What Makes Any One Thing Better than Anything Else?

By the time I got to work, this smoldering idea had burst into a full-fledged flame. The whole train ride in – rumbling beneath DC’s monuments, staring through the window at the Pentagon, out past National Airport – it scorched my mind, licked my soul and kindled deep inside my guts. I couldn’t settle into my chair, much less focus on the computer screen’s emptiness before me. There was a marketing message I was to write, but the blank page would have to wait. I emailed Luc on the 4th floor to ask him if it was too late yet to step out and grab some breakfast. He said he’d meet me in the lobby.

I was reclining in a plush chair beneath the high ceiling, reading today’s tech news off my phone. Silicon Valley had a “youth” problem. People were too focused on apps and IPOs. The story took me back to my dot-com days in Boston in 1999, and I remembered my longing. Luc came down the spiral staircase. His shoes tapped across the floor. I knew he hated that. “Took you long enough,” I said.

“You just got here,” he laughed. “I heard you get off the elevator.”

“That wasn’t me.”

Luc and I used to live in the same neighborhood here in DC. Now, he owns a home in Anacostia, out by the ballpark, in the city’s Southeast quadrant. He purchased it right after finalizing the sale of an old house in Alexandria he and his ex-wife shared over four years ago. They have a son together who Luc gets on Monday and Friday nights. When his son was born, Luc had been the same age my dad was when my parents had me – 30. Luc remembers when he could hold Seamus in the palm of his hand and rest him on his leg while he worked all night at his desk. Luc’s theory was Southeast is the best investment he can afford in the District today. I remember getting lost in Southeast DC back in high school. Back then, I never would have imagined anybody would ever choose to live there. But then again, back then, I was incredibly naïve. Luc and I used to sit on our company’s balcony, beneath the afternoon sun, smoking cigarettes together. He’d put on his shades, and I would squint my eyes. Nowadays, I chew nicotine gum while he puffs off his vaporizer. We both started at this company within a month of each other, nearly two years ago. Shortly after Luc’s first day, he gave me a ride home. We were on the same work team back then, and our company’s algorithms said we should be friends. Thus far, they’ve been right.

We were in his car – a mini Toyota SUV he’d bought from his ex-brother-in-law years before – cruising with the windows rolled down up Rock Creek Parkway when he first started telling me about his newest music project. Luc had started school at Berklee College of Music in Boston in ‘93, finished at UT Austin and spent his twenties in touring bands across the United States. We’re roughly the same age. He’d played guitar for everything from math rock to garage rock revival. Today, he says he quit that last band when he realized he was making music for other people’s kids while his own kid was back home in Washington, DC without his father. This newest project was Luc’s first foray back into music in over four years. It was a pop/rock project inspired by the emotions he was going through from his most recent break-up – a grad student in her mid-twenties he’d met while he was tending bar. But he had no intentions of ever taking it on tour. He wanted it to be solely an internet project.

I could understand that, but still, I said, “Sounds cool. I’m probably not the best person to ask about it right now, though. I really don’t know what makes any one thing better than anything else anymore.”

Luc’s an attractive man. He thinks he resembles Indiana Jones, and I can see it. I’ve always been told I look like Bob Dylan, but recently I’ve been getting John Lennon a lot. I don’t mind. Maybe it’s because I started wearing glasses four years ago. I like my glasses, though. They make me feel softer than I’ve ever felt in my life. That day in the car, as we were first getting to know each other, Luc responded in that measured way people have when they’re still sizing each other up, “Oh, I don’t know if anything’s really better than anything else either. I still remember this old guitar teacher of mine, when I asked him who the best guitarist in the world was, telling me the best guitarist in the world is probably just some guy sitting in his basement who nobody’s ever heard of.”

“Yeah, that’s probably true,” I said, thinking of my own basement apartment and the novel I’d been chiseling out for seven years then.

On the day this story started, though, Luc and I were walking together over to the Einstein’s Bagel shop around the corner from our building. He was telling me about this girl he’d just met on OkCupid. She sounded interesting – worked in organic farming, grew up on a commune outside San Francisco. I thought of the turn of the century and Annie back in Brooklyn. I asked, “It wasn’t some sort of Buddhist commune, was it?”

“Maybe. I don’t know yet. Why?”

“No reason. Just wondering.”

Luc and I grabbed our orange juices – his fresh squeezed, mine Minute Maid. As we waited in line for our sesame bagels with hummus on them, I said, “So I think I finally figured out what my next writing project’s gonna be.”

“Nice. What is it?”

“Well, it’s based on a conversation I had with Cora this morning. It’s a memoir. Only the main character’s gonna have my name, but I’ll publish it as Israfel Sivad, my penname. So it’ll be a novel. The working title is Confessions of a Reluctant Hipster.”

Luc nodded. He asked, “You couldn’t try publishing this one under your own name, though? Can’t you let the world know you’re Gabriel Abrams for once?”

I shook my head, No. “That would defeat the whole purpose,” I told him. “Besides, Israfel Sivad has such a singular mythology.”

“What’s that again?”

I explained, “Israfel is the name of the angel who holds the trumpet of the Revelation to his lips throughout all eternity. While Sivad, which is Davis spelled backwards, is the first track on Miles Davis’ album Live Evil, and Miles Davis played, what? The trumpet. So, you see where I’m going with all this, right?”

Either I couldn’t read Luc’s expression, or he wasn’t making one. I went on, “What I’m thinking now is I want to tell the story of my life, only backwards. I mean, like, starting from right now and going back as far as I can remember.”

Luc looked to warm a little to the idea. He asked, “Okay, but why does Israfel Sivad get to tell this story? Why can’t Gabriel Abrams tell the story of your life?”

“Because Israfel Sivad is the story of my life. Confessions of a Reluctant Hipster is just another piece of that whole fable… You know how I call Israfel’s writings Andrew’s Songs, right? And you know that’s because the root for Andrew is the Greek word for ‘human being.’ Well, Confessions of a Reluctant Hipster will be Andrew’s Songs, Volume 15. For more reasons than I can elaborate on right here.”

“All right. Fair enough,” Luc said. “Why the title, though? I don’t like it.”

“Like I said, it’s just a working title. Maybe I’ll change it. But think about it, for people like you and me, being a hipster was always at the periphery. Back in the day, though, none of us wanted to admit we were one. Why was that? See, what I’m thinking now is – why couldn’t we just be hipsters? Why couldn’t we accept that was what was happening? I think it has something to do with the alienation of our culture, the way we grew up, everything we were a part of – punk rock, heavy metal. So I want to write a memoir of my life, but I really want it to be a memoir of our culture, of the counterculture. What do you think?”

“That sounds kind of interesting. I still don’t like the title, and I think you should ditch the penname. But remember, if you want to write about culture, you need to write about relationships.”

To say I never admitted I was a hipster is a bit of an overstatement. Last night, I sat up on the arm of Cora’s couch while she reclined across my bare feet, and before we watched Game of Thrones, I read to her the same thing you’ve read so far. She said she liked it, but there needed to be more of her in it. We both laughed at her feigned conceit. She also reminded me of our first date, when we were crossing the street away from the National Mall and the Smithsonian.

That day, we’d gone to see an exhibit at the Hirshhorn on violence as art. It opened with photos of nuclear explosions and ended with a video of a guitar tied to a truck being dragged down country roads. The noise it made reminded me of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music. Cora had never heard the album. So I told her about when I’d listened to that whole double record of feedback in one sitting and eventually wound up taking off all my clothes and dancing figure-8s in the nude around my tiny bedroom.

Afterwards, we sat down on a bench. It was Super Bowl Sunday, and a group of five or six very European looking men walked past. We guessed they were German. I slowly draped my arm behind Cora’s back, and I surprised her with our first kiss. Once our lips parted from one another’s, she said, “I wasn’t expecting that.” I told her, “I wasn’t either.” But maybe I was. I’d been so nervous. I asked her if I could see her artwork from high school since neither of us were interested in watching the game. She said, “Sure.” But that meant we had to head back to her apartment.

It was my father’s birthday, and I wanted to get in touch with my grandmother sometime that evening as I had every day on that day since he had passed away on Halloween of 2004. But I still had plenty of time. I was planning on using the Super Bowl as a pretext for the call. I didn’t want to upset my grandmother by bringing up the greatest heartbreak of her life from out the blue, and my entire family are historically big sports fans. When I did call my grandmother later that night since she’s on California time, she said she was watching the game and drinking a Jack Daniel’s in honor of my dad. I told her I’d been out on a great date that afternoon. She wanted to hear more about it. I didn’t really know what to say. When Cora and I left the National Mall, I don’t think the game had even started yet.

For some reason, while we were crossing the street in our leather jackets, beneath the gray, January sky, Cora asked me if I was a hipster. I said, “Well, I lived in Williamsburg in the early 2000s. So in a way, I helped create that scene.”

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