, all of a sudden, we are wiser than he. After a while, now that we’re comfortable, this man we adore, he’s not so grand.

What, does he think he’s better than us?

The Nielsen rating system sent me a survey in the mail once. As incentive, they included a crisp, waxy green dollar bill that had never seen a fold. I took the dollar out and ran my index and middle finger down the slit in the envelope. “Oh,” I said. “Only one dollar?” My sister’s boyfriend snorted and doubled over to keep down the beer he had been swallowing. “That,” he said when he regained his composure, “That right there is human nature.”