Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Lines and Other Existential Musings on a Wednesday

Today was an Al Hirschfeld sort of day. It seemed every person I passed on my commute—the woman in the gold Mercedes SUV applying her eyeliner, the man hawking newspapers at the intersection of 9th and Massachusetts, the woman on the scooter wearing her helmet so snugly it looked like a part of her natural features, the gangly guard at the entrance to the parking garage—could have been or had just jumped out of a Hirschfeld. At any moment, I expected strains from Modest Mussorgsky’s (1839-1881) Pictures at an Exhibition to burst forth from the radio and underscore my oddly illustrated world.


Do you ever wonder about the lives of others?

Normally, at the intersection of 9th and Mass is a woman hawking the aforementioned newpapers. She’s average in height, thin. Her hair is long and often looks stringy and unwashed, except that I think perhaps she’s just come out of the shower and is going with the wet look. Probably in her fifties, though she may be younger. It’s hard to tell. What does seem readily obvious is, life has been hard for her. It is etched deeply in the tanned, creased lines of her face and the hollow vacancy of her eyes. I often wonder what her story is and what she once hoped her life would be. If her dreams were dashed, I wonder what she hopes each day will now bring. There is a seemingly contradictory mixture of resignation and tenacity about her that worries and awes me and it begs this existential question: If life is meant to be meaningful, what is the meaning for her?


On my way into work every morning, I pass a coffee shop—Breakwell’s—in the struggling-to-gentrify area around the new D.C. convention center. Some mornings, one of the baristas is taking a break. She sits in a cane-backed chair, casually smoking a cigarette and intently reading her latest literary choice. She looks serene and content and I ask myself the same question I’ve asked myself for years. Why can’t I do something like that and be content?


There are a million little proverbs and sayings that have been bandied about for decades, if not centuries, in one form or another—each meant to inspire, uplift, give hope, bring perspective. When life hands you lemons, says one of the more cliché, make lemonade. It seems so straightforward and simple. And yet, I’m lousy at making lemonade. All that keeps me from being a sourpuss is love and laughter. My sanity/insanity is a mix of quiet desperation and outright panic tempered by rational thought about cause and effect. Somehow, perhaps merely by the grace of God, I hold on and function aptly. But is it enough?


I’d like to be the barista at the coffee shop, but I worry that one day I might be the woman hawking newspapers, cars streaming past me in a perpetual procession of hurry and scurry. Those in the cars will drive by without noticing, save at least one person—a person of heart and conscience, a person of kindness and thought—who will drive by and wonder, “If life is meant to be meaningful, what is the meaning for her?”

Illustration copyright: Al Hirschfeld. All rights reserved to him, may he rest in peace, and his estate.


Sister Mary Lisa said...


This post is the kind of post I love Love LOVE from you. You are an amazing person, and posts like this illustrate that better than any words of praise from me.

This post made me want to cry, as I feel the same exact love for people and fascination about their lives that you portrayed here so poignantly.

Keep up the great work.

As for being a barista, I say go for it. I think you'd be great, because it would give you many different people to be with.


same old maniac said...

Is life meant to be meaningful?

Is life meant to be anything?

Is life *meant* to be?

And you can't be the barista serenely reading and smoking because if I can't smoke, then neither can you.

It's important to not smoke...or to quit smoking, so that you can live a long meaningless life.

Hey, looky that! Another GREAT day.

Really fantastic post, J.

di said...

I'm dizzy with the power of no moderation, and the rush of instant gratification. DIZZY I TELL YOU!!

This post ROCKS. You're a born writer and observer, JM Tewkes.

Cele said...

Now I will have to watch the people in my mile commute to work tomorrow morning. You make me think.

Compelling post.

J.M. Tewkesbury said...

SML: Thank you. I'm thinking a flower shop would be a lovely enterprise. It's like being the barista, but without the smoking and I wouldn't have to learn the difference between a mocha, grande, super-frapo, double shot, triple sec, sunny-side up, cappucino coffee and just plain coffee. ;-)

SOL: Smoking is bad for you, you're right. But if it will help for today, please, have a smoke! And come be a barista (or flower maker/deliverer) with me!

Di: Don't get too dizzy. I wouldn't want you to fall down and hurt yourself. And thanks for the praise of this post. I love writing stuff like this. How can I make this a job?????

Cele: Let us know what you observe. I'd love to see your world and hear your thoughts.

Sideon said...

Wonderful words.

I can relate all too well with that "mix of quiet desperation and outright panic tempered by rational thought about cause and effect." I live through it, daily, and torture myself further with that additional thought, like you asked, "but is it enough?".

Barista... I'd like a soy latte grande, no foam, please. And some serenity and a sense of contentment, however fleeting. Does that sound too bitter? Yes, one sugar will do.

J.M. Tewkesbury said...

Sid: Would you settle for a bouquet of flowers instead, 'cause I'm out of soy...

Sideon said...

I keep reading this post.

Your writing is pure gorgeousness, even though the existential questions make me ache.

Flowers are always a welcome thing, Tewkes :)

J.M. Tewkesbury said...

Sid: The existential questions make me ache, too. Especially today. Today, I could quit everything and just throw it all to the wind, then let the pieces scatter, fall where they may, and see what I end up with. Today, I could say f*ck and take a job as a barista, paper hawker, and flower arranger all at once. Today, I could seriously start drinking, too.

Today, I ache.

di said...

Bless your heart, Tewkesy. Sigh.

I ache too. But for some reason, I ache more for your achiness than for my own.

Let us howl at the moon together. Let us drink together. Let us ache together.

And please, as life is meaningless and achy anyhow, can you stop swearing with asterisks? ;-)

I can't help cracking wise, no matter how serious the topic. Sigh. I acknowledge openly that the wise cracking is a lovely, lovely and BRIEF distraction from the ache, the nausea, the l'etranger thing. I shoulda never read those fucking french existentialists in college.

Or should I say f*cking fr*nch e*istentia*ists?

J.M. Tewkesbury said...

Let's just say, my boss is fucking with me in ways that I'm noting and that I will use to burn her if this continues. The whole process makes me sick, though. I'm so fucking sick and fucking tired of all of the fucking stupid, fucking bullshit, fucking ego, fucking insecurity, fucking play-games-with-people's-lives, fucking bosses it's fucking amazing I haven't fucking gone off my fucking noodle or something.

Or maybe I just fucking did...


di said...


Awesome rant, my friend. Anger can also drive the ache away. It's best, though, when it doesn't become its own end.

I would tell you to be careful at work - but what the fuck, why should you?? It's weird what we become afraid of.

Sideon said...

I prefer a little sugar and honey with the bitter little pills that I give them (the fuckwit bosses) daily.

My favorite tactic is having them come unglued WITH witnesses. Nothing screams "I fucking hate you" like a little public humiliation.

Big hugs to you, Tewkes.

Oh - from Who Framed Roger Rabbit: I'm not bad. I'm just drawn that way.