12 April 2007


Cherokee Purple, Oregon Spring, Isis Candy, Christmas Grape, Green Zebra, Snow White, Black Cherry, Currant, Green Grape, Ginger Golden Delicious, Great White, Aunt Ruby’s German.

Those are all heirloom tomato varieties that I will be planting once my lower back stops stabbing and the wind lowers so my allergies aren’t as bad. I tend to buy plants based on their evocative names. I once rejected a spectacular pink rose – and it had to have been spectacular, because I’m usually drawn to the crimson, purple, or orange roses rather than the pink, which should only be made out of icing – because it was named Sexy Rexy. I like Rex Harrison fine, but I just couldn’t do it. Once in Boston I was very late for work because I wanted to hear the end of whatever Bach piece was on the radio. Another time I was very late because the light through the raindrops was so dazzling I couldn’t move from my spot on the sidewalk. And another time my whole day was thrown off because I spent about half an hour staring at the lapping sculptural waves of the Charles River. And one of the happiest hours of my life was spent sitting in the Pantheon watching the circle of light from the center of the dome making its slow progression over the amber walls. On the other hand, I still remember my annoyance trying to get to the BART station one evening rush hour while a young woman kept beseeching or ordering us to stop and look at the sunset. It was a particularly spectacular one – I’d spent about twenty minutes in a conference room with a good view watching it before I left the office – but I now wanted to get home and was anyway a bit irritated at being cast in the role of a blindly rushing bourgeois in her drama. All this is a roundabout way of saying I have no idea if I would have stopped to listen to Joshua Bell playing at the L’Enfant Plaza metro stop (even though I’m the type of person who can’t hear “metro station” without thinking “petals on a wet, black bough”).

BART has buskers a-plenty, some good, some bad (there’s one morning guitarist at Civic Center who is particularly annoying, especially when he orders us to smile). Some play classical and some jazz saxophone; sometimes it’s Chinese instrumental or Mexican vocal or gospel. One old black man plays the blues and he’s not that good but I’m convinced he gets money because he looks the part – he tends to wear a loose white wifebeater even when it’s chilly out, and he's ready to be a cover photo for a delta blues CD. One grimy angular old man with a long white beard shows up at night wrapped in a blanket and when the opera or symphony audiences come down he’ll start playing a reedy triumphal march from Aida on his flute, and it makes me wonder who in his past loved him enough to give him flute lessons and tell him about Aida and the opera and what happened so that he’s begging for change from the audience instead of being part of it. I hurry past some of the performers (especially if they’re just playing rock, which is irritatingly omnipresent anyway) but sometimes I give them money and sometimes I stop to listen, but usually I’m in the station because I’m going someplace and I need to get there, no matter how beautifully the busker is playing. There are only so many times you can explain tardiness by saying that a trance of unbearable beauty had rooted you to the spot. If you’re open to it, random poetry besieges you constantly. If you’re given to viewing the world aesthetically, you are already living in a world of private sensation and memory that is only open askew to even the sympathetic, and that can make for difficulties in most offices. Over the years I’ve learned not to advertise a lot of my interests at work – even those who like opera aren’t necessarily going to be simpatico with my operatic preferences. It’s not that I think I’ll be giving the wrong impression – actually, I’m afraid I’ll be giving the right impression, and I like to put that off as long as possible.

I’ve probably enacted many of the L’Enfant commuters over the years. Sometimes I’m indifferent to the music, sometimes I can’t be late for work, sometimes I want to get to my morning tea or the restroom or just out of the crowds. It would have been nice if people had been able to stop and listen to Bell, but the need to get to work, no matter how boring or pointless the job is, sometimes has to take precedence. How else in this world are we going to pay for whatever is our form of aesthetic delight? I’m surrounded by books and CDs and DVDs, each printed or digitally encoded with some novel fascination, and all I need to do is pay attention, once I get the time. That’s why I like concert halls, for all their drawbacks – they are the frame that makes me look and listen with attention. I often play music in the background that should only be played to the silent and attentive, but I’m reading or washing the dishes or surfing the Net – but I just don’t have the time otherwise, or I’m too easily distracted, or I don’t have the energy, or something. Sometimes you have to rush off to conserve your energy and earn the money so that you can stop and pay attention later.


sfmike said...

That's a wonderful essay. I especially liked "If you’re given to viewing the world aesthetically, you are already living in a world of private sensation and memory..."

Your constant self-deprecation is so fabulously nuanced ("actually, I’m afraid I’ll be giving the right impression, and I like to put that off as long as possible") that I figure you must be making it all up. Then I realize you wouldn't be so good at it if it wasn't somewhat true.

pjwv said...

Well, I didn't mean to be doing schtick. Usually it's just stuff that I think is funny. But it's funny because it's true. . . .
It did take me a long time to learn that my cultural references were not where people are usually coming from. Occasionally I would find myself the aesthetic secret sharer at work -- co-workers would discuss the symphony with me and then have "normal" conversations with everyone else. Whether people share my interests or condescend to them or find them weird or intimidating or whatever, it is true that what most interests me also alienates me from most of the people I deal with. I've just learned other ways of relating to most people.