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Digging Deeper - A Memoir Of The Seventies
In the morning, when the alarm went off, I’d pad into the bathroom, splash cold water on my face, brush my teeth; a creature of long ingrained habit. Back in the studio room, I’d put on a T-shirt, then the white shirt, or maybe the pale blue one, and then the dark blue suit hanging in the otherwise empty closet, the limited wardrobe once again reminding me of my estrangement from my own circumstance.
The super who had shown me the one-room apartment weeks before opened the venetian blinds to reveal the courtyard entrance to the building, leading to the most ordinary of streets. I’d stood there looking out longer than necessary, perhaps searching for something more than concrete and brick, until I sensed her impatience and tore myself from the soporific view. She then led me toward the closet, where I averted my eyes from the mirrored doors, to avoid ego confusion, and then she was the one to linger, considering the mirrored doors a selling point, expecting me to say something. What could I say? That I’d seen myself before? That it wasn’t something I wanted to see every moment of the day?
I finessed the medicine cabinet mirror in the bathroom by scrutinizing the shiny faucets and the tile floor, eliciting her impatience again. Again I could see my behavior was inappropriate. Who cares about faucets? But she had a short attention span; not attenuated like mine by psychedelic drugs, but by a notion of propriety that moved her from here and there according to her own internal directives. They ushered her out of the bathroom, across the parquet floor to the front door, then up the second floor hallway, and I followed, stopping when she opened another door, to showcase the garbage disposal.
“It’s a good apartment,” she said when we were back in the studio apartment, the door closing with a thunk more impressive than anything else she’d shown me. “No riffraff,” she remarked, and when I looked at her with tilted head, she added, “In the building, you know.”
I was clean-shaven, my hair cut and combed. I looked presentable. But at the mention of riffraff, in association with the solid thunk that threw me back to the flimsy wooden doors of the East Village tenements, I wondered if she'd recognized me as an impostor, had seen through my clean-cut look to the person who dealt nickels and dimes of this and that just a few months ago.
No, I’d told myself. Calm down. You’re paranoid. I could see from the pleasure that washed over her when I said I’d take the place that she was just waiting on me.
Now, in the morning, as I regarded my smooth-walled domain before heading to work, from that solid door to the mattress on the floor in the far corner, beneath the faux Arabian canopy tacked to the ceiling, I knew I’d put something over on her. What would she think to see me in the evening, when I didn’t turn the light on but instead struck a match to the candle and sat cross-legged in my hippie corner, staring at the mandala I’d tacked to the wall, breathing methodically, the beat of my heart pounding in my ears? She was Italian, and Catholic. Had she witnessed my nighttime behavior in a monastery, she would have considered it admirable. But here, I had to be careful. One person’s monk is another’s nut job.
As usual, I idled at the tie rack within the closet, trying to choose between the three silky specimens, staring at them as if to divine the elements of the day in the patterns and colors …
Catching myself amidst this magical thinking, I grabbed the red and gold one, looped it over my neck, then quickly put on my raincoat; I couldn’t afford a winter overcoat and liked to believe the zip-in lining sufficed. It didn’t. Leaving, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, I thrust my hands into the flimsy coat after stepping out of the building, hunching my shoulders in primitive reflex to combat the freezing chill.
The morning world was already in motion, stepping along the sidewalks on both sides of the street, its denizens all heading in the same direction, toward the hole in the ground a few blocks away. Perhaps because I knew I was different, not truly of this world, it was comforting to join the herd movement, to ostensibly belong to it. I watched it swell with foot traffic flowing from side streets onto the long incline that led to Main Street, past a church on one side and a synagogue on the other, past a library and a plate-glass wall of stores on the ground floor of apartment buildings like my own. Farther down, beyond the railroad overpass, buses pulled to the curb, exhaust smoke steaming in the cold air as disgorged passengers joined the ever thickening flow. The crowd, hemmed in now by buildings and traffic, bubbled to a froth at the subway entrance, where only two or three at a time could head downstairs, to mill on the platform there and then file into the waiting subway cars that would take us to Manhattan.
An hour or so later we’d fairly explode out of deceptive placidity, pour from the confining tubes of glass and steel, erupt up other steps to flow in all directions like lava. And then my circumstantial solidarity with this mass would fragment, at my surprise over the faces reflecting hurry and strain to get to work on time. In contrast, instead of rushing off I’d breathe deeply, exulting in freedom from confinement. A high point to the day, a blessing I would not have experienced if not for rush hour. In the evening, heading back the other way, emerging from the outlying station on Main Street, I’d merely be relieved, too enervated to fully appreciate that second liberation.
On a typical morning, I now confronted a more personal ordeal than mass transit, as the smaller gathering that entered my particular office building waited for the elevator, and when the doors opened, squeezed in. The same neutral look that deadened faces on the train would mask these faces too. Inside the box enclosure, they all stared straight ahead, at the doors that sealed us in, and though by then I’d adopted the same neutrality, I couldn’t lose myself in it, not with the whirring sound of pulleys and wheels as we ascended, the numbers advancing as the elevator moved up, my heart beating loud enough to hear.
How could they not realize there was an empty shaft below us and only a cable holding us aloft? Was it frayed? Would it snap? It happened in the movies. Why not now? A moving room, taken for granted, becoming in an instant a death chamber.
It didn’t matter that we always averted disaster, that every morning I’d step out on the fourteenth floor as the doors gently slid shut behind me; it was still an immense relief to finally get there safely … a sense of relief I of course kept to myself.
In the past year or so my parameters had been altered by certain synthetic laboratory drugs, and now I couldn’t help but reflect upon fundamentals I’d never paid much attention to before. In high school, eager and earnest at my first job, I’d had a surfeit of false courage. Death never occurred to me while working alongside grown-ups.
And later, as a college graduate, I insouciantly rode elevators all over the place, to make a few bucks to pay the rent and cover the cost of meals. It never occurred to me I would someday, inevitably, die. And now I couldn’t escape that fact of life: I would not live forever. In the guise of my office worker identity I might look as oblivious as everyone else, but the persistent presence of death’s inevitability made me different.
After the close-quarter subway ride and the elevator ordeal, my empty office cubicle was a godsend. I’d hang up my raincoat, lean back in the swivel chair and breathe in and out, in and out, as I did in the evening beneath my corner canopy in the studio apartment. Only here I’d stare at a plaster indentation on the wall instead of the midpoint of a mandala.
Unseen others were also easing into the day while I practiced my particular morning routine. I assumed at first that this daily respite before work began had been designed with meditative intent, rather than haphazardly come about through custom. I liked to think that together, in our separate cubicles, we were in silent communion with a greater meaning, whether the ten or fifteen minutes of morning quietude involved drinking coffee, reading newspapers, or doing crossword puzzles.
And then, one morning before the clacking typewriters sent a signal up and down the hallway that the workday had officially begun, my office neighbor peered around the pebbled glass partition and saw me staring at the wall.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” she said, flustered. “I didn’t mean to interrupt … I assumed … It was so quiet, I didn’t realize anyone was here …”
How naive of me, to believe that drinking coffee and reading the paper were modes of meditation. They were well-worn rituals. In comparison, sitting and staring at a wall … well, there was a word for people who stared at walls.
It seemed I was caught, found out—or would have been if not for an aspect of office culture that ensured my coworker’s silence. She'd peeked into my space, after all, which breached an unspoken rule. And, too, we worked for an enlightened company—an outfit that did research and development into educational methods and materials—one that hewed to a social attitude of tolerance, which included people who stared at walls, if such crazy behavior were ever to come up. Which is to say I had nothing to fear from my office neighbor; she would keep my oddness to herself.
But it reminded me that I had to be vigilant. Odd behavior alarms most people, however much they might deny it. It was what kept me in line; that and the restraint imposed by the obligatory suit and tie I wore. In time I would discover that when I merged into the tribal office community, in behavior and appearance, I would have the option of becoming an iconoclast; let hair grow on my face if I kept it neat and trim, arrive fifteen minutes late or leave fifteen minutes early. But meanwhile, uncertain about the ins and outs of tribal custom, I shaved every day, got to work on time and left at five. And in truth I would never make use of iconoclastic exception.
Yes, my office neighbor would keep my secret. Still, the day after being accidentally peeked in upon, I bought a New York Times on the way to work, unfolded its massive pages in my cubicle, and stared into it instead of at the wall. I found a lowercase letter i in a subhead and used the dot as a meditative focal point. If anyone had peeked in on me, there would have been nothing to remark upon. Reading the Times, or appearing to, was the definition of normalcy.
Did I fool anyone? Or was this a game played between myself and the unimpressed observer who looked over my shoulder? Perhaps the people I feared would discover the real me were more acceptant than my paranoia led me to believe.
But I wasn’t taking any chances.
Occasionally, in committee meetings, at lunch in the company cafeteria, and in the lounge during the afternoon coffee break, someone would eye me with the hint of a smile. I didn’t know what it meant, but sensed that it wasn’t hostile. There might have been a secret knowledge in that surreptitious perusal. An awareness that I wasn't who or what I purported to be, and a certain pleasure in that assumption.
Another day, I saw an assessing look that was easier to recognize, because it bespoke rejection.
Our team of five was in one of the tedious weekly meetings when I caught the slant-eyed glance, a look not unlike that of some drug dealers and undercover cops I’d come across not long ago. It was followed by a frown, and then aversion, as if my inspector was too disgusted to look at me any longer … though I hardly said a word in those meetings. Dick, the guy’s name was. My suit and tie and smooth-shaven face apparently meant nothing to him. Clearly, he wanted nothing to do with me.
It was a jolt, to be discovered, and I reacted without thinking, with panic, seizing upon obsequious friendliness; an on-the-fly ploy to disarm him. I asked this Dick about a committee report the team was working on, listened with fascination to his grudging answer, then thanked him profusely. But I knew I hadn’t won him over, nor did similar fake questions I posed the following week. In fact, I could see he now despised me even more. And now, having prostrated myself before him, I didn’t much like myself either.
So, in the face of his continued disdain, I came up with a different attitude—stoic indifference. I regarded him, or avoided even looking at him, with a detachment that erected a wall against his evident hostility. And to my surprise—since I hadn’t adopted this attitude to persuade, but rather, to protect myself—Dick began to talk. He even began to seek me out, approaching me in the hallway after committee meetings and in the employee lounge, to ask about projects, to solicit my opinion.
It should have pleased me, for I am an essentially friendly person, but out of continued wariness, I hewed to purposeful indifference … and then the poor guy came apart at the seams, nearly begged for a response of some kind, anything. It unnerved me, realizing that I’d brought his sorry state about. Stirred up his insecurities and manipulated him by pretending he didn’t matter. That was my own great fear! Not to matter. His own well of loneliness had brought him down. How could I celebrate that?
But I get ahead of myself, since I could hardly string more than a few words together then. A cipher when I arrived, I was barely capable of speech, the drugs I’d taken short-circuiting the commonplace verbal transitions that enable conversation. In the silence between phrases uttered by others, I’d remain mute, inexpressive—not out of rudeness, but because of my inability to concentrate, to link disparate phrases into sentences and sentences into paragraphs, as I recalled Henri Bergson describing the difference between being and becoming when I read him on acid. It seemed the cumulative effect of those acid trips had rendered my senses predominant, presaging thoughts or overlapping them. When an opening in a line of discourse called upon me to contribute, I didn’t have the time, or space, to gather up information and craft an answer. And so, when I managed to respond, it was in monosyllables.
That no one remarked on this didn’t mean they hadn’t noticed, only that they were being polite.
But despite appearances, I was not an idiot. I was capable of learning, and in rehabilitation. Observing the impression I made, I taught myself to react appropriately, to learn the social graces, as they’re called, to relearn the basic skills of communication: returning a greeting when greeted, nodding in order to indicate that I’d heard and grasped what had been said, and offering affirmative words or sounds to put a speaker at ease. And later, when I got better at the basics, I hastened to speak when an idea occurred to me in association with something that had been said, knowing, with my short attention span, that I would lose it altogether if I waited. As a result, following long moments of silence, I spoke in staccato outbursts, which made me no less odd, but more acceptable.
Realizing that people don’t need much to be put at ease put me at ease as well, made me less guarded. And when I was more relaxed, they more easily accepted me, and more: a few even began to seek my company, since my still notable silences made me the ideal listener.
One woman in particular, a retired schoolteacher, latched onto me. She sat down across the table in the cafeteria, took a chair next to me in committee meetings, then took to popping in on one pretext or another.
Somewhat like me, she’d blurt out random bits of information at the weekly meetings, about school rooms and schoolteachers. As befit the tribal adherence to tolerance, people were constrained to hear her out without interruption, though I could see that the old lady’s ramblings drove them to distraction. Outside the committee room, however, they avoided her, and so she came to me, the young man who always wore the same suit, the listener; and given my passivity, the perfect sounding board.
She’d pop in for a chat, as she prefaced it, and tell me about her years in the public school system, her former pupils, her fellow teachers … She missed that life so much, it left me tongue-tied. What could I say to alleviate her longing for the past? At some point, as I nodded and made listening sounds, she’d become even more animated and lose control, sentences running into each other in a stream of consciousness, the pauses between phrases disappearing, and then, anticipating interruption at my simple “Uh-huh”—since everyone else eventually interrupted her and found an excuse to leave—she’d speak even faster, overrunning anything I might say.
She began to wear on me. I’d nod and make agreeable sounds, but no longer hearing details, tuned into the underlying meaning within the rapid flow of words. And then one day I heard myself break in and say the words she dreaded: “Listen, Ruth, there’s something I have to do …”
A startling breakthrough. Posing with the New York Times and learning to nod and grunt had rendered me a member of the tribe. But at that moment, I’d gone beyond the perfunctory, was not just in it, but of it.
It struck me, as she apologetically excused herself and left my office cubicle, that I’d lost something important.
Not long ago, I’d lived in the moment. A drug had thrust that momentary state upon me, the wonderment of a yawning, spacious reality in which boredom and impatience were impossible. And now, having adjusted to a different, less immediate world, I’d lost a certain innocence that accompanied that Edenic state. I felt comfort and discomfort, acted as jury and judge, concluded that I didn’t have to listen to people, could tune them out if I wanted to.
In the evening of that day, returning to my apartment, I took off the uniform suit, as usual, put on jeans and the splashy cowboy shirt I’d found in a garbage can in Haight-Ashbury, slipped into a pair of moccasins. Then, as usual, I turned off the electric light and lit a candle and a cone of incense, sat cross-legged beneath the canopy and stared at the midpoint of the mandala tacked to the wall. But it felt different; a custom of mine, not a preparation to enter a transcendent state. Breathing in and out, in and out, self-meditating, my pristine alienation from the world-at-large did not reappear. It was gone, the sharp edges of my former clarity blurred by a new, less salutary consciousness.