Some time in the fall of fourth grade it was arranged by our mothers that, in the form of a “play date”, I would make a foray into the depressing world of TJ Goldman. We were both profoundly unpopular, and they probably thought they were doing us a big favor getting us together. The fact was, though, that TJ and I knew each other already and had avoided each other’s company intentionally. At least I’m sure it was intentional on my part.
Nonetheless, after school I followed him onto what I think was a private bus that took us on quite a trek. Although, at that time, I knew nothing of the city’s geography beyond an eight-or-so-block radius from my house, I’m sure that this ride was unnecessarily long in the usual way—the traffic, the stopping three times as often as is reasonable or necessary. My visual memory of the event is clear enough that I am sure we covered most of the distance on a fairly brief run along the FDR.
The bus was crowded with boisterous children, many of whom TJ seemed to know. He exchanged pleasantries of the spitball and ear-flicking variety with them. Fortunately, I was more or less left alone, and TJ made no effort to introduce me to anyone. Although I noted the lack of traditional social grace (something of which I was almost as guilty), I did not dare hold this against him for fear that he might detect even my most secret disapproval. In no way did I want to increase the likelihood that some subroutine of cordiality, constructed passively by observation but unused to date, would become active in TJ and lead to my forced interaction with the other riders.
TJ, his parents and his younger sister lived in a small and fairly posh apartment in the east nineties. Upon entering, I was struck by two things: The tidy and dust-free surfaces, and the fact that somehow, in spite of them, the already foul synthetic odor of the carpet was mingled with a note reminiscent of a potato fallen behind the stove and forgotten. Then there was the Heinz paraphernalia positioned conspicuously about the place—ketchup bottle-shaped erasers and refrigerator magnets, mugs and pencil holders with the Heinz logo, and other miscellaneous tchotchkes. I recalled some talk between my parents over dinner about how TJ’s father worked for Heinz and hated his job but, looking around his apartment, I would have thought him a real company man.
TJ chucked off his backpack, picked up a remote and threw himself ass-first into the couch. We would now watch his favorite TV show, Fun House. This was a knockoff of the well known children’s game show Double Dare, and it was sadly inferior in every way. Whereas on Double Dare the questions were too easy, the stunts too repetitive, and the contestants uncharismatic, on Fun House, every element was painfully inane. To boot, the host was such a mullet-rocking goob he was hard to look at. Somehow it was clear that TJ wanted me to watch with him, but he seemed to have no particular reason for this and nothing to add to the experience. His mother came out of her bedroom and gave us a wave, the silent greeting of a woman who apparently knew better than to interrupt TJ’s afternoon ritual. She continued into the kitchen.
Fun House, if I recall correctly, ran two episodes back to back, so someone other than TJ must have liked it. Early in the second episode I got up to go hang out in the bedroom hall. After about forty minutes on the couch I had grown acutely weary of the scene. I needed a moment alone to steel myself against the frantic yet muted helplessness. The feeling was never too far off, but it took on a life of its own at times like these.
There are many kinds of “other people’s depressing worlds.” Some of them are thoroughly engrossing, even welcoming. These are the ones in which, although some flavor of unreasonable harshness seldom relents, it is punctuated by flashes of the exquisite that are heightened and, sometimes, made more numerous by the right company. Later, in high school, such landscapes would be all around me, uniquely constructed as are dreams, and transitioning as seamlessly. Smoking Camels between the cars on a dead-of-winter A train ride over Broad Channel to a friend’s place in Rockaway. Getting there to be the collateral victim of a chewing-out delivered by some father I’d never met, aimed at the son but using me, the friend, as a prop to add an element of public humiliation. Slipping out at the first opportunity to beat hell out of each other for sport on a frozen beach under a sun going down in flames.
Other times, it would be smoking four dollars worth of weed out of a homemade bong in the empty house of a girl way too smart to be happy or productive. Sitting with her on the floor of her room and doing nothing in particular, but having a grand time sharing a pack and a two-liter of ginger ale. Bullshitting about whatever, each of us having private flashes of what it would be like if I tossed her onto the bed like a rag doll, pinned her wrists, and did what both of us were thinking about without knowing it was mutual until the time for it was long passed.
But this was not such a world. And although I’m sure there was some or other point of valuable commonality between us, we had neither the language to find it, nor sufficient reason to develop such a language. All that was left was the kind of “depressing” that lacks the articulation necessary for a grapple— that has no lapels and no sleeves by which to yank it to the ground, making way for some brief triumph. TJ and I certainly could not be partners against it. To the extent that it was even he who had invited me in, TJ had not done so for such a purpose. He had invited me in to watch Fun House.
Leaning against the wall, I was just reaching solidity in my resolve to stick out this Friday evening when something struck me in the right buttock hard enough to put a cramp in it. I stumbled forward and turned my head around quickly enough to see TJ behind me, regaining his balance as he might after delivering a kick. With a broad grin and in the most casually dominant voice he could muster, he commanded me, “Get out of my way. I gotta go to the bathroom.” In my later incarnation as a jovial brute, I would have taken this and more and acknowledged it—with much swearing and chuckling—as a well executed ambush, and then punched him really hard in the body. However, between two dorky and unathletic nine-year-olds, the physical unpleasantness of this attack was far overshadowed by the truly bizarre and inappropriate hostility it represented.
While TJ did his thing in the bathroom, his mother emerged from the kitchen and invited me in. I went and we exchanged the kind of small talk into which adults put very little effort while children just cruise by on the best manners they know. She offered me some stewed plums. Eating—eating anything, at this point—seemed like quite a diversion and I was a bit hungry, so I accepted three big ones. Upon taking the first spoonful of plum flesh, stewed to pulpy consistency, I realized—and God only knows how plums could do this—that this was the funk in the apartment.
And now, maybe for the first time in my life, I fully escaped into a referential layer of awareness—the kind of meta-level that would later allow me to drift through much, much worse than this with near-total passivity, my only real initiative being to climb into the next layer when whatever flood had reached the present one. Yes, it is true that one’s own sensory data cannot entirely be relegated to the place of that which is merely observed, but now, seeing myself in this absurd and really quite benign situation, eating these unbelievably disgusting plums, I was choking back more laughter than revulsion.
And so I stuck out my stay in the depressing world of TJ Goldman, considering how the developmental windfall to which it gave rise could be applied to harsher facts than that of being stranded for an evening. A little Fun House, a kick in the ass, some stewed plums. Don’t get me wrong—I’m glad it wasn’t my life—but no reason to lose what little cool I had.