Last night I dreamed I was standing in the foyer of the Jacob J. Javits Convention Center in New York City, a place I have been in many times for both work and fun. It was empty, as I imagine it is as I type this, but I suspect my dream version of it was drawn from all the times when I walked into that foyer before whatever festivities were planned had started in earnest. I could hear my footsteps echoing up to the glass-and-metal lattice of the roof and around the marble and concrete below and besides me.
I was alone, and the more I walked, the more I realized I was entirely alone, that there was no one in the building, and maybe not even in the block or the whole of the city or anywhere else beyond that.
For a moment I wondered if I had blundered into something like I Am Legend, where the last human being alive holes up in a city somewhere and tries to make contact with the other last human being alive. But I didn't feel so much frightened as I did resigned and desolate: "So this is what it's come to, I guess," I said to myself. I started to think about where I might find water, what shop shutters I might have to cut through or lockpick to get something to eat.
Then, from somewhere, I heard a whole flood of other footsteps. A wave of humanity washed in through the front doors of the convention center, across the foyer, towards the convention halls and down the wide steps to the lower levels.
Not one person took notice of me. If I stood in their way, they stepped around me as if I were a wastebasket. At first I chalked this up to the usual attitude of the New Yorker On The Street, who would step without comment around a burning elephant if they were late for a meeting. But then I realized it was because to them I simply did not exist. I was in a space ever so slightly to the left of where they were, a space shared physically by the convention center but which I was inhabiting in a way that the rest of them did not.
I turned around and watched this human wave sweep its way inside and up and down. And then I saw something else that made me shout out loud, as if my foot had been trod on: none of them could see each other either. Each one of them also thought they were entirely alone. I was the only one who could see anyone besides myself. Whatever affect any of them had on each other, it was only to guide their steps so that they would not collide with each other. They were as alone as I was, maybe even more so because they had no knowledge of their solitude.
I stared as people stood around, eyed their phones or glanced at their watches, milled about, took drinks from the provided complementary coffee bars. It struck me how they were, at a glance, behaving no differently from the way they did in the waking world. Most of us would never have noticed they had no knowledge of each other.
I decided to try an experiment. I stood at one end of the coffee bar nearest me, and when a woman stepped away from the end with a full cup, I stood in her way and shouted, "Hey!" to get her attention. When that didn't work, I grabbed her arm -- the arm not holding the cup -- and fairly bellowed "HEY!"
Only then did she face me. And when she did, she gave me a smile that scared me in a way I haven't felt in I don't know how long. It was one of those condescending, sly little smiles, like, I know what you're trying to get away with, you sneaky man you. It ain't gonna work.
And then I realized, in the middle of that atomized herd, that they could in fact all see each other. They just chose not to. What they did, they did because they wanted to; it was their idea all along. Not something they had been dropped into and forced to cope with like me. It was something they had walked into and embraced, and they knew anyone who tried to wake them up from it was just a party-pooper.
I put out an arm, like I was about to clothesline someone, and swept one of the coffee urns off the table. It landed on its side and made about as much noise hitting the floor as a helium balloon would.
One of the caterers looked at me and grinned -- again, that same kind of smile -- and said, "Naw, man, you know that ain't gonna work, man."
I found a hassock-like cushion behind me -- there were a number of these scattered around for taking a load off for a few minutes -- and sank onto it. He was right, I thought. Of course it wouldn't work. All it would do is make a little noise, and it hadn't even done that.
I couldn't sit still, though. I was both too restless and too gravid, but in the end the restlesness won out, and I got to my feet almost by falling off the cushion. I walked, I don't know how, towards one of the exits on the south end of the building, where at least there seemed to be fewer people. If I don't exist to any of them, I thought, and if none of them really exist to each other either, then I'd rather be around no one at all.
The southern door stood open. Someone was holding it and letting in a glorious afternoon light, even though I was facing south. Reflected off a building, maybe? I didn't know, I just wanted to be away from this awful place and making my way towards something that seemed better.
That someone holding open the door came into view, as the glare from the doorway receded. She was tall and lovely; she reminded me of what someone might come up with if you took a figure from some fantasy story and made them live in our world, and they dressed themselves in some hybrid of what they wore and what we wear. She looked like she had something to apologize for.
"It's always been like this, hasn't it?" I said. Like: I'm sorry I failed you.
"You'd better come with us," she said.
It was the tone of her words that struck me the most. As if I had committed some great wrong, not by their standards, but by the standards of someone who could still make life miserable for them. Whatever it was that would happen, it would affect us all anyway, so I might as well go with them and help even the burden. But she still said it as gently as she could, the way doctors deliver news.
There were others like her beyond that door, bathed in that same light, and with the same look of regret and dismay. The contrast between the two -- the beauty of the afternoon light, the loveliness of the people, and the sheer sadness and dismay in their faces -- made my eyes burn.
I let her put her arm around me and lead me away from that place.
And then the touch of her arm turned into the weight of one of the pillows from my headboard resting gently across my shoulders as I opened my eyes and looked at a little trapezoid of carpet on the floor next to the bed.
New York City
Other Lives Of The Mind