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Social Discomfort And Social Diseases

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We had a press club this morning in another building, during which I spent time at the security desk checking people in. There must be a circle of hell which is just a security desk. You sign your name, miss elevators, make a call to greater and lesser demons in an attempt to establish that you really do have an appointment, miss more elevators, get branded with some sort of identifier, then wait for the last sluggish elevator to descend into the flames. There are probably more security desks in New York City now than there ever have been. The situation amounts to a general slowdown in every office in the city. Every security chief seems to be convinced that terrorists are aiming directly for his building.

The one I was hanging out with today probably had more real reason for concern than many; there’s a number of media outlets in his building. Still, he spent an inordinate amount of time hassling people who weren’t wearing their ID tags. Then he hassled me for borrowing space in his building. Why couldn’t you hold your event downtown in the federal building? he asked. (We’d been invited by one of the television stations in his building.)

Then one of our journalists showed up, wearing what looked like monogrammed hospital scrubs. I waved him in happily; he was from a Romanian paper we don’t see often. The security guy snorted. Nobody wears business suits anymore, he said. You don’t know who’s here for what.

I made some quiet remark, sizing up the guard. He was maybe in his fifties, white, bullet-headed, jovial in a military way, wearing his security-guard suit like it was some kind of symptom, a rash. Whatever, he said. Just as long as no Afghanis come in.

The Afghan Communicator was, of course, the first paper on my guest list.

I was so shocked that the first thing out of my mouth was a rebuke that we had more to fear from the Saudis, seeing as that was the nationality of most of the hijackers. (Never expect me to stay on message if I’m not operating in a print medium.) Then I returned to my senses and said it didn’t matter, we knew all of these journalists well and my job was to be polite to all of them, no matter how they dressed or where they were from, and how was he going to know where they were from by looking at them anyway? Two especially dignified Indian journalists who are close with my boss came in. I quietly put checks by their names, hoping they’d get into the elevators before they overheard anything.

I went and tattled. I told the woman from the TV station who had helped us set up the event about the guard’s comment, and before I’d even made my way to the press conference the bullet-headed man had been pulled aside by the building manager. He tried to make nice to me, but I dashed for the elevator.

I felt guilty for the rest of the day. I had a hard time explaining it, but I tried to do it for Neil over dinner. All security guards are like that, I said; it’s his job to be an a$shole; they pick people like that specially, and I don’t just mean racists, I mean a$sholes. That excuse didn’t hold any water with Neil or me.

I tried again. What does he know, you know? The guard was a stupid white guy… albeit a stupid white guy with an accent that said he had lived in New York City all his life, so for G0d’s sake he really ought to know better by now. So much for that explanation.

I think it’s pretty obvious why I felt guilty, though; right? I lashed out at that bullethead like almighty G0d. I was already wound up from the abuse I’d taken myself this morning. I went and talked as much sh!t about him as I possibly could to my boss, and my co-workers, and the woman running things yet again. I itemized every one of his sins in the jo-jeezly fever grip of righteousness, and didn’t bother to mention my own comment about the Saudis.

mea maxima fsckin’ culpa.

* * *

I have found my subtle knife: he’s a man with no real identifying characteristics I can name yet except he’s not averse to making an inappropriate comment, loudly, now and again. I was hoping to meet him tonight at a German Cars Vs. American Homes concert, but I’d sort of botched the date, and he didn’t show.

I don’t ever go to bars or clubs. Ever. Not clubs where rock bands play, at least, and if I do, there’s some sort of gimmick, like there’s dancing. Or the last time I saw GC vs. AH, it was an Indymedia benefit. But here I was, at the Elbow Room, standing around on my own after the band’s set. It is a testament to my recent growth in confidence that I can stand around a bar without feeling awkward because I’m alone, or slouching, or not drinking as usual. I attribute this particular confidence to my changed attitude about the swing scene. I’m no longer looking for a partner to practice with, and certainly not a boyfriend; if I’m out there, it’s just to have a few dances, stop thinking about anything but my center of gravity for a while. The pressure’s off. I can stand around without feeling desperate, and watch.

Tonight I was able to identify other people, who were also standing alone. This is progress. They used to look like they were part of a scene. I used to think they all had friends they were with. This time there was a guy right in front of me with jock shoulders who was alone, standing with his legs spraddled a little. He looked awkward.

That’s when it occurred to me that the awkwardness I’d felt for so many years while waiting to be asked to dance was probably the same discomfort most people are trying to take the edge off by drinking. I’d never thought of that, because I’d never identified the feeling as social discomfort. Awkwardness by itself has never gotten to the point where it’s ruined an evening for me. (wait: Tuesday. never mind.) I thought I was immune to social discomfort. I didn’t think I had inhibitions. I shake my ass, I don’t care. It feels good.

Returning to the subtle knife: I went to this concert on a gut feeling that something had to change, and maybe that something was the compulsion to hole up and get work done. Exhibit A: I wouldn’t normally have been there.

I asked one of the German Cars guitarists, a short guy with curly hair under a beat-up hat, what the name of the second act was. He didn’t know. He asked me what my name was. I shouted it as they played their first chords. He shouted his. I asked him why the all of the fscking bands in the city sound exactly the same except for German Cars. We cursed the second act — total pop normalia — and fled to the lounge. We sat on a low couch and put our feet up on the coffee table. He told me about a book he was reading about the Haight and looked me in the eyes; his were doe-like, dark with the beer. I remembered what a friend who went to school up there, not far from the Haight, once told me about the rhythm of signals and the routine she had learned for preparing to make out with someone. I don’t know those cues. He leaned in for a kiss as I turned. Exhibit B: These things happen to other people…

I refused the kiss and made vague excuses about my Involvements. I don’t say what I think anymore; I’m thinking I’m a vector, a veritable Typhoid Mary, and I know how AIDS is spread but I know how hepatitis is spread too. I decided on my guideline a while ago: if I don’t know him or his friends well enough to verify he’s not a liar, I won’t exchange fluids. He touched my thigh. I wouldn’t let him hold my hand. (Perhaps I was a little too strict.) I told him he was moving too fast, and he agreed as if that lie had hypnotized him.

Oh well; he had a hip-hop recording gig to go to; did I want to come along? I followed him to the street where the band was packing and stood half-in, half-out of the rain, listening to the bouncers joke and slouching like James Dean. There was a swirl of women who claimed they’d be meeting with the band later. Come with us! said a redhead I’d never seen before. Exhibit C: In which universe am I mistaken for a groupie? Which?!

I let the guitarist go; he was driving to Brooklyn, and all I could think was I didn’t want any part of that DWI. Told him I’ll catch him at another concert.

But you know, I was a moron, and my charmed sister, the one who walked around Manhattan barefoot for ten hours one night without coming to any harm, understands that better than me. There is no catching him at a second concert. The redhead will also not ask me to join her again. I had some kind of chance at a portal into a New York that I knew was there but just hadn’t ever seen before, someplace where the laws of physics are different, the social norms are exotic and weird. Next time, the guitarist will remember this time, and maybe he will be less drunk, and I’ll be with someone else, and then it will be less like magic and more like a habit.

* * *

Tomorrow: I’m placing my bets on an earful of poison. Damn you St. Exupery, you killjoy: on n’est point responsable de ce qu’on a apprivoise.

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