Thursday, December 24, 2009

Sun and the Sea, no longer enough.

Albert Camus said "A man is not poor if he has but the sun and the sea." This was Oran, Algiers, cerca 1940, but when I read them in Queens in the year 2000, after my father died and we lost everything, I looked around me and felt even poorer in the grey desolation surrounding me. All I had was concrete, and awful 70s modernist architecture. We lost our mansion in the New Jersey forest, back to where it all began - in Queens - because that was all my mother knew, and all we could afford. I had no sun and no sea.

But I felt something deeper in Camus' words. He meant more than he said. I didn't have the sun or the sea, but every poor man gains something, if only he looks and feels, closely. It is there. And that is what Camus meant, that in a man's circumstance and plight, he gains something that is distinctly his own. The suffering, the struggle, nobody can take this away from him.

I looked around me, like a rat in a cage, sleeping in my mother's living room, stealing just enough money from her purse everyday to buy a cup of Dunkin Donuts coffee, to then write bad poetry, on napkins. Sometimes I wrote little love letters, wanting to slip them to the punjabi girls working behind the counter. They would look at my kara, my sikh bracelet, every time I paid them, every time I took my coffee, I could feel quietly that they recognized a piece of themselves in me. But we never said anything. My punjabi is terrible.

Why is it that we don't get what we want when we most need it? Fuck the world.

I looked out one night through the neon donut shop window and saw the train rumble by and beyond it, stood majestically, the public library. The library of my childhood, the place I went to use the telephone (to place bets) and to take a piss (and jerk off) when I couldn't make it back to the apartment. It was newly renovated and was shining in the darkness with its lights on, like a phoenix rising above all the dirt, filth and madness. There it stood looking at me, calling me. Another train rumbled by above. It came to me. I had my Sun and Sea, too.

I never took much to reading. I don't think any hot blooded young man growing up in New York City can. Too much noise, too much to do, too many people screaming at you. Hustling is much more fun and necessary. Carrying a book around my neighborhood was an invitation to get murdered. So much so that many people got two copies of their textbooks, one to keep in their lockers at school, and the other at home for homework. This way you never looked uncool, kept your street cred and your grades up (we all secretly wanted to go to Bronx Science, even if we pretended we didn't care).

But slowly, when one is unemployed, suffering mental anguish and has nothing better to do, books open up to you. I thought I would start with the classics. Kind of like the best ofs for nubile autodidacts. And then I explored world cinema, and then one day I came upon a journal on Latin American studies from Austin, Texas, about Cuba. There was a picture of Fidel inside. I saw that he and I shared exactly the same hands. I was moved. Yes, there had to be a greater purpose to my life. The library, like the Sun, reminds you of that through its unconditional nourishment. Knowledge also burns. But let's not get into that, just now.

The subway my sea, with its ebb and flow, a steel wave crashing into manhattan day after day, never stopping. The library, knowledge, as radiant as the sun, opening me to the pleasures of the soul. Movement and knowledge, the modern day gifts for a poor man.

Bestial needs used to be enough. The sun, the sea, a good meal, making love to your woman, feeling the breeze in your air. Now it's about travel, in all senses, into the known and unknown. Escape. Paradise is a trap.

In my darkest moments, I remember feeling, that if this was all I had, it was enough. It gave me life, even if I felt a strange monotony in taking the train to Times Square and back everyday, just to think and watch people, and search for the great answers to the questions I had. There it was, everything before me, 2000 years of civilization in a building, the culmination of the world's dreams in a city, and back and forth I went, feeling lulled by a certain rhythm. A certain rhythm only the New York City subway (the sea) can give you.

Soon, I began combining all my pleasures into one. The train, a library book and a cup of coffee (with napkins and a pen, of course). 28 minutes Main Street Flushing to Times Square. That's enough time to fill to a young man's heart, to the brim. And to then get out and watch the world being made. And back, with the sun coming down, but at least I moved, and thought and bettered myself. Doing nothing, but moving, with my mind and my body. My primal needs met. Like in Algiers, with the sun and sea. No money, but you felt mother earth move her lips to your song. And you felt blessed inside, even if slowly you wasted away.


George Kakoulides said...

You're back

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