Returning to Abnormal
So how, one might ask, did I find myself on the day my city “reopened” walking around downtown giggling uncontrollably with my friend Abraham* both out of our minds on acid? Well, let me explain.
It was a few weeks ago that Ontario officially began its “reopening,” a term that evokes a department store sale and entails widening the range of businesses allowed to operate under the shadow of the pandemic. It was a surprisingly grim affair: I had the sense that the general public and average workers were far less keen to “return to normal” than business owners and politicians. My social media feed was engorged with restaurateurs trying to line up reservations on one side, and servers asking people not to go out and eat on the other. Four months into our relationship with this virus and we still have a great many mysteries about how it spreads and what damage it does. The people who are nearest to being our test subjects tend to be in jobs with little pay and meager social esteem. Asking them to put their lives on the line so white-collar professionals can avoid learning how to cook for themselves seems a bit crass; the weekend had all the atmosphere of a childhood party arranged for kids who aren’t actually friends and don’t want to be there.
In fact, by the time it finally happened, the spectacle of reopening had taken on a carnivalesque tone, a sort of sideshow tent hucksterism that seemed breathless and hysterical: Come see the half-living economy and be amazed! Keep children’s fingers away from its jaws! No one over the age of 65 will be admitted! To sociologists, the carnivalesque is a “liminal” state, in which the normal rules of social life are suspended and held up to ridicule. Which is pretty much what the virus has done. Using LSD seemed a bit superfluous, but not inappropriate.
Abraham is about as much like myself as I can stand in a friend. He’s Jewish, and I’m more Jewesque. We’re both middle-aged, divorced, socially-alienated, slightly neurotic cynics. He has a bit more equanimity than I do; I have a bit more unfounded hope left. We both have an uneasy relationship with academia after entirely too much experience. He’s trying to get his life together, although certain events have made it difficult. His old life has effectively come to an end and a new life is taking shape, slowly and painfully. I am dimly aware that the contours of my own life no longer match what’s in my heart. I work sporadic maintenance shifts at the university where he studies, have a book coming out this winter and hope to have another out next year, and am only happiest doing this: assembling sentences and paragraphs. Neither of us is particularly suited to ever “return to normal.”
I think all of us have had the occasional sense that our lives are performances for someone else’s benefit, be they teachers, parents, bosses, or spouses. Sartre called this a type of “bad faith,” which he attributed, somewhat dickishly, to the “ceremonial” aspect of certain trades, writing about the waiter whose actions are a little too waiterly, and who is aware of the disconnect between the role he is playing and the self playing it. Sartre spent a lot of time writing in cafes and it’s a somewhat acrid image to imagine him sitting there writing about the waiter’s supposed fear of freedom.
He had a point though that society tends to “work hard to imprison a man in what he is, as if we lived in perpetual fear that he might escape it, that he might overflow and suddenly elude his condition.” We are most offended, as he puts it, by a grocer who dreams. We want things to function smoothly without real investment on our part. How much more coercive is it when the waiter is on the “front lines” of a viral outbreak, being told it is fundamental to our society that he keep serving tapas and sugary deserts. At the very least, few could have anticipated the apocalypse would have frozen yogurt.
This social pressure is a bit more red-faced and spittle-flecked in a “revitalizing” city like ours, one of a great many North American hamlets where the local government has attempted to supplant a moribund- although, not as much in decline as purported- industrial economy with a service economy of high end boutiques and gourmet restaurants. A great many hopes are hanging on the very thin reed of our becoming a “foodie destination.” In reality, we excel in neither type of industry: ours is a real estate economy. The boutiques are window dressing. The real money is in financialized real estate speculation. The waiters can barely afford our rents. Normal was already built on sand before the deluge.
Abraham had purchased tabs of acid and found the first one didn’t work for him the week prior; he was willing to try again though. I came over to his house around noon on a day in which the heat enshrouded you and hung off your face, and I was already a bit delirious. We both had to gulp down mason jars of cold water before we could begin and lie on the couches for a bit because our backs and feet hurt. If anything says middle-aged Jewish man more than dropping acid and talking about your back pain, I don’t know what it is.
As everyone knows, LSD takes a certain amount of time to be absorbed and take effect, and when it does, I find it’s a bit of a telescoping effect: things become at once more distant and more vibrant. The fish tank across the room looked as if it was situated down a dark hallway and as radiantly illuminated as a shrine. Shadows slithered up the walls and the floor dropped out of sight. It was a pleasant sensation. I enjoy acid; you become a stickler for details. Everything seems luminous and significant, but also hilarious in its mundaneness.
I enjoyed this contrast for either five minutes or six hours when my friend said “We should probably go get alcohol.” I’m not a drinker really- when I take acid, I usually want tart candies. And I was not feeling inclined to surf the streets on acid. It seemed like a misguided idea all around, so I agreed to it.
The sun was an interrogator’s floodlight as we set off down Main Street feeling every hitch and buckle of a sidewalk like broken piano keys. The buildings leaned down to watch us from above and the occasional lone woman glided by like a feather, her lacquered fingernails gleaming. Gender is somehow an indicator of gentrification. You can always tell when you’re in a poor neighborhood because you see more young males on the street; young women are more dominant in higher-income spaces. We were approaching one of those areas. I avoided eye contact for the normal reason: I don’t want them calling the police.
We passed a fenced-in vacant lot teeming with garbage and overgrown weeds.
“Imagine how many small varmints must be in there,” Abraham said.
“My cat would love it,” I said. “Someone should turn it into a safari for bored housecats.”
“Drive them around in little Jeeps? Stop and let them out when they see a mouse?”
“Outfit them in pith helmets. I’d pay for this service.” I would too.
Up the block, we passed City Hall and an old hotel with a sign by the door reading “No Peddlers Allowed.” This amused my friend. “Do you think they have a problem with peddlers sneaking in and selling their wares? Off little tables?”
“Oh, like the cigarette girls with the trays around their necks?”
“Yes, I just imagine the peddlers hide them under black trench coats and sneak in.”
“I wouldn’t put it past a peddler. I also have a theory that many of the so-called people who are opposed to removing statues are really groups of pigeons in black trench coats.”
“Yeah, that makes sense. Let’s cross.” We cross the courtyard of the local art gallery to the Northwest entrance of the mall that occupies several blocks of downtown. This is the only entrance open and, in order to enter, you have to first line up and get past two security guards. We queue up and everyone in the line is given a paper ticket to deposit at the store of their choice. Nearly all of the stores are closed; everyone in line is there for the LCBO (Licquor Control Board of Ontario). When we’re handed the tickets, I make the obvious comparison.
“I hope this is a good ride.”
“Disneyland has really gone downhill.”
“This is the Children of Men ride, right?”
On the sidewalk, a cluster of holloweyed heads perched on piles of clothing watch a stocky street preacher ranting about getting right with God before death comes, while his assistant yowls in tongues behind him. It feels a bit too on the nose for me. “I’m glad he’s here,” I comment, “I’d feel cheated off a bit if he wasn’t.”
We enter the mall and leave our tickets in a bowl. There is a metal table of hand sanitizers and four staff members huddled off to the side nervously giggling. My friend grabs handfuls of the most bizarre bottles he can find and we line up again. At the cash register, there is a plexiglass partition and after every few customers, a girl runs up with a spray bottle and a cloth and cleans it as quickly as possible, while her coworkers laugh and cheer. I whisper to Abraham: “Just imagine how many young people are coming of age right now and will have lifelong sexual fantasies about the plexiglass cleaner girl. Just like those roller-skating waitresses from the 50s.”
We depart and, as my apartment is on the other side of the mall, decide to traverse the building by its large and decrepit 70s architecture rooftop “social area,” which I cleaned for a year and still refer to as the J.G. Ballard Memorial Rooftop. Usually, there are homeless men up there drinking or shooting up or smoking marijuana, but it is eerily abandoned today. The only person we pass is an attractive young woman who eyes me seductively, or at least I think. Maybe she didn’t. I keep my head down.
After this point, our perceptions are equally out-of-whack, but I think the following happened. We walked the sidewalk around the building. Are we being perused by horses? I wondered. No, there was a woman in high heels on the sidewalk. We walked past the large empty parking garage that feeds into the large empty mall. “Did you hear that?” Abraham asked. It sounded like a woman’s voice deep within in the parking garage screaming and singing like a siren. On the next block, a group of gym-toned muscle men in short pants stood outside of a bubble tea and sweets place eating from tiny cups of ice cream and giggling together. We crossed to avoid them.
We headed to my apartment and its expansive roof, which has become a distanced meeting place for friends and other recovering adults throughout the pandemic. Me and Abraham sat on the roof and watched clouds roll and mushroom, twist and deflate.
As it happened, my roommate was having people on the roof for her friend’s birthday that night and “perhaps she might not want to deal with two guys who are tripping balls” it was politely explained to us. After making sure to visit my cat Iggy and tell him how wise I think he is, we left for the basement record store I help run. We passed a restaurant patio with three people dining and a lineup of young people waiting for take out pizza. My friend asked them repeatedly what they were watching, unconvinced they were just there for oven-baked pizza. Otherwise, the downtown shopping district was vacant.
Once safely hidden in the basement, Abraham and I listened to the most horrific music we could find- Throbbing Gristle, Lingua Ignota, Napalm Death, etc. and still laughed. It felt as if we were huddling underground while brutal storms ravaged the aboveground, rivers of disease flowing down the stairs to the shop. Another existential gen holds that all human be-ing is directed into the future and is ultimately being-towards-death. It felt like we were at the rotten heart of that trip, at its final destination, still laughing. After months of platitudes about normalcy, it felt cathartic and necessary.
The strangest part of this pandemic time is how death and horror have been domesticated and defanged, incorporated into our narcoleptic routines of work and consumption and killing time. I keep thinking of Death in Venice and its dissolute artist in the Grand Hotel resort trying to get anyone to tell him if people are really dying of cholera throughout the city, while he clings to an image of youth as cold and distant as the moon.
Abraham’s girlfriend came and picked us up in her car and drove us back to his house. She was exhausted after a 12-hour shift and so he made us sausages and played us records and then it was time for the two of them to go to bed. I excused myself and walked back home through a poorer part of the city that seemed closer to pandemonium. Young men were yelling on corners, walking into traffic, starting fights, breaking windows, fireworks exploding just above our heads. If a society is a vehicle that helps transport us through our lives, there seems to be a part broken, maybe for a long time now. There’s a feeling that someone else is driving and it’s not clear where we’re going. Certainly not back to normal.
I had been slightly deranged for eight hours by this point and was now alone, sweating, my thoughts like a skull full of hornets. But, I had survived on this side of sanity. And it seemed that Abraham and I had caused no real damage. This is good. There’s already a surplus of indolent men like us with too much education and no idea how to make anything better. The best we can hope is to do no harm.
Half exhausted, I returned to the record store and I listened to gospel music until the sun came up.
(*Not his name, of course.)