Wednesday, January 16, 2008

In Bed

I live in a city, a real one, with a million people and a downtown and skyscrapers, and I can't stop repeating the thing people say about cancer: How could this happen to me?

It's just that the whole scale of the place seems off, even flagrant, like a giant in a carnival freak show. I'm used to small towns and even smaller towns, communities you can hold whole in your mind's eye. It's true I once lived in Manhattan for three months, but New York City is not so much a city as a nexus of ideas, an eely tangle of words. I'd read about New York City so often that, all the time I was living there, I felt like I was living inside my head.

(A month or so ago I was both annoyed and gratified -those murky ingredients of recognition- to discover that Joan Didion had not only had this feeling before me, but had articulated it, in her essay Goodbye to All That, first, better, and to an audience greater than one. Hmmph.)

It happened, that's all I know: one day I was towning it up and the next I was sardined with 999,999 other souls, each of us struggling to distinguish ourselves or at least eat a little cheese before we croak. And it turns out that part of the process of distinguishment (although the word sounds wrong, with its flavor of gold-tipped canes and powdered wigs) is geographical. To an outsider you can say "I'm from Indianapolis." To an insider, you might as well have declared yourself human, or two-legged, or against mandatory nipple piercing.

It's all about where your bed is. I'm learning a whole set of neighborhoods and suburbs, each handed around in conversation like an ID badge, each trailing its own set of presumptions, assumptions, and other trappings of identity. What word is richer in connotative meaning than the name of the urban neighborhood? Carmel? Yuppie. Broad Ripple? Hippie/yuppie. Greenwood? White flight. Downtown? Deluded loft dwellers desperately pretending they are not, in fact, in Indianapolis.

And as for me? I have become an Eastsider. Figuring out what this meant reminded me of playing that game where you have a word taped to your back but can't ask anyone directly what it is. I learned to look closely, watch the eyes. Most people's slid away, full of pity or fear. But a few people's lit with something I can only describe as Messianic zeal.

It turns out I need to come to terms not only with my physical neighborhood, with its strange mix of the gentrified and the run-down, but with my ghost neighborhood, the one that pursues me wherever I go, coloring who people think I am. Officially, the east side is the ghetto, the wasteland, the place you don't want to be. Unofficially, parts of it are not so bad, and the people who live there get to don a nebulous mantle of righteousness. We're pioneers. We're unafraid. We're onto a good thing.

Never mind that I'm scared to walk down my own street in the dark. Never mind that I wish they'd take out the plasma center and the pay phones and the prostitution-friendly hotel. I'm noble, see?

Of course, you only get to be noble if you're an Eastsider by choice, which in practice means you only get to be noble if you're white. That's the nasty underbelly of trading neighborhood names like baseball cards: it presumes you weren't born with the cards you have.

For now, I live in bed. I'll work on the rest.

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