Part 1: Fear and Molars in New York City
Two days before flying to New York City I cracked a tooth. Or lost a filling. I couldn’t tell. At first the pain was centered in my right cheekbone, convincing me I had a sinus infection, but later it surged into my forehead, stirring visions of a tumor. At times it tracked my pulse, a rhythmic agony, a siren wailing inside my face; at others it exploded and threw sparks. By probing my mouth with a finger, I found its source: a molar all the way in back, one of those rugged horse teeth which holds your sins. I wedged my nail into the crack and nearly fainted, and then, feeling better, I wedged it in again with identical, dizzying results. Is pain an illusion? The mind is never sure, particularly with intermittent pain. If it’s gone for a while you may almost start to miss it, or wonder if it was really all that bad. This leads you to summon it back and make it worse.
It wasn’t a good time for a toothache. I was scheduled to appear on television, as a guest on Gutfeld!, a late-night talk show. I taped the show every six weeks or couple of months, not often enough to quell my stage fright; I was still insecure about my act. And I did have an act. TV requires one. Even if you vow to be yourself, even if you decline to put on makeup and insist on styling your own hair, the lights, the cameras, the studio audience, and the knowledge of being watched by millions of people among whom are your wife and mother-in-law destroys any hope of behaving naturally. The moment you sit down on the set, tucking the hem of your jacket under your butt to keep the shoulders from riding up, you realize it doesn’t matter who you are because the viewers don’t know either. This is why you need an act. This is why when you crack a joke that gets a laugh, you must tell another one like it, and another, and it’s why you must always wear cowboy boots instead of shoes, because someone on Twitter once said they liked your boots but no one on Twitter ever praised your shoes.
My dentist, a merciful fellow, prescribed an opiate. I wouldn’t have had it any other way. I took the first pill the day before my flight and began feeling slushy twenty minutes later. I felt a bit guilty being out of pain. There is a common belief among Midwesterners (I was born in Ohio, grew up in Minnesota, and live now in Montana) that virtue and discomfort are related. It’s why we tend to overcook our meat and underdress for cold during the winter. But there is another, compensating belief in the miraculous power of pills and tablets. It’s a manufacturing region, or it was, and it finds modern chemistry impressive. The pharmaceutical industry seems to know this, which is why it carpet-bombed us with narcotics when our economic fortunes ebbed. The results were monstrous overall, one of our period’s great commercial crimes, but when you have a toothache you cease to care about the misfortunes of others. Pain makes you selfish.
I arrived in New York a different person than the one who left Montana. My needs were fewer. Usually, I crave all sorts of things – amusement, food, attention, sex -- but two days of taking Oxycodone had shrunk this list to one: more Oxycodone. In the car to the hotel, feeling my last dose starting to wear off, I took another to help me through the night, concerned that I had a taxing few days ahead of me. Not only would I be taping Gutfeld!,I’d agreed to sit for a long-form interview for a Web series called American Thought Leaders. Its lofty title intimidated me, as did the worry that my current thoughts were those of a budding junkie with a sore face. How could I pass them off as high philosophy? When I reached my room, climbed into bed beside my wife, and finally shut my gritty eyes, I felt like a world-weary diplomat or journalist from a Graham Greene tale, a man who’d lost his faith and treated his terror with worldly anesthetics. My vision filled with a thousand spinning orbs, each of which seemed to radiate a message I lacked the ability to translate. Their general drift seemed to be that politics, the world of events I’d come to comment on, was fundamentally illusory, a spectacle of fraudulence and error sustained by the attention of a people starved of meaning-making art and drama and confused about the motions of the spirit. Or maybe the problem was we were all on drugs.
The next day, to fortify myself, I walked through the city with heavy limbs. I’d lived there in the 1980s, now thought to be a uniquely vibrant decade of New Wave music, graffiti art, and dreamy bohemians scrapping to make rent. I’d missed this flowering because I’d been too close to it, or maybe because it wasn’t quite as wondrous as it was later made to seem. New York City mythologizes its past so energetically and skillfully, with so much talent at its disposal, that history has little time to settle before the nostalgia merchants set to work. Swimming in opiated memory streams, I walked past my old building on East Fourth Street, a verminous tenement walk-up, now nicely renovated, and recalled attending a play next door at a small experimental theater. Hot Lunch Apostles it was called, a screeching fandango of antic exhibitionism that reminded me I’d left home as few things had. I had wanted to be a playwright in those days, but the business of finding backers for my efforts—oblique, monosyllabic vignettes borrowed from Pinter and Albee—defeated me.
The city seemed depleted. On most every block near my chic downtown hotel were locked shops or restaurants, sometimes rows of them, their unused tables, shelves, and chairs shoved together into heaps. Taped to their windows were flyers for lost pets and grim-looking notices bearing official seals. An unusually large contingent of lost souls, many of them addicts, surely, and some of them ravaged by versions of the same drugs in the amber bottle in my coat, dozed under blankets or nodded off on stoops or stood in the street haranguing phantom foes. Unlike in Montana, where measures against the virus had fallen out of view, most everyone wore masks here, indoors and out, and my uncovered face drew stern, judicial stares from the strolling hygiene vigilantes. The East Village, perhaps the last Manhattan neighborhood to cultivate a Bohemian self-image, was as thick with sniffy busybodies and practiced casters of the evil eye as a retirement home in Mormon Utah.
The most notable aspect of my stroll, the element I would highlight in a movie to establish ambiance, was the profusion of upbeat social messages on bus shelters, billboards, scrolling digital signs, and even city trash receptacles. At every turn, some directorate of sentiment reached out to exhort, enlighten, and uplift: “There’s no stopping Joy: recovery for all.org”; “Stop Asian Hate”; “We are bold, fearless, and Determined to Create Peace!” Even the signs promoting consumer products used themes of equity, justice, and anti-bigotry. If it’s still true in 2022 that the business of America is business, a certain contingent of titans and politicos seemed bent on portraying commerce as an instrument of social transformation. The city’s curbside garbage mountains, bold narcotics peddlers, bored-looking street cops swiping at their phones, and its punishing sound stream of howling motorbikes, atonal klaxon blasts, and arrhythmia-inducing bass notes pounding from super-juiced car stereos, undercut the idealistic signage. The city seemed disassociated, split, and so did I.
END OF PART 1