by Joshua Wolf Shenk
“Speculative” is the ordinary mode of my mind. When I heard the aesthetic direction of this new journal, I thought: What if I gave my attention over, with pen in hand, to this natural course of thinking?
Part I. The Tower
1. On an ordinary Monday morning, early August, 2018, the speculator walks east on Baltic Street in Brooklyn.
In his forties, balding, he wears blue shorts; a short-sleeved, white linen dress shirt; and sandals. He can hear the low roar of the BQE behind him. He is walking away from Hicks Street toward Henry.
He flew, the night before, from Cincinnati, where, over the weekend, he sat for several hours each day with his mother in her nursing home. To see his mother, stripped of language like a car set upon by vandals, stupefied the man. He hardly wrote in his notebook, though he admonished himself that he must. There was so much to notice: the hang, in her black pants, from the bulge and weight of an adult diaper; the cloudy look in her brown eyes; the strange words and phrases.
“Tell me,” she said, a few minutes after he entered her room. It was the first time he’d seen her in six weeks. He was struck by the clear, albeit ambiguous phrase. What came from her mouth next were sounds that, when he transcribed them from a recording, the speculator wrote down as “tee me.” But he felt frustrated by the errant clarity and misleading specificity of the letters “t-e-e.” The sound had not felt contained like those three characters. The sound was more enigmatic, more awful. “Tell me,” she said. “Tee me.”
2. The speculator comes to a coffeeshop on Henry, just north of Baltic. Two overhead fans push on the warm, languid air. The fans are white. There is an air conditioner over the window. Not on. A woman enters the shop, in a white t-shirt, with a phrase, in red type, in a typeface the speculator associates with Barbara Kruger.
The phrase is “c’est la life.”
3. A man enters pushing a red baby carriage. He has salt and paper hair and glasses. The child, perhaps 18 months, has long-ish brown hair, a soft face. A girl, thinks the speculator. The man buys a drink, and a pastry, and leaves.
4. The speculator’s mother is placid, usually agreeable, often sleepy. She is in advanced dementia. She fusses with her blankets. She checks her closet. She sits on the couch with the speculator’s step-father, watching the Cincinnati Reds. She dozes, then wakes with a start, and begins again. But she grows furious when the aides try to change her diaper. She screams. Sometimes she screams words that cohere. Sometimes she screams like speaking in tongues. What is happening for her? The speculator reflects that she grew up in the 1940s and 1950s in segregated south Texas, and he reflects, further, that the aides at the nursing home are mostly African-American. Related? Is the fury a suppressed subterranean race fear? The speculator reflects, vaguely, on the primal energies in the regions of the body covered by the diaper, and in the sensation of a hand, of a stranger, wiping, broadly, a wet cloth, treated with alcohol, across the anus.
What does this feel like? What does it conjure? What are the images in his mother’s mind?
5. There is a box in the coffeeshop, a sort of open box on legs, lined with what the speculator holds firmly to be burlap sacks, formerly for coffee beans. The box holds children’s books. This neighborhood has mommies and daddies. The speculator sees a white book jacket, with a drawing, and the word “Where” and, beneath it, the skimmed-top of three more letters. The speculator knows this is Where the Sidewalk Ends. He is sure of it. No, he corrects himself. It must be said nearly sure. For just moments ago the speculator was sure the type reading “c’est la life” was all caps. He wrote this down in his notebook when the woman left the building to check on her dog. But when he looked again, when she re-entered, he saw it was lower-case. Had she left to check on her dog? It must have been her dog. The speculator went over the chain of events: She entered. She glanced back through the window. She exited but quickly returned and got her beverage. Then, a few minutes later, he saw her in the doorway with her dog in a tote bag. She must, then, before, have gone to check on her dog. This feels safe to assume but, then, the speculator supposes, nothing feels really safe to assume. “I am”—the speculator thinks, remembering that he looked himself up in the dictionary this morning—“always in the tower.” The specula.
6. The woman in the white shirt has exited but not left. She stands by the door. It is raining. She has dirty blond hair. Does she color it? The dog hangs in a tote on her left shoulder. She is typing on her phone, which is in her right hand. Is she texting? She could be doing all manner of things. The speculator presumes, assumes, believes, guesses, imagines that she is texting. A couple—she’s in a red blouse, sleeveless; he’s in a blue t-shirt; she is putting on a black, short-sleeve sweater; he is holding a blue umbrella—leave the shop and stand by the door, too, and when they move, the woman in the white shirt, with the red typeface, with “c’est la life” written on it in a bold typeface that the speculator associates with Barbara Kruger is gone.
7. The man returns, 20 minutes later, without the baby. Has he left the child with her mother? Her nanny? Her odd uncle who has a little flab? Or has he done something else with that baby? The speculator wonders whether he should be troubled by the images of violence that pass, jump cuts, quickly through his mind. Of bodies. Of closets. It is almost certainly a puerile fantasy. It must be that the baby has gone to day-care, or to pre-school, or to another care-giver. But the speculator cannot help himself.
8. The woman in the white-shirt is not, strictly, gone. She exists. She has presence. She has headed north or south on Henry Street, or east or west on Baltic Street. She — the speculator follows his mind into an imagined life for her. She has a closet, or drawer, from which she drew the t-shirt. She felt good about it, or she didn’t think about it, or she wishes she had something else that was clean. She has a drawer of underwear from which she selected the pair she is wearing. Or she slept in the underwear. She wanted to put on clean underwear but she had slept over at his house. She had slept over as a matter of routine. Or it was unusual. She knew she would sleep over. She dreaded it. She regretted it. She didn’t think much about it.
9. It is so hard to let the fragments be. The speculator wants more from them. What is it he wants?
Part II: The U.N.
1. The man across from me on the 4 train from Borough Hall to Bowling Green has a scar on his right cheek. He wears white, wireless earbuds. He scrolls, slowly, through text on his phone. He has a green bag between his white Nike shoes. He is wearing short white socks.
Is it a scar, or—now, seeing his face (he just moved from the elbows on knees reading position to sitting up) a form of acne, or eczema? He has brown hair. I would describe the hair on his arms as “generous.”
Why those socks?
The jacket he’s wearing, which he has rolled up just above his elbows, has a zipper that runs halfway down the chest. The zipper pull is a silver-colored ring, about the size of a wedding ring. Who chose that? A designer? A team in the corner office wedged into a factory in China? Someone chose it. Or some group. Somehow, a choice was made. Plans were drawn. I am plagued by this interest. If I let myself, I will fall into the hole of that zipper pull like a five-year-old in the water, and I will splash around in these questions until someone, or something, pulls me out.
I am five in this metaphor, not, say, two, because it is not, quite, fatal to my imagination. But it is on the edge of danger. I always feel on the edge of drowning in what I want to know.
Did the man’s girlfriend have an opinion about the jacket? Did his mother? Has he been complimented on it? Does he know it’s time to move on?
From the other side of the car, I hear a low bellow, from a large man, in a red shirt, with white sneakers, and the Bible cradled in his left hand. “The Bible,” he tells the 4 train, “is concerned with our day today.”
The man on the blue plastic seat across from me, with a scar, or eczema, is wearing dark blue dress pants. I don’t love this man. I don’t feel attached to this man. Yet, I want to know about him. He gets off on 14th Street. He puts his green bag over his left shoulder. His jacket has a hood.
2. I hear it first. A sound I can’t make out. At the top of the escalator, out of the subway, at the edge of Grand Central Station, I hear a holler. Then I notice two police, both in dark blue shorts, black shoes, the usual gear on their waists, patches on their right shoulders. Then I notice that one is holding a man against the wall.
The man is saying “Get the Fuck Off Me.” “Get the Fuck Off Me.” He repeats the phrase every few seconds.
The cop holding him has short dark hair. He’s a little heavy. The man being held has dark pants, red socks, black shoes. His left foot is out of the shoe, crushing the heel.
A woman in a blue dress, sandals, chipped polish on her toes, comes over and asks me if I know what the man did. And do I know how if someone is recording it? And do I know how close we can legally get?
3. The man is being held against a brass railing. Now he is repeating “Get off me.” Now the cop is repeating, softly, “Stop resisting.” But how is he resisting the woman next to me asks? The man’s arms are around his back. There are now four police. Two of them are wearing pants.
The woman is in a blue dress. She has brown hair. She is slight. There is a rumble and moan of trains underneath. There are people rising from the escalators, and pushing through the doors out to the street, and pushing through the doors inside. It’s like Grand Central Station in here. A man in a yellow vest and an orange hardhat and jeans runs into the station through the door from 42nd Street. A man in a suit jostles into a woman in a white sleeveless blouse. A fifth cop arrives. He is bald, heavy, has a kind of slumped look in his shoulders of someone who might be in charge.
4. It is now 10:40 a.m. It is 7:40 a.m. in Los Angeles. My son is on his way to school for the first day of third grade. I FaceTime him. I ask if he’s nervous and excited. He says yes. He is in the back seat of his mother’s car. I tell him I want to hear all about his day when he’s done. I tell him I want to know who his teacher is, and who is in his class and what they get for homework the first day, and what’s the first book they read from, and who scores the first goal in the first game of soccer on the yard.
5. The man held against the wall wears a black jacket with a white stripe down the sleeve. His hands are cuffed behind his back. On his left wrist, there is a white band that I associate with rock concerts and hospitals. He looks at me, sees me looking at him, and he gives me a look that feels cold and neutral and knowing. More police come, until there are ten, and then someone in an FDNY jacket. They have brought an ambulance for the man. He is on his way—to the hospital? To the psych ward? I watch it until it pulls away.
6. Downstairs a man plays keyboard in the food court. He plays “Ironic,” by Alanis Morrissete, “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” by Nirvana, and “Candyman.” He thanks us for coming out. I give him a dollar and walk east on 42nd Street to the U.N. I have lunch with someone who works across the street. The flags of the world’s nations fly. The barricades, shaped roughly like large, three-dimensional commas, rise from the ground in front of metal gates. This is a protected space. I admire the architecture of the U.N., and wonder about what happens inside. I think, I should get the Lego set, for me and Oliver. I think, if it was all very small, then I could see the thing whole.
“Speculative” is the ordinary mode of my mind. When I heard the aesthetic direction of this new journal, I thought: What if I gave my attention over, with pen in hand, to this natural course of thinking? The formal decision to make the two moments, which are both driven by direct observation, into separate sections, one where the narrator/observer is identified as “the speculator” and the second where the narrator/observer is identified as “I,” reflected my interest in the multiplicity of choices that present around how to shape the material of one’s observing mind.
Joshua Wolf Shenk is an essayist; the executive and artistic director of the Beverly Rogers, Carol C. Harter Black Mountain Institute at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas; and editor-in-chief of The Believer magazine. His essays have appeared in The Atlantic, Harper's, The New Yorker, Slate, and Riverteeth, among many others, and in the anthology Unholy Ghost: Writers on Depression. His mainstage Moth story “You Can Come Back,” appears in the forthcoming collection Occasional Magic: True Stories about Defying the Impossible. He is the author of Lincoln’s Melancholy, a New York Times notable book, and Powers of Two, a national bestseller.