Have you noticed how long in the tooth this war is getting? I recently went back to work on a piece I began more than two years ago, “Stepping over Bodies.” It’s not finished yet but I want to put it out there before we all forget what it felt like to be shocked at the thought of a U.S. invasion of Iraq. As for immiserated bodies doing the private thing in public on the sidewalks of New York–they haven’t gone away.
STEPPING OVER BODIES
I. M27: Rockefeller Center Die-In
Portable as a child,
I do the back float, asphalt-buoyed,
peer into a narrow hall
of scoured sky.
Beyond St. Pat’s mean spires
three cop choppers dick around.
Why fly when you can point
the seeing self at outer space,
rearrange the angle
with adrenaline’s new view?
Curt, rational midnight blue
bestrides my horizontalism:
I get a feel
for being toted, handily.
(Which would you rather be?
A solidly vertical citizen,
a stepper over bodies–
or quixotic pavement-drape?)
Flexicuffs too tight—
his hands are scary halibut.
(We’re talking years ago now,
back when the war was new.)
II. Something to Take the Edge Off
I was leaving the building. This was in December. On Wednesday I’d taught, with relief and exhaustion and the usual smidgin of premature nostalgia, my last class of the fall term; now it was Saturday and I’d gone to my faculty office to retrieve a memo on submitting grades. The university wasn’t officially shut down, but they’d locked the front doors in the Eleventh Street building so as not to have to keep a security guard on duty. The sudden emptiness of structures, coupled with the pause in the quasi-industrial rhythms of the place, invited me to notice with fresh emphasis the institutional strangeness of terrain familiar to me as any spot I’ve called an official home: the New School, the liberal New School, in the heart of Greenwich Village, whose cockerel self-congratulation annoys me in subway cars and browbeats me over the airwaves when I tune in classical music. “The New School helps you find the answers” happened to be the theme of the current campaign, juxtaposed with absurd, virtually contentless questions (“Must we destroy democracy at home to export it abroad?”) and pictures of happy middle-class knowledge buffs.
Well, they have to advertise. We’re famously “tuition-driven.”
The New School is my toehold on the island of Manhattan. It’s where for the past decade and a half I’ve gotten a skimpy paycheck for living the life of the mind. I’m a perma-temp, contract worker, whatever you want to call it, lucky to get my health plan subsidized so I have to kick in only $1700 a year or so.
Oh you teach there it’s so liberal must be great. That whited sepulcher. A man is its president who commanded a massacre and became a Senator for heroism. Radical students mock him for a disability incurred in the course of his warring. Radical teachers have to inform them this is wrong. I am a radical teacher, I suppose. One symptom is that after all these years, I still never quite get over my identification with the young. Notwithstanding my concomitant exasperation. My weariness and humiliation at realizing that this, after all, has amounted to “career”: this being a kind of elevated nursemaid, changing the dirty diapers on their callow, sometimes inspired hunks of prose. I experience no end to admiration and delight. To just not wanting to be bothered half the time.
This is what happens down among the liberals in the heart of Greenwich Village: because of my twilight status as a briefly and contingently (for over 15 years) tolerated toiler in the bowels of academe, I can take advantage of the consortium arrangement whereby New School faculty may check out books from Bobst, the world class library over at NYU, which my friend who was on the tenure track at CUNY used to beg me to patronize on her behalf. Bobst is where, in the fall of the semester just concluded, the one whose climax I’m about to relate, kids, 18- and 19-year-olds, had been suiciding off vertiginous balconies. (NYU had suffered a public relations fiasco; NYU would erect huge Plexiglass partitions above the balconies to prevent further horrors.) I get to shop at Citarella, sip cappuccino at French Roast. Moving air shrieks around the second floor classrooms of 65 West Eleventh Street like lamentations of the prematurely slain, the Modernist monument having been inadvertently designed as a sort of architectural wind harp. On blustery days, these noises interfere with seminar discussion (which someone has calculated costs the students about a dollar a minute if they’re paying full tuition); we pause to make wry faces at the moans, which remind us of sex and death—these disruptions taking their place alongside jackhammer blows and honking from the street; the grind of belated garbage pickups; tantruming two-year-olds, processions of students exiting for the bathroom (ostensibly—really more likely a hasty cigarette), the eating of messy sandwiches and rice noodle takeout, the ringing cell phones attributed to family emergencies and roommate overdoses.
I am an adjunct, for fifteen years an adjunct. (At my age, a lifer, apparently.) And what if anything does my status have to do with the fact that I’ve never really gotten over caring too much about the opinions of the more-radical-than-thou ones? The ones who flatly refused to read Thoreau (at any rate, understand him) because he’d been to Harvard, quoted poetry in Latin. (Because he used the word savages; I couldn’t be sure they’d grasped the irony, and realized that going into it would only seem to excuse him.)
It’s so intense. I’m so mired. (If the mind were measured in megabytes of RAM, what percentage of available memory would a job like this take up?)
A whited sepulcher, yes—but full of life, withal!
A university is vast (although at the same time rather puny). “In my father’s house there are many mansions.” Some of us have managed to subsist like parasites in folds of the great hide of an entity that shambles in a direction utterly other than where we’d like to be headed.
The totalizing narrative proves inadequate yet again!
Some students from Jews Against the Occupation had reserved Tishman Auditorium for the showing of a Palestinian film; at the last minute they were told they’d be bumped because MSNBC wanted to rent the space for a taping of “Hardball” at that very time. (Remember, we’re a tuition-driven institution.) The students dared to struggle, eventually prevailed.
John Tishman, for whom the auditorium is named, is a New School trustee. I recently had to go to Tishman Realty to hand-deliver a letter to him. The letter went to all the trustees, requesting their support for our part-time faculty union. Someone had the bright idea that we might get more attention with a hand-delivered letter. Tishman Realty and Construction is located at 666 Fifth Avenue, that’s Fifth Avenue at 53rd Street, right next to Rockefeller Center, on the 38th floor. West Indian men in suits eyeballed my driver’s license, then printed me out a pass that caused the security gate to retract its scimitar-like lips. I took the fast elevator, left my envelope at the desk. I left feeling guerrilla-like, in a way—freelance, nobody, under the radar—yet so different from the last time I’d been in the neighborhood, when I’d laid down in the street, been carted off in a paddy wagon.
In theory at least, one has to show ID to get into all New School buildings. The New School guards wear uniforms, not suits, but their faces are the color of security uptown. The darker students gravitate to them, strike up chatty friendships. Color clumps together in the whited sepulcher.
But nothing was clumping on the particular day I speak of, a December Saturday just days before Christmas. Having learned that the building was open until two o’clock, I went first to the Eleventh Street entrance. I should explain that sight lines are peculiar things in both the Eleventh and Twelfth Street buildings, which are separated by a courtyard; both are modernist glass boxes designed to render as conspicuous as possible the consumption of knowledge (ironically and no doubt unintentionally substituting for that scarce desideratum, managerial “transparency”). As I approached, I could make out bodies in one or two of the second-floor classrooms (continuing ed enthusiasts, no doubt, probably soaking up the last of their language instruction), so when I found the doors were locked, I knew to try another method. I circled the block to Twelfth Street. I flashed my ID at the main security desk, behind which a group of radical students once held the Provost and a Vice President trapped for over an hour during a noisy demonstration that was part of a campaign for institutional reforms which have not come to pass. Entered the elevator, punched “3.” Exited, crossed the glass hall-bridge over the courtyard, only to find that the doors on the Eleventh Street side were bolted. (These are wide swinging doors with a small square window high up, allowing for a visual inspection of the room on the other side to lower the chances of people getting smacked in the face; I rarely approach them without remembering an angry comment made to me more than ten years ago by a friend with post-polio syndrome; those doors, she said, were a nightmare for a person in a wheelchair. She was an adjunct, hasn’t taught here for years.) I retraced my steps, descended to the Twelfth Street lobby, crossed the courtyard (fairly newly and sterilely redesigned, possibly to discourage large gatherings, with a fake miniature forest and some ugly metallic phalluses ringed by circular benches, but with a laudable looping access ramp in addition to the steps that possibly partly compensates for the doors on the third floor bridge). Sure enough, the Eleventh Street building was accessible on this level. I took the slowpoke elevator up to the second floor, where my shared office overlooks the courtyard and makes me, in turn, an exhibit for the students who mass there in between classes. I got out my key, opened—it was freezing in there—thinking how oddly the atmosphere shifts when the building’s no longer livened by kiddie boddies, though ghosts of the semester, of abstract bickering and personality clashes and confused student sex, linger like the bad air from the bathrooms down the hall. The bathrooms where, all year, in one of the Women’s Room stalls, a graffiti conversation glossed the following doggerel:
Bob Kerrey’s got a master plan
to build democracy
and everywhere the masters bomb
our Bob is sure to be
(just think of it: our president, the dynamic CEO of Hannah Arendt’s old stomping ground–served on the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq).
Students had slipped late papers under my door. Someone who wanted an A, and possibly deserved it, had left me a bottle of wine, gift-rapped, ribbon-gay. She had spent the semester in my creative nonfiction class writing about searching for and finding the Bad, Abandoning Father (“Bio Dad,” she called him). I remembered what she’d written about her view of wine drinkers, based on her bartending job—that they tend to be people who aren’t looking to get drunk, but just want “something to take the edge off.” Apparently, then, she thought of me this way—as someone past the passionate need for oblivion, but who wants or needs something to take the edge off.
I scooped the papers off the cold tiles, thrust the dubious bottle into my shopping bag. Rather than retrace my absurdly complicated steps to exit the way I’d come and end up on Twelfth Street, I thought I’d take the side stairs, be out of there in a flash.
I’ve learned a thing or two in fifteen years, after all. Entrances may be locked, but they have to leave an exit open.
I descended to ground level past the cold wall-leavings, semester’s dregs, the tattered posters and fliers and once-pressing announcements. Illegally tacked leaflets urging liberation of gender segregated toilets, propriety of supporting adjunct professors who are trying to form a union. This was the selfsame stair, harmless now, on which I often feel such a rooted weariness, a desire not to be required to acknowledge another human face. I faced the exit door, the selfsame door I flee through when my teaching day is done, and consider my passage through it a marker of almost-liberation (there’s still the gauntlet of youthful smoking, cell phones, “texting,” erotic politics).
The door opens on Eleventh Street—sort of. You turn right, follow a sunken walkway for twenty feet or so, then turn left and climb a few shallow steps to reach the public sidewalk. Mindless in performance of a gesture so ingrained in my routine, I leaned on the bar and, feeling the door give way (had I feared it might be locked despite the fire code?), experienced a minute and instantaneous surge of triumph at my superior insight into the workings of institutional labyrinths. As usual, there had been barriers in my path. But I had dodged them, attained my object.
I stepped out to the sharper air, wondering already why the guys from Facilities had left this huge, untidy pile of stuff blocking my way. My mind just stumbled, trying to cobble sense. In quick confusion, I thought of students moving out of the dorms—maybe some kid on the way to the airport had briefly parked these duffel bags (but why opened? why unpack them on the street?) I was noticing an incoherent litter, a sort of strewn array, in that way you flounder around in detail when gestalt is up for grabs. A shopping cart, a mustard-colored mound: tomb-barrow-shaped elongation of dingy blanket.
I got it as the door banged behind me. I was in somebody’s sleep-space. The alley-well I thought of as a public thoroughfare had become an ad hoc bedroom. And I felt—what? Indignation and alarm. An instructive chaos of merged ideas. I felt afraid, for instance, that the horizontal one might rear up and demand of me what I was doing there. Might rage at being surprised in this so-private activity. (I’d come through the door with such reasonable assumptions—but how could I convey this?) I simultaneously felt hotly aggrieved that it now appeared I couldn’t exit “my” workplace (I did think of it as “mine”) without the indignity of stepping over bodies.
It hadn’t been my intention to intrude.
Who then was the intruder?
It seemed as if we (the street sleeper and I) were locked in a competition of disgraces.
The door had latched; it was locked irrevocably.
My mistake was “innocent.”
Security was, of course, too far away to be appealed to. The alley-well was screened genteelly from the far from bustling sidewalk by a generic bit of hedge.
The semester wasn’t even officially over yet and already lawless life was moving in to claim the unpoliced terrain.
Intimate confrontation with what horizontal means. That pavement-stretched figure: mummy-vision. (Might have been a corpse for all I knew—the head was covered, too.)
No way out except stepping over the body.
I stepped over the body.
All lying down on pavement
hoists a signal of distress,
inserts a hairpin
in the gears of certain woes.
Lie down in the street,
you exasperate. Guaranteed.
Just try it. Lie down.
Lie down on the sidewalk.
Lie down on asphalt. Tarmac.
Just for the instructive giddiness.
Just to see who’ll
drive right over you.
Lying down on grass
would be completely different:
you’d injure only grass
which quickly repairs itself,
whereas you don’t disturb the asphalt,
what asphalt makes possible.
Same thing for concrete.
Concrete and asphalt.
The horizontal interferes
with the business
whether you stretch full out
or scrunch up in a heap.
a hiccup in the suave civil flow.
Inaudible objection to
the future’s gatedness—
or the body’s dumbest
wisdom: common sleep.