How to Quit
We do not know how to renounce anything, Freud once observed. This type of relation to the object indicates an inability to mourn. The addict is a non-renouncer par excellence.
—Avital Ronell, Crack Wars
The way of life is wonderful; it is by abandonment.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Circles”
Two blocks east of the river, beside the Williamsburg Bridge, stands a white factory building, seven stories tall, whose windows look onto the bridge and across the river to Manhattan and over the neighborhood’s low rooftops and famous water towers. It is 2011, but this building hasn’t yet been cubed up into condos. Inside, it still looks like 1994, each floor a maze of ad hoc lofts, studios, galleries, and workshops, the stained hallways thick with strange smells and years of dust. A couple of years ago during a party a kid from some band jammed the freight elevator between floors, tried to jump out, fell, and died; the elevator still isn’t working. So to get into the building, you climb steep factory flights of gray stairs up away from the basement, where a giant machine rumbles. By the fifth or sixth floor, it is hard to breathe. It is winter, and the rumbling is a steam heater. Every few hours, it blows scalding-hot, wet air up through clanking pipes into the lofts. All over the building tenants open windows, and long white curtains flutter in the hissing steam. Outside, people are climbing up the steep slope of the bridge’s pedestrian walkway, on foot or skateboard or bicycle. Only a few look at the building, and even fewer try to glimpse inside. I am in here, watching the bridge and chain-smoking.
The sun sinks down behind the bridge, filling this big white room with warm red light. When a J, M, or Z train passes, the room darkens and then flushes red again. The sky turns red, then orange, then indigo, then starless, like every Brooklyn night. It’s happy hour. Half the neighborhood is already drunk on two-for-one drafts or shot-and-PBR deals. All week, the kids in lofts and storefronts who do under-the-radar marketing for creative agencies in other lofts and storefronts have been chasing Oxy with Adderall and Adderall with Oxy. Now they’re pulling bottles of tequila from their desk drawers and texting their dealers. A country band is carrying banjos into the Rod and Gun Club. They’re sound-checking at Trash Bar and lighting the fire at Union Pool. The Shabbos siren sounds across the south side. It’s almost time to go out.
Snow came on Halloween weekend this year, fat slow flakes falling on the bridge, turning the scene outside the windows all industrial Courier and Ives, the Gretsch Building just a wide gray ghost beyond the trains. There was a cold wind blowing the slush around, and I watched people breaking their umbrellas against it and struggling to walk, sliding carefully on the sidewalk. This was the day the heat turned on. First, a clanking from below and up through the walls, then the sound of rushing water, and then, in the large sculptor’s studio that I’ve turned into my writing room, a sound like a teapot ready to blow. Steam shot upward from the end of one of the pipes, and water poured and pooled on the floor. I braced for an explosion but it turns out this happens every time the building warms up. It only sounds catastrophic.
That afternoon a guitar player on a dead-mother bender was walking over from Bushwick in the snow to fuck me, his feet wrapped in plastic bags inside his Converse because he’s too broke to buy boots. I walked down six flights to let him in. I hadn’t seen him sober before, which was why I’d requested the afternoon appointment, but I’d stashed a fresh liter of Jack Daniels above the fridge. The lighting in the stairway was pulsing and dim. Snow from the roof was melting down the yellowed walls and pooling on the landings. We didn’t kiss in the entryway. We made small talk as we wound our way up around the puddles, through the industrial waterfall. A few minutes later I was on my knees. The next week I bought new boots myself — short black boots that lace up, boots from the time of coal and steam, but with heels so high they are always sexual.
I am in this building but I am thinking of another white factory building, ten blocks behind me, beside the river. In 1999 I was living with a friend in a railroad apartment on North 7th by the Brooklyn–Queens Expressway that smelled of cheap floor varnish and mildew, no matter what we did. After we moved in, the upstairs neighbors told us that the landlord had kicked out a Puerto Rican family with four children and doubled the rent to $1,200, which was almost too much for us. Then a bike messenger we knew heard some friends of his were building lofts in an old textile warehouse on North 3rd. We walked to the river and up five flights of stairs, into a massive room with a wall of windows looking out onto the river and the whole bright city, a place as thrilling as a cathedral, as beautiful and sad as the person you fall in love with when you already know he will break your heart. We knew we’d be kicked out and priced out, just as we’d kicked out and priced out the Puerto Ricans. But we had to get into this building anyway, and to afford it we had to get our deposit back.
This was our plan: the bike messenger would ride by our apartment and throw a brick through the window wrapped in a note that read, Yuppies go home. I’d call the cops, file a police report, and then call our landlord crying, saying the neighborhood was unsafe and could we get our deposit back. But the day before we were to execute this ingenious conspiracy, my boyfriend at the time, a sweet-eyed punk kid from New Orleans who was a drug dealer and had some experience with the police, convinced me that I’d never make it through the report because of what a bad liar I am, according to him. So we gave up, lost our deposit, borrowed money from the bike messenger (who somehow always had more than we did), and moved in.
My share of the rent was $650. I cannot hope to capture for you the happiness of sitting by those windows and watching slow barges guided down the river by bright red tugboats, the buildings of Manhattan transformed every hour by different sunlight, and the mesmerizing plows of the waste transfer station next door, pushing around piles of garbage among beautiful brightly colored dumpsters. There were five years of potlucks and parties, bands and shows, cross-genre multimedia interactive technology performative collaborative art projects. The towers collapsing across the river, military tanks rolling down Bedford Avenue, then all the war protests. A man to fall in love with, a beautiful ex-junkie and sometime pain-reliever addict who moved in next door. All our nights spent in bars, the fucking in bathrooms, the lines snorted in back booths after close, the shouting on sidewalks, fucking all the way up those five flights of stairs as the sun came up. You have been young, or you are young, and you know that story, and you know the story of this neighborhood, or you think you do. The landlords began trying to force us out so they could build multimillion-dollar condos, and I moved east with the ex-junkie, as everyone was having to do, east to the Williamsburg of the Italians, in our case. My rent tripled, and soon the world felt like it was ending. I started dreaming of a quiet garden apartment in Boerum Hill or Prospect Heights, away from 22-year-olds and condo buildings. But when I left him, I moved back here, to the old but now unrecognizable neighborhood, into this building that looks like the building where I met him, or how it used to look.
Beyond the bridge, the Gretsch Building lights up. Inside it rich people are having cocktail hour, or something. I can’t see them. The Gretsch was a musical instrument factory, then full of artists. In 1999, the management company began to turn the water and electricity and heat off, then on again, then off. In this way, they drove the tenants out. Now it has a granite lobby, glass elevators, a meditative waterfall, and units with Sub-Zeros and exposed concrete beams and floating fireplaces framed in Pietra Colombino limestone. Some people think Beyoncé lives in there. I haven’t seen her, but I’ve seen the rest of it, thanks to the dullest New Year’s Eve party ever. Starting in the late ’90s, dozens more loft buildings pushed out their live/work tenants. Our old textile warehouse was one of the latest, in 2006. After the eviction, architects carved out an atrium and built a lobby out of 2001: A Space Odyssey—glossy white and grand, flanked by strange asymmetrical hallways. They leveled the waste transfer station and built The Edge and then Northside Piers, thirty-some stories each of tacky glassy condos, and in their basements were pools, “golf systems,” screening rooms. These buildings gave you the feeling that when the apocalypse came to Williamsburg, they’d float up into space in luminous self-sufficiency and orbit the wrecked planet while their residents gathered in the billiards room, drank complex cocktails, and eyed each other’s neoprene skinny jeans.
But gentrification is the opposite of the apocalypse. The apocalypse would pause history, level the built world to a pile of trash, and most likely lower rents considerably. Gentrification churns history forward, takes out the trash, carts away rubble, hides the poor, makes you work more and more to manage your rent, and encrypts the past, when you didn’t have to work so many jobs just to fucking live here, behind its glossy surfaces. To distract us from this decimation of the past and the poor it opens restaurants and bars that simulate other pasts. The old beer and liquor outlet on the corner of North 3rd and Berry, where we used to rent kegs for parties, is now an old-time German beer garden, its waitresses’ breasts plumped cartoonishly by little German beer garden corsets. Across the street, where Slick’s motorcycle repair shop was for years, there’s a gleaming skate and surf store. There are half a dozen speakeasy-type cocktail bars with handlebar-mustached bartenders. There are three diners quaint enough to make your heart ache. There’s Marlow & Sons and the rest of the country-living places, where you eat surrounded by animal trophies and decorative farm tools. There are old-time ice cream shops, general stores, old-time down-home barbecue joints, old-time down-home fried chicken joints, and rustic ski lodge–style restaurants. There is every past you could ever imagine, but little you remember.
When a neighborhood changes this much this fast it feels like either the old neighborhood was the real one and this one is some kind of monstrous double, or if this neighborhood is real, then that old one must always have been a lie.
If the old neighborhood was real, this building is a steam-powered time machine. If the new neighborhood is real, this building is a dream, or a crypt.
In other words, all this building makes me want to do is drink and fuck. I’m in here, sipping whiskey to blunt some postcocaine jitters, and rolling Bali Shag cigarettes to save money.
The music of this winter is the soundtrack to the movie Drive. Everyone in the neighborhood is talking about it. The bartender across the street plays it every time he works. I see the movie by myself one afternoon at the Nitehawk on Metropolitan, where the sound is good and you can get food. I order a Bloody Mary, carefully, not sure how my voice sounds or if my face looks right, because I’ve been fucking the guitar player for the past twenty-four hours. We’re on MDMA, which has turned us into a science experiment. We get within a foot of each other and we have to fuck again. He goes down on me indefinitely. At first it’s normal, and then he drops down into some deep, quiet place of absolute and perfect concentration. He is patient, he waits, barely moving, but he turns us from two people into liquid, and I come and come. Finally we stop because he has to go to band practice, and so I go see this movie. In the theater my legs are weak and I keep checking to make sure I’m fully clothed and my face is burning and everyone seems to be looking at me curiously. The ecstasy is tingling out gently; it’s not going to be one of those suicidal E hangovers; everything is luscious and precise. When the music starts, I can feel it in the seat. Soft, thumping bass beats, pulsing in and out in waves, sometimes with sweet synthesized little-girl voices singing on top of them. College and Electric Youth’s “A Real Hero”: “You have proven to be/ A real human being and a real hero.” Desire’s “Under Your Spell”: “I don’t eat/ I don’t sleep/ I do nothing but think of you.”
The driving is perfect. Ryan Gosling’s silent maneuvers, his watching, his listening. The first driving scene is remarkable for its pauses — the way he waits, the way he doesn’t drive, hiding the car under an overpass, parking on a side street while the cops drive by. He says nearly nothing and he moves only as much as he absolutely has to. He barely speaks to Carey Mulligan, who has the face of a very young girl. But he takes her on a drive and smiles at her and helps her with her groceries and her car and her son and presumably they fall in love. Their scenes pulse with nothing being said, the way the scenes in Twilight pulse with nothing being done, when the girl and the vampire can’t fuck because he might accidently kill her if they do. It’s so hot.
Once Gosling and Mulligan hold hands, or rather she puts her hand on top of his gloved driving hand, which is on the gearshift. That’s all we get of sex until finally, two-thirds of the way through the movie, they’re in an elevator in their building, the same elevator where they met, and a man beside them is reaching under his coat for a gun. Gosling turns to Mulligan and kisses her for the first time, really deeply kisses her. The lights start to glow and the electronica is soft and pulsing, and the kiss is in super-slow motion and lasts a really long time. Then he pushes her into the corner, smashes the man’s head against the elevator buttons, throws him to the floor and stomps on his head until it’s muck and blood sprays all over and the man is dead but Gosling keeps stomping anyway, like he wants to cover himself in blood. Then the elevator doors open and Mulligan backs out and just stares at him.
When someone changes that much, that suddenly, it feels like either the old version was the real one and this new one must be some kind of monstrous double, or if the new one is real, then that old version must always have been a lie.
The guitar player starts fucking another girl and suddenly won’t speak to me when I see him in the bar across the street.
The tragic reversal makes you ache to turn back the clock.
On the other hand, the tragic reversal is already a time machine. It throws you into the past to see everything again but differently, makes you pose questions you can never answer. In the elevator, Mulligan sees that the man who seemed so different from her temperamental criminal of a husband is the same as him, just as violent or worse. So was she doing something different, in loving someone who seemed so sweet, or just repeating the same thing? She’ll never know the answer, but it will probably bother her forever, unless she’s the kind of woman who can just forget about things and move on.
My favorite residents of Williamsburg are machines of the tragic reversal, the kinds of people who always turn away and disappear into their secret lives — people who pose certain intense problems of interpretation, in a place where no street stays the same for more than a few weeks at a time.
This building is a question about how you live after a tragic reversal, thrown back into history and wondering what can be recovered by returning to the scene.
It was the loveliest hangover I’ve ever had, watching Drive. Every time I try to do molly again, though, the hangovers are so bad they make me want to hurl myself out these windows onto the Williamsburg Bridge just to make the hangovers stop making me want to die. But every next day I wake up resurrected, because this building is full of joy.
Drunks, drug addicts, sex addicts, compulsive gamblers, and/or people on or recovering from deep, life-threatening benders: these are the only people who really hold my interest, which means that I usually am friends with or fuck and/or love people with a dead parent or two, bipolar or otherwise depressed people, musicians, writers, and/or pathological liars. Even so, I never know when I meet them. They always just seem to me like the best people in the world. At some point, a week or two into the friendship or the affair, I find out, but by then I’m already hooked, because the things these people do to ensure they don’t have to live in the straight world are wonderful. They turn ordinary nights into wide electric universes that snap in the head like a new beat, get and give pleasure like they’ll otherwise die, make music what music is and art what art is. Because they cannot do all the things it takes to marry, they can bring a whole marriage’s worth of intimacy into one night of fucking, and you can let that land square on you, like you’re the only girl in the world, to quote Rihanna. You’re almost definitely not the only girl in their world, but that’s the thing about addicts: they are endlessly optimistic, and they can make you believe anything.
I am not unfamiliar with the reasons it is considered unhealthy to love people who can’t get through a day without getting shitfaced. They get in stupid fights in bars with guys they think are hitting on you, and you have to hug them until they calm down and sneak your number to the other guy later. When you start fucking someone else, they come to your house in the middle of the night, wasted, and let all the air out of the new guy’s tires. They make you stop being friends with all the friends you fucked before you met them, that’s how much they love you. And yet they always turn out to be plagued by focus problems when it comes to you. They’ll eye-fuck you all through their set and then sit down right next to you and start making out with your friend. They’ll say they’re not fucking the girl who fills your shared kitchen with baked goods every time you go out of town, until you make out with her boyfriend and force her to angrily admit they’ve been having an affair. There is the moodiness, the way they’ll suddenly start shouting at you on street corners in foreign cities because they can’t handle stress and they’re too high to read a map. They’ll steal tobacco from your purse on the way out of your apartment and then pretend they didn’t know it was yours. They’ll leave a stolen wallet by your bed and then break back into your building to retrieve it, and have the nerve, when confronted, to pretend that it’s not stolen but theirs, and that it is you who has forgotten their real name and how different faces can look on government-issued ID cards. Not to mention how when you ask why their eyes are half-closed all the time, they keep saying they’re just really relaxed and happy to be with you, and all the rifling through their shit to find the Oxycontin they say they don’t have, the way that even when they’re vomiting and slimy on the floor of the casino hotel on your only vacation of the year, and you’re trying for three days to get them to eat even the smallest piece of room-service bagel, they still don’t admit they’re in withdrawal again, and you still believe they just have a really bad stomach, that they’re just so sensitive.
The problem is that I find these ways of behaving charming — infinitely more interesting, somehow, than the things that sober people do.
I go out. In the bar across the street they are playing Kavinsky and Lovefoxxx, from the Drive soundtrack, his scratchy metallic synthesized voice singing: “I’m going to show you where it’s dark/ But have no fear.” I can start out arguing about geography with a drunk from South Carolina and fall briefly in love with a floppy-haired cokehead who’s straight out of Winesburg, Ohio and end up giving a blowjob in the bathroom to a French businessman, and I can carry all these people into the next day, each one stretching the regular world just a little bit. I can stay exactly where I am and see what happens, or I can follow some drunk or drug addict to some other bar or party in Bushwick or Bed-Stuy. Even in the hipster bars they are playing Rihanna’s song about pill-popping romance, over and over: “We found love in a hopeless place.”
There are things you will never know unless you follow these kinds of people around. Here is one of them: you can drink enough whiskey that the hangover feels opiate, and when you finally make it outside at twilight the next day, the world is soft and purple and shifting and the faces of the people on the sidewalk are lit up with possibility and mad peace.
It doesn’t always work out. I bring home a wild long-bearded drunk who fucks me within an inch of my life and then doesn’t call. I pick up a drunk on the street who says he works for the UN, and that he was trained by the FBI to establish perimeters during explosives investigations or something, whom I don’t call. I see a dirty strung-out man on the G train platform with a canvas under his arm and the eyes of a pervert or a man on a cross and we share a look I will never forget, of recognition and sex and the exact shining thing I enjoy mistaking for love, but I am on the train, passing, and soon he is out of sight. Another night I try to pick up a drummer in a country band. He looks like Kid Rock, and, if I squint, like David Foster Wallace, and I’m sure he means to come home with me. But something’s off about him. I tell him he looks bored while he drums. He says his back hurts because he was recording all day. I don’t think drummers should talk like this, especially drummers who look like Kid Rock, and I berate him for being tired and bored. He should be sexy but he’s just not. It’s frustrating. Berating him, however, does not turn out to be a good tactic for seducing him. The next day it occurs to me what was so off about him: he must have been sober.
How do sober people get close to one another? No one knows, at least no one I know does. In the movies, they ask each other out on dates. One person says, Do you want to hang out tomorrow night? The other one says, Yeah, eight o’clock? And that’s it. They never say what they’re going to do, or where they’re going to meet. I worry about them wandering around the city, watches unsynchronized, wishing they’d remembered to make a fucking plan. It’s so much easier to get completely wasted and just go home together that very night.
I’ve been doing this since college, and I’m not just in it for the rapture. I do the other part, too. I’m the friend who will let you crash in my bed for three days and nights when you’re ready to go through the shakes, sit with you while you moan, try to get you to eat toast, oatmeal, anything, force water down your throat while you sweat all over my sheets. And a year later, I’ll help you buy your week’s supply of malt liquor in your New Orleans grocery store, pretending not to see the people looking at our shopping cart full of clinking forties, and my heart will be breaking, but I’ll do it. I’m the friend who will walk with you down Metropolitan Avenue at a pace of a block an hour because you’re so doped up and bendy that you have to hold onto each lamppost and mailbox for a while, considering, joking, nodding off, doubling over, until you’re ready to move on to the next one. I understand that. I appreciate the way it slows down time. The way there’s nothing for me to do but be with you. You make me feel very calm. I’ll walk with you when you’re so drunk you’re screaming at me all the way home. How many times my job has been just to get someone from one street corner to the next, I do not know. I should have been a crossing guard. Because I do not say no, I do not say this is fucking ridiculous. Something in me just goes quiet and I’m right there with you. Later, when I’m sure I’ve got you, I’ll say change, please change, but what I really mean is, look at you, what would you do without me, you’re falling apart, you would fucking die without me, I’m the most important person in the world to you. Don’t die. Stay with me. Never leave.
Repeating the same words over and over again, claimed Gertrude Stein, is the only way to make sure they will actually mean something different. I’ve hung a photograph of her in my bathroom to remind me, as I’m putting on my eyeliner and getting ready to go out, that I’m supposed to be fucking girls instead.
I invite home a woman to sleep on my sofa bed. I know she is shy, so I am careful not to flirt with her. I make up the sofa bed, and then I make her an omelet. We drink Miller High Life and she lies down on the bed and curls over on her side and asks me to “cuddle” her, and then I have these perfect, hard-nippled breasts in my mouth. Soon enough, I remember. Sometimes when you are making a woman come it’s like you’re trying to get her to sound like she’s being hurt.
I can see the Gretsch Building and I know what’s inside it but for the most part, when I look out from inside this building, the gentrification is to the north and behind me, like nothing ever happened. I write to the sound of the trains, fast and wholehearted. It’s like I’m back in the neighborhood I moved to out of sheer dire love, like I stayed too long at the fair but I keep winning huge stuffed animals at the water-gun game. A loophole. Friends come over whenever they want, in the afternoon or when the bar closes, and we play music and lie on the floor and talk. We dance. I dance when I wake up, and before I go to sleep, and smoke too many cigarettes, and don’t care.
It’s November when the water turns off for the first time. For years, the building and its tenants have been in a legal battle over an endlessly impending mass eviction. I’m instructed by email to follow the pipes out of the apartment until I find the problem, without drawing management’s attention to the fact that I’m in here, instead of my friend. But the pipes are always disappearing into the walls, and I’m too shy to knock on apartment doors. It’s easier to work around the problem. In the old loft building where I met my ex, we didn’t have a shower or stove for six months once, and we got by. As a child, I spent a month pretending I was Laura Ingalls Wilder. I’d wear a floor-length patchwork skirt my mother made for me and do my chores pioneer-style, the slow way, washing my clothes by hand and beating them with sticks. Sometimes to keep it interesting I imagined I was doing this on television. So I know how to handle this. I bring in buckets of water from the hallway bathroom to flush the toilet, fill up the Brita, line the kitchen and bathroom with glasses and Tupperware containers of water for brushing my teeth and wiping down the kitchen counter. I cart the dirty dishes out to the hallway bathroom and wash them under the faucet in icy water. On days when I might bring someone home, I walk down the stairs and a few blocks to the place where the messenger lives now and take a shower, shave my legs, press warm water on my face, and walk back, my hair wet in the winter air, past the broken elevator, up the six flights. There is less and less time for working and writing, but I don’t mind. Soon the bathroom begins to smell awfully of shit, though, and I worry that the sewage is coming up, working its way up these six floors to flood the loft. After two weeks, the super goes down to the basement and turns the water on again, which he must have known how to do all along.
I’m in here getting all pioneer-style with my water, but it’s pioneer style they’re selling in the form of hand-spun woolen socks for $80 a pair at the general store in Marlow & Sons, across the street from the Gretsch Building. Even so, I cannot resist the happiness of being back here, in the old world, if I am really back, if one can return to the scene.
I buy a fake shearling coat like we used to wear in the ’90s, a dark druggie coat with a big collar.
In Paradise Lost, it’s Satan who thinks the mind can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven. He is, famously, the best character in the movie.
I just treat the physical neighborhood itself as if it is on drugs. When I look at it like that, I love it.
In Al-Anon, the doctrine of renouncing addiction to addicts is the same as the doctrine of renouncing addiction: the repetition is a symptom that the disease is beyond your control, that you are powerless in the face of it, that the antidote is to shift your dependence to a higher power, seek forgiveness, develop a moral conscience and some boundaries, put yourself into some abstract category — addict, alcoholic, enabler — and then, because you are powerless, you’ve got to leave it all behind. You can’t go into the bar, you can’t go on the internet and even look at the escort ads, you can’t try to help your drunk of a husband or your crackhead wife. Instead, you have to weave around yourself this network of strangers who are in your addict category, exit the alternate world you made, go back into the dull real world you were trying to escape, and just take it one day at a time. It’s one world or the other — though you get out through one small excruciating step at a time, and you must always and forever, from now on, consider yourself “in recovery.”
Programs that reject AA for its puritanical attitude toward intoxicants tend to treat that opposition of worlds as precisely the problem. When you’re trying to quit something, this is exactly the double bind: should you view the thing you’re addicted to as so powerful that you need to marshal every weapon you can against it, as if it is some overwhelming, apocalyptic force of evil? Should you disavow as false every moment of total transcendence the thing ever gave you? Or would you by means of that disavowal be giving the thing more power than it actually has, and was that exactly the problem in the first place? You thought it was the drug or the person or the place that transported you, subjected you, dominated you, lit you up, disappeared you, raptured you, loved you, but was it really you all along?
The double bind is a fake, too, of course. It’s not one or the other. These are the kinds of questions addicts ask, because they are impossible to answer, so we can keep holding on to them forever.
Drive isn’t playing at the Nitehawk anymore so I go see it again at Village East. The sound is bad and there are no Bloody Marys. It’s just a film noir. The city’s shiny surfaces barely contain the violence underneath, and maybe Gosling is like the city, a dissembler and monstrous. When you know that for the last third of the film he’ll be smashing dudes’ heads with his boots and drowning them in dark oceans and shoving bullets down their throats in strip clubs and ripping their eyeballs out with hammers or whatever (I had my eyes closed), every early minimalist line, especially the sweet ones, sounds excruciatingly fake, like it’s in quotes, like he’s just saying whatever everyone wants him to say but just barely. Maybe the kiss is violent in the first place, since Gosling knows he has to steal it before he reveals his secret self. Even worse, maybe the kiss is a cover-up. He uses her, so he can catch his victim off-guard. I don’t want it to be this, not this interpretation. It seems like a real kiss, a good kiss, but why does he want her to have the taste of his tongue in her mouth while she watches him become a vision of pure brutality, have the feeling of that perfect chest pressed against her (as Emma Stone’s character says to Gosling in Crazy, Stupid, Love when he takes off his shirt, “Seriously? You look like you’re airbrushed!”) as she learns everything she believed about him is false?
Trying to figure out whether someone’s evil or good is like trying to figure out whether cigarettes are evil or good. It’s a way to procrastinate. They’re just plants and chemicals wrapped in paper. You’re the one smoking them.
Gosling is everyone’s favorite male lead these days. He’s everywhere. A friend said the other day, I wish Ryan Gosling would just leave me alone. Because he had most of his dialogue taken out of this film, it’s easy to project onto his character the Gosling of Half Nelson and Blue Valentine, working men who teach public school and do construction while wearing impossibly hipsterish clothes. Men who look at their female leads with a kind of searching intimacy that will be shattered or cemented by the secret yet to be revealed: the drug problem, the drinking problem, the brutal temper that we have to decide whether or not to forgive. Is his nameless character in Drive also The Notebook’s long-suffering workingman romantic hero, quiet ’cause he’s sweet, or is he the Crazy, Stupid, Love womanizer, sweet ’cause he’s about to break your heart? The film’s music is about him. Is he a “real hero,” as the soundtrack says? Is he a “real human being”?
These are the kinds of questions I’m talking about. Asking them is a way of not renouncing or mourning. This is the way to make the man or the drug or the place uncannily powerful, infused with one’s own contradictory interpretations. To love what one has made magical, in this way — at least when it comes to loving addicts and the kinds of drugs that can kill you — is widely considered to be a terrible thing, something to heal from. But our favorite recent romance — 100 million copies sold and over one billion dollars at the box office — is about a girl heroic enough to love a vampire who stalks and bosses her around and is addicted to her blood. She keeps wondering: Is he an asshole? But then how can he be so beautiful? Is it possible that he’s being an asshole because he loves her so much? In this case, love for the otherworldly addict totally pays off. Twilight’s Edward Cullen solves the elevator scene problem, rewinds the tragic reversal: his initial coldness and violence turn out to be totally explained by his own heroic efforts not to kill her. He loves her so much he feigns hating her to protect her. So in this case it’s the sweetness that’s the secret, the surprise. One reads these books like they’re crack, or some women do. Finally, he turns her into a vampire, so that she won’t ever have to die.
I keep seeing the dead body of my father in the corner of the studio, naked and blue and cold like a corpse in a morgue. In reality I have never seen his body like that. I’ve seen him naked and I’ve seen him dead, but not at the same time. When he died, in a nursing-home bed, I’d been sitting with him for three days, talking to him about our whole lives, not knowing if he could hear me, because he was in a coma, just talking anyway. For twenty years he’d been on a cocktail of drugs for diabetes and epilepsy that made him have moods that were always opposite of one another. My mother and my brother and I were always trying to anticipate whether we’d get the sweet or the brutal, but there was never really any way to know, and it could turn in a second. I couldn’t blame him for the bad moods because it was the drugs, or it always might be; there was never any real way to know what was the drugs and what was him. It wasn’t really fair to feel things about what he said or did. The most important thing was to keep him from having seizures.
As a child, when I wasn’t pretending to be Laura Ingalls Wilder, I was narrating what happened in my head like we were in a novel; after someone spoke I’d say “he said”; after I spoke, I’d say “she said,” in my head where no one could hear. It was better not to feel things during the later years, either, when the epilepsy drugs took the meanness away, made him as soft and tearful and wild-smiling as a doped-up bum or a child. I sat with him for the last three days and talked to him about all this, and told him that I’d hated him because he was mean or cold as fuck half the time, and thanked him because the other half he was kind and wise and taught me how to think and how to be.
I was holding his hand when I felt his blood slow. I put my hand on his wrist and felt his heartbeats separate. I put my hands on his legs and felt the blood stop; there was one last thick pulse and then there was none. I put my hands on his neck and there was one last pulse and there was no pulse. As a child, when incomprehensible things happened, I used to panic, and my parents would give me sips of wine to calm me down. But now I was as quiet and calm as could be. I put my hands on his chest and felt him completely still, and I put my forehead against his forehead and cried onto his face. My poor father. What he would be doing back in the corner of the studio looking like a corpse on Law and Order I do not know. He’s not a metaphor, a reason, or even a clue. He’s just a dead body encrypted inside this new life.
I buy a bright red hoodie from fucking American Apparel and wear it every day. On the third day I realize it’s yours, the one you were wearing every day under your leather jacket when I met you. I’m the drunk now, when I want to be. I’m the addict. I’m the one to follow around the neighborhood, the one who changes things, over and over again.
The building is getting louder. There’s clanking in the eastern wall, sometimes the sound of a small dog inside the western wall. The water goes off, comes on again. Someone is banging on the pipes at four in the morning, but who would do that? Sometimes the clanking sounds like it’s right inside the wall beside my bed, but it is not possible that there is anyone in there. Sometimes the steam heater makes the building so hot I’m opening all the windows, leaning out the window looking over the bridge in a tank top and underpants and burning my legs on the pipes. The real tenants are in court with management, fighting to stay, but the building is winning, they’re going to build their multimillion-dollar condos, and I stop being able to look out the window without wondering when this will end and where I will go. I would like to decide to leave, myself, before they throw us out, but I don’t know how to stop wanting to be here.
The second and only other time it snows this winter, I’m so high that I can’t understand why everything is white. I’m taking a walk with friends, everyone alarmingly stoned from pot brownies, arms linked, and finally I announce that we should decide that the whiteness is snow, though I don’t believe we have any real evidence for it. The pot had made it so that to believe in and state the obvious required a giant leap of faith.
That same day, on a long car ride, some of us were reading aloud Stanley Cavell’s book on film and love and marriage, Pursuits of Happiness, where he talks about wrestling with the meaning of films as a practice joined to “checking one’s experience,” which he describes as “momentarily stopping, turning yourself away from whatever your preoccupation and turning your experience away from its expected, habitual track, to find itself, its own track: coming to attention. The moral of this practice is to educate your experience sufficiently so that it is worthy of trust.” To have authority in the interpretation of your own experience is a paradox, he says, because “educating” your experience can’t come in advance of the trusting.
Loving a place that is always disappearing before your eyes, loving people who are always disappearing into secret lives, and doing this drunk or high — these can be ways of making it extra difficult to learn to trust your own interpretation. You can think that to come to attention means to get sober. This can be a useful thing to think. Or you can think that love and intoxication are themselves ways of stopping, abandoning oneself to the lush and impossible moment between experience and interpretation, where it might be possible to let what is dead be dead.
I bring home a cokehead chef who has to get to his restaurant early in the morning, so we decide to stay up all night. He has the face of a child and at one point he is on top of me and I say, How are you able to do this? And he says, I’m 25. (No one ever says, It’s the drugs! They make me feel immortal!) How old are you, he asks. I put my hands on either side of his face and look at him. Older. I put my hands on his neck and I can feel his blood pulse while he fucks me, too gently, but it’s OK. I put my hands on his chest, and his skin is warm and smooth. I don’t even like him that much but I put my legs on his shoulders and I put my hands on the back of his thighs and pull him into me and all is well. And then, because he is young and can’t say what he wants, I guess, turn over. He puts his hands on my ass and kisses my back. Afterwards I put my forehead against his forehead and feel his alien 25-year-old brain, here for the moment and then gone, on its way to work, and I kiss him.
These are the most singular, unrepeatable kisses in the history of kissing, the one in the Drive elevator and the ones happening in my bed these days, because they are exactly on the edge of what’s already happened and what will happen next, how I have seen things and how I will see them.
It is important to know that there are things that end. Things you can’t change with your mind or even your body or even chemicals. As spring draws near, the building wins the lawsuit. We’re getting evicted, the tenants who have lived here for ten or twenty years, and the subletters like me hiding out in these labyrinthine halls. “The last of the starving artists who colonized Williamsburg two decades ago and began its transformation into the hipster capital of New York could soon find themselves out on the street,” begins the article about it in the Post. It’s headlined, nonsensically, “W’burg has art attack: Hipsters facing boot.” There’s no chance of an appeal. My neighbor makes a banner to hang on the front of the building: ten homes lost! She’s been here since 1994, like most of the residents of the ten lofts. It’s not a machine or a dream or a crypt for her, just her home, made impossible by money. Police cars come, sirens wailing, to remove the banner. There will be condos.
This is one way to quit: wait until the bitter end, when you have done all you can to make the time machine keep working. You have learned its inner systems, improvised workarounds, carted in the water yourself, but it becomes harder to keep it alive than leave it. What they call hitting rock bottom. The final tragic reversal may be slow, boring, and horrible. The time machine has turned into a crypt, but it is not a crypt if you go inside with the body. If you must raise it from the dead again, know the power it has is your own: bend over it like a vampire, fire it up like Dr. Frankenstein. When you are able to stop, there will be a moment when you have to just walk out of the building. It’s not that living will be the opposite of addiction now; there can be more life because you know how to stretch out time, more joy because you have practiced the art of reanimation. You are a professor of transformation; you just need new tools. There is no outside or inside to it, no opposition, no right way to go, just this new way of seeing.
And I do not mean by “seeing” that this is a matter of the mind or the brain or the eyes. The best thing would be if you could figure out what felt good about your particular drug and do it in some other way, with your body, like in your bed.
I am thinking of the Italian. The first time we saw each other, in the East Williamsburg country bar where I was cursing out the home state of the guitar player town by town, he did not ask but told me that I should take him home. Big wild hair. Divorce bender. Massive quantities of whiskey. Naples, where he got very specific and rigorous training in how to boss women around. When I met him I was very scared and after he came home with me, I couldn’t very easily stand or sit for any reasonable period of time. The second time, we began to play a game. I tell him, in the morning or early afternoon, that he has to go home. That I have things to do, I have so much writing to do, so much work. This makes him angry. In anger he stimulates every possible erogenous zone on my body he can at the same time, like a violent scientist of my body, until I’m like some kind of retarded gangbanged cheerleader/Anaïs Nin–type woman, kind of muttering in weird high voices, and he’s like, really, you want me to go home, and I’m like, yes, go home, and he hurts me with the pleasure of pretending I have no choice.
But everywhere else I choose things now. The third time there is, at some point before the leaving game begins, a tear coming out of his eye. A tear so singular I just look at him, because I can’t help him, I’m just not interested in helping anyone anymore. I say, What’s wrong, what is it, and he shakes his head, and I let go of it. It’s not my tear. And no longer is the suffering of the benders of others my suffering.
The first drug I took was acid, in an upstairs room in my college house with four girlfriends, all of us naked and wrapped in sheets because it was a Michigan heat wave — 110 degrees and too hot for clothes in Eastown, Grand Rapids, the kind of neighborhood where when it’s hot enough you can smell the weed as you walk into that part of town. When the acid slowed everything down, I was watching my friends climb out the window onto a rooftop to smoke cigarettes, and I started crying, terrified that they were trying to get away from me, and that they were going to fall and die. From what I’d heard there were going to be twelve more hours of this, which basically meant the rest of my life. Then a friend put her arm around me. I found my way to some edge, thin as a thread, where the panic turned into laughter.
This is the diamond of the mind, this ability. A lot of people know about it, but I didn’t know about it.
From then on when the panic crept in I could just push over the thread-thin edge to the other side, feeling the way to joy.
Joy is the knowledge that the thread is there.
A thread runs through the middle of your life, and if you find it, the second half can be comedy instead.
A place can make you want to die and then you can turn it over into the sweetest thing. You can do this yourself, if you have found the diamond in your mind.
Addiction is sometimes the attempt to raise the dead by returning to the scene. If you can’t yet abandon the dead, at least you can practice abandonment, and will perhaps in that way be on your way to finding the world.
Something like summer comes early to the building by the bridge, seventy restless degrees in early April. The girls are walking up and down the pedestrian walkway in thin retro dresses, the men with their shirtsleeves rolled up, warm air on freshly bare skin. All over the building people have opened their windows and a breeze is fluttering the curtains, scattering projects and stacks of receipts. It’s tax time, but there are a few more days to put it off, to walk around instead in the pretty light.
It’s Easter morning, and this year it’s Passover too. All week people have gathered to read the story of the liberation of slaves, of plagues that purchase freedom, and to ask, as always, how this night is different from every other night. The occupiers from Zuccotti Park are gathering again in Union Square and so people are walking around the neighborhood in T-shirts that say stop everything. Everyone thinks addiction and being addicted to addicts is a terrible thing. Yet most of the people in this country, on this morning, believe in a story about resurrection, about a body that never dies because you put it in your mouth once a week and it takes you higher, beyond death and time. It’s the structure of addiction seen as redemptive, and maybe it is. But there are some moments, and this is one of them, when it’s only in letting what’s dead be dead that you can learn from your body the resurrection of the mind.
I am less interested in zombie stories, though, than I am in this neighborhood’s particular light. The thing I most want to tell you is how the sunlight is here, but I don’t know how to describe it. It’s obviously the same sun that lights the rest of the city, but there is something different about it. Maybe it’s our lack of trees, or the reflection of the river, or the lowness of most of the buildings, or the supersaturated colors, deep reds and greens, the bright wild complicated graffiti. We don’t have the trees of South Brooklyn, the shady corridors of stoops, the tall stately brownstones of Fort Greene or Park Slope. We don’t have cobblestone streets. What we have is this naked golden light. It’s a thin, big-sky light, kind of Western, cinematic. Since the first day I saw it, it has alternately flustered and comforted me. Today its particular quality will have half the people in the neighborhood drinking in the afternoon. By five or six, some of the couples will already be fighting on the streets, one of them wrangling the drunker, more belligerent one home, because there is always a drunker, more belligerent one, and one who needs to feel like he or she is taking care of someone.
At the moment, though, a really tall guy on roller skates is coasting down the long steep slope of the pedestrian walkway with his legs and arms spread wide and the wind in his fingers. He has the biggest satisfied grin on his face. There are always a few people a day who roll like this, on bikes or boards or even just running, arms wide, falling down the bridge into Williamsburg, in the pretty light.