A lost novel distilled into ten thousand words
Every day of my life was the worst day ever.
I told myself not to think that—I wasn’t being bombed by drones or shot in the crossfire of a civil war, which I assumed should have been my birthright. Nevertheless, the slow, mundane undeath of dragging myself into the office every day had etched a grimace into my face that I feared was permanent.
My eyes frowned worse than my mouth this morning as I stepped out of my car and into sunbeams that reached over the dark horizon. The traffic in Northeast New Jersey is horrendous, so I’d left my house well before dawn. I’d barely had any sleep the night before as I’d been attempting to read a book called The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt, and I couldn’t manage to make it through more than a few pages, so instead of doing anything productive, I stayed up past midnight pacing around my bedroom and feeling bad about my inability to comprehend philosophy.
A ridiculous grin spread across my face as I sat in my dreaded cubicle and read an e-mail in my personal account: “Mr. Mohammed, we would love to have you on board as an editorial assistant for Ring-Whorled Prow: Literature & Philosophy.” I started bouncing up and down in my desk chair, spinning around and doing an embarrassing little dance that involved wiggling my feet. It said a bunch of other stuff in that e-mail, but I just kept reading over and over that one line. I’m gonna quit! How to do it? Should I give notice? Should I just peace out?
I stood up from my chair and surveyed my cubicle: a few stacks of papers, a plant that a coworker had given me, a printed out picture of Franz Kafka I’d taped to the cubicle wall. “I don’t need any of this stuff. I’m outta here.”
My heart started pounding in my chest as I all but jogged down the hall of cubicles. My manager had a big, glass-walled office, and I could see that she was getting settled for the day. I didn’t have the nerve to walk all the way inside, so I just popped my head in the open door. “Hey there, Tarah.”
“What’s up, Zaid?”
Just keep going. Don’t stop. Finish this and you can get out of here. “So I’ve got a new job and I wish I could give notice but I can’t. They need me to start immediately and it’s a great opportunity so thanks for everything. I’m sorry to leave you but I’ve got to go now.” A long silence followed that was only a split second. “Sorry.”
She said something to me—I don’t remember what—I was already skipping down the hall and hopping down the stairs—a free man in the burning dawn.
“New York,” I whispered in awe as it appeared on the horizon over Route 3. Clear across the blue sky, as if it were inches from my face, a panoply of skyscrapers reached toward the clouds like a monument to humankind’s permanence on earth. There were so many different sizes—some made of glass, some ending in sharp points. “I didn’t know we’d be this close to New York,” I said, half to my sister, half to myself.
“Oh yeah,” she said. “We’re right on the edge of Jersey here.” As she kept driving, the car sloped down the hill and the vision of the city disappeared.
“I went there once,” I said. “To the museum—the Met.”
“Cool,” she said, not taking her eyes from the road. “Even being there every day, there’s still a lot to see.”
“Thanks again for agreeing to drive me on your way, Miriam. I know you’re busy and all, but since you happened to be in town, and I don’t exactly have a good transportation system right now—”
“Don’t mention it. But when you asked me to help you move, I thought you’d have more—” She hesitated. “Are you sure you’ve got everything you need in just a backpack?”
My aunt had agreed to let me stay with her, but the bookstore was where I really lived, so close and so distant from New York City. I’d had apocalyptic visions in that bookstore: the daggers of New York’s skyline rising up into sharp fingers, a demonic hand ripping the bookstore from the ground and hurtling it through the air with me still inside—I’d jumped off the railing on the mezzanine level, kicking off of books that fell through the air as if they were stairs. When I revived from the reverie, I was on the ground—I’d fallen out of my chair and landed on my pen—the tip had stabbed into my wrist, black ink mixing with blood. An ill omen.
I realized that my life in the bookstore existed in fragments, like ancient texts mostly lost to wars and time. I hadn’t managed to do any of the things that I’d intended to when I camped out in this bookstore weeks ago—namely read philosophy and work on my first philosophical treatise. Instead of wrapping my brain around Nietzsche, I’d fretted over my troubling financial situation.
I’d almost made a fool of myself by e-mailing the managing editor of Ring-Whorled Prow and asking her about my salary, but I read through the e-mail she’d sent me more carefully and noticed the phrase “We regret that at this time we cannot compensate our writers or editors.” They were just a small nonprofit literary journal, and I’d been an idiot to quit my stable office job.
“You are an idiot, Zaid,” The Deep grumbled, bubbling up from somewhere in the earth’s core. “But that job was wasting your time and draining your energy. Now you have the time you need to really think, read, and get some profound thoughts down.”
“But I have to eat and pay my bills,” I whispered through gritted teeth. I didn’t want the others in the reading nook to think I was crazy, but when I glanced at the guy next to me, he was asleep with a magazine on his chest. “As it is, I already cancelled my car insurance and abandoned the car to afford my student loans, and you know my father would kill me if he found out.”
“Starving artists are able to overcome Maslow’s hierarchy of needs,” The Deep retorted, which I thought had to be an allusion to Nietzsche’s Übermensch that I’d failed to grasp.
“This is unsustainable. I’m stressed—I need another cup of coffee.” I noted which page I was on in my borrowed copy of Thus Spoke Zarathustra and jotted it down in my pocket notebook.
“Spend more money; that will make your problems go away,” The Deep rumbled from some unseen chasm.
My addiction to this exotic beverage farmed for slave wages in the faraway tropics was perhaps problematic. For hours the first day I was in the bookstore, I’d fought the urge to go to the downstairs café and get a coffee. My food budget is nonexistent, so I shouldn’t be spending money on overpriced coffees. Eventually, I found myself staking out the café—not the one seat next to an outlet where I could charge my notebook—no, waiting for an abandoned coffee cup to steal.
“You’re going to have to stop being a baby and fish one out of the garbage,” The Deep growled in its guttural cadences, but I ignored it.
Finally, I watched a guy get up from his table without cleaning up after himself, and I saw him walk all the way out the front door before I swooped over and took his abandoned paper cup. I whisked it off to the men’s room where I washed the plastic lid and rinsed the remains from the inside. There was a big line of people waiting when I returned to the café, which I took as a good sign, but my heart was still pounding, wondering if the minimum wage barista would question me.
“Can I just get a refill of my coffee? Regular coffee,” I mumbled, thrusting my cup in her direction.
“Would you like anything else with that?” she parried. “A scone or a muffin?”
“That’ll be fifty-four cents,” she demanded pleasantly, handing the cup to another barista who rushed in the direction of the coffeemakers.
I lunged my debit card in her direction, but she repelled it with a flick of her finger in the direction of a PIN pad on the counter.
Before long, I was sitting at a table, excitedly sipping my coffee. Fifty-four cents seemed reasonable to me, but the equations didn’t justify much coffee-drinking in this bookstore—there were bills to pay, maxed out credit cards demanding reimbursement, student loan companies with endless bureaucracies of telephone operators who refused to believe I didn’t have a job when last year’s taxes said otherwise.
“So every time I’ve been here, you’ve been here,” Steven said, interrupting our discussion of a line in Seinfeld and Philosophy that equated Jerry Seinfeld to Nietzsche’s Last Man. “You can’t live in here, Zaid.” Steven was younger than me, only a college kid from the nearby university. His light eyes constantly probed me with questions, and he’d flick away the messiness of his effortlessly stylish hair to stare at me with increased fervor. Ever since we first shared a table during a busy day in the café, he’d find me and practice his Socratic method. I’d abandoned giving him the “Aren’t you supposed to be studying?” line, since he just shrugged it off like everything else.
“I’m not the only one who squats in the bookstore,” I responded, avoiding the question. “There’s a lot of us in here—bookstore hobos. We don’t use the store like we’re supposed to—we free the books, steal the words with our eyes, repurpose the space for our own ends—A/C in summer, warmth in the winter, comfortable seats, a pitcher of water at the café counter—the giant corporation spends money on all these things in hopes that busy customers won’t have the time to stay too long and read the stack of books they’ve acquired, so they’ll just buy them on their way out—but we hobos are only busy with reading. We can stay all day.”
“That’s not a hobo anyway. Hobos travel for work. You’re just sitting around here,” Steven laughed.
I scoffed. “A: I am working. On my philosophical treatise, remember? And B: You couldn’t get more transient than me! Once I figure out a few things, I’ll be on my way to New York.”
“Why do so many homeless people go to New York?” Steven asked, raising his eyes to the ceiling. “I guess there’s a lot of people to panhandle to,” he mused.
“I’m not homeless,” I muttered. “I sleep in the garage of my aunt’s house.”
“Oh, so you don’t sleep in here?” Steven leaned in very close to my face.
“My family was always on my case about my ‘career,’ and one time my dad’s sister told me I could stay with her if it’d be helpful for a job, since she lives so close to the city. At the time, I was just annoyed, but thinking about my philosophical treatise and New York City being the capital of the world, I eventually decided to take her up on the offer.”
I saw Steven all the time, and he was always very fascinated by my living situation. One night, he convinced me to take him to the garage at my aunt’s house. He teased me for calling it a garage when it had been converted into an office years back, and I argued that it didn’t get much of the house’s warmth. He was mock-impressed by my kitchen corner, which had a rice cooker, a coffee pot, and big bags of rice and beans I’d stocked up on in an effort to not starve to death, along with a good amount of peanut butter, potatoes, and frozen spinach in the mini-fridge. Then we went to bed together, and unlike when we were at his dorm, I was preoccupied with the thought of my aunt finding out and telling my father. I knew it made me a bad person to fear my father finding out that I was—well, gay? I didn’t feel gay. I wasn’t usually attracted to men. I don’t even think I was attracted to Steven. I don’t know how we ended up together.
“Loneliness,” The Deep rumbled in judgment.
Every morning, I’d wake up before my aunt, throw the day’s supplies into my rucksack, and slip out of the house before she had a chance to question me and report back to my parents. Invariably, I’d end up at the bookstore, and whenever I arrived, I’d walk around the store, the shelves revealing different, intriguing books to me each time. During one such sojourn around the bookstore, The Deep cut through to my weakness: “You spend too much time looking at the outsides of books and not enough time ingesting their innards.” I hated to concede, but it had unearthed a flaw, so I set up shop in the PHILOSOPHY section and redoubled my efforts.
I started with the Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which reinforced my notion that everything was connected, and I needed to read all of the Western canon in order to be well-informed. When I had a big stack of books, I’d sit there on the floor flipping through them, but if I became engrossed in one, I’d take it upstairs to the reading nook and try to stake out one of the comfy chairs.
My research question seemed to be the impossible “How can humanity create and sustain a utopia?” I’d considered writing about how America wasn’t actually a democracy after reading some Chomsky, but my scope was wider, the thrust of my writings was decidedly anti-capitalist. Not that I had much down in my pocket notebook. Most of it was jumbled in my head.
Despite my efforts, I hadn’t managed to read a complete philosophy book, just bits and pieces of several. I blamed this to existing in the internet age, my brain accustomed to reading fragments and jumping around. I also had to read the books very slowly. Every page was littered with words like “dialectical” that I was unfamiliar with, so I’d have to look up terminology, write definitions in my pocket notebook, and reread the passages using synonyms or phrase-definitions until I had a basic idea of what they were saying.
Steven was supposed to help me with philosophy, and he actually tried to set up some sort of philosophical dialogue for me at his university. “A secret philosophy club,” Steven had said. “Off the record. Invite only. We’ll bring philosophy to the information age— ‘God is Dead.’ The tweet that changed the world.”
I think he was just trying to show off. Only one guy from his accounting class came, and they talked about their midterm the whole time.
Steven would never take anything seriously—during a discussion about how every society that seemed good was actually held up on the backs of some servant class, he tried to convince me that was why he wanted to be a big corporate lobbyist when he graduated. “It’s a chill job. You get rich taking politicians out to lunch and playing golf.”
I don’t think he was serious, but he tried to make it seem that way. Another time, he told me he couldn’t make it through a Kafka novel because he didn’t like reading very much. I was so annoyed that I just got dressed and walked out. He was at least nice enough to find me out on campus and drive me back to the bookstore, but then I didn’t see him again for a couple of weeks.
Scrawled in permanent marker on the wall above my bed was a Jack Kerouac poem about the destruction of society. Of particular shock was the part that read:
Atom Bomb warhead
—”DRONE” is the
I read it out loud every morning thinking of the real drones that were destroying societies—my societies?—on the other side of the world. Next to this prophecy sent by a writer-friend from the 1950s, I had taped a recent article on the United States’ drone warfare and the bombings carried out in many countries we weren’t officially at war with. It was very in-depth and mentioned the high numbers of uncounted civilian deaths—the president employing the Orwellian doublespeak “Military Age” to count any males killed as militants, just because the drone murdered them.
I thought of my distant relatives living under these conditions of terror, and knew that I’d be there too if not for chance circumstances that led my father’s family to emigrate. Despite feeling crushed under the pressure, I knew I had to use the life and security I possessed to make the world a better place. I came to philosophy with the hope of discovering the secrets of the universe, and I hoped that my treatise would spread across the world like Marx’s—but unlike his, I’d add provisions to prevent greed from usurping the core ideals.
Currently, I was struggling with the idea of pacifism, since I was very much against violence, bloodshed, and war—yet it seemed that a certain defensive violence needed to be permitted—so how could violent retaliation in the face of a horrendous act like 9/11 be prevented? War was an endless cycle of revenge acts, perhaps the worst thing imaginable by humankind.
I lamented the fate of anyone caught in a war, even the soldiers, who would witness and commit horrors no human should live through, many returning home with brains that could no longer stand to function at a basic level. Here in America, thousands of hobos sleeping out on the streets are war veterans—the government not supporting them once they’ve stopped being useful—an epidemic of veterans ending their sufferings in suicide.
I tried to shake off these overwhelming thoughts as I walked under the pink and purple sky of a brisk dawn. The bookstore wouldn’t be open for a couple of hours, but I often took a morning walk. At bus stops throughout the area, workers waited to make the morning commute into New York. Even here in Clifton, Route 3 was snarled with traffic, and it was worse a few miles up, just outside the Lincoln Tunnel. But if you sat and watched the commuters, you’d see that buses came every five minutes or so. Road workers partitioned a westbound lane each morning, transforming it to a bus-only eastbound lane directly into the tunnel. This enabled the lane of buses to soar past the unmoving cars. I wondered how much philosophizing I could get done during a daily commute, sitting on a bus and suppressing the dread of working in an office.
I kept moving, not wanting to watch the commuters today. Near the bookstore, at the end of a sidewalk next to a grid of suburban houses, there was a vacant overlook where I liked to sit and have a perfect view of New York City. I assumed this was the eponymous cliff—that “Clifton” was a bastardization of “Cliff Town.” It wasn’t down the abyss I wanted to peer, but out at the horizon, which today, revealed a glistening Manhattan skyline emblazoned against a purple sky. Every morning greeted me with a different skyline—sometimes it was paper cutouts, sometimes shadows in the clouds, or other days, a mirage of glittering glass.
New York remained on the horizon of my mind, ever visible, like an imaginary place I couldn’t reach but had to go to. It seemed like the capital of my world—the origin of the global war on terror, the Headquarters of the United Nations, the center for publishing companies, the place where the Great Recession began and the banks were bailed out by our Wall Street government. Who knows what kind of potential exists there? Subsumed somewhere within that eight million people could be the leaders of my politico-philosophical new world order. Yet there it sat, some interesting rectangles that I could block out of my sight with my eyelashes by squinting.
It was after nine, so I got up and walked to the bookstore. My study of philosophy had started with The Zürau Aphorisms by Franz Kafka, a beautiful, tiny book I was obsessed with for all the wrong reasons, which prompted my tenant that a bookstore hobo does not covet books, an anti-materialist idea I’d picked up in the Buddhist writings of Kerouac.
My “Bookstore Hobo Manifesto” was largely my version of Kerouac’s “The Vanishing American Hobo.” I’d savor phrases like “The hobo is born of pride,” or “There’s nothing nobler than to put up with a few inconveniences like snakes and dust for the sake of absolute freedom.” And there was another Kerouac quote that sat in my mind: “Everything belongs to me because I am poor.”
I’d discovered an essay in The Philosophy of the Beats by Christopher Adamo about On the Road depicting the hobo lifestyle as a utopia existing outside of mainstream society, unattached to any specific place, and I imagined my manifesto as the means to create an individual utopia.
On the back cover of the Kafka aphorisms, the word “philosophy” was written. I hadn’t thought of it as a philosophy book, but for some reason, that word “philosophy” embedded itself into my brain, and I started attempting other books of philosophy.
When I was in college, I took a Philosophy 101 class. Honestly, I didn’t like that class and skipped most of the readings—the professor still gave me high marks for “being creative.” I wasn’t ready for philosophy at the time, but the class left a basic impression of the major philosophers in my head, so I knew to start with Plato’s “Apology of Socrates” now that I actually wanted to learn philosophy. That totally jived with me, but a lot of the books I attempted were perplexing. I tried reading philosophical novels because I figured, if I could understand Joyce’s Ulysses, I could read anything, but even basic works like Thus Spoke Zarathustra or Sartre’s Nausea gave me a lot of trouble. My progress in philosophy was slow, but determined.
After a painful weekend trip to my parent’s house, I was thrilled to be back amidst the comfortable shelves of the bookstore. Ramadan fell in the summer this year, and I went with my aunt to celebrate the end of Ramadan and enjoy my mom’s home-cooked feast of Eid al-Fitr. Even though I pretended I’d been fasting the entire time, my father still made the whole thing unbearable. We’ve always been at odds, but anything religious matched against my questioning nature particularly set him off—I wouldn’t accept his misinterpreted scrap of Islam. I don’t even get into it with him anymore, ever since the huge fight in high school when he barged in on me in the bathroom. There I was, huddled over the toilet seat, reading The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie.
I couldn’t get over his delight about my sister’s paid Wall Street internship this summer, which caused me to remember his disappointment when he found out I was a literature major in college. He only told me I had to go to school, not that there were right and wrong majors. I didn’t even talk with him very much this visit, but hovering close to my mom also proved dangerous because she had a lot of questions to ask about my “new job” and how things were going at my aunt’s house and was I sure that it wasn’t better to live here with them? I relied on the excuse that I sometimes had to go into the city for meetings, and it was easy to jump on a bus and head in because we were so close. But was it that easy? Even now, the skyline hovered on my vision like Kafka’s Castle—always visible, but impossible to reach.
Sitting in the PHILOSOPHY aisle with my back against the shelves of RELIGION, I fell in love with the first page of the introduction to Bertrand Russell’s The History of Western Philosophy—it seemed like something that everyone should read—philosophy as the No Man’s Land between religion and science, the most interesting questions being the ones science cannot answer, his list of basic philosophical questions—the whole thing seemed to be written specifically for me, explaining the exact quest I’d undertaken. Sure, I was working on the utopia now, but there was so much more to be done. I scoured the bookshelves in search of the secrets to the universe.
Steven and I were having a long discussion in the café, examining the other patrons and determining if they could help us develop my treatise.
“You can tell a lot about a person by the book they’re carrying,” I said.
“What if they’re not holding a book?” Steven countered. “You can’t always be in a bookstore where everyone carries pieces of souls around with them.”
My treatise couldn’t be too systematic—I had to account for Dostoevsky’s Underground Men, who would tear down systems just to exercise their free will. I also had to take human greed into consideration, which played a major role in Marxism falling apart and was the fundamental evil behind capitalism. I kept in mind something I’d read in The Life of the Mind by Hannah Arendt, “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.”
I felt like I was doing a terrible job because I hadn’t finished any complete books—it seemed proper to me that you pick up a book and read the whole thing, but I kept reading bits and pieces of this and that—Kierkegaard, de Beauvoir, Aristotle, Kristeva, West—I was all over the place, trying to get a handle on everything important that had ever been thought—I think I took this approach from a quote by Goethe: “He who cannot draw on three thousand years is living from hand to mouth.” I read that in a novel called Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder. One of the three novels I had started this quest with, including Thus Spoke Zarathustra and Nausea. I couldn’t make much sense of the latter two, and the former left me skipping like a stone atop the lake of philosophy, not diving in.
For all my hours at the interface between the PHILOSOPHY and RELIGION bookshelves, I probably accomplished just as much at night surfing Wikipedia and other websites. I was looking for ideas that were the best of the best, so I couldn’t just stick with dead white males—the dramatis personae of the earth needed to be considered in my treatise. I jumped across eastern and western philosophy, ancient and contemporary. I found a great website with sections on female philosophers in Ancient Greece and Rome, Early Modern women philosophers, African Philosophy, Native American Philosophy, Feminist Philosophy, Latin American Philosophy, Environmental Philosophy—it was too much to take in all at once.
The motif that philosophy was dangerous also kept cropping up—Socrates was sentenced to death, Arendt said that “thinking itself is dangerous,” Žižek is billed as “The most dangerous philosopher in the west.”
“Just don’t bother me anymore, okay?” I shouted at Steven as I slammed the door of his car and stormed into the bookstore.
It always seemed like he was manipulating me, like the things he said weren’t sincere and he was somehow using me. I could pour my heart out to him and he’d barely respond—or worse, he’d laugh at me. I tried to explain that when I was reading the poetry of Allen Ginsberg, I realized the definitions of sexuality were much more blurred than our society would have us believe. “I can envision a society where the norm is to be bisexual.”
Steven had sniggered. “C’mon, that’ll never happen.”
Maybe he was right. Maybe I could never love him because of his gender. But it didn’t seem like that to me. It felt like everything society had ingrained in me said what we were doing was wrong, but it wasn’t the fact that he was a guy that felt wrong to me, but the way he treated me. A part of me wanted to ignite another relationship with a guy to erase the negative, selfish impressions Steven had left me with.
I crouched upstairs in the POETRY section, staving off tears. I tried to stay rational, but Steven was the only friend I’d had. The bookstore was suddenly so lonely. I had to get out of here.
I had to get out of here and New York was whispering my name. It costs six bucks to take the bus—so what? Simply existing in a capitalist society leeches money every day, so I might as well spend a little bit to go to New York. I threw together my rucksack—The Dharma Bums and a few other books, a spare T-shirt, my quarto notebook, my notebook computer, all of my perishable food and a few cans of beans with a can-opener. I also slipped my debit card into my sock so that I wouldn’t have all my eggs in one wallet.
A few minutes into the walk, I regretted the weight of the rucksack as I felt it biting into my shoulders.
“You’ll get stronger, weakling. Carry it,” The Deep rumbled.
At the bus stop outside the bookstore, I had to wait the better part of an hour until a bus showed up. We zoomed past the periphery of New Jersey—the only sight of note was the ornate Weehawken Public Library built in the 1800s like a German castle—and after a quick trip beneath the Hudson River, I was deposited into the basement of the Port Authority. I’d barely taken two steps when I was face-to-face with a bookstore, which I spent longer than I’d intended perusing. Every so often, the books would all shake as an unseen train blasted by. The underground complex felt post-apocalyptic, as if it’d been constructed for life to continue artificially after the earth above had been destroyed.
I made my way out to the street—face-to-face with the New York Times building glowering down at me—and despite the sky, I felt as though I were still indoors—walls surrounded me, gray pavement covered every inch—this wasn’t outside. Outside required nature. I tried not to gawk up at the skyscrapers like the tourist I was, and just in front of Madison Square Garden, an enormous Borders: Books – Music – Movies – Café emerged before me and beckoned me to enter. My rucksack insisted on falling to the sidewalk, but I lugged myself and my rucksack through the glass and metal mouth.
I took a deep breath and exhaled as I surveyed the wide layout of the store around me. Pale blue walls bordered the store with an occasional patch of deep red, such as behind the café. No bookshelves were readily apparent from the first floor, save the ones built into the far wall. Like the rest of Times Square, people were everywhere. I ignored The Deep’s admonitions as I ordered a coffee and waited a few minutes to stake out a table before I could unload my rucksack and relax. To lighten the load, I munched on flavored tofu as I sipped my coffee and surveyed the store.
“Your big trip and you just sit in another generic, chain bookstore café,” The Deep rumbled like thunder.
“It’s not my fault capitalism mimetically repeats the same stores ad infinitum,” I whispered.
I worked up the strength to peruse the store’s multiple levels and the overwhelming amount of books within its depths. I’ve always felt a mixture of excitement and anxiety when I enter a bookstore or library—anxiety because I feel that I need to read all of the books but will never be able to. Yet now, as I strode past shelves with labels like ENTREPRENEURSHIP and HOME & GARDEN, I was realizing that there were whole sections of books I could just lock up in a mental glass case, never to be read. It shouldn’t be my goal to read all books, but to locate the best and most important to put into my brain.
This chain of thought disintegrated as I stared ahead of me at a monk perusing the POLITICAL SCIENCE shelves. Could this be? I’d never seen a real, live monk before. He had a shaved head, glasses, an orange shawl, and shoes that looked like brown Crocs sandals with wool socks. Who hasn’t occasionally thought that we could get the most out of life by seeking quiet contemplation as a monk in a monastery? He definitely looked like a monk, but what should I do?
“Why would you do anything?” The Deep uttered.
“A monk is a kind of philosopher,” I whispered. How could I talk to him? ‘Hi. Are you a monk?’ That’s stupid. He definitely looks like a monk. ‘Hi there! I always wanted to meet a monk!’ So why didn’t I go to a monastery? The monk’s slow movements were deliberate as he considered various books, and this debate ran through my head as I followed behind him at a distance.
My brain clicked onto something useful and remembered a word I’d learned when I read Siddhartha. “Alms! Monks take alms! They’re wandering hobos—Dharma Bums! They don’t have money. They’re not allowed to have possessions, but people give them food.” Before I had time to overthink it, I was suddenly next to the monk and speaking.
“Excuse me, you’re a monk, right? Could I buy you a cup of coffee or something?”
He was soft-spoken and affirmed that he was a monk, but said, “Actually, we’re about to leave. I came with people.”
“Oh, I see,” I said, turning my face away.
He addressed me once more, “If you’d like to make an offering, you could get this spring water.” He motioned to a lady holding a green bottle of Pellegrino a few paces away in the cafe. He exchanged quiet words with the lady and she seemed to hold back laughter. My cheeks burned. I was treating him like an ancient monk in a story, but clearly these days monks travel with people from the monastery, and it’s just a loophole that they don’t actually pay for their stuff.
I bought him the water.
“So, do you know about Buddhism?” he asked me.
“A little bit,” I muttered. “What I read in Hermann Hesse and Jack Kerouac.”
“Hmm—Jack Kerouac—” He slowly twisted around the syllables like he was traversing an unfamiliar labyrinth. “It was a long time ago—On the Road and The Dharma Bums.” The way he enunciated each syllable of the titles made it sound like they were in a language he could barely pronounce.
“Yeah! The Dharma Bums!”
“Bodhi’s well-read,” the lady said. “He studied philosophy at university. You should come to visit Bodhi’s monastery.”
“It’s upstate,” he said.
“Really? Philosophy? Sounds nice,” I replied. “You’re here visiting?”
My question was lost in the shuffle as the lady told him to write down the address for me. I extracted my notebook and pen from my pocket, and he took it and wrote down the information.
“You should come on a Saturday when Bodhi teaches his class,” the lady said.
“Yes, it’s at nine a.m. on Saturdays,” he added.
“Cool,” I said. “Laypeople can come visit the monastery?”
“Yes,” he said and thought for a moment before adding, “Actually, it’s all laypeople in the class.” He smiled.
“Sounds good,” I said.
The lady stared into my eyes and said, “Buddhism is a wonderful path.”
It was busy in the café, and they disappeared into the crowd.
My lack of foresight caught up with me that night when I realized I didn’t have a place to sleep in New York, and I definitely wasn’t ready to go back. I walked the area around Times Square for hours, and even after midnight it was still crowded. In Jersey, I’d seen people asleep at the bookstore, but here in the city, rules were strict. There was always a security guard who woke people up when they nodded off.
My whole body was complaining at me with ache. I decided to go back to the Port Authority. It was quieter now, and I followed a few halls to an area where people seemed to be waiting for a train. I sat down on a seat near them, put my backpack between my feet, and—faster than I’d expected—fell asleep sitting up, not waking again until the commuters’ morning rush.
I explored New York, but as an outsider. There were plenty of sights to see, yet the skyscrapers, the crowds of people—they were useless to me as I gaped up or was shoved past. I sat against one of the lion statues outside the library, contemplating how I could harness all the potential of this place.
The Strand’s eighteen miles of books were fascinating, but PHILOSOPHY was relegated to one shelf in the basement.
At Cooper Union, I learned that I’d just missed a Slavoj Žižek lecture by a week.
Kerouac’s papers were stored at the Berg Collection, but they wouldn’t let me up to see them without academic research credentials.
Once, I made it downtown to the financial district and stood before the construction of the One World Trade Center, staring up at what was becoming a sparkling spiral of glass, but thinking that this had been the place where so many had lost their lives, and the course of the world veered to a path of increased violence and oppression. Like any historical sight I’d been to, now it was just a place like every place, no feeling of past events stuck to it.
All that day, I kept thinking about the racist bullshit I’d heard after 9/11—the jocks I had to fight in the locker room, the whispering behind my back. Even now, I get an odd feeling from certain people—that because of the color of my skin and beard, it’s not “hobo” that they whisper to describe me, but “terrorist.” At these thoughts my jaw goes tight and my eyes threaten to burn. I breathe deeply and think of my philosophical treatise. “None will feel the need for terrorism when everyone’s been given a fair chance at life,” I whisper.
During one morning rush, I sat near some other hobos where there was outdoor seating near Herald Square—a line from Kerouac popped into my head, “I myself was only a hobo of sorts.” The people rushing to work came from all walks of life, and I marveled that they should all be here now, hurrying to do a job they may or may not have wanted to do. Socrates had been a hobo in the marketplace, questioning everyone into dialogue, but all I managed to get out of the hobos was “Good luck” and “God bless.”
“So, do you want to have kids?” Veena asked across the table.
“What?” I sputtered, even though I heard her perfectly fine in the quiet din of the café.
“Children. Offspring. You want them?”
She laughed. “In general. I know someone who got divorced after a year because her husband wanted kids and she didn’t, so I’ve learned to always ask this on a first date.”
“We’re on a date?”
“Don’t dodge the question and don’t pretend the looks you’re giving me are purely platonic.”
I blushed and stammered. “Well, kids, I uh, don’t particularly want to have them, but I haven’t entirely discounted it yet. If I did have a child, I’d raise him or her to be a Philosopher King—or Philosopher Queen.”
Veena snickered and shoved my shoulder. “Oh really? What does that entail?”
“I don’t know. You raise them to understand the power of questioning and thought, and how these could be used to influence the world’s powers. Something like that. I haven’t even figured out much philosophy myself yet, but that’s how Kierkegaard’s dad made him a philosopher.”
In Penn Station days later, Plato said to me, “I tried to create a Philosopher King once. Wouldn’t recommend it—I was lucky to escape with my life.”
“Your answer is odd, Zaid.” Veena responded. “I’ll have to penetrate it further at a later date.” She was poking at her phone. “Give me your number. I’ll text you mine.”
“I don’t have a phone,” I muttered.
“I told you, I’m a hobo.”
“This again!” she sighed, referencing our earlier conversation in which she attempted to disprove that I was a hobo.
“My notebook computer is good enough. There’s free electricity and WiFi in here, so we can message on Facebook, Gmail—whatever you’d like.”
“Because hobos always have computers.” She poked me in the chest.
I’ve heard it’s impossible to meet strangers in New York, but when I saw a beautiful woman sitting in the café and reading The Origins of Totalitarianism, I had to at least try to talk to her. I think she understands the book a lot more than I do. She disagrees with everything I say, but I think that’s what makes her a philosopher. When I said that, she said she’s not a philosopher, and I just smiled.
I saw plenty of great bookshops in the city. Many were tiny specialty shops with expensive signed and first edition books. I went to a couple branches of the library too, but I don’t know why I wasn’t drawn to libraries—possibly my experience that they were authoritarian places with no talking and heavy enforcement of rules, which is probably not true of most contemporary libraries. And it wasn’t even in a bookstore that I conceived of the manifesto, but at a mall, where you could sit for hours, use the free WiFi and bathrooms, enjoy the heat or air conditioning, and even get free samples. I imagined waves of us—hobos by choice, existing in the cracks between capitalism. Eventually capitalism wouldn’t be able to sustain people who went to stores but didn’t buy anything, and we’d need to start ushering in a new system with universal healthcare and a government that didn’t indiscriminately murder people in undeclared wars—we’d need to use empathy to recreate society according to John Rawls’ Veil of Ignorance.
Most of the time, I’d stay in the café and work on figuring out philosophy. Veena stopped by to see me frequently, and sometimes, she’d take me out to dinner. A couple of times, we even ended the evening with a kiss.
“Hey man, mind if I grab a seat?” a portly guy said, appearing next to me.
“Sure,” I muttered, looking up from my book. I could see the café was packed during lunchtime.
“What’s that dictionary you’re reading?” he asked as he unwrapped an oversized sandwich.
“Origins of Totalitarianism,” I said, holding up the cover.
He made a noise in his throat. “What other kinda books d’you like?”
“Well,” I shrugged, “I guess Kafka and Kerouac are my favorite authors.”
“A Kerouac guy!” he shouted. “Oh, he’s one of the greats. It’s a shame though, really tragic. Big Sur always gets me. Here was this guy, filled with all this optimism and enthusiasm for life in the earlier books—and out there in uh, what was it? Gary Snyder’s cabin in California, he—”
“Lawrence Ferlinghetti,” I muttered.
“Right, City Lights. And he just has a breakdown. Succumbs to alcoholism. So sad. Tragic.”
“Yeah, it is,” I agreed. “Visions of Cody is great though,” I said as he took several chunks out of his sandwich at once. “I love the beginning where Jack’s just wandering the streets at night, following people he finds interesting and writing the sketches in his secret notebooks.”
“Oh yeah, I used to use some of those sketches when I taught Creative Nonfiction.”
“Yeah. I’m an adjunct at some of Manhattan’s finest colleges and universities.”
“Cool,” I said, surprised to be speaking with a professor.
“Not really,” he grumbled. “Yeah, it’s cool to talk books, and there are certainly worse jobs, but the pay’s awful, the schedule’s crazy, and I’ve gotta live with four roommates just to keep a roof over my head. If one of my classes doesn’t run, I don’t know how I’ll pay my bills. I’m one notch above a bum.”
“What can you do? I think I’ll throw some Kerouac back into my syllabi.” He was wolfing down the last nub of his sandwich. “Hey man, the name’s Ryan Radcliff,” he held out his hand to me. “I gotta run to class, but look me up at Columbia and shoot me an e-mail sometime if you wanna get together for another cuppa coffee and talk books.”
As I watched him leave, my eye fell on a group of girls chuckling at a corner table. One was Muslim, identifiable by her hijab. When the group prepared to depart, the girl pulled on a hoodie, despite the summer heat, and used the hood to hide her headscarf. I thought of the intense opposition to putting a “mosque” near the World Trade Center, and our imperialist wars against Muslim countries. Why should she suffer the results of thousands of years of bullshit just because of the family she was born into? Why should she disguise the fact that she’s a Muslim?
I thought of the horrible acts done in the name of Americans: wars, drone strikes, torture, spying, loss of civil rights—Would there come a time when I wanted to disguise the fact that I’m an American?
I was idly getting a refill of coffee when I noticed the enormous hiking rucksack of the guy standing in front of me. It was fully equipped with camping gear and topped with solar panels. Tied to the bottom of the bag was a big cardboard sign that read, “Broke, Hungry, Travellin. Anything helps.” He had a hole pierced in the top of one ear in which he kept a cigarette, and he was covered in tattoos.
“Dogs need more water?” the barista asked as he handed the sweaty guy an iced coffee.
“Yeah,” he said with a smile. “Thank you very much.” He had two dogs tied up outside, each with their own little backpack.
My brain was spinning as much as the wooden stirrer in my coffee as I walked back to my seat. There was more intrigue than sweat dripping off that cool hobo guy. I had to talk to him—but how? He could be the Neal Cassady to my Jack Kerouac, regaling me with stories of his adventures. What if we went on an adventure together?
I watched him empty the iced coffee into a big thermos and come back in for a free refill. I followed him outside, not sure what to say, but he was immediately distracted by a guy with a French bulldog who was playing with the hobo dogs. They talked about dogs for a while before the guy in khakis commented, “Wow, that’s some hiking gear you’ve got there! You look like you’re ready for anything.”
“Yeah, I’m hoping to hit some of the Appalachian in the next few days,” the hobo responded with a certain twang to his words.
“And whatdoya got there, solar panels?”
“Yep, they charge my cell phone so I don’t have to sit in a Starbucks and charge it like I used to. Only electronics I have, but the cell phone’s saved my butt on quite a few occasions.”
“Saved him?” I thought, wondering what kind of crazy exploits this guy had under his belt.
“You got a tent rolled up there?” the guy asked.
“Nah, I’ve got a sleeping bag and a tarp, but I don’t use a tent—attracts too much attention. I do a lot of Urban Camping,” I was staring at a chip on one of his yellowed teeth as he said this, and he said it with such pride, such a sense of achievement— “Urban Camping” —that I instantly knew it meant more to him than I could know. “I can go into a park, get behind a couple of bushes with the tarp, and no one notices me. Urban Camping. And I can use some rope to make it into a tent if I want.”
“Wow, you’re way off the grid!” the guy in khakis exclaimed.
“Yeah, I’m ready for the apocalypse,” the hobo laughed.
“You’re even ready for the next financial meltdown or whatever.”
“That’s great. Well, nice chatting, I should be on my way,” the other guy said, tightening the reins on his dog.
“You have yourself a nice rest of your day!” the hobo said cheerfully, before switching to a stern voice to call his dogs: “With me!”
I was hoping that with the other guy out of the way—back to his business casual office job or whatever, where he could dream about having adventures while he sits in a cubicle like I used to—the cool hobo and I could get into the real stuff—he could tell me all about his adventurous life, his past, his future, his lifestyle, his philosophies, and then we could even go on adventures together; he could show me how to be a real adventurer—but I was incapable of expressing any of this to him, and he was already disappearing around the corner of the next block.
It was sometime after three a.m.—I was staggering through Times Square, eyes wide, heartbeat faltering. My sleep in the Port Authority had been interrupted by the demand for my wallet. I don’t know if he had a weapon, but I was startled and complied. Now I wandered, shot through with fear. Eventually, I found a 24-hour café and sat in there, using my sock debit card to get a cup of coffee. I didn’t think of reporting my credit cards stolen until mid-afternoon, and that was also when I messaged Veena and asked her if she could meet up later.
It was getting late as Veena ran her slender finger along the spines of EASTERN PHILOSOPHY books at a two-floor bookshop on the Upper West Side. I thought of returning to the Port Authority tonight and my heartbeat intensified.
“So uh,” I tried. “I don’t really have a place to sleep tonight.”
“Worst pickup line ever,” Veena laughed, “But sure. You can stay in my dorm. It’s dead in the summer.”
When she had her work-study job the next morning, she told me to make myself at home, and she’d be back in the afternoon. In fact, she didn’t kick me out for weeks. I’d like to report that I accomplished a lot while she was away at class or work, but much of my time was preoccupied trying to cure a toothache that I couldn’t see a dentist about because I didn’t have medical insurance. Tea bags on gums climaxed into me going to a pet store and ingesting fish amoxicillin. Veena, tired of my antics, took me to the NYU College of Dentistry and paid for a student dentist to give me a filling.
“I’m forever indebted to you,” I said as we sat in the cafeteria, my speech slurred and my brain blurred.
“I told you not to worry about it, and if you say it again, I’m going to punch you,” Veena retorted.
Our conversation returned to her studies: “I’m majoring in political science because it’s supposed to be a good pre-law degree, but I haven’t yet figured out how I’ll slip out of my parents’ path of turning me into a lawyer.”
“Just tell them you don’t want to do it,” I said.
“You don’t know my parents, Zaid.”
I had ascertained that Veena was working on some big secret project that wasn’t part of her homework, but she was furtive about it, and I didn’t want to pry. Since Veena was busy, I forced myself to sit at the little fold-out table she’d given me and work on my treatise. There was such a big swirl of thoughts in my brain that I was having difficulty extracting them and arranging them into my notebook.
I decided that I needed a more efficient system to get my thoughts on paper, so I slammed my head down onto the notebook page with all my might. It took a few times slamming my head down to crack my thoughts open, but finally a line split down my forehead and in between my eyes, from which black fluid poured onto the notebook. At first, it would simply drench the open page in the thick, dark liquid, but as more leaked out, it would begin to seep through to the pages below and congeal in different spots, so that letters, words, and sentences would form over a period of hours. In this trance, I was unable to discern if I was sleeping or waking; dreaming or living.
“Won’t that kill you?” The Deep asked.
“Yes. But perhaps not before I can finish my treatise.”
Dead philosophers would visit me while Veena was away at work or class, but they were always pessimistic and not particularly helpful.
“I have been forced to recognize grave mistakes in what I wrote in that first book,” Ludwig Wittgenstein said to me. “It is not impossible that it should fall to the lot of all my work, in its poverty and in the darkness of this time, to bring light into one brain or another—but, of course, it is not likely.”
Even The Deep showed up in corporeal form to torment me.
“I feel like we should have a showdown or something,” I said.
“Why?” The Deep grumbled.
“Because you’re like, my evil twin or something.”
“Do you really expect to be a philosopher when you have not yet moved to the stage Beyond Good and Evil?”
I thought of that day when I’d been so happy after quitting my office job, comparing the image of past me in my business dress to me now, slumped on the sidewalk of New York City, long hair reaching past my shoulders, black beard unshaven, dirty green T-shirt, black cargo pants, and sneakers duct-taped to keep the water out.
I frowned at the New Jersey landscape as I sat on the bus, replaying the fight I’d had with Veena and increasingly feeling on the wrong side of it. Whenever she went out with friends, she never took me along, and when we ran into a couple of her acquaintances on the street, she acted so odd toward me that I just lost it afterward. Sure, I was a hobo, but I thought she liked that about me. Even when I’d been sleeping in the Port Authority, I made sure to give myself a daily hobo shower—using a bathroom sink to wash all the vital areas—and my beard and hair would put me right at home in a melodic death metal band.
After I stormed out, I sat out on the humid sidewalk for hours, feeling furious—my thoughts shifting like the endcap displays in bookstores. “If only my father could see me now,” I whispered, watching the blurred legs of passersby.
I thought of returning to Veena, but rage overwhelmed my limbs to movement, and I spent the last of my money to take a bus back to Jersey.
My head leaned on the cool glass of the bus window, an analytical portion of my mind tried to pinpoint my animosity toward Veena. Wasn’t I overreacting? Hadn’t she shown me immense kindness? She’s such an interesting person—I can’t have uncovered even her surface layers.
“Yet I think I might be in love with her—”
“Really? The L-word?” The Deep snarled. “You think that after you storm out?”
I put my head in my hands. “What have I done? I have to go back.”
I held my rucksack in front of me and slid down the aisle to the front of the bus. “Hey, I changed my mind. I want to go back to the Port Authority,” I said to the bus driver.
“Sorry, man. I’m not going back there,” the driver said. “I’ve got a different route after this one. You’ve got to get off and take the next bus back.”
The problem was that I didn’t have money for the next bus back. Of course, my work for Ring-Whorled Prow paid nil, so when I was in New York, I’d used some websites where you can bid for freelance work and managed to get a few gigs, but the pay is crap and the only reason I haven’t starved recently is that Veena’s been sharing her food with me. Oh Veena, why am I such an idiot?
I got off the bus in front of the bookstore and walked inside. “This doesn’t look right,” I muttered as I realized the whole place was different. Instead of the tables of books that usually greeted customers upon arrival, there was a gigantic eBook display—it took up most of the first floor. There were tablets, eReaders, and screens everywhere—some showing book covers, yes, but most of them flashing and making noise as they showed all manner of apps—games, social networking, productivity. As I stood there in shock at this blasphemy, one of the salespeople actually started asking me questions about my reading habits in an effort to determine which eReader would be best for me.
I escaped and found that the PHILOSOPHY section had been displaced to the upstairs, replacing any comfy chairs. Once there, I sat on the ground and collected my thoughts.
“It would seem that hoboism is having an effect,” I whispered. “Clearly, the bookstore is hemorrhaging money and has done this in an attempt to increase sales, but people with eReaders download books; they don’t need bookstores. And why did I start with bookstores anyway? They’re actually an enjoyable store—I should have started by taking down the malls where I conceived this idea.”
“And what does any of this have to do with ending drone warfare or healing society? Have you even made progress in your treatise?” The Deep asked.
“Right, I should work on it.” I stood up and examined the books on the shelf. Nietzsche’s Insanity, the title of one book stabbed into my brain. Great Philosophers Who Failed at Love, another book sliced, causing me to grab at the yawning feeling in my chest.
“I’ve got to get out of here.”
I ran out of the store.
I counted myself lucky that my aunt’s car wasn’t in the driveway and slipped into my garage room where I sat on the floor for a long while, my forehead in my palm.
I’d done a pretty good job of achieving my goals, hadn’t I? I’d read a bunch of philosophy, wrote my ideas down, and even made it to New York. So why did I feel worse than ever?
“Did you really think you’d end war, poverty, and discrimination with your notebook?” The Deep grumbled.
The hobo with the dogs returned to my memory—he walked everywhere, and he couldn’t take his dogs on public transportation. “That’s it!” I shouted. “The George Washington Bridge!” It hadn’t occurred to me, but I knew you could walk across it. “If there’s anywhere I’m going to be able to finish this treatise, it’s New York, and if there’s anyone smart enough to help me with it, it’s Veena. And if I’m going to achieve my goals, it will require thought.”
I took out my notebook computer and checked the directions on Google Maps. It indicated it would take five hours to walk from here to Fort Lee. I looked out the window. It was already getting dark, so I considered waiting until morning.
“I can’t wait!” I shouted. “I have to leave now and just hope Veena takes me back.”
I edited the supplies in my rucksack and printed out the directions upstairs in my aunt’s office.
With a fresh cup of my aunt’s cardamom coffee in my hand, I walked outside into the dusk and down the sidewalk toward the highway. How long could I keep up this life? It wasn’t sustainable. Wasn’t I going to need a job—to establish myself?—to pay back debts? And even if Veena lets me in, what about the fall, when she’s got a full load of classes and her roommate’s back? I can’t leech off her forever.
“Google is being generous with its five-hour estimate,” I said. “But I hope I make it there before dawn.”
And so, as I walked down the shoulder of Clifton Avenue in the cool breeze of a summer night, my hands gripping the straps of my rucksack, an occasional car cruising past me, and a thousand stars shining their bright souls down into my eyes, I took a deep breath of the same refreshing air that countless adventurers throughout time had breathed and thought of everything that was good in this sad, messed up world.
Joseph Patrick Pascale’s novel, How to Get a Promotion When Your Boss Is Trying to Kill You, will be published by Waldorf Publishing next year. His short fiction has been published in Birkensnake, Literary Orphans, Pidgeonholes, SPANK the CARP, The American (Rome), Apeiron Review, Off the Rocks, Instigatorzine, On a Narrow Windowsill: Fiction and Poetry Folded onto Twitter, Seven by Twenty, Cuento Magazine, and other journals and anthologies. He was part of the editorial team for Drunken Boat, an international online literary journal of the arts, and he contributes nonfiction to literary publications such as Full Stop or his personal blog, Cryptomnesia. Pascale studied under poet Mark Doty when he earned his Master of Arts in Literature from Centenary University. He worked as a farmhand, reporter, auto parts deliverer, executive recruiter, and reference book editor before becoming an educator. You can read more at his website: http://www.josephpatrickpascale.com.