I woke this morning from a dream. Sweat from the desert heat ran cold upon my face as the red sun vanished in the opening of an eye and was replaced by a cool blue morning in New York. The leaves of the prayer plant on the nightstand had not yet unfolded; barely six yet. Quiet and still enough outside to pass for dawn someplace else. A half-hour to go before the first of the delivery trucks took away the need for an alarm clock. Nineteen hours left until the garbage trucks came to tell me it was time to go to bed. The prayer plant will have been hard at work for an hour by then.
I woke up from a windowsill. Toes over the edge in the daylight a thousand stories up. Rarefied air and fog below: standing in the open eye of a decapitated head floating above a hidden body. I the pupil, taking in everything and shrinking, contracting, trying to keep out the sun as it threatened to evaporate the haze. Too much light and you'll be blinded; you'll see spots, your brain will burn. You have to turn away. The haze blew away on a breeze that filled the room and pushed me forward. I caught the sun full in the face and couldn't see the ground as I fell. I was on the top floor of the Tower of Babel, and its foundations were unknown to me.
A tin of pineapple. My favorite scene from Three Men on a Boat. Three men trying in turns to open a tin of pineapple. They can't do it. Pineapple was rare in turn-of-the-century England. In the 17th century it was a luxury. You could rent them for fancy parties. They featured as the ultimate exotic fruit in the philosophy of John Locke, and showed up as carvings in bedposts and tablelamps. Signs of wealth, signs of trade, signs of conquest. The trucks would deliver crates full of them to the grocery store around the corner in just under half an hour. Whole pineapples. As many as I could carry.
I don't look at the labels on my pineapples. I don't know if they come from Hawaii or the Phillipines or Brazil or Paraguay. I know Columbus brought them back to Spain five hundred years ago. I know the trucks don't come from Spain. The trucks are made in Japan, in Korea, in Germany, in the U.S. The drivers are made pretty much everywhere. I know, more or less, where the gasoline comes from.
Pineapples are going to be a luxury again.
On the last day of the last year I bought a bottle of champagne. Not real champagne. Sparkling white wine. I wanted sparkling white wine, I told the shopkeeper, because I am a graduate student and I can't afford to spend fifty dollars on a bottle of champagne. There was a long line; I was trying to make light of the situation. My sparkling white wine came from Italy. He asked me what I was studying.
He laughed. Not a giggle. He held his sides and laughed. Shook his head, pointed in the direction of the jugged wine, cheap wine sold by the gallon, and said, "for the rest of your life."
On the way out I bought a bottle of vodka. From Russia.
I laughed too. That's what you do. You can't have a ten or twenty minute long conversation with every person you meet who thinks what you do isn't important. You don't polemicize. You don't even contradict. You put on your comedy mask and broadly appeal to God for the reason you're doing it. Everyone has a titter, and the ones that have business about which to go go about it and the rest climb back up into their ivory towers. The shopkeeper thought he was living on the ground floor. In the dream I had he was my downstairs neighbor.
Six-thirty a.m. There's the beeping that stands in for the clock. Something going in reverse. Backing itself into a corner. Time to wake up. Formally.
I reach for the remote and turn on one of the two TVs I own, which is hooked up to one of three devices that play DVDs, CDs, or video games. I don't buy CDs anymore, naturally. I have an iPod. The second of two. This one is engraved. 135 killed in Iraq this morning, and all twelve of those guys in the coal mine in West Virginia.
Or did you think this was about something else.
The windows of my bedroom face east. I live on the second floor. Nothing goes by my window but light and time, and with the curtains drawn I get no sense of either unless I pay attention. Classes start again in about two weeks; but I'm not exactly sure what day it is today. Two years ago, I was studying Romantic poetry, and the modern British novel. Byron and Shelley, Conrad, Woolf, and Forster. The end of Enlightenment and the end of Empire, respectively. Failure of something, success of something else. Did the Age of Reason really end with the French Revolution, the Terror, and the Napoleonic Wars? Did the monarchs and tsars of the first world war really call each other family? A month ago I handed in a paper on the first edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica and the unlikely optimism of a consortium of brilliant minds that believed, for a short while, that with enough time and effort men could devise a complete System of the World -- a perfect understanding of how everything related to, interacted, and communicated with everything else.
Tell me again where my pineapples come from?
I missed both world wars. I missed Korea, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and Vietnam. I was barely ten years old when the Berlin Wall came down. Too young for Gulf War I; too old for Gulf War II. I have been able to do what it is I do, without interruption, and without substantial change. The grocery store has always been just around the corner. If there's something I can no longer get, I haven't noticed its absence, or never knew I wanted it because no one told me that I should. Still I have a bitter taste in my mouth. Still I'm sitting in a chair in front of the television with spots in my eyes and a mind on fire, because I can see the future in the past. I've read how this part ends, and I'm not sure which character I'm going to be in the new kind of book that gets written. Of what will history make mine the Age? Will my lifetime be recorded as one of humanity's unfortunate missteps in some as of yet unwritten Decline and Fall? The benefit of knowledge never seems to come without some tremendous sacrifice, and just as often it only comes too late.
I want to tell the shopkeeper that he'll understand why I do what I do when someone tells him that the bottle of real champagne in his hands is the last one he'll ever get, but he wouldn't, and it's not true anyway. It won't matter.
Sooner or later the people who say the time for our way of life is running out will be right, and by seven a.m. on a quiet blue morning in New York I already feel the hour is late. I dreamt of a home I lived in on top of a tower built in a desert I couldn't see. I am still dreaming, and there's fresh pineapple in the fridge.