I was driving in to work this morning, passively listening to Guy Clark, not feeling entirely “with it” due to a near sleepless night and the general ennui that’s become pretty inseparable from the 9 to 5 portion of my life these days. But traffic was light for once, and the music was good, so in relative terms, I could probably already consider today a success despite being only about an hour and a half into it.
While I’m sitting at my daily red light in the middle of downtown Houston, “L.A. Freeway” comes on. It’s a song I know, but never really had strong feelings about. That’s not to say I don’t like it, but it just never roused any great emotional response from me. And that’s fine. They can’t all do that all the time. Otherwise listening to music would be utterly exhausting and traumatic. Regularly, I mean. And that would be a little much.
But a line hit me, in the context of where I was sitting, in the dead center of the jammed up metropolitan mecca of the fourth-largest city in the country, that I hadn’t ever really noticed before.
Adios to all this concrete. Gonna get me some dirt road back street.
And, particularly in the light of a conversation John and I were having last night about figuring out how or if we can really shake things up and completely change our lives, the words started cracking through to me a little more.
I had a front row seat at the crosswalk. Well-assembled business-y people strutted past my car. Most talking on their phones. Or looking at their phones. All carrying multiple bags and white cups of coffee. Walking in a way that can only be described as “deliberate.” They are going somewhere. They have something to do. Something that apparently requires a lot of bags. These people are very important. They’re doing it right. Somewhere, they have mothers who are proud. I feel sad. For them and because of them.
I see someone approaching the curb on my right. A man I’ve seen before, in this very spot, several times. This street fronts the public library. It’s a place where non-business-y people who don’t have white coffee cups and business meetings to hurriedly get to can instead just sit and let the time pass as it may. But the approaching man is hurrying to his own appointment. He begins digging through the garbage can that I’m sitting next to, looking for his breakfast. No doubt that no small number of business people hurriedly discard their McBreakfasts into that trashcan on the way to their appointments and meetings.
I’m supposed to turn right during this red light. The driver behind me has apparently had enough of reading my bumper stickers and watching the homeless man eat garbage and grows impatient with me.
But I can’t go. I’m caught. I’m utterly caught in this moment, watching all of these people walk past this very obvious man who is very obviously eating out of the garbage, while pretending that he is not there, that he is not eating out of the garbage, and does not, in fact, affect them at all.
Now, this is not a preachy piece about how they should give this man money or do something for him. All I’m saying is, it is amazing how deliberately they chose not to see him. Because he doesn’t fit for them. He is a problem, a stain on the pristine reality that they have built around themselves in order to fulfill their arbitrary senses of entitlement.
And I suddenly feel something of a sensory overload, as the song playing conjures in my mind images of my own escape fantasy, while my eyes watch this constant movement of people completely absorbed in their own worlds, the street packed full of cars and busses, the sky blocked by skyscraper after skyscraper. Everything is grey and hard and lifeless. Everything spins down a drain. There is no life here. All of the noise will build to a deafening thunder. And die.
I think of how incredible it is, that all of these countless things can occur simultaneously, and yet the result is nothing but a singular, unique, infinitesimal moment in time. A flash so bright and so fast that you can’t even tell if it happened. It makes me think of stars. How they are composed of nothing but tiny particles, and yet how massive they are, and yet how tiny they appear in the sky, and yet how inconceivably many of them there are.
All of this—the song, the red light, the suits, the homeless man, and me examining the whole of reality simultaneously at a molecular level and an infinite aerial view—has occurred in the span of about 90 seconds.
By the time the light changed, I’m having what I’m going to call an uncontrollable emotional response. It seems I’ve been having a lot of these lately. And I’m not sure if it’s a sign that something’s wrong or that I’m doing something very right.
This feeling in my mind…I always describe it as a hum. Like a very steady hum that you feel more than you hear. It’s almost physical. Rather than the overwhelming noise of everything at once, all of it too much and too fast and completely chaotic, this is organized and steady. It’s productive and useful. It’s methodical, and I can make sense of it. When it runs this way, I’m kinder to people because I don’t feel like I’m drowning. I feel like a conductor. Not like I’m in control, but that I’m in alignment.
These moments. There are so, so many of them. And it’s completely easy to miss them all, to deliberately not see them.
If I could just get off of this L.A. freeway without getting killed or caught, I’d be down that road in a cloud of smoke for some land that I ain’t bought.