Breaking down has become a regular occurrence here in the Valley. And it happens even when I’m just staying here in town—or maybe because I’m just staying here in town. Unlike Heather, I don’t get that regular dose of the city by commuting into DC, but that doesn’t prevent me from breaking down anyway. Strangely enough, I don’t need to get behind the wheel—or even ride on that old glue-factory ready horse of a bus Heather has to ride—to break down. Sometimes I don’t even need to leave the house.
But most often it’s a day when, walking down to Main Street, I can barely deal with that person looking at me like an unarmed paparazzi who sees Brad Pitt standing at the urinal next to him. That in itself wouldn’t be so bad. But the problem is that he also sees me as the flesh and foreign blood manifestation of one the many social ills he’s heard about on Glenn Beck’s nightly Hour for Ignorant Assholes Show. To him, or her, I’m either an illegal alien, a terrorist, a socialist, or any number of other frightening sub-human/ Untermensch (Beck is obsessed with Nazis) beings. And that’s just because of the way I look.
What makes things even harder, though, is that I also have to deal with what my Tourette Syndrome urges me to do. Whether it’s a quick grimace on one side of my face, or one of those odd movements where I’ll clench my fist and bang my elbow into my side, my odd movements are yet another thing that bring me the sort of attention I don’t often feel like dealing with. Some of my movements could even be interpreted as threatening (which is one—only one—of the reasons why I’m always uncomfortable around cops).
Over the years there have been so many variations that if I knew anything about choreography I could create an entire ballet around my tics and twitches, with the odd noises and nonsense syllables that sometimes come out of my mouth providing the avant garde music that drives and inspires this bizarre dance. Of course, I imagine it’s possible that some rabid fundamentalist Christian type might think I’m speaking in tongues—at least until I, in a sudden break from my involuntary movements, quite voluntarily give him the finger.
Sometimes I think that what fucks me up the most are the urges I don’t give in to—the middle finger I resist lifting as a means of expressing myself to the daily dickhead who stares at me; my silence when the cashier puts my change or debit card down on the counter rather than dropping it into my outstretched hand; not shouting out, “The Confederacy lost,” to the guy driving down Main Street with a Confederate flag flying from the back of his pickup truck. Although not doing these things saves my ass in this redneck town, I still can’t help but think of these as missed opportunities.
Since I quit smoking some ten years ago, my Tourette’s has steadily worsened—or maybe it just seems that way to me. Medications I’ve tried either didn’t do much or else made me feel like I was having a bad acid trip (bad because I felt unfit to drive or operate heavy machinery yet wasn’t experiencing any revelatory hallucinations). It seems that those days when I was drinking and smoking the most were when my Tourette’s bothered me the least. That time included my years in New York, where no one seemed to take much notice of any tics I had. But eccentricity, after all, is nothing unusual with artists of any kind—and in my circle of downtown literary types, I probably would have been looked at suspiciously if there were nothing odd about me. Hell, back then I looked suspiciously at anyone I thought was too clean-cut, too normal, too friendly—as far as I was concerned, they were the ones you had to watch out for. They were the ones who always seemed to end up trying to screw you over. And they were just one among the many bad things I had to focus on.
Because even then, when my tics weren’t that bad, I still had my basic obsessive-compulsive personality to keep me as tense as the suspension wires on the Brooklyn Bridge. (As if the uncontrollable tics aren’t enough of a pain in the ass, obsessive-compulsive disorder often comes along with Tourette’s.) Drinking helped, and cigarettes helped—I have no doubt about their role in getting me through these years—but what probably helped me most of all was the motion.
For most people who live in New York, whether they’ve got a steady job or are unemployed (as I was for about half the time I lived there), they’re constantly in motion. For a lot of the New Yorkers I knew then, that was a simple fact of life there—and the only way to go about living there. I remember that with one writer friend of mine, Stephen Ciacciarelli, just about the only times I got to see him we were moving—walking down Park Avenue eating slices of pizza or drinking from cans of Budweiser in paper bags as he headed south to catch his downtown train into Brooklyn and I slowly made my way back to Avenue B in the East Village.
My routine, when I had a steady day job there, took me in the morning from Avenue B to midtown across from Madison Square Park. In the evening I’d walk home, though that walk often involved a detour to the Upper West Side, Soho, or some other neighborhood to meet friends or just to take in the city. In New York, walking was often the most efficient way to get where I needed to be—but it was also a way to relax, a way to wind down. And the best thing was that there was none of that shit where you had to drive any time you needed to get something.
In the midst of all that walking I was always running into people I knew—but the odd thing about it was that the people I ran into there were nearly always people I wanted to see—poets and other writer friends of mine, musicians, painters; and people who weren’t artists of any kind but who weren’t (obviously, being New Yorkers) living in a cultural void.
And, sometimes, I saw people I didn’t know personally but knew because they were famous. In New York I drank with Matt Dillon, smiled at Sade, and one evening I came home to see Harvey Keitel hanging around outside my building (he was shooting a scene from a film I would later know as Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant). In my mind I was going, Holy Shit, it’s Harvey Fucking Keitel. But I was cool about it—there’s something about living in New York that teaches you how to be cool. You can be totally freaking out and ready to scream on the inside, but from the outside you can look like you’re ready to nod off from boredom. And me, I slowly looked over at Harvey Keitel, slowly looked away, and slowly walked up the steps to my apartment. And not once did my feet ever stop moving.
The motion I was constantly in when I lived in New York suited me well. Because for me, motion—the getting to or moving away from somewhere—has always been one of the great joys in life. And whenever I’ve taken a trip to some distant city—whether it was for vacation or for whatever sort of work I was doing—the getting there was always the best part of the trip. Or at least the part where I felt the most calm, and the most contented. Certainly, motion is what most often keeps me from freaking out.
Stepping out the door, down the steps, and into the crowd was always the best way to motivate me. When I left New York and came back to Washington DC, I spent two years mostly unemployed, aside from some freelance assignments now and then for the Washington City Paper. During that time I worked on my novel, wrote poems, drank, and walked. Everyday I walked from DC’s Mt. Pleasant area, past the pleasantly run down and grimy buildings, and headed south, always going at least as far as Georgetown, which was, of course a much cleaner and wealthier neighborhood. But even then, it was still an interesting place to be—not some antiseptic suburban business hub built by assholes in button down suits. And even though I saw Mt. Pleasant and Georgetown every day during my walk—and often kept going across Key Bridge into Virginia—there was always something going on, faces I’d never seen before, people speaking different languages. There was always something new for me.
Small towns aren’t like that, of course. And if you like the small town life, I’m willing to bet that you’re not much into seeing anything new or different—at least not everyday—and that you like seeing the same faces. And, I’m willing to bet, there are a fair number of people who like small towns because they’re also going to see the same kind of faces. Which is why when the dickhead of the day spots me on the street here, he’s surprised, shocked, concerned, or angry—because, hell, this ain’t New York or even DC, so what the fuck is a person like me doing here?
That’s the question I ask myself everyday. I ask it even though I know, by now, the long, involved, sorry-ass answer. As for the brief, to-the-point answer, what I’m doing here is being still. Still, like the statue commemorating the Confederacy that stands in front of the courthouse on Main Street. Still, like the gazebo on Main Street when that guy plays music there in the middle of the afternoon and no one comes to listen. Still, when I’m sitting at the Daily Grind and am able—for a little while—to suppress those goddamn Tourette’s tics. Being still is something I have to learn to do—and I suppose that breaking down on occasion as I learn to do this is something to be expected.
As for the breakdowns themselves, they have various lengths, tones, and tempos. Sometimes it’s like someone has put a quarter in a jukebox—a decent jukebox—to play something dark, loud and noisy, like the Stooges “Search and Destroy.” Other times what comes out is “Winter” from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons—those chilly strings that keep building up until they let loose into some kind of late Renaissance frenzy. And as the music plays on in my head, what I’m feeling is that stillness. And until the music stops playing, I’m not about to move.
Though sometimes the music during my breakdowns isn’t just in my head. Once what I was hearing was “Seasons of Love” from Rent, when the kids at one of Maggie’s summer camps put on a show:
Five hundred twenty-five thousand
Six hundred minutes,
Five hundred twenty-five thousand
Moments so dear.
Five hundred twenty-five thousand
Six hundred minutes
How do you measure, measure a year?
Mind you, Maggie wasn’t singing in this number. Nevertheless, I found myself getting teary eyed. I mean, Christ, I’m supposed to be way too streetwise and cynical—in a real, not Broadway manner—to be moved by that shit. And besides, it’s from Rent—which I (and just about all of the writers and other artists I knew from the Lower East Side of New York that this musical portrays) consider an absurdly romanticized and whitewashed view of what was happening then. Rent pretty much does to the struggling artists of that scene what The Waltons did to growing up in rural Virginia during the Depression.
Which isn’t to say that, like The Waltons, Rent can’t be enjoyable on a certain level. But Christ, actual tears were coming down my face because of this shit. I was actually feeling the song—and feeling like I was just another sucker falling for three-card Monte in Times Square, some schmuck who laughs hysterically at the oldest joke in the world and cries when he hears about a kid losing his puppy.
This happens to me a lot nowadays—or at any rate a lot more than it used to. And just last week—when I had taken Maggie to a matinee while Heather was at work in DC— what does it is Toy Story 3. Really. When it was that song from Rent I was like, Oh, it’s cool—because I do look back fondly on my days in New York. I’m not above allowing myself to indulge in a sentimental moment now and then. But Toy Story 3? Are you fucking kidding me? I’m actually falling for that shit, now? Twenty years ago when I was living in New York, I would have watched something like that and yelled, Kiss my fucking ass at the screen by the end of the movie. Yeah, Kiss my fucking ass. And, Go fuck yourself, Disney. And, Do you think I give a fuck about this tripe you put out? And now here I am with fucking tears in my eyes at the end of this goddamn movie. Has it come to this? This sure as hell isn’t where I was some twenty years ago in New York and it sure as hell isn’t what I’m used to.
Yeah, “Seasons of Love,” and Toy Story 3. That and being still—or trying to be still and trying not to break down. Being in a place that, compared to what I’m used to feels like nowhere. Sitting still in some theater, or at my desk at home while I’m writing, or when I’m on our front porch watching some jacked-up pickup truck drive by—and getting teary eyed or else breaking down in some other way. These are the hard days for me—when being still is something I do not as an exercise and not as a mechanism for learning how to live here in the valley, but because there’s nothing else I can do.
I walk out of the theater with Maggie after Toy Story 3. She wants something to eat so we walk down to the Daily Grind and order Maggie’s favorite ham, egg, and cheese sandwich and a smoothie. As usual, when I wait, I’m trying not to shake too much, trying not to do that thing where I jab my elbow into my side and grimace. Maggie is used to this weirdness as, of course, is Heather—and they’re the only ones who get to see uncensored and unrestrained performances of my tics—because it’s only when I’m home with them that I truly relax, when I can give in to those urges that I usually have to beat down. Any other time and anywhere else, even if I’m just sitting in a movie theater, I’m just a little bit uncomfortable and a little bit tense.
And so it is that everyday here in the Valley brings about one or another kind of breakdown or freakout (or whatever the hell you want to call it) in my head. Sometimes we’re just at the town pool—one of the other places here that I hate. Sometimes it’s just me, pushing a cart in the supermarket and looking for something like a decent package of strawberries or a carton of milk with an expiration date that’s at least two weeks away. I can be feeling good at first when I’m doing these things—but then it’s that sucker punch again, and everything that seemed so well constructed in my mind falls apart. Some stray thought that annoys me or sometimes even frightens me. It’s an epiphany that brings along with it a definite measure of pain. It’s like going from the idea that the Earth is flat to the reality that it’s a big ball spinning its way through space. To the reality that we evolved from lesser life forms into the magnificent and fucked up creatures we are today.
This is what goes on everyday. These are the tiny but persistent breakdowns I live through everyday. And at this point, I’m pretty goddamn tired of them. On some nights I can hardly sleep. But now I’m starting to focus on other things. And everywhere here I see them—those lovers of war, those borrowers of hate, and, hiding amongst them, all those people who were just never given a clue. I’m in the middle of this, feeling like a guy from another planet, standing still but still standing.
And something I realize is that, yeah, in a weird way—and against all my expectations—this shit gives me strength.