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I used to go up to Sutton Place on the East River just to dream about living there one day. The apartments all hang over the edge of the embankment with tall windows full of luxurious lamplight. I was a teenager working in Midtown Manhattan at a seedy office full of dead-enders. I was eighteen earning sixty dollars a week for a disbarred lawyer who was a whiz at making crooked deals to supply airplane parts to foreign air forces scattered across the Middle East. I was his French translator, making a mess of the French language with my sales pitches. I would go up to Sutton Place just to lean against the iron railings and watch the river, with all its metallic shimmers and slaps of water against the stones. I told myself one day I would get the key from an agent and step into some luxurious room where you could sip on a brandy and let your mind drift as far away as the Oort Cloud. It never happened. And I’m not sorry it didn’t. I don’t need that sofa, the elegantly tufted leather easy chair, the inlaid end tables, all that stuff that might have been the set for a Bogart noir film. I left New York soon after and began a life of restless wanderings, which continues to this day. That is what I am most grateful for.
When I tried to get a foothold in New York, I was told the best start would be as an insurance rep. I took an aptitude test at an insurance company and failed it miserably. I was introverted, too conceptual, not down to earth enough to connect with the sort of client trembling with anxiety over things that could happen to him or her. I didn’t know the lingo, the right pitch, how to close a deal, how to guide a reluctant hand down to the dotted line to get a signature. I didn’t have the steel gut to wait out the three-day grace period when all that work might be annulled by a simple phone call. There were guys a year or two older, in their early twenties, with New York accents who slurped coffee at the local breakfast counter and talked facts. They were the front lines of the insurance market, the storm troopers moving against all those faces staring out of apartment windows at the throbbing streets below. I admired them, and wished I had a more forceful personality.
But you don’t get to Sutton Place without going through boot camp in the jungles of Manhattan. You knocked, you pushed into the apartment, you sat and kept talking until you hit a nerve, and then you took out a brochure with some graphs and tables and began the monotonous seduction. I’m sure that ten years after I abandoned all hope of making it in Gotham City that there were men who had grabbed the lower rungs of capitalism and pulled themselves up, until they could see the river through the rusty palings. They would make it, or get close enough to smell their dreams.
Instead, I went to classes and graduated from college. I had tumbled around like a pair of pants in the dryer. My hippie marriage broke up, a few of my girlfriends decided I was too moody, and I couldn’t quite nail down my feet to the earth. I was too ethereal to be trapped by gravity. My favorite poet was Shelley, and the more vaporous his passions, the better I liked them. He had this cherubic face and silky, tousled hair; he wore loose shirts and dangled his arm across the back of an embroidered chair. He would listen to Byron spouting off about revolution, the revolt breaking out in Greece, the crumbling foundations of the Ottoman Empire, and smile wearily. They were British lords, noblemen without a care in the world about money or property. They were geniuses who could write at will and tear off twenty pages of intricate rime and toss their quills into the inkwell and saunter off to a night of Venetian debauchery. Not a bad life. It made Sutton Place feel like a tiny provincial daydream.
But I wasn’t Shelley. I was a commoner, a piece of American flotsam floating in the swells of American democracy. Whitman embraced me in his dithyrambic trances, but I doubt he would have shaken my hand if I had met him the streets. He might be preoccupied with composing an editorial for the Brooklyn Eagle and pass me by without a nod. So much for transcendental love. It reminded me of my one democratic errand while still a kid, when I took my new shoe shine kit into a corner tavern in Philadelphia and the bartender handed me two quarters and told me to get lost. I never mastered the art of the hustle, and the bar, with its stench of stale beer and cigar smoke, intimidated me. I shined my father’s shoes for a dime, and scrubbed the polish off my hands with cleanser. Life is hard, and I was getting beat up by it.
Sutton Place was the yellow brick road few are invited to follow, in a land of lions and tigers and bears. They were eager to risk all for the prize, and even then, few made it. New York was the vast meat grinder into which souls were tossed and came out like so much crushed dreams. Everywhere else in America, the tempo was slower, the pressure cranked down to an almost tolerable level. You could live in the hinterlands; it was possible to make a life out of the scraps of rural existence. You could realize happiness through a wife and family. But you couldn’t hold the chalice of success in your trembling hands, the gold cup that meant you had won the favor of the gods. No one wants to be trapped in the steerage class on the Titanic. Every ordinary person’s dream is to make it in this open-ended arena, this place where ambition devours morality.
When the Middle Ages collapsed into revolutions and reigns of terror, the masses were left without goals, without a social structure that dictated their fates. They were told they were free, and were no longer shackled to the church or to the nobility. So they emigrated to the shimmering dream of a country where the streets were paved with gold. They found ghettoes instead, and sweat shops, squalid tenements and dungeons where you slaved over the dirty dishes sent down from the brilliantly lit dining rooms of hotel restaurants. Freedom winnowed out the losers and left the most daring risk takers at the bottom of the screen. They might just be mean enough to elbow their way into the fiercely guarded inner temple. Maybe the Constitution would keep everyone safe, and prevent open slaughter of the weak. Maybe.
What I made of my life is the diary of everyman’s experience — I found a talent I could develop, an ability to understand and teach poems, and I entered the classroom and faced a roomful of eager, naive faces embarking on their own journeys. I offered both a means of instruction and an obstacle to the success they craved. What if I was a hard grader, a person empowered to prevent them from rising higher. They wanted me to make the course hard, but not so hard that they would be unable to get an A. They wanted to survive me, to hand some potential employer the evidence they were superior. They were already competing for the scrawny rewards of success, the job, the raises, the promotions, knowing that the top was reserved for those born to the manor. That didn’t deter them; they might be the few that could show they had the knack, the supernatural powers to dash their opponents and to enter the hushed and carpeted realms of the elite. A retiring professor took me aside one day and said, “Your students will be watching gauges all their lives. They won’t get to the top. Believe me.” He was right. He had seen youth come and go through his courses and watched how they scurried for higher ground only to settle for something that earned money and gave them enough dignity to live in the suburbs.
The thing is, you do make a life you can enjoy. There are moments, whole days of moments, in which you relish your successes, however small they are. You hug your kids, you kiss your wife and thank her for being such a good mate, a loving companion. You wash the car and paint the rain gutters, you mow the lawn and plant flowers in the little garden for all the neighbors to see. You make a sweetness to cover the subtle, pervasive, faintly malodorous smell of disappointment. You settle with the terrifying power of chance that did not reward you with anything but a small dent in the surface of reality. It is enough, you say. You could have tried harder, done some things differently, but in the end, the lottery numbers never came up for you. You feel the fury of life surge around you and you are astonished by the profound will of nature to continue without you.
Paul Christensen is a poet and writer who divides his time between Vermont and the south of France.
Copyright 2019 Paul Christensen