Friday I’ll be spending over 11 hours en plein air in Hoboken, New Jersey, to earn a two-hour general admission Bob Dylan concert. No, I know he won’t play for two full hours. We have been having a summer of brimstone and deluges in the northeast so I am nervously hoping these 11 hours will be merely torrid. Discomfort, impatience, anxiety, then Bob Dylan. I also hate the city of Hoboken.
Hoboken was the place where I spent my first Bad Year, at age 24-25. If you’re old enough to know what I mean, then you understand that our first Bad Years don’t entail the calamities and tragedies that become the turning points in our life stories. Not the terrible loss or pain that we continuously narrate to ourselves as reminders of Why We Are The Way We Are, and save up as the Special Thing You Need To Know About Me that we relate to new acquaintances. Your First Bad Year is that mess of disappointments and failures and unpleasantness you simply believed you were never destined for.
I spent 1986 in Hoboken, in the rented part of the first floor of a shambled house at the far end of Harrison Street, where the twee brownstones decayed into no-name auto-body shops with heaps of indistinguishable twisted rusted metal on the sidewalk. In a black and white photograph, our neighborhood would have had a post-apocalyptic charm. But then there were the pollerias: three-sided shacks offering floor to ceiling cages of live chickens for sale. The stench from a polleria lays siege to your entire consciousness. The space my boyfriend and I rented was a large shapeless room with an unfinished buckled and splintery wood floor. Our windows looked out onto a small vacant lot housing a crew of feral dogs who howled at night until bottles were thrown at the noise, and then managed to transfer fleas into the rented room–have you had flea bites? You scratch until you bleed, then scratch more, then make a funny story about the sores on your legs when you go to work the next day in a clean office with clean people. One evening after work I came back to the rented room to find things gone: the television, my boyfriend’s guitars, much of the clothing in my closet. I went upstairs to the other tenant in the house whom we had not yet met because finding the neighbors felt instinctively right after being robbed. The upstairs door was opened by a big woman in a tank top who placed the sharp of her elbow up on the doorframe and watched me talk while she smoked from the cigarette she dangled comfortably near her face. I saw behind her were 4 cheap small messy cots lined up barracks-like, with at least one small child on each cot staring at the scene in the doorway with big eyes and closed mouths. When I was done sharing my alarm and concern about the burglary, the woman said “No habla Ingles,” and closed the door. At that moment and to this day it has seemed incredibly important to me to believe that all those children were actually her own. My boyfriend and I took badly to keeping house (such as it was), took badly to being adults together, to paying bills, to my deciding I didn’t want to keep defining fun as drugs, and to living away from New York. If you have been born and raised n New York, you know that it is an absolute condition. You are there or you are not.
All the good of that entire year belonged to the Mets. I left Hoboken and my boyfriend with a numb and stained kind of relief: I had grown up nice, with bedspreads and carpets and doormen and several unavoidable cockroaches who lived in fear of my mother, and parents who never raised voices to each other. I was not supposed to know fleas and burglars and frightened children on sloppy cots and romance that turned ugly and shitty and ended. In a real Bad Year, you find out you’re not special and you just want it to end.
So the hell with Hoboken. I never wanted to set foot there again. I don’t even know this new venue where I’ll be uncomfortably on foot shifting my weight for hours, sweating, indifferent to the opening bands, waiting for Bob Dylan to toe-step onto the stage, with his usual peculiar combination of the irascible, the humorous, and the efficient, and sing and play to us.
I know what I’m bringing in my attention to Hoboken. Lousy memories, the march of time, en plein air discomfort, and my own usual spacious light of pre-Dylan no-expectations expectancy. To everyone, remember remember that we don’t pay attention, we bring it. Paying attention is the same as any transaction–you dully hand over your cash and expect to be handed something of equal value. No, no, no. You bring your attention to the encounter of a concert: your attention is animate, it is appetent, it is responsive, it is made of this very moment shared with everyone else hearing the same harmonica notes, and entirely your own language of everything past and present you alone are bringing to those harmonica notes. Just as you know when Dylan is and is not entirely right there in that song, that line, that word, you know when you are and are not as well. If the way you bring full-selfed attention to a Bob Dylan concert or anything here-and-now is through the screen of your telephone, then. . . just please hold the phone away from my sight-line.
I will be so grateful if he doesn’t give up on Duquesne Whistle come Friday–it’s everything I’m writing about here. That whistle blows and blows and a man hears childhood, love, faith, fate, the end, the beginning–the stations of his life going by right on time, like they do for all of us. Be there. I mean–be there.