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By Conrad Keely

I was on a train last night, I don't know where I was going, I suppose it was Brooklyn. There were parts of the trip I only remember because I'd catch sight of someone I thought I recognized on one of the platforms, then they'd be gone, and I'd be left thinking, where do I know that face from? I guess I've seen so many they begin to run together, but the young ones stick out, the ones that look like me. The alienation of other people is something I don't understand, these multitudes of people that I'll never know. They don't particularly want to know me, but I want to know them. Do they consider themselves incomprehensible to me? Above me, or below me? Where are their lives going, are they bleak or unhappy, are they lost in some cycle their ancestors dropped them in? Do they mean something to somebody, are they loved? Where is the meaning in going to the grocers, in buying things and bringing them home, in waking up and feeding, in opening up the store, in catching that subway, in complaining to a friend about the kids, in slowly dying, in watching those around you slowly die, in placing food on the alter for your ancestors who are already dead. I can see that if we look back in time we can endow meaning onto the dead. There was the great uncle who fought in a war, and grandma so-and-so who survived the holocaust, who emigrated to America, who met your grandfather when she was only sixteen. Then there's the great-great-such-and-such, they were traitors to the resistance, they were samurai who served under a warlord, they were farmers who starved during the famines, who's eyes seared with dust during the droughts, who had thirteen kids, only four of whom survived. Those were interesting lives. But are our lives interesting? How could our descendants describe what we do as interesting? "There was great-uncle so-and-so, he used to play Super Nintendo a lot. And your great-grandmother, she walked to the store every day and bought groceries, and made dinners, and then she died. And your great-great-grandfather, he was a secretary at a University, and he'd fax memos to people and talk on multi-line conference phones all day." Are the fictions that we write a way of rekindling the fascination about life that the future has drained us of because we have left that world behind somewhere? Where are the samurai, the war heroes, the immigrants, the survivors of famines now? Surely they exist, you hear about them on the news, but they are not us. We are Romans, we are Greeks. We wallow in luxury, we squander our privileges, moving away from extended families to nuclear families, and finally to ourselves, the singular molecular existence sitting in front of a computer monitor, catching subway rides alone, divining our future in lottery tickets, catching glimpses of hope in the one or two familiar faces in the seas and the oceans and the sand dunes and the vast glaciers of unknown faces that we will never speak with, histories with no one to write them, for that is the present time.

Sure, there were always the nobodies, vacuous lives, subterranean intellects, envelope-stuffers. In Greek times there was that citizen who, though he attended the elections and voted, hung with Pericles, really just took up a seat on the bench, led the solitary existence immortalized by Paul Simon in "I Am a Rock", went home, read his papyrus, drank his vino, listened in on a bit of Socrates, maybe, then eventually died leaving no legacy. It is almost guaranteed there were thousands of those. But then, to even be a Greek circa 550B.C. would have been a legacy unto itself. So is that, then, what we have to look forward to? Are we legacies unto ourselves, the American immigrant/emigrants of the pre/post-millennium? Is our legacy simply that we were here to see it? That we were around when all the shit went down? Not that we were doing anything heroic - we weren't changing world policy, we weren't creating great works of art, we weren't starring in timeless dramas, we weren't staring the entire pantheon of global celebrity in the face and accepting Nobel prizes, Oscars, Pulitzers, Grammies. No, we were just hanging out. We heard about all that stuff, we got to see it on t.v., but no, we were just catching subways at the time, playing a lot of Super Nintendo, being grandmothers and grandfathers to our own little legacy of faceless nobodies who would one day populate their own little post-modern vacuum of human isolation, that's our contribution.

So I got off the train and I started walking up the street. And I stared down at my feet. My feet who were carrying me into that unmentionable future (if I stopped walking and sat down right now, refused to move, forever, could I in some way prevent all those things from happening? Could I offer this as my token of passive resistance?). It was hard to think these things and still find the strength to move, you know. You have to convince yourself that there really is something worth moving towards or else you really will stop. You'd be like the Tin Man who hasn't been oiled, you'd just creak to a halt, rusted shut by the horror of what is to be. The lubrication of your fantasies about your future, your aspirations, your dreams, those little childhood fantasies, those have all been sapped out of you, someone has stolen your mojo, you've been neutered. You can't let those thoughts consume you, they're too terrifying, you have to think "No, maybe I'll get laid tonight, maybe what I'm working on now really is the big break, maybe I really am penning the next great American fiction, maybe I'm on the brink of composing the next watershed in music, maybe I'll be casted for a lead in the next Star Wars, maybe I'll address a speech from the people of earth to the confederation of space aliens when I am ninety, yes I'm sure God put me on this earth to do at least one of those things." Otherwise that sidewalk is just going to swallow you up, that New York City street will be your gravestone, and above you your epitaph written on a billboard, "The choice of a new generation". I didn't bother to look up, I knew what I'd see. The monotony of all those windows started to frighten me. Sure they all looked the same from the outside, rectangles of black glass. But inside each one was a different person, another aspiring Van Gogh, an aspiring Quinten Terantino still drafting out his first screenplay, another Ian Murphy doomed to commit suicide but bound to leave behind a trillion mourning fans and an unauthorized biography, a Cher, a Janis Joplin (or a Scot Joplin), a Virginia Wolf, the next President of the United States of Dreamers and Underachievers.

Sometimes sirens are a good reality check. You hear a siren in the distance, you know someone has just choked on their food, or a baby is about to be delivered, or a fire is engulfing a family, or some poor fuck is having his cocaine confiscated, and all of them make you think, glad that's not me today! Nosirree, I'm just on my way to my friend's house on 109th and St. Mary's, I'm just going to chill at her pad and watch a dumb video, maybe order a pizza. I don't want to be delivering no babies today, I don't want to spend the next year in jail, I don't want to be char broiled in a house fire. I'm just happy to be walking the streets and smelling that puddle where that bum pissed, and taking in the beauty of all this garbage, and the stench, and the litter, and the overcast, the smog, the exhaust fumes, the torn up abandoned old sofa, the baglady, the graffiti, the ATM machine, the brickwork, the monotonous windows above me and the legacy of underachievment behind me, the used condoms, the blood... the blood? I wonder where that came from. Once I saw a trail of blood leading up to a hospital door, but that's another story. So anyways, it was nice to hear the sirens, it was soothing, I'm sure the opposite effect desired by the person who invented them. But in New York city a siren can be a very soothing thing. You feel like you're home at last.

The sound didn't die off in the distance like I thought it would, though. Instead it got louder and louder, and soon was so deafening I had to put my hands up to my ears. I can't stand that frequency anyway, because it's the exact same frequency you damage when you play a lot of loud guitar, somewhere one octave above middle-C. Ouch. There is was, an ambulance, shiney and white like a loaf of bread. In fact, I was almost hoping a baker would step out of it with a big rack of loaves, because I was kind of hungry. But instead it was the usual paramedics, all looking like they're about to do something important, they're there to rescue someone, they're going to perform an open heart surgery. In their eyes is this look of intense focus, they have one thing on their mind, their job. I couldn't imagine that one of them is thinking about the fine lady who's standing over there, or what he saw on David Letterman last night. Each has the concentration of a Jedi knight, and that means focus, focus in on the problem, because there obviously is one. Or else we wouldn't be here. We'd be sitting around a coffee maker drinking Folgers and talking shit about the one nurse in OR. Focus. I'd hate to have that job, because I think that kind of thinking robs you of your humanity. Blood is no longer life force, it's grease for the engine, it's a medium for the handiwork of the surgeon. Like any public service job, your title becomes an oxymoron because the public becomes the problem that your job is trying to fix. You're hungry? The public needs to be fed. You're bleeding, you're dying? The public needs to be stitched up. You're robbing a bank? The public needs to be apprehended and booked. You're not serving the public, you're fixing it.

I can see that in their eyes. In the eyes of the police man making the arrest or the Subway worker wrapping a twelve-inch roast beef sandwich, or the paramedic running towards the scene. They're not about the public, they're about finishing a job and going home. Even the ones that say they love their job, and it's mind boggling to think of the ones who do, they're fulfilling an innate instinct, though not all humans have it, to do the tidiest job possible. They're the type of people who hate to leave dishes in the sink, they hate a mess. They want everything as neat and orderly as the Mediterranean at the height of Roman Imperialism. To them, to err is human but to fix an err is divine.

Conrad Keely is a trippy ass motherfucker who likes to freak with fly girls. You can e-mail him here.
You may also wish to visit the website for his band, And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead.

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