I’ve enjoyed writing things on this Substack but have considered for a while making a change and have today taken it upon myself to do so – I’m moving my writing to Blogger, where I’ll hopefully feel a little less pressure to write perfectly (although I’ve enjoyed it on here, a glut of followers – which I certainly appreciate but don’t necessarily enjoy; I’ve now learned the difference – has made me nervous about what people will think). You can read my new stuff here. See you there and thanks for following this in the meantime.
What was the hipster? Who, where, why? We know when – a mid- to late-2000’s phenomenon, now surging back into the mainstream (albeit in a rather more nihilistic way – read this), riding the wave of the usual 20-year trend cycle. I recall it all horrifyingly well: Cory Kennedy, The Cobrasnake, Hipster Runoff, Calvin Harris pre-EDM, Canon AE-1’s, Animal Collective, alt-lit, American Apparel, Pitchfork, big chunky nerd glasses, guys on the street writing free poetry on typewriters, Blogspot, Vice, thigh gaps, tangled long hair, Tektonik, “Cross” by Justice (pronounced zhoo-stice if, like me, you wanted to show your deep knowledge of the culture.)
I started high school in 2006 and graduated in 2010, a prime candidate for being sunk into this “culture” as a highly depressed and dissociated teenager. I did not fit in at all at my school: that much was clear. I had an in, though – a middle school friend who went to a school in San Francisco proper and knew more than me about what was cool, what all the city kids were watching and reading and doing. They all had Flickr accounts, knew where to go thrifting for clothes that they’d alter and photograph for Lookbook.nu. They hung out at Dolores Park, spending their afternoons smoking shitty weed and listening to whatever album was “in” on a massive 80’s-style boombox. The jealousy made me sick with envy and, perhaps midway through my sophomore year, I plunged into their world in an attempt to construct myself a personality.
This was around the beginning of Web 2.0 – Myspace was phasing out, and everyone was tiptoeing hesitantly onto Facebook. Flickr was its own little sub-community; Blogspot blogs, especially fashion-focussed ones, proliferated, as did cloistered message boards. The internet, though solidly no longer Web 1.0, was still focussed on content that was meant to be responded to, not shared; discussion and critique abounded, and popularity was often gained by making and responding to individual work rather than sharing and reposting. In fact, I don’t recall it being referred to as “content” at all. You made a post.
Hipster Runoff was, of course, one of the blogs to read if you knew what was in, or, like me, were desperate to find out. Written in a deeply ironic tone often verging on mockery by the then-anonymous Carles, the blog was a deep dive into how and why people wanted to be considered “relevant,” as was the word then, and how “alt” culture could oftentimes eat its own tail. Were Animal Collective fans just trend-hoppers? Were decimal-rated Pitchfork reviews full of shit? Yeah, said Carles, and so was everyone else, and so was he. I’d spend hours at a time scouring every post, analyzing what was actually cool, how to be ironic without appending a “post-” to it, how to comport myself and make sure people knew that I was in, relevant, knowledgeable about what the kids at my high school would be into way after me, way after it got mainstream – the ultimate condemnation.
To wit, this meant I had to buy stuff from American Apparel (I couldn’t afford a $40 t-shirt, so stuck to my gold lamé headband), use the word “deck” to describe my friend’s new shoes, read Tao Lin, listen to entire discographies of Washed Out, Toro Y Moi, Neko Case (often I’d score albums for free on a private LiveJournal group called The Indie Exchange, uploading one album in exchange for a few others). I grew my hair out and let it tangle, stole brogues from Urban Outfitters after I saw Cory Kennedy wearing a pair. I eschewed a Jansport backpack for a fringed leather bag and carried my textbooks to class – to do otherwise was mainstream. I was, constantly, desperate to reach peak “alt,” to be at the absolute forefront of what was cool, to be, please God, considered relevant.
It was all based around consumption, of course – the aesthetic of bitter irony I’d carefully cultivated after dozens of blog posts was only a shell for what, I felt, was a complete lack of a personality. In social situations I was painfully shy; hangouts at Dolores Park often saw me getting far too stoned and clamming up, afraid to say something weird. Days in school were isolating, but so was hanging out with the cool kids on the weekends – sure, we all liked the new Justice album, admired each other’s thrifted jean jackets, but was there anything else to say? We’d parrot Carles (of course we’d all read his latest post) and shit-talk anyone who wasn’t like us. But those were not the years of earnestness. Shit was fucked and we all felt it: what else could you do but be ironic about it all?
At parties I was the designated Cobrasnake, the party photographer, due to a successful film-heavy Flickr account. I’d lug my friend’s heavy DSLR into the kitchen and snap drunken photos of us in snipped-off t-shirts and moccasins playing rounds of beer pong, grinding messily, making out. We’d “fade in” five dollars or so for a forty-rack or a handle of vodka provided by an older sibling and go wild – desperate to be like the Cobrasnake party kids, but the Bay Area wasn’t LA. (Years later I would learn that these LA parties were carefully photographed to make the whole thing look messier, that drugs were provided to fuck everyone up enough to do the crazy shit we admired. It made sense, in retrospect. No one wants pictures of people just standing around.)
The parties, though, began to unearth for me something deeper-rooted, something I could no longer ignore: I was dealing with depression so heavy that my grades were plummeting, that I often felt myself drawn to the Golden Gate Bridge. A few shots of whatever would wrench open the floodgates and I’d cry hysterically in front of everyone, wailing that no one loved me, that I wanted to die. One party saw me having a full-blown panic attack in the bathroom, one which many people wrote off as me being upset that a guy I thought I had a crush on made out with my friend. It wasn’t tenable. Mornings after were full of mortification and guilt.
And who were the people at these parties? Boys grabbed my tits, girls sneered at me across the room. High school behavior, of course, but it felt especially brutal, made me angry that no one could ever pry themselves out of their self-instated states of extreme blaséness to offer a hand. Perhaps I’m being too harsh: I was a handful, and sixteen-year-olds don’t know how to managed a full-fledged breakdown at what should be something fun. But in retrospect, the horror and anger I felt was real, ran so deep that I could feel it well up as anger in my throat. I began to show up to things just because I had to if I wanted to still be relevant. I couldn’t get ousted from the group – it was all I had.
By my senior year I was the “weird, pretentious hipster girl” of my high school, voted “most unique,” to nobody’s surprise. I didn’t care much for Uggs or Hollister but publicly wrote them off as mainstream and boring; refused to interact with anyone who was even remotely popular or socially integrated. I hated myself but was still cooler than everyone else. People pushed back, called me annoying and pretentious, sub-posted on Facebook about “hipsters who think they’re soooo cool with their film cameras and feather headdresses.” I was aware of it, hurt by it, but couldn’t stop. What else was there for me to hold onto? What else was I going to shape my personality around?
And funnily enough, this story has a resolution: I was, eventually, booted out of the cool city kids’ group. Or perhaps I booted myself out. One night, over a group video chat (I recall the website being called Tokbox, though a Google search returns nothing), I overheard someone I considered a good friend insisting I not be invited to Saturday’s party. “She’s so fucking awkward and annoying.” “Dude, that’s hella cold,” someone said, before I closed out of the chat and turned to stare at the wall. There it was: they didn’t like me after all. I’d tried so hard to be like them, but my thick layer of irony was seen right through. I was, ultimately, a loser, collection of shoplifted lamé headbands or not.
I stopped posting on my Blogspot and ignored people’s requests to come chill in the Mission. My outfits suddenly felt stupid, try-hard, and I resorted to a pair of skinny jeans and a vintage t-shirt on school days. What was the fucking point? The music was still good, Hipster Runoff still made me laugh, but it was brutally, rapidly clear to me that I couldn’t make up for an empty hole of a soul with a bunch of trendy shit. This isn’t to say that I abandoned the culture entirely – there were certainly things I genuinely enjoyed. But the brittleness of it, the cruelty hidden by what was supposed to be irony, left a bitter taste in my mouth. How much of it had actually been fun?
I did not escape these people entirely; many of them faded in and out of my life for the next several years. And not all of them were bad: age and time brought some softness into how we treated one another. But things were becoming contrived – Portlandia was getting big, poking holes in the flatness of how we’d comported ourselves; Obama’s election inspired genuine excitement (back then, anyways); college jettisoned us all into a world beyond Dolores Park. You couldn’t be a bitch when you were trying to make new friends. It didn’t work that way.
I spent years after high school making fun of my younger self, calling her a wannabe and a hanger-on. But as I’ve gotten older I feel much more tenderness towards her, sometimes veering on pity: poor thing, she just wanted to fit in. I won’t deny that diving into the “hipster” world taught me to pursue things I genuinely find interesting, to not be afraid to stand out somewhat, but it also showed me – quite harshly – that you can’t plug a hole with a bunch of stuff that other people deem cool. I still try to live by that. But sometimes I wonder if I am doing a good job.
I recently read a book called The Ontology of the Accident, by Catherine Malabou. I was intrigued when I first saw it – accident, to me, read as a more physical occurrence, a trauma caused by a car or a fall – but ultimately found it to be somewhat irrelevant to thoughts I’ve been having lately. After all, I don’t really know what ontology is. A few paragraphs did catch my eye, though:
What is denied, the state of what must not be made present, reveals the existence of the secret question, the question that cannot be asked and which, at the same time, cannot but be asked for any psyche: what if something else had happened, anything else, something unexpected, something absolutely different from everything that happened? That’s exactly what we cannot know. It’s also what cannot be taken as possible.
The question that cannot be asked yet cannot but be asked; what we cannot know. What if…
I did not, of course, expect to become physically disabled at 25. Mentally I was a shambles – and I suppose bipolar disorder can be counted as a disability, at least on the “optional” part of a job application – but physically I’ve always been robust, rarely ever get sick, am allergic to nothing. Certainly I expected a decline in physical health as I aged (heart disease, most likely; it runs in my family and I smoke on and off), but then, well, you know the rest. From able-bodied to disabled in one movement, one happening.
The changes in my body I have adjusted to, and I’ve written about them at length, and am quite frankly getting a little sick of the subject. Mind-wise, though, sifting through the changes that have happened there, is like taking a fine-toothed comb to a three-inch-wide knot of hair. You tease a little bit of a tangle out then find even more to undo. Maybe it never stops. I’m not sure it does.
Lately I’ve been mulling over the mourning process, the five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance – and trying to apply it to my “journey” of becoming disabled, with little success. There is a gap, a lack: life does not go back to “normal;” there is no baseline. It’s easy to counter this with “well, it’s just a new normal, of course,” but I’m not so sure. Disability is not stagnant: there is always something new to deal with, something breaking, something hurting; you might even uncover a new disability, or become disabled in another way. It requires a vigilance that is often exhausting. At the end of every day I examine the ends of my legs, checking for bruises and cuts and – please no – any blossoming infections, which, when they happen, are incredibly painful and dangerous, potentially leading to sepsis if I don’t take care of them and get rather unlucky.
Do I resent this? Potentially bad form to admit it, but – absolutely. I don’t want to have to sit in a plastic shower chair and take off my legs to get clean, or waddle off to urgent care in near-tears if I get a bout of cellulitis. And so I cycle back to the beginning of this essay: what if something else had happened, anything else, something unexpected, something absolutely different from everything that happened?
But like what? My “old” life simply carrying on? Anything else, anything else. Perhaps I would have become disabled later in life, in another way. Perhaps I could have died. Sometimes, back at the beginning, I thought that was the better route: how was I going to deal with this for the rest of my life?
Ontology of the accident. Ontology of my accident. A single bang that ultimately ripples through the rest of my life. In this essay I wrote about how there was a physical cleaving, a before-and-after harshly delineated when I lost half my legs. But lately I have been thinking about the mental cleaving, too.
A line from Ontology of the Accident that I found myself mulling over:
Since the accident is in no way interiorized by the victim, it remains foreign to the fate of the psyche and is not integrated into the history of the individual.
My first thought after reading this was no, that’s not true, it’s definitely possible to integrate some sort of brutal happening into your psyche, how could anyone go on if it wasn’t? But now I’m not so sure. What I want to know, what I might really spend the rest of my life thinking about, is whether the psyche is left intact at all. Perhaps there are two, pre- and post-occurrence; perhaps the pre-accident psyche frays, spirals out into many smaller psyches. Maybe they braid together, a mingling of acceptance and lack thereof.
And is integration of the accident into the psyche really all that desirable in the first place? How does such an externality blend gracefully into what may have been a difficult life at the start? I am conscious of the fact that that happened to me; I am conscious of the fact that this is what was done to me, and here is how I live now, after the fact. But the accident itself – the actual physical occurrence – remains outside of me, a thing that was done to my body and nothing else. I am not it. My mind accepts the before and the after; I integrate my current life and physical form into myself, but see no use in becoming my accident entirely.
And so the psyche wavers between wanting and not wanting to know: what if? If I think too hard about it I get upset, and find myself ricocheting back to no, don’t think about it at all, you’ll just get sad. A depressing back-and-forth; brutalized by the external. Escapable, yes, but only subconsciously, only via distraction. By saying “don’t think about it” I’m still thinking about it, after all. I can’t just push it away.
I have been thinking lately about the framing of disability – becoming-disabled – as a loss. Easy to draw a line between the two: you used to be able to do these things, and now you can’t. And just as easy to erase that line by saying “but you’ve gained knowledge, and experience, and tenacity!” I don’t find it that simple, although what I do think isn’t much more nuanced: I see it simply as a change, a launching into a new type of flux. To become disabled, especially in a violent way, is to be ricocheted into a new way of experiencing one’s body and how that body moves through the world. Externalities. Internally, I can only speak for myself, but I’ve felt myself expand in some directions and contract in others. All I know is that near-death does not take away the death drive. Still, essentially, my human parts are all there.
How is it possible for a subject to no longer coincide with their essence without going mad?, asks Malabou. I come back to the supposed cleaving of the psyche: do we ever recover when this happens? Malabou asks if it’s possible; I’m not sure it matters. Perhaps a certain modicum of madness is required for us to continue living, whether it be after a “tragic” accident or the death of a loved one, a divorce, a sickness. And I suppose we’ve all lost some of our essence during Covid, and are going mad: what is the mutation of the psyche through trauma if not a collective reckoning with the concept of near-death?
If you Google my name the first auto-generated result is “Sophie Helf accident.” People are nosy; they want details. My accident is not private, it is not mine: it lives outside of me, is an existence out in the world in and of itself. I wonder sometimes if it ever actually ended.
What does this do to a psyche? My trauma is personal; the occurrence itself is not. Quite frankly, sometimes I just get scared – “the mortifying ordeal of being known” and all that. It worms its way into my brain, makes me conscious of not my body but my past, the death-drive that got me to where I am now, the incredible amount of involuntary work I had to do to get back to living a life I don’t totally hate. The prosthetics are secondary to what goes on in my head.
You can’t draw a psyche or a soul; “essence” is far too vague a concept for much of anything. Obviously. What an accident, a sudden trauma, does to any of these things is untraceable, not something one might ever entirely put into words. A body changes in a black-and-white sense, before and after, but our psyches meld and change over time. Perhaps there is no “cleave.” Come back in five years and I’ll tell you more.
December 1st was the three-year mark of my losing my legs in a freak accident. I won’t go too deep into that – you can read about my hospital stay et al here – but suffice to say it jolted me deeply into the realization that death is not always gentle or kind; that there might not be an afterlife after all; that life does, in fact, come at you fast. A year of my life was sliced out; I moved back to my California hometown to go through a major surgery and relearn to walk, but relocated back to New York as soon as I had enough money and a place to stay. I don’t regret it – I’m not sure I regret anything at all. But emotions around becoming disabled are disparate, flow into one another; I wonder how long it will be before I can give a straight answer to “how do you feel about it?”
Today I had a work call, went to the store, got some tacos at a taco truck near Myrtle-Wyckoff station. Most days under covid are roughly the same – I don’t leave my neighborhood much (where is there to go?), am scared to take the train, wear my cloth mask and scoot six feet away from people at the grocery store while I’m reaching for my usual oat milk. Someone asked me once, “what’s it like to be disabled during a pandemic?” Well, for me, it’s the same as before: I huff and puff up the stairs to my apartment, take off my prosthetics to sleep, ask people for help getting things off of tall shelves. I recently got a new pair of Chelsea boots that are excruciatingly difficult to get off, but I like them, so I wear them. I dress nice each day because I like to look good. I’m trying to read.
Strange, sometimes, that I managed to develop a life to miss under the pandemic. When I first moved back to New York I was terrified that I wouldn’t make friends or that I would be seen as the “token disabled girl” – and perhaps the second is true, at least to some people, but I can still keep up the pace when walking around with friends and don’t bring up my prosthetic legs to people I’ve just met if it doesn’t feel relevant (and often it doesn’t). I chain-smoke like others do, I enjoy an occasional joint like others do, I have (or, well, had) a sex life like others do. I find myself missing parties, dancing in dark rooms, sitting on crowded fire escapes and talking to people while inhaling an American Spirit that makes me smell bad. My life. My old life.
I have been opening myself up, lately, to the concept that perhaps the universe does have some wheels of its own turning, that there are tangible forces beyond my control that don’t necessarily decide everything for me but nudge things in certain directions. Raised by two Catholics-turned-atheists, I grew up thinking that the only thing I could count on was my own actions, that the universe was simply planets moving in circles and who-knows-what beyond that. As I moved into adulthood, my skepticism crystallized into a nihilistic view that there was nothing at all “out there” – horoscopes were bullshit, religion was bullshit, just people projecting a need for control onto what was essentially nothing more than chaos. I surrendered myself to the lack of structure, insisted that all we could do was our best, but that that didn’t really mean jack shit either: there was no one or nothing watching, no predefined way of the world moving and time flowing, so might as well just do whatever. (And for a while, I did.)
I feel a little sad for my younger self – this was around the time I was constantly doing drugs, drinking myself under tables and into dark places, hardly clinging onto sanity as I struggled my way through four years of university all the way across the world. My view that everything was simply a mess stemmed from my own actions: why look for external structure if I didn’t have any myself? And things certainly came to a head – my last three months in London were marked by an abusive relationship, a manic episode, and a suicide attempt. Nothing and no one was looking out for me. I was entirely alone, my thoughts electric and angry, panic attacks raging through me that were quelled only by little pink pills that knocked me right into sleep.
Strangely, my accident didn’t further drive in this attitude but rather turned it on its head: certainly life was chaotic, there was no way to predict what had happened, but for whatever reason, I survived – and barely: I nearly bled out in the ambulance, was in severe shock for hours. Had I not been around the corner from a hospital when it had happened, had the doctors not known how to save as much of my legs as possible, had my body not been healthy and strong, I would very much be dead.
I don’t necessarily think there’s a tangible, solid reason behind my being alive, but nevertheless I’m still here, sitting on my bed and writing this, the afternoon light filtering in through my window. Is there some sort of mission I’m supposed to complete, some message I’m supposed to bestow upon people? I’m not sure, and don’t really think so, but have begun to consider that someone or something was pulling a few strings to keep me from perishing.
My horoscope from the day of my accident: Venus—the planet of love, money, and beauty—enters Sagittarius this morning, encouraging you to focus on self-care. Watch out for confrontations today: Warrior planet Mars opposes the planet of shock, Uranus. The planet of shock: there it was, there it is. How was I to know back then? But something was watching. I believe it now.
I find it funny that losing half my legs was what it took to knock a bit of sensibility into me. Before the accident I was still getting drunk constantly and getting in trouble, was unsure of my career path, held little faith in any of my skills, felt, still, the internal rot of self-hate. And certainly I didn’t immediately wake up in the hospital with all this sorted out – of course not – but over the past three years I’ve built a life for myself in New York, have friends I love, have a little writing career, have dated around and eaten well and travelled just enough. Therapy and medications have me less afraid of rocketing into mania or sinking into depression; I know myself better, know why I do things and how to cope when those things are bad.
I like my therapist: she has me nailed, still comes out with quips that leave me agape. How did you know that, I’ll think, how did you realize that about me? What the fuck? She works with Jungian analysis, something I was initially skeptical of but was recommended by my former CBT therapist, but I find it comforting now that my actions and thought patterns are reminiscent of old stories and myths from the past: we all act like that, we all do things that ripple out and leave marks on people’s psyches. I resent somewhat having to do telehealth sessions; I miss when she used to give me books.
I’m having my first ever horoscope chart reading tomorrow and she’s thrilled. I’m terrified: am I sure I can trust it? What am I going to learn about myself? Am I ready for the answers to the questions I have?
Recently I’ve been going through several difficult things that I’d rather keep to myself but that have had me feeling badly over the past week or so. Even just a year ago I would have spiraled into resentment, blamed it all on some sort of personal flaw, cursed the universe and whatever else for making it all happen. I know now, though, how to keep myself afloat, know that perhaps the planets are funny or that a thread that runs through my way of moving through the world might be due for a snip. I understand why I do things, why I react in certain ways. I let myself be angry, something I wasn’t allowed much as a child.
I’ve been feeling tense over the past hour, my shoulders hunched and my neck sore, and I know now that the best way to deal with this is to get some fresh air, go on my roof or head out for a walk around my neighborhood. I haven’t been pissed off at anything I’ve done lately, and despite a recent confrontation with a friend feel no resentment, only the understanding that they have their reasons for doing things that clash with mine. I’m eating well, taking care of my skin and body in ways I never would have before. It’s okay. I’m okay. I can only hope I get okay-er, can open myself up to the flow of the universe as it relates to myself and those I love.
Sometimes I think that the entire history of perceiving is encoded in a city. It’s encoded in noise, in shelter, in cloth, in the baths, in stray animals. Noise gives the listener duration as an artifact. – Lisa Robertson, Nilling
I’ve started smoking weed again. Not all the time, not so that it impedes things in my life, but every now and then I’ll have a little hit of a joint and sit and let my mind wander. My “sleepytime weed” is almost out, which is a shame; it’s wonderful to sink into a soft, delirious stoniness and think about myself as a shifting bundle of thoughts and concepts, the way my actions branch out into others’ lives, and sometimes it’s bad but most of the time I feel at peace, if not a little stupid.
Anyways, the other night I got a little too high and the light in my room felt far too yellow, I felt a little trapped, het up, anxious, and so I went out for a walk. I live in Queens now, and like it a lot, the bustling strip of Myrtle and the various streets branching off of it like spokes, bodegas with mangonadas in the freezers and Polish delis that sell plum butter for $1.50 a jar. There is always something; I always need something. Down my street I went, to the right, then left, darkness not encroaching but rather soaring up deep past the brick buildings I passed, squares of light built into their sides. Laundry hung up to dry, cars parked poorly in the street – so much stimuli! – and probably I was high but I could feel a warmth in my chest, here I was, I lived here, that little ever-present thought of ha, ha, I made it back to New York bubbling up again. I allowed it, though I don’t, usually. God, I thought as I turned up Cypress, I’m so glad I live in New York, I’m so glad I live in a city, period. It’s the only type of place I could ever fully be.
I grew up twenty minutes outside of San Francisco and the proximity made me sick with envy. Even as a child I would think to myself, why am I not in the city, why do we have to live outside of it, there’s nothing here but a big old forest, it’s quiet and boring, where’s all the stuff to do! My teenage years were spent as an “honorary city kid,” as my city friends called me, but at the end of the day they took MUNI back to Ingleside or Forest Hill while I sat on the ferry across the bay back to my suburban hometown. Lucky, in retrospect, that my parents even let me do that, and I grew to understand San Francisco as the tiny tightly-wound rickety space that it was, only sort of still is, buses careening over hills and fog thundering in through the mountains that would make us cold and dripping with wet. Alphabetical street names crossing 19th Avenue – Taraval, Ulloa, Vicente. The volatility of every street corner, the possibility of turning and ending up in an entirely different neighborhood.
I don’t like to talk about San Francisco as it is now – it makes me mad, makes me spiral into a tangent – but will gladly talk about it as it used to be, those tail-end years of high school, we were stoned most of the time, and I’d walk down Clement Street or through the Mission District in the dewy gray mist listening to, oh, I don’t know, Rilo Kiley or maybe Fleet Foxes if I was in the mood. There was an eeriness to the city then, a sort of trembling monstrousness if you looked for it, sodium-vapor lights piercing orange through the fog, and if I got scared (of what? I’m still not sure) I would look up, not towards the sky but at the buildings towering above me, sometimes Victorians that looked like slices of cake, sometimes small square houses in pastel colors, rose and lavender and cucumber. There was a depth to things, space despite there really being no space, that drew me to it, kept me wandering. I was less set on pointedly exploring and more set on ambling in no direction in particular, a youthful psychogeographical pursuit of sorts.
I continued to do so in London. Too big of a city, I think, and the suburbs hit too abruptly, and I lived in far too many places, Elephant & Castle and Camberwell and Deptford and Hackney Central and Dalston and New Cross and Nunhead. But I knew them all well: I drank a lot back then, and would put down a cider or two or five and, again, shove my headphones in, and walk and walk and walk. There are no blocks in London, or most of the UK, in fact; streets unspool like licorice rope and wind into each other, alleyways leading towards roundabouts and street names abruptly changing for not much of any reason. Like lines in a brain, I remember thinking one night while on too much ketamine. Before I got a smartphone I would look up my destination on Google Maps and make detailed drawings of where I had to go – Tube station here, post office here, and there’s the pub you’ll end up at, on the right.
San Francisco is gray but London is dark and deep: in the winter the sun goes down at 3:30, maybe 4, a stripe of weak gold sunlight barely lining the horizon. We had a sun lamp in the New Cross house. I was never warm enough, never quite got around to investing in a strong winter coat, and as I walked up the path to my university each morning I could feel my hands tremble in my pockets. An easy place to start smoking: a cigarette is much better in the cold, I think. Central Saint Martins was perched on a hill overlooking King’s Cross and the surrounding areas, and during my last year there I would sit on the top floor of the library and look out towards Central London, no stars due to all the lights, just a terrifying inky blackness above it all. It scared me to death. I loved it, and when I was done, would take the Victoria Line there and walk through it, sometimes for hours.
Guy Debord, whose work I pored through for my dissertation, says of the psychogeographical dérive: “[it] includes both this letting go and its necessary contradiction: the domination of psychogeographical variations by the knowledge and calculation of their possibilities.” Picking apart Debord’s writings and chewing on them over the course of several months led me, of course, to think of my own ways of walking: why, where, how – for what reason – of course I was antsy, and bored, but I could always have joined a gym or watched some tv. I walked, though, constantly, and some nights I’d end up miles away and have to take a double-decker bus back home. But I knew London well, knew which neighborhoods bled into which and what streets led where, the shifting moods and darknesses of various routes. I liked streets with trees, and those specific types of tall whitewashed English houses with bright red doors you’d see in parts of East London, so I’d go there, and stare, and let myself be immersed in… what? A specific feeling, of I live here, I am here, physically, now, I’ve gotten myself to this place and the size of it all terrifies me in a thrilling way. Not a cognizant thought, then, but I can put it into words a little better now.
Funnily enough, I haven’t been doing many dérives in New York since moving here, not until very recently – only a couple of days ago, in fact. Strangely, perhaps as a testament to a much-resented need for routine, I’ve spent much of my time here heading up and around the same routes, past bodegas whose stock I know well (this one has Jarritos, this one has $10 cigarettes) and back home. Boredom quickly encroached, but in an abstract way that presented itself as frustration: why wasn’t I enjoying myself?
Well, enjoy yourself, I thought to myself this past Tuesday as I suddenly veered right instead of left on my morning walk. Psychogeography at its plainest: you go where your instincts take you, and mine were sick of going towards Fresh Pond Road for, what, the fortieth time?
I plan to stay in New York for a very long time, if not indefinitely, and I wonder whether I’ll stay in the same neighborhood for a while (I’ve never stayed in one for over two years before, in any city), and if so, how I will learn – relearn, I suppose – to dérive. What to do once I’ve gone up every street, turned every corner? Do I walk farther out, branch out to other neighborhoods? Do I make new routes, zigzag through in new ways? I can’t be sure until I get to that point, have to let my body and mind move where they want to move. Shifting moods, shifting shafts of light, different people and movements every night, perhaps, one day, actual places to go to, and stay. At any rate, as I finish writing this I can feel a burst of energy, a bubble ready to pop, and I kind of want a cigarette, and it seems like it’s nice and cool out. I know what I’m going to go do, and I know that I’ll enjoy it.
Loading more posts…