you could say well at least it's such a robust metaphor, but honestly I think that makes it worse
Hi friends. welcome to griefbacon, a newsletter of mostly long weird essays about love. sometimes the theme is parties, and sometimes the theme is conversation pits, and sometimes it’s music, and sometimes it’s movies, and sometimes it’s jokes, but mostly it’s about love, including when it’s any of those things. Most things are about love if you scratch hard enough.
A quick announcement before today’s post: Because it’s February, which is objectively the worst month and also the one with my birthday in it, yearly subscriptions are on sale all month for $35/year instead of the usual $50/year— if you’ve wanted to try out a subscription but haven’t had a chance to, or if you’ve wanted to buy someone else one as a gift, or if you simply enjoyed this and want to read more, now’s a great time to go for it.
Anyway, here’s an essay about the scaffolding that’s been covering my building for the better part of a year now.
Somewhere out there, I think it’s February. Yesterday there was a tiny dusting of snow, but I couldn’t see it through the scaffolding, and it was already gone when I got downstairs. On Instagram, there’s that picture of the blizzard in 1978, the big sign with its yellow-orange digital letters proclaiming 16 INCHES AND FALLING. For at least the first ten years I lived here, every winter it would snow so big and I would say I’d go to the park to play in the snow and then I wouldn’t go to the park, even though I wanted to go to the park. There are all kinds of reasons for love, and so many of them are bad, but one of them is that with somebody else it’s easier to actually go the park, and play in the snow or just look at the snow. It’s easier to get up and put on heavy rubber shoes and pile on coats and scarves and go outside and throw snowballs at trees and look at all the dogs and get cold and go home and get warm again. It isn’t that doing this with someone else makes it better; sometimes it makes it worse. It’s just that it makes doing it at all—going outside, playing in snow, looking at dogs, going home again—more possible, or at least it does for me, even if there’s no good reason for it, even if it shouldn’t be that way at all.
What I’m saying is that I wish we had more time. What I mean about the snowstorms is that I wish I’d met you when I was so much younger. I wish I could rewind the tape and do every frame of it again, different this time, and better, and with you in it. I wish you could see all the apartments and grocery stores and kitchens and diners and subway stations and snowstorms that ever happened to me before I met you, every morning I was hungover, every wrong lipstick I wore, every friend I loved so hard for six months and then ghosted, every movie I ever saw at three in the afternoon on a Wednesday. I wish we could do it all again, together. I wish it would snow, in the real way, the kind of snow that sticks and that hushes the landscape overnight. I wish there wasn’t scaffolding over the windows right now; I wish we could see the snow when it snows, not that it’s snowing, not that it’s going to snow, not really.
Scaffolding comes for us all, I just never thought scaffolding would come for me. Scaffolding is probably unavoidable if you live here long enough. Scaffolding goes up in New York City all the time; I barely notice it on other buildings. It becomes part of the landscape, the shape of the neighborhood, until it’s strange when it comes down and the street seems too open and too vulnerable, facing the day with nothing to protect it. After Brexit and then after the 2016 election, everyone kept reposting that tweet about I never thought the leopards would eat my face. The tweet is a very good condemnation of a certain kind of short-sighted cruelty. But it’s also what so many of us are doing so much of the time. We survive by pretending we’re the exception, right up until we don’t survive because we aren’t. If I really believed that any of the things that happen to other people at every moment could actually happen to me, I would collapse under the weight of cumulative dread. I’ve been watching scaffolding go up in New York City year over year for twenty years now, and yet I never really thought that scaffolding would happen to me, that it would be my windows that disappeared behind a haze of construction and metal and plywood and noise.
The thing about scaffolding is that everything is temporary. There is not one thing in the world that you can love enough to hold it fixed forever in the form in which you first loved it. There’s that Joan Didion line about how New York belongs to whomever loves it the hardest or whatever, and I know that everything anyone has ever said about New York is wrong but that’s one’s, like, really wrong. I loved this building so much; I thought it was forever the way you think being in love with your college girlfriend is forever, when you know that it can’t last but, at the same time, you can’t imagine any future where it doesn’t. It’s too much at once to acknowledge that the present tense isn’t the permanent circumstances, and too cruel that whatever you love doesn’t last forever because you love it.
I’m old enough to start to think about which things are forever, and also old enough to know that nothing is, that all things are only ever more or less under scaffolding. But you get to a certain age and everything—love, friends, apartments, windows—starts to ask the question of whether it’s your terminal version of that thing. If you declare a person your terminal love then you start thinking about what else comes along with them, or at least I do, or at least I do now, after nearly ten years of the same love and the same apartment and the scaffolding that only happened to other buildings until it happened to mine. Nobody calls love “terminal love” and nobody calls the person they intend to spend their life with their “terminal partner,” because that would be horrible. But that’s what it means. All those nicer phrases, love of my life and spend my life with them and forever, and all the awful cringe ones too, forever person and stuff like that, declare that this is it, we’re done, and this is all we get. Romance pledges loyalty to an oncoming wreck, to the part of the future that only happens to other people, and never to me. Yes, I stood up in front of a room full of friends in formalwear and said til death do us part but, you see, I never though the leopards would eat my face.
The thing about scaffolding, the joke you can make about it, is that it implies something unfinished. Don’t look, it isn’t done yet. It’s the mess on the way to the solution, the ugliness on the way to beauty, the path from consequences back to a good life. A while ago, someone said that they always think one day all of the scaffolding will come down at once, and New York City will finally be done, the way an essay or a marathon or a high school class project can be done. One day I’ll look up and there will no scaffolding because the project will finally be finished, the whole place complete and good and secure and beautiful, and no scaffolding will ever go up again. Every day more scaffolding goes up and comes down. One part of the landscape gets obscured and another emerges, and one more beautiful thing takes its turn at being ugly, the process of change made hideously visible. But one day it’ll all be over. One day we’ll get it so right that we’ll never again have to try. One day I’ll transform myself so perfectly that I won’t have to change anything else ever again. One day we’ll all arrive at our terminal selves. The scaffolding over my windows is a heavy-handed reminder that none of this is true, and also it blocks out the sunlight so much more than I expected.
When I moved to this building I thought I was done. I had reached escape velocity, summited the mountain, gotten up out of the muck and into the part of life where the good and beautiful people live. Change was the end of the story, a finite event and not an ongoing process. I read that Nora Ephron essay about the Apthorp too much— her apartment as “the moment when my luck began to change” was exactly how I felt, too. I wasn’t thinking about which thing I loved might be the terminal thing, about the way that buildings age and need repairs, about how anything that continues eventually breaks down, or how repeated breakdowns and repairs are the very nature of continuance, the only game in town. That one guy builds and rebuilds his same ship out of spare parts again and again and again until he’s not even sure if it’s his same ship anymore at all, but I wasn’t thinking about him, because scaffolding only happens to other people.
They put up the first part of the scaffolding more than two years ago, over the doorway and the steps down to the street. It was long enough ago that we weren’t seeing friends inside; we’d stand under the scaffolding at the top of the steps and a friend would stand at the bottom of the steps and we’d try to talk like everything was normal.
Nothing was normal, and also there was scaffolding. It was so ugly, but I didn’t think about it much. I went upstairs to our apartment at the top of the building, and then two years went by, while nothing happened, while everything happened, while a wood and metal platform sat over the doorway and seemingly did nothing. The seasons changed and changed again and doubled back on themselves. We saw friends indoors, we stayed up all night and dressed up in outfits, bought houseplants and turned them toward the windows, made the bed and stripped the sheets, sent out the laundry, claimed the world was ending for one reason and then for a different one, called our friends, took the subway again, tried to remember how to have conversations, got sick and got better, fell asleep on the couch and roasted chickens in the tiny oven and made grilled cheese sandwiches sometimes late at night, the smell seeping all down thorough the veins and arteries of the building, staining our life into everybody else’s lives. Then it was summer again in a changed world and the rest of the scaffolding went up. One day the sunlight was there outside the windows, and the next day it wasn’t.
They’re fixing the facade— a middle school teacher told me never to use an unspecified “they” in writing, this vague looming pronoun that stands in for any and all authority figures. Writing teachers love to tell everyone to get more specific, but that unspecified “they” is sometimes exactly what I mean. I could tell you that our landlord put up the scaffolding, in the sense of planning and paying for it, that legitimate safety concerns compelled him to do so, that our neighbors pointed out the safety concerns, that the construction workers our landlord hired put up the scaffolding, in the sense of literally building it. All of that’s true. But when I say, vaguely, that they put up scaffolding, I mean not so much that this material decision was the result of several parties communicating with one another, but rather that there’s an unspecified force that stains into so many of our lives, those of us who rent our homes, those of us who share buildings with others, and live in cities, and in countries, in a world with governments, and borders, and laws, and injustice that calls itself justice, and violence that calls itself safety, and enormous shadowy money churning its gears underneath the earth while the rest of us just try to get from one end of one day to the other. Change comes out of nowhere, and problems fall from the sky, and one morning scaffolding goes up across your windows and you think why on earth did I watch this happen to everyone else over and over again, and never think that it would happen to me? They’re fixing the facade, so they put up scaffolding.
Nothing stays the same, which is why so many of us like to make big declarations about forever and always. Everything is subject to circumstance; everything is subject to the car around a corner, the one bad day, the unexpected phone call, the stupid mistake that runs down a life and changes its tone and pitch and color. We all live under scaffolding, just like this city whose shape and features never wholly emerge from beneath an obscuring veil of construction.
I hate the scaffolding for all kinds of tangible reasons—because it’s ugly, because it obscures the view, because even if it did snow I wouldn’t be able to see it, because I miss the sunlight and because all the indoor light is grey now, because the construction work that happens on the scaffolding, when it happens, is very loud, and because I don’t know how much longer it will be up there, three more days or forever—but maybe more than anything I resent how it demonstrates unavoidably that change is inevitable. The scaffolding wants to make sure I know that no one ever arrives at a fixed point, and that eventually we all decay, and break down, and need to be repaired.
But I want you to know that I wish nothing would change. I wish we could be happy in this one same way forever. I wish it could be forever the first day we ever lived in this apartment, surrounded by boxes, set up on a flimsy IKEA couch, ordering a pizza from that place that Sam told us about that isn’t there anymore. I wish that pizza place hadn’t closed, and I wish I could mean forever when I say that I’ll love you forever. I wish love didn’t make us terminal to one another.
Everything about the scaffolding— the noise, the lack of light, the temporary nature of all things, the fact of continual change and repair and how it runs right down from one end of a life to the other—is terrible except when it rains. When it rains, and especially when it rains at night, the sound bounces around between the weather and the windows. The echoes ring and hum like piano keys or church bells. Every good thing, every small beauty, takes place in the middle of some larger worse thing, some torturous here-to-there journey. Buildings disappear into their own progress from one day to the next, and the view refuses to stay loyal to what it looked like last week and last month and last year. There’s no escaping this, but there is whatever blooms inside of it. There’s nothing to do about the terminal nature of loving someone forever, or the time that was lost before we got here to each other, or the fact that nothing ever stays in place, or the way the scaffolding blocks the light. But one night there’s a pizza in a room full of boxes, and another night there’s the sound of the rain, playing all the metal and plywood in a makeshift symphony.
The building directly across the street has scaffolding too, and before that it was the one next to it, and before that it was the huge luxury co-op on the corner. Everything is on its way elsewhere; everything is halfway transformed. I always think that each next day is the day when I’m finally going to arrive at my life, but I’m there already, in the long between, rebuilding the ship from spare parts, living under scaffolding. The repairs come down, and go up, and finish, and start over. Forever transforms again and again into right now. I call the things I love permanent while knowing there’s no such thing. I do it anyway; I make myself foolish on purpose. I order a pizza. I listen to the rain. I wait for the scaffolding to finally come down.
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Every single day of my life, I wish we could do it all again, together.
I hate the scaffolding and I hate that it snowed the other night and we didn’t know until the next morning when it was almost gone. Somewhere in my phone is a little video of Sophie the cat, and she’s watching the snow fall outside our living room window. The soundtrack is the soft little electronic tune from the Playstation 4 menu screen, but in that moment it feels like a moment crystallized to be kept forever, a flashback played before the credits roll.
I loved this one.
February *is* the worst month. And scaffolding is only good for when you need to walk a dog during a rain storm. And Joan Didion somehow just didn’t *get* New York until she was older, and yet we all (me too) read “Goodbye to All That” as though it’s some be-all end-all statement on the city... I think I read somewhere that she really fled because she’d had her heart totally ripped to shreds, and it was in that mood that she wrote the Goodbye piece. So, when she came back, decades later, it was to a different New York altogether because she wasn’t all mindfucked over some dude (feels like he was from the south?) anymore... Anyway, I’m terrified of commitment/terminal anything and I loved this essay. Thanks!