|Helena Fitzgerald||Nov 6, 2019|
There’s a scaffolding platform on the building across the street from my apartment. The scaffolding went up last week, over the course of a long and unexpected day of excruciatingly loud noise. By the time I went to bed, black and orange netting encased a metal skeleton rising taller than the building itself.
Now the scaffolding is the first thing I see when I look out the window at my desk, but it’s silent in the morning. Just above the first floor windows, free of the netting, a wood platform encloses a brilliantly autumn-colored tree, the tree that signals seasons on our block, spilling its red-gold leaves over the green-painted sides of the platform. It almost looks like a landscaped deck, out of an architecture magazine, as though it had been put there for purely aesthetic purpose.
Sometimes New York is time travel and sometimes it’s a ghost tour and a haunted house. But maybe that’s living anywhere long enough, the accumulation of time on top of place, the tiny particles of human skin that eventually make up a visible film of dust. My senior year of college, I lived on the first floor of a building in a different part of this same neighborhood. Really, it was the one-and-a-half floor; the building was on a sharply downhill-sloping street, which meant my apartment got farther from the street as you walked from east to west in it. That fall, construction work on the building put up a similar wooden platform attached to scaffolding directly under my windows. I was twenty-one, and very stupid, and I decided this meant I had a temporary deck. I would go out there with coffee and do my reading for class. I’d have friends over in the afternoon and sit with our knees to our chest and sweaters against the cold and talk about the hard things or what we thought at the time were the hard things, as though we truly believed we had already reached the limit of life’s bigness.
And I threw parties. That was the main thing I did with this deck that was absolutely not my deck, not meant to be a deck, not anybody’s deck. I don’t remember how it started. Maybe it was where I sent people outside who wanted to smoke when I had a party, and the place where everybody gathers to smoke becomes the central nervous system of a party in the same way a kitchen often does. Maybe I had a few friends over and we all climbed out there and brought our drinks with us and that’s how you get a party; the moment where a few people at your house crosses the line from a few people at your house to a party isn’t something that can be planned or measured or predicted, but you can feel it when it happens all the same.
And then it started happening a lot, and the thing I remember the most is sometime either just before or just after Christmas, throwing a formal dress-up party on a very cold night. We all went out on the scaffolding, mostly drunk, and it had just snowed, and the snow was collected on this deck that was not a deck at all, and we all threw snowballs at each other. Friends stayed until dawn; I remember vividly a six-foot-three male friend changing into my bathrobe and putting on one of my face masks and going out to the scaffolding platform like that to smoke a cigarette, while his girlfriend and I lay on my bed and howled with drunken laughter. You had to climb over the bed to get out there; everyone stepped on the bed to go out the window, and lowered themselves down onto the bed coming back in, a long drop to a soft ground, intimacy and utility as one.
Of course part of what made it a party was that it was a very bad idea; it definitely wasn’t allowed, and almost certainly was very, very dangerous. I am astounded nobody was injured, that nothing at all happened to me or to any of us except that one day a couple months later, the scaffolding was gone, and that was it, that part of my life was over. Not long after that, I graduated from college, had no idea what to do with myself, and profoundly lost my way for a few years. It’s easy to forget, in the long memory of a worse time, that there was something bright before it; it’s hard not to write a story where every single thing one does before things go wrong is the cause of what went wrong, joy into culpability and fun into guilt. As though bad ideas are never parties; as though parties are always harbingers. As though everything has to be something more than itself.
The scaffolding platform on the building across from me is much higher off the ground and therefore more dangerous than the one on which I once upon a time threw parties, and nobody lives in the building, so nobody is going to walk out onto it except to do the job for which it was intended. But it looks sturdy enough to stand on, and wide enough for several people to sit down on, in frothy-bright clothes, with cold drinks in their hands, with borrowed-from-each-other cigarettes in a city where everyone still smoked. If it snowed, it would be large enough for those people to have a snowball fight. This is one way hauntings work here, one use of all the city’s endlessly crowding ghosts, its refusal to heal any wounds. It’s easy to remember how things fell apart because more often than not things falling apart has a narrative; it’s harder to remember the nights, days, afternoons, hours, whose joy was in their uselessness to the larger plot. Sometimes the city’s echoes and repetitions do the work for us, the ghosts picking out one night from the long-distant past and blasting it in spotlights: Remember you threw a party, and nothing happened, and it was wonderful?
These are the ghosts in New York that get me, the ones that carry traces of the small wasteful days that did little and meant nothing. I still catch myself thinking that happiness is a kind of ladder, one good choice tethered to another, a stable achievement that can be built out of blocks one at a time, a place at which one can arrive and then stay. But that’s not how it works. Happiness is the song playing loud out the radio of someone else’s car as it drives by at top speed with the windows open: Unexpected and ungraspable, gone before you notice it’s there.
It’s November now, and it’s dark early. Yesterday a friend of mine posted Tony Hoagland’s poem, “Reasons to Survive November,” to her instagram story, and a bunch of people I know, including myself, reposted it and yelled at each other about it in DMs. “November like a train wreck,” the poem opens. This is a brutal time of year, even if all times of year are brutal in their own way. No matter how much I try to convince myself that it’s good, actually, the sudden dark after daylight savings feels like an accounting of all the ways I have wasted time and gotten older. I once had a relationship, for lack of a more precise word, so brief that it started a week before Halloween and ended the day after daylight savings. I walked home to the subway in the cold-water way one walks to the subway after things end, and it felt nearly unbearable how small the available light suddenly was, how all the soft and gracious possibilities of fall had disappeared. The open door had slammed shut while I wasted time, idling on the curb, thinking the light would last forever.
Hoagland’s poem cites tiny, unspectacular pleasures in the list of reasons from the title: “a soup special at the Waffle House downtown,” “the Jack Parsons show is up at the museum/full of luminous red barns.” It seems that this time of year wants everyone to give up, to go under the covers and hide, to accept failure. We are left to conjure defenses out of small joys. Hoagland equates the people who wish him ill with the turning season that pushes us into sadness: “I know there are some people out there/who think I am supposed to end up/in a room by myself//with a gun and a bottle full of hate,/a locked door and my slack mouth open/like a disconnected phone.”
“But I hate those people back,” Hoagland writes, and his poem makes a white-knuckled turn, from survival to celebration as it ends: “And my happiness would kill them, so I shove joy like a knife/into my heart over and over again//and I force myself toward pleasure,/ and I love this November life/where I run like a train/deeper and deeper/into the land of my enemies.”
This time when the sky shuts down into 5pm darkness is also the start of party season. Joy is sometimes just a kind of defiant spite, a refusal to let the memories of failure or loss be the only ghosts that tell the story. There is very little year left; there is very little time left at all, and it is getting darker fast, wolves chasing up the middle of the afternoon. But we can go out on the deck that isn’t supposed to be a deck and smoke cigarettes in party dresses; we can do something bright and stupid that has little bearing on the larger story, that will yield nothing beyond a moment’s buoyancy. The colder months may be the land of our enemies, the time when it is easiest to remember everything that wants us to fail. But way in the back of the house there’s a party, and everyone is dancing, teeth on edge like knives, refusing to loosen our grip on spiteful November joy.
just a reminder that griefbacon is ending at the end of the year and that all of it, including the archives, is free and public until then. also, speaking of great poems, did you know that Pome, the best daily poetry tinyletter, has started up again? you should go subscribe (it’s free). I have no affiliation with Pome, other than loving it very much, but I can almost promise it will improve your November.