The Urban Sherpa - a blog by Christopher DeWan

(patently peripatetic...)

Read Work and Other Essays, a collection of nonfiction by Christopher DeWan.

An American Dream rating

American Dream

(This piece was the featured story in Necessary Fiction the week of October 24, 2012.)

The blast of cold air blew through our office and unmoored the various collected memos, contracts, loosely-held Post-It notes, food menus, and business cards, so it looked like a ticker tape parade, or anyway, it looked like our idea of a ticker tape parade: none of us had ever seen a ticker tape parade. None of us had ever seen ticker tape.

“Jesus!,” someone shouted. Then another: “Jesus! Jesus!”

One of the employees had climbed out his window and was now balanced on a ledge he shared with three skittish pigeons.

I didn’t even know the windows opened this high up.

Somehow it fell on me to talk him back inside, maybe because I am the designated fire deputy, or maybe I was designated as the fire deputy for the same reason that I was now being chosen for this task — a reason which has never been made clear to me.

“Doug,” I called out.

Nothing in my background as a copywriter had specifically prepared me to help in situations such as these.

“Doug, why don’t you come back inside?”

He didn’t answer. I’d expected him to look like a crazed person out there on the ledge, but he didn’t. He looked collected, all things considered. The pigeons, too, had settled down, acclimated to the idea of him, and the four of them perched there, Doug and the three birds, as if resting, or admiring the sunset, or waiting for the train.

“Doug,” I tried again. Was it normal to keep saying a person’s name in these instances? I did it naturally without planning, and wondered if it was residual muscle memory from some mandatory management training session. “Is everything okay? You want to talk?”

“Oh, hey,” he said to me, as if noticing me for the first time, as if we’d bumped into each other in the kitchenette while fetching coffee.

“What are you doing out there, man?”

A pigeon started pecking curiously at his leg, and he shooed it away till all three birds flew off, flock mind.

“Aren’t you cold?” I asked him.

“I’m good.”

“Come on, it’s winter out. Why don’t you come back inside?”

“I don’t want to go back inside. I don’t want to go back inside ever.” He looked at me, and I noticed he was sweating. “I don’t want that life anymore,” he said, and he shivered, maybe at the thought of staplers and khaki pants and action items, or maybe just the cold air.

“Okay. That’s okay. You don’t have to. I mean, why don’t you come back in, and then you can have any life you want. Start over. Have an adventure. Start fresh. It’s the American dream, right? No matter what you think, you can come back inside and then have any life you want.”

I helped him climb back through the window, and then security helped him out of the building, and then the police helped him to the hospital, and after three days under observation the hospital released him into the care of his parents, which, if you ask me, is enough to make any grown man a suicide risk.

* * *

Doug’s parents lived in a suburb of Cleveland. He stayed with them for one week; He cleaned up their basement, breaking down the cardboard boxes they’d been accumulating with the purchase of each successive electronic device: the VCR box under the DVD box under the TiVo box under the box for the plasma TV; it was a sculptural timeline of the forward march of technology, a micro view of the history of man, as seen through a decade’s worth of packaging materials for consumer electronics.

Doug started rereading some of the books he’d kept from his college years, Russian literature and French poetry and economics and music theory and the history of Japan. He had open copies of a dozen books and seemed to want to read them all concurrently.

Then, at the end of that week, he disappeared, leaving twelve open books, a vacant corner of the basement where cardboard boxes had been piled, and no note.

* * *

The next we heard, Doug was crossing the Missouri River in a Conestoga wagon, en route to Nebraska. He meant to grab himself some acreage and some cattle, and work the land till the dust had caked with the sweat on his skin. It’s honest work, he said, and I’ll sleep as well as I ever have.

And we might not have heard from him at all after that, except that some time later he sent a note that his beloved wife (for he’d married) had died from a fever, and with nothing but sadness keeping him where he was, he packed his things and set out for California. “The air is like oranges,” he wrote.

Once arrived, he built an oil derrick by hand, and before long, he was slick with wealth and petroleum; but he knew no matter how much prosperity he drilled from the ground, he would never get his wife back; so he traded his claims for a chest of gold and a seaworthy sailboat built in the Chinese style, and he aimed the boat toward the setting sun, and disappeared again.

Next we heard from Doug, he was missing his right leg from the knee down. He’d lost it fighting a civil war, “to help take back for the people that which was rightfully theirs.” Where?, we asked. What country? But the color fell from his eyes. “The wrong side won, and the country I knew doesn’t have a name anymore.”

A publisher made a book out of Doug’s journals from the war, and it became quite famous; but Doug himself had moved on.

We lost him for a while. We heard he moved up north, that he’d remarried and had children, that he’d returned to the city. Sometimes one of us would claim they’d seen him on the street, or at the museum, or stepping into an elevator. We heard he was involved in a real estate deal, had a venture in medicine, heard he had learned to harness the power of the sun. We heard he was building a rocket ship with his daughter. No one knew for sure. Everyone wondered, but then, everyone forgot, too.

* * *

I was at work. I’d done well for myself. I had a corner office with pictures of my family on the desk. I had someone to answer my phone calls, and when I did take a call, I was loud and warm and gregarious, and people were almost always happy to speak with me.

Things moved forward as they should.

But on this day, for some reason, I felt a little flushed, and muddy in the head. “Please hold my calls,” I said to the person who answers my phone, as I laid down on my office sofa. “I’m going to try and sleep this thing off.”

When I woke, there were loose papers tossed around my office, and a cold wind ripped in through the window. I didn’t even know the windows opened up here.

Doug was there, sitting on my window ledge. “I made you some tea,” he said. I took it, and, edging out the window, sat down next to him. “Doug! How are you? Where’ve you been?”

Breaking horses.

Splitting atoms.

Striking gold.

Doug was silent. Then he spoke.

“There’s nothing about the world that you don’t know already in your dreams, when you’re five. There’s nothing to accomplish, no satisfaction that you haven’t already achieved during your first kiss, and every kiss after that, and when you’re holding your first child, and every child after that. There’s no adventure you can’t have, if only you let yourself. Reality is more real than you think it is. That’s the American Dream: you can have everything, because you already have everything inside you.”

I couldn’t feel the cold at all anymore.

“This time,” Doug said, “why don’t you come with me?”

And I did.

The 100th Floor rating

The 100th floor

In all his days as a window washer, he had never once seen a door on the outside of the hundredth floor, until that day.

They'd started at the roof, as always, plunging their small platform over the edge and then riding it down, little by little. They enjoyed each other's company, but even more, they enjoyed the silence, the silence and the squeaking sounds as they worked over the glass. They enjoyed their own never-ending rhythm, fanning in graceful arcs, fanning and dunking and drying, complementing one other, filling in the limits of each other's reach.

They almost never looked inside the windows; they almost never cared to. The people inside were murky shadows, like ghosts, or underpaintings, or characters in an old, washed-out silent film. Their shapes distorted as the windows were doused, then wiped dry, doused, then wiped dry, and the men on the scaffold noticed the people inside only sometimes, the way one notices shells on the ocean floor, revealed after a passing wave, then hidden, then forgotten.

They loosened the ties on the pulleys and lowered themselves, and started again, window after window, floor after floor.

Outside, the Sun was an arm's reach away.

Outside, the wind was cruel.

Outside, they brought with them their own weather. On cloudy days, their scaffolding would sometimes seem to ascend above the clouds into a sunshine that no one on the ground could see. On sunny days, such as today, the window washers would sometimes disappear into a small cloud that hovered over their platform, perhaps fashioned from the water they were carrying and from the heat of their own breath.

It was from such a cloud, and dangling from a heaven-high roof, they wiped at the windows again and again and again; and in an otherwise unremarkable moment, their little cloud parted, and that was when he saw it—the door, high above him, high and to the right: a glossy black door with a brass knob that reflected the sunlight into his eyes, a heavy wooden door set into the vertical plane of steel and glass, an impossible door.

The other men were already unfurling the platform down the building and bringing the door farther out of reach, and he knew then that if he didn't reach for it, didn't at least try, then he'd never have a chance again, and never know what lay on its other side; and without a word to his colleagues and friends (for they preferred to work in silence), he stepped off the platform; and they never did understand why.

What a View rating

Yesterday a man jumped from the observation deck of the Empire State Building, fell eighty stories to a sixth-floor landing, and died instantly. His name and motives are unknown. Police say he was about thirty years old, that he vaulted the ten-foot fence, and that the entire act was caught on the building's security cameras. The tragedy of the facts in this story are matched only by the tragedy of the facts that are not known.

"Why" is the question that casts the thickest shadow over suicide, followed perhaps by "how" — the head-scratching just barely precedes the rubber-necking. Why? Why why why why why? So many scenarios present themselves (a holiday weekend, for God's sake), but part of the chill it strikes in me comes from the fact that I'll never know. I'll never know whether it was planned and laborious (did he draw out the moment with a "walking meditation," up the 1860 stairs?), or an impulsive sprint? (How does one "vault" a 10-foot fence?, is one obvious question.) Did he give any consideration to the passersby on the street below; did he aim for the sixth-floor landing? Had he spoken to the tourists on the elevator, made eye contact with any children as he tipped over the top of the fence? Had he done research? Did he know that at least thirty others made the same jump before him? Did he plan a last meal? Had he taken out his trash, fed his pets, made any last phone calls? Was there an audience for his act, or an intended one? Did he want someone to feel very bad? Or was there no one?

Lonely at the TopThe moment he let go of the fence, did he regret it? In the seconds that followed? How many seconds were there? How many thoughts does one have in those seconds?

Did he call anyone's name?

Was he crying?

It was a perfect, clear autumn day. From that height, he would have been able to see all ends of this enormous city, and still he decided there was nothing for him. He must have stopped to look, his last view of anything in this world. What did he see? God, what a view!

[Addendum]

P.S. Remembering David Okrent

While I'm going on about the morbid... I remember years ago reading a story in the Boston Globe: the body of a Harvard student was found one cold winter morning, dead from a single stab wound to the neck, on Revere Beach, miles from where he lived in Cambridge. No one was clear on what he'd been doing out there, or whether the death was a suicide or homicide.

The most striking detail about the story was buried a few paragraphs down: his parents learned of their son's death while eating breakfast in their Evanston, Illinois home — not from the police or the university, but from an agency asking if they would like to donate their son's organs. "He's a big boy," the father replied. "Why don't you ask him yourself?" The caller, realizing the parents hadn't been notified, hung up. The father spent the rest of the morning trying to reach his son on the phone , only reaching his answering machine, with an ever-longer beep.

As time went by, more facts came out in the case: the boy had a history of depression, and the knife found near the body was his own. But he had also just enthusiastically changed majors, citing better future job placement as a reason. There was evidence that pointed to suicide and evidence that seemed to cancel it out, and the police report, finally, was inconclusive. At the center of this sad story's grisly details, the most disturbing aspect of it is how much will never ever be known....