I looked at the sky just now, and not fleetingly; I was outside, and I just looked up, up, up. It was just before dusk, and it seemed a miracle that it was 6:15 and there were still hints of blue. I noticed a bird’s nest in a tree branch that I initially assumed was a plastic bag, because so many of them come to rest there. It was too small to be the nest of a Morning Dove, which makes me happy, as their signature cooing has haunted me from West Tisbury to Forest Hills to the Tiger Woods 10 video game in which, on certain courses, it is a sound effect designed, likely, to put you at ease. When I lived in Forest Hills, in an old building in a wooded area of Queens, the birds would stand in the windowsill and coo. It took effort to bang the window, but they seemed to know the score even if you scared them away. They always came back.
I realized, as I craned my neck tonight, taking in whatever portion of the cloud formations I could, that it’s a rare thing for me to do. Most of my life at least recently has been spent looking straight ahead, or down. In Astoria, there was a shortcut to the train station that I would use on some mornings. The shortcut ran around and along a 60-ish-foot high wall over which the Amtrak passed — it was tall enough to pass over the elevated subway track. The latticework of Amtrak’s power lines ran above along the edges of the rails, and birds would stand on them just long enough to have their lives removed from this world… whereupon their bodies would fall to the ground in the walkway that so many people hurried along… only the walkway was also a driveway for a municipal parking lot, which meant a lot of tire traffic, and a lot of pancaked bird carcasses. You could tell how long a bird’s body had been there by the amount of blood. Lots of blood — recent death. No blood — a long time. I saw flattened skeletons fairly often, which looked like displays in a pop-up book where you pull on tabs and the figure jumps into three dimensions.
Eventually I stopped using the pathway except for the most pressing emergencies (being late for anything but work, I suspect). But I had to keep looking down. Dead animals, vomit, dog shit — they were everywhere.
That said, Astoria had its charms. The food within five blocks of my apartment was better than the food within 20 blocks of anyplace else I’ve lived, and cheaper. Greek, Czech, Italian, Afghani, Colombian, Thai — we had everything. What we lacked, and what Queens lacks in spades, is atmosphere. There’s nothing sexy about it, which leads some to believe there’s nothing interesting about it, but they’re wrong. At the same time, there’s a reason that no public figure you may know as from Queens still lives there, or would even dream of it.
I wish Brooklyn was as interesting. It’s not, at least not where I live now. This is a Yuppie’s Paradise, as lampooned here (that was written in my apartment, and I have no idea to what degree I am the intended target, but I’d put it at around 30 percent. I’d be fine with it if the spot-in description of myself and my neighborhood didn’t leave me cold). I am implored by friends to whom I rave about studio apartments in the East Village that if I was to leave here, the grass would suddenly become technicolor green, and my eyes would widen with the thoughts of returning. I’m not so sure. It’s hard to look up when you don’t think you’re at the center of something; oddly, it takes a big of egoism to look to the sky and think that the weather, the world, is there just for you — you have to feel big to feel small again. Or like the subway ads say, sometimes you have to take a step backward to take a step forward. I guess the problem with a studio apartment is that you don’t have space to take many steps at all.
But it’s not that space I’m worried about; it’s outer space. I miss it. When I was growing up, it was paramount, crushing. The stars and moon were bright enough that I could drive without lights, especially in the snow. Often, it was too light for me to go to sleep. I never considered getting a curtain, or one at least one that blocked all the light. I thought if one sleepless night happened, so be it. I’d get back to bed the next night. When I got to Chicago and saw a friend blocking every bit of light in his apartment 24/7, I couldn’t bring myself to follow suit. Years later, I relented, and I was like everyone else. I hate having closed curtains, but now it’s just what I do, so again: not much opportunity to just stare at the sky and think. Of course, the more I write about it, the more I miss it, even if I remember the occasional feelings of terror it inspired in me about my insignificance. But my problem isn’t feeling insignificant. It’s feeling too significant, as if the bulk of my life’s work has been done.
I can’t remember the last time I opened a Word document and thought about writing. Oh, I’ve written a ton, but I’m talking about thinking about the words burning onto the page, and into the reader’s mind. It was easier to focus when I was writing for print every day. Every word was irretrievable, and every word was my name, which was out there. Now, it’s in here. I’ve stopped looking at my daily hit count because I don’t care, but I don’t care only because it would hurt to much to do so. I had victory in my hand and it slipped away. I was being read, which is the single hardest thing to achieve as a writer, and I took it for granted. The only way to reconcile this, to myself, was to blame the world. I was a star who hadn’t gotten his just deserves, I thought — no matter, I was a star anyway. If no one was looking, that wasn’t my fault. It was theirs. I messed around with forms, writing about anything I wanted, thinking I was a master at everything as my star slowly faded to a dull, insignificant twinkle. Any residual glow now is no different than the guy in Bombay who opens up a Blogger account — it’s the glow of the screen, pointing nowhere. It’s not real, but it’s not fake either. It is what it is. It’s also what I look at for hours upon hours of the day, stuffing my brain full of information about people, places and things. That’s great and all, but looking up helps me unlock the information that’s already in my head. By remembering how small I am, I remember that the combinations in my head are mine and mine alone, and that’s a comforting feeling.