October 14, 2004
"Writing as Maynard"

Thinking Out Loud

I’m always grateful for the occasional opportunity to get away from it all. Don’t get me wrong; I like the hustle and bustle of everyday life, even in a relatively small town. Nevertheless, there comes a time when all the commotion simply becomes maddening. I remember living in a high-rise apartment. Like the metropolis in which it was situated, it was always buzzing with activity—even late at night. My roommate, Erin, could’ve slept through an earthquake; I don’t know how our resident Rip van Winkle did it, but she just snored the night away. Actually, to her credit, Erin’s “nocturnal respirations” were only a little louder than the average sleeping baby.

Apart from Erin, though, there was ostensibly a citywide conspiracy to thwart my plans for a good night’s rest. The big city’s dummy orchestra would start tuning up around midnight, constantly playing the discordant symphony of late-night commotion. Honking horns, clanging car alarms and blaring police sirens comprised most of the brass instruments.

I also had quite a few musical instruments right in the apartment. Down the hall, the phone would start persistently ringing in the key of G. The cold breeze—one of the wind instruments, of course—often threw itself against my window. Doors would creak open and swing shut, although it sounded more like a forceful slam. Now and then a stereo would start blasting; someone clearly had very poor taste in radio stations, especially ones that played hits like “Screeching Cat Chorus,” “The Indecipherable Claptrap Rap” and anything by the Maudlin Hooey Band.

People in the hallway and in other rooms weren’t much better. Those not playing music talked nineteen to the dozen. Then another door would be unbolted, open and close. There were other noises, like the scraping and thudding of a chair as it was towed down the corridor. Some nights, keys jingled; other nights, they jangled.

On particularly raucous nights, my eardrums would get attacked by a sudden deluge of sounds. First, a telephone rings. A woman screams. The stereo’s volume goes up. Again a door bangs shut. Then… silence. Muttering; laughing, cheering; phone ringing; door closing; shoes squeaking; floor creaking as someone walks down the passageway. Unlike myself, of course, Erin never heard any of the nocturnal tintamar. She was still fast asleep.

As I said, life in a crowded city isn’t always easy. It’s not the place to go if you enjoy being able to hear yourself think—and in my case, sometimes, it’s not the place to do much thinking whatsoever! But there are some advantages; for one thing, you certainly get to meet a wide variety of individuals. And sometimes, you can learn a lot more by watching than by thinking or studying. One afternoon I went to have lunch with a friend of mine, Steph, who is a graduate student. We met up by the Pub, one of the school’s eating areas in the Union. We got in the lunch line and chitchatted while waiting our turn. The two of us got pretty engrossed in our small talk.

“Yes, what do you want?” snapped a voice. Steph and I were jolted back to reality. We apologized to the woman behind the counter, saying that we hadn’t heard her. It wasn’t good enough to appease the irate lunch lady, who now refused to serve us. I turned to Steph and muttered about the ill-tempered kvetch behind the counter. Then I noticed the other black women at the grill, none of whom were the least bit happy. Suddenly it struck me: Steph and I hadn’t provoked them; they were discontented with life in general. There was a whole world out there, and most of the time, all they got to see was the dining hall of a university.

At the time, I thought of the event as a reality check. It made me more grateful for what I had. I looked at the counter, then at the women on the other side. They couldn’t have been more than five feet away, but it seemed like miles. Maybe the countertop made me think of another sort of separation that (in my mind) existed—not physical distance, but the way in which black people are trapped. Now I realize that I was jumping to conclusions. At the time, though, I felt that these women were doomed to make their money serving food to others. In other words, I thought of that counter as representative of the outside world—and of freedom.

While I thought things over, I stared up at the ceiling for a moment, imagining it was made of panes of glass. I took one more glance at everyone opposite me and wondered if I would someday be standing in line, ordering food with them. Would society someday realize its transgressions against blacks? More important, perhaps, would people take action? Again, when I wrote about this years ago, perhaps I was being overdramatic and not making sound arguments. In retrospect, the incident makes me think that my heart was in the right place but my mind was not—I wrote impulsively rather than rationally.

The story ends with Steph and I, on our way out, noticing a man talking to one of the cafeteria women. He said to her, “Did you have a good weekend? I can tell.” She smiled. I didn’t realize it then, or even when I wrote the journal for the first time, but this occurrence disproved what I was thinking. For one thing, if she had had a good weekend and it was obvious just by something about her, then how could I make a judgment call about whether or not she and her coworkers were oppressed and angry?

I could fill a book about my experiences living in a metropolitan area. It’s had both ups and downs. I’ve long since moved to a rural community; small-town life is preferable. Finally, I can find more nature than the potted-plant variety. In fact, I recently took an all-day trip to the Charles River. When I got there, it was soaked from almost a week’s worth of rain.

The recent downpour had caused the river to swell up. The water was an inky swirl of navy blue and gray. Compared to the emerald-green grass and the cerulean sky, the waterway looked more like a murky quagmire. The nearby trees had taken a beating from the precipitation; the oversaturated branches were drooping.

During the brief evening twilight, a few scattered sunbeams found their way onto the stream, illuminating it here and there. The sunset turned the heavens a striking crimson color. Meanwhile, ducks drifted around the water in small groups, bobbing up and down. The ducks revolved in circles as if orbiting a planet—in this case, Neptune. Then one waterfowl left, ambled up the riverbank and stretched his legs. After a few minutes, he headed back to rejoin the others. The small apricot feet shuffled from side to side like a pair of web-footed automatons.

The meandering duck left muddy little footprints all over the ground. I noticed one of the mallard’s small, marbly eyes as he stared at another bird nearby. I wondered what—if anything—was going through that peanut-sized brain. Eventually, another mallard waddled onshore for a few minutes and then used his feet to propel himself back to the others.

Sometimes I can’t help but think that if I were a duck, life would be simple. In an “ignorance is bliss” sort of way, that is. I wouldn’t mind trying life as a waterfowl just to see what it’s like. On second thought, being a flying, quacking pillow in training wouldn’t necessarily be fun all the time, and I’d miss out on a lot of what life has to offer. I’m happy with what I have, and I’m thankful for the opportunities to get away from it all—like the time I have right now. Peace and quiet at last. (Quack!) Well, most of the time, anyway!