Two days ago, I was stuck in traffic. I was angry–how dare other people need to commute at the same time I do, on the same roads? Horrifying.
As I broiled at the back of a line of cars, missing a light for the third time, I looked over to the “scenic overlook” on my right. Scenic overlook is an overly grand term for the place; it’s a speck of gravel, two old signs, a low stone wall, and an antiquated picnic table with one crooked side. Sitting there, on the upward facing end of the crooked bench-seat, was a medium, elderly man, reading a medium, elderly book.
His rusty, greenish bicycle was propped up against the picnic table with a grey, plastic bag hanging from one handle. The sun was setting, and the barren branches of the trees looked a little warmer for its fading light. He paused to look up occasionally, smiling to himself, as though only he knew of a joke being played out upon the rest of us.
In the four or so minutes I spent sitting there, I began to simmer down, and think. What could this fellow, one of the known homeless in my community, have that I didn’t?
I mean, I have books, and a bike, and a few plastic bags. But I don’t smile like that. I don’t watch sunsets and rays of light. I don’t read my books. I recycle most of my plastic bags.
My frustration showed in my thoughts all evening. I was perplexed, annoyed, by this homeless person on the side of the road, who seemed to have something I didn’t.
I wish now that I had stopped and asked him, but I didn’t. I didn’t think someone of his stature in life could truly have something I don’t. Clearly, I was wrong.
I don’t know what he has that I don’t, but I want it. I want it because I always want everything someone else has. I want it because not having it feels like losing, and I don’t like losing. I want it because everything I want should be mine, dammit, and whatever it is, isn’t mine.
And a very small, shriveled place of me thinks that maybe I want it because it looked something like happiness–the real kind that you find in a soul, not a box or a bag or a bottle.
When I was little, I purportedly told someone that I just wanted to be happy when I grew up. That is not at all what happened. The sadness increased with each step of my life, always two steps ahead.
I have pretty much everything most people think they want. But when they hear me talk about it, they seem to change their minds. Something about the work all day, never play makes them think twice. They hear the frustration of my lifestyle and back away. My lack of contentment and suffocating ambition are tangible, barbed and vicious in nature. It’s a sad way to be, but it’s what I know. It’s the annoying old couch you don’t really like sitting on, but don’t want to replace, because it’s your normal couch.
My family came here three generations ago with nothing, Jewish refugees from Russia. They built a retail empire and invented things. Each generation has somehow improved on the previous in everything (save taste in men). We are the American dream; my life is the one they dreamed for those to come.
But it’s sad. It’s always been sad, and we’ve always been sad. I don’t know if we broke the American dream, or if the American dream is broken, or if it’s both. All I know is I spent four minutes looking through the glass at someone else, with so much less than I have, who seemed to have so much more of what really matters in the end.
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter–tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther… And one fine morning—
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
-F. Scott Fitzgerald