“The city’s really different this time of night. You’re the first person I’ve seen in quite a while” I say to a man I pass by on my bike. He’s walking up South Lamar. He’s smoking a cigarette and wearing a trench coat. It’s five in the morning. And it’s black, and cold, and the street is empty except for the two of us.
“Yeah, I love it,” he says. “Are you coming back from work?”
“No. I’m unemployed. I’ve just been riding around aimlessly for the last few hours. Needed to blow off some steam. What about you?”
“I’m just starting my day. Walking to McDonald’s to get breakfast and coffee…”
“Right on, dude.”
We talk for a few minutes.
I’ve been awake since about noon. I’ve been on my bike for about two hours. It’s surprisingly cold out. My fingers are burning, and even with a coat on, I can’t help but shiver.
Shortly after waking I had decided I should spend the evening sober. The night before, a friend of mine had put out a cigarette on my arm, on a bet. I didn’t even feel it. I could hear the skin sizzle and hiss, but I didn’t even flench.
And when I woke up on Friday, I realized that I had been drinking almost every night for the past three weeks or so. Frustration and anxiety.
Something shitty happened, and I was stressed out and worried, and didn’t know what else to do.
And then I’d just kept going. I could feel myself starting to get more weird, more manic, the longer it went.
Three weeks is a good starting point to start thinking of something as being the beginning of a bender. A good point at which to decide either to step back, take some time off, straighten out, or close your eyes, jump, and wait to find out where you land.
I had spent the last fews days studying for a research paper on neo-nazi groups. I was starting to feel sick and overwhelmed. I needed to do something different. Get out of my head. I had to do something.
I got on my bike at about 2:00. The night starting wind down. People pouring out of Hole In The Wall. Dozens of taxies heading towards downtown.
I ended up sitting outside the library with a couple of friends for about 45 minutes. We talked about performance art, Orson Wells, avant garde, Transcendental Meditation, a video of Abbie Hoffman making gefilte fish. We watched a guy get pulled over by police, exit his car, and do a a field sobriety test. We applauded and cheered when he got back in his car and drove away. We watched a young woman sitting on the other side of the street, sobbing into a cellphone, and talked about whether we should do anything, if it was even our business to get involved, until a large truck drove up, and the woman left.
My friends decide to go home and I got back on my bike.
I started narrating things in my head. A habit I had picked up in High School, when I still kept a journal regularly. When I could still write competently, and didn’t feel like I had to force every word out. Before I’d started planning on writing things down, and then got drunk and forgotten them for days or weeks or months. Before I’d started pretending to be Sydney Carton, or maybe fantasizing about being Philip Marlowe on good nights.
Is that something everybody does? Imagine themselves as being smoothtalking private investigators? I wouldn’t mind being a detective, but I’d hate to be a cop first.
No traffic on Lamar, other than an occasional taxi. No traffic on the foot bridge on First, other than another cyclist, their headlight flashing, bringing up my never ending fear of police officers. Not that I was doing anything particularly incriminating. Not that I was at that much risk of getting caught. I can ride real fucking quick when I need to.
Somewhere off of First, crossing from Congress, going west, after stopping to examine a giant poster pasted on an abandoned building, I realized that I could barely tell where I was any more. Trees masked the sky scrapers downtown, my only compass. The streets were small and winding, with sharp rises and drops in altitude. Gravel on the pavement, making it easy for me to turn too sharply and skid out, maybe get hit by a car making the same sharp turn in the near black, away from street lamps. I got onto the sidewalk, moments before a car zoomed in from out of the darkness, the headlights glowing blue.
Down and out again. Off of the side road and onto South Lamar. I passed the Alamo Drafthouse. Four or five police cars sitting, idling in the back lot. Rather not move any closer. I rode around aimlessly. My fingers stinging. My nose stinging. Maybe I should have worn a bandana over my face. That certainly wouldn’t have attracted attention.
The city is empty. The places I’m used to seeing, teaming with life, clogged with traffic, is asleep. Resting after another Friday night. In 30 minutes or so, the sun will be coming up. Birds will be chirping, singing, screeching so loud that I’ll shout for them to shut up and they won’t. But right now, it’s still black out, still quiet, still a void.
I’m getting near the Pfluger bridge, and the silence is punctuated. The silence is cut by the sound of someone playing a melancholic, jangling tune on the piano near the middle of the bridge. I stop my bike.
The sky is still black, and the moon sinking and the buildings downtown, casting a reflection over the lake water bellow us. I stop and listen.
It was a wreck, that marked the beginning of the serious drinking. I wasn’t driving. The person who was got taken away by the police before I could say goodbye.
On the walk home, my head buzzed with countless things that I could have done, that would have changed the evening, even if by a millisecond, by that one millisecond that would have meant that we got to that intersection a moment later and missed the car. If we’d taken a different rout. Not gotten on the interstate. If I had ridden my bike to the bar. My bike that couldn’t fit in the back of the car, and that I sure as hell wasn’t going to leave downtown. I hadn’t thought the driver was passed the limit, and still don’t think so, but what if things had gone slightly different.
What if I’d asked the cops if I could collect things from the car, so the driver didn’t get locked out of their apartment. If I hadn’t been late and missed them getting out of jail.
Not that that makes any difference. Not that I was the one driving. Not that at that moment, I would have had all that foresight and done anything differently. Not that knowing that it’s too late now makes me feel any less guilty. Not that the fact that there’s nothing I could have or would have done anything that would have made any difference.
The next time I saw them, I felt awkward.
That’s what I do. Leech off of shit that has nothing to do with me.
A year ago, April 5th, 2010 at about 4:30 in the morning, the morning after Easter Sunday, a friend of mine decided to take off the roof of a parking garage. At the time, I was sitting across the street. For him to go into that garage, he would have had to walk within 100 feet of where I sat. If I had looked up, I would have seen him. But I didn’t. And even if I had, I don’t think it would have dawned on me what it was he was doing. But it didn’t stop me from thinking about what if I had.
I didn’t hear him hit the ground. I heard people screaming his name and running towards the garage, and as soon as I heard the name, I knew what had happened, or was about to happen. I started to following them, and then I heard a voice in the hazy night scream the words “OH FUCK. OH FUCK. HE’S DEAD.”
I flagged down a cop car.
I remembered a few months before, I had been sitting, talking to him. The subject of suicide had come up. I mentioned something about jumpers. He had said something to the effect of “Maybe I should try that.”
I didn’t say anything. I can’t keep thinking that I put the idea into his head, but I can’t escape the fear that maybe I did.
The man on the bridge stops playing the piano. He looks up at me. Adjusts his hat.
“It’s beautiful out tonight,” I say.
“I know. The view is great. I was riding home from work, and I saw the view, and I was inspired. I was just messing around, really.”
“It sounded great.”
“Are you from around here?”
“I’ve been living here about two years.”
“I’ve been here five. Things have changed a lot since then. Where’re you from?”
“I lived in El Paso for a while before that.”
“No shit. What do you do out there?”
“Not much. Cheap drugs. Wait for something interesting to happen. It never does.”
“I’ve got a girl from El Paso waiting for me at home, back at our apartment. What’s your name?”
“Rory. What’s yours?”
“Jason. Nice to meet you Rory. See you in another life.”
He straddles his bike, and disappears into the night.
I stand there for a moment. Blank.
It’s two days later. It’s almost one A.M at the cafe I’m sitting in, and they’re playing the same Spandau Ballet song they played two hours ago.