Music: Eric Wollo: Emotional Landscapes (2003)
We arrived and slumped on backless couches behind a series of glass slabs arranged in a curious stagger. Walking past us on the street, if a voyeur surrendered to human habit, she would see two blurs moving, sometimes gesturing. To see us from the outside, she would need to discern the angled puzzle, and even then, we would appear as a couple trapped behind glass bars. And that is an aesthetic irony, because our arrival was something of an escape from the lobbied zones of greeting at the conference hotel.
I conveniently lost my nametag lanyard on the second day; it is hard to brandish a badge tethered to my head with long hair on humid days.
We conversed as long time friends do; she took off her shoes. I loosened my tie. Asymmetrical hair, Mia Farrow with inked sleeves, $20 martini? Well, what the hell. I reckon we’ve made it and deserve it and repairing the cracked front window at home can wait another month with duct tape. Besides, she’s not going to point out with her eyes that I’ve gained weight. Again.
I did my best impression of a teacher-character’s voice from South Park: “Well, are you having a good convention? Have you seen any good panels?” She grinned, and then we laughed softly, and the martini still was on its way. Why is that taking so long? It’s like waiting for Jesus after all those talking heads. And having a good convention is not necessarily related to panels.
“I actually did see a great panel,” I said. (Finally, martini.) “Someone was using Rancier in a way that could be communicated in the spoken word,” I explained. “Interesting critique of the current state of visual rhetoric, but this time not with Heidegger.” She shared a similar story too, but it wasn’t long before we started talking about the last six months, reviewing things that had happened that didn’t get discussed in the monthly catch-ups. (Oooh, what yumminess has been stuffed into this olive?) Academics on the decline; sit-com worthy naughty-neighbor stories; marriages; engagements; children; deans and . . .
Some of our mentors have retired or are retiring but are still thriving.
In one ballroom, an Indian wedding. In the neighboring ballroom, a wake. It’s not always about the panels.
“More crying happens at conferences than I ever knew,” I said.
“Yes. I know,” she said. And I was thinking that not all of those tears are mournful.
“I think I get more hugs and love here than I do when I go home to see blood-relatives.”
“It’s so good to see you,” she said, with those familiar and soulful eyes. I looked forward to seeing many sets of them, and in retrospect I did.
“Best friends: they only get 45 minutes.” Laughter.
The blurred glass slabs return again later in the evening in a different way: the slurred speech of a respected senior figure summoning me for a private chat. I cannot figure the angle from which I should hear.
“I misread you,” he said. “I thought you were all show. But I reviewed your piece on Prince’s secret album . . . I was very impressed with how you revised that. You’re a class act. But then, just look at you. Don’t take that the wrong way. You’re a good guy.”
“Thanks. It means a lot to hear you say that,” I said.
A clearer view, later, someone peering through the blinds.
“I overheard that conversation,” she said. “I’d be pissed as hell. Why didn’t you tell him off? Jeezhuss!” She grabbed my elbow.
“He was blitzed, and I knew what he meant. I wasn’t insulted. I think he was just sayin’ that he thought what I was trying to do was, you know, valuable, that it was worth the time to engage it.”
“I’d have told him to [insert unpleasant words],” said another acquaintance. “He was obviously trying to insult you.”
“Well, it didn’t work. I’m a lover not a fighter,” I joked. Until that “objective” assessment from the overhearing, I honestly didn’t remember the conversation in any other way than I initially received and felt it. I was genuinely flattered; I think I still am.
“But you love everybody,” said another mentor much later, about someone else, another generation, another clique, another slab (this time, smoke). That was a critique.
. . . especially you.
It’s about growing older.
Growing older together.
Late last night, in 7th street between the two hotels, a man who had not shaved in some months sat slumped on the pavement, his back leaning up against a light post. He seemed delirious, his head occasionally rolling from one side to the other. A paramedic in a white uniform brushed by me with a plastic box of attending things. Bejeweled diners overdressed crowded along the edges of buildings in gawk; a heavyset man in a tailored suit laughed as he conversed with a state trooper. Flashing lights from a parked ambulance turned the corridor into a kind of street disco, blue and white lights flashing and reflecting on glass walls pointing to an open sky. A storefront of candy. Here and there academics could be spotted, forgetting they still wore their badges. I knew some of them. A doorman went on for some minutes about how much he admired my shoes. More and more policemen arrived.
As we stood in the lobby, a friend showed the doorman my pocket watch as I busied myself with a cell phone.