Sometimes You Are the Crazy Person on the Subway

The little girl in the stroller was eating pizza. Her mother was feeding it to her from a white paper bag. The pizza was cold and the cheese had congealed, but the little girl made happy noises with every bite.

I was in a foul mood, one nostril inexplicably stuffed up, eyes itching from the ungodly mutant pollens the plants must be spurting in their pornographically excited state, cheeks aflush, hair afrizz, covered in that layer of city grime one acquires after the second or third subway trip of the day. Still, when the little girl waved her pizza fragment at me happily and murmured, “Pizza? Mmmmmmm?” I replied, “Yes, pizza is delicious. I just had some. Mmmmmmm.” Goddamn unbridled joy of children, sneaking up on scowling aging adolescents posing as adults and forcing them to acknowledge that pizza is delicious.

“Mmmmmm,” she agreed, and rubbed the piece of pizza all over her face before taking a bite. I laughed and she laughed and her young mother laughed, and suddenly the C train, though it and I were twenty minutes late, was not so bad.

So I felt a certain remorse when I inevitably alienated this young mother and her small child not five minutes later with a spontaneous and uncontrolled outburst. In my defense, this outburst was brought on by what I consider to be an enemy of art, my army of one is sworn to fight the enemies of art, guerrilla-style, wherever they appear.

It’s like this: I had come to the end of the chapter in my Fitzgerald novel, and realizing I wouldn’t have time to finish another, idly started leafing through the introduction of the book. This was a terrible mistake. With some notable exceptions, I despise commentary. If you don’t have the guts to make your own art, don’t insult this most sacred of acts by explaining line by line why an artist did what he did, and what he really meant, and whether this is a good work or a great work or a really fine work. Notable exceptions include David Denby and Anthony Lane, who often raise the dreaded work of criticism to an art form itself, and the readers of this website, whose infrequent interpretations of the work herein presented never fail to illuminate me. But writers of introductions and forwards, dissectors and commentators and meticulous footnoters, cross-references of allusions and miners of biography, seekers of common threads of narrative and conjecturers of reasons why, you are cowards, to a scholar. The only worthwhile response to art is art, or possibly sex, or possibly an act of senseless violence against one’s enemies, self, personal property or the nation-state. A footnoted essay with block quotes and an extensive bibliography is a cowardly response to the ills and beauties of the world.

The introduction to the Penguin Popular Classics paperback version of Tender Is The Night was no exception. It takes a peculiar and reverse form of talent to write something boring about the life and work of a crazy, talented drunk married to a bonafide loon, but such are the abilities of the graduates of literary doctoral programs. In not one minute of perusing the introduction I found dozens of inexplicable sentences speculating on the multiple meanings of the main character’s name. There were arcane arguments as to what Shakespeare play Fitzgerald might have been referencing, though incorrectly, when he used the word “awning.” And so on and so forth.

I was particularly annoyed to find this offensive introduction in my Penguin Popular Classics paperback, because I had paid extra for the English edition. During a semester abroad in England I found out that English book cover design is far superior to American, and sometimes can’t stop myself from purchasing the paperbacks with the prettiest pictures on them via the interweb. The cover art was art itself, but lurking right beneath the photograph so alive it breathed was a stifling slice of writing dry and dead as sawdust.

In a moment somewhat inspired by the film Dead Poets Society, I began ripping the pages of the introduction out of the book, neatly and noisily and one by one. (Critics of the future, should I be so lucky as to have any, you don’t have to guess. When I did it, I was thinking of Dead Poets Society!) With the third or fourth rip the young mother looked up at me with alarm, noticed me systematically ripping and muttering to myself, and stood up, though we were between stations. She pushed the stroller to another part of the car, leaving me to fling the discarded pages of the introduction to her now-empty seat. I tore out the last one just as the train pulled into my stop, gathered the pile and tapped it twice to bring it into line.

Though I was now thirty minutes late, I stood on the platform for a moment, tearing the introduction into more or less even shreds. I stomped up to a garbage can and pondered the mass of paper in my hands. I wanted to consign it to the trash in a state even more prehistoric to its snooty evolution, and remembered today’s unusual store of phlegm. I spit mightily into the center of the crumpled paper, making a satisfying dent and stain that began to spread over the block quotes that proved none of the self-satisfied assumptions of the critic who’d picked them. I closed my fist over our combined expulsions, slam-dunked them into the trash and headed up to street level to meet my newest student.

The new student turned out to be British, and the first thing she asked me is why everyone gets so riled up about the SATs in New York. Her bedroom window took in a sweeping view of the entire Central Park reservoir. Night had fallen, and the park was dark except for a ring of lights reflecting on the surface of the water. “It’s in there,” I pointed. “It’s in the water.”

She looked at me, incredulous, the squinted past our reflections in the bedroom window.

“In there? In the wahtuh?” she said Britishly, with none of the vowel-gnawing that identifies Americans in general and New Yorkers in specific.

“Yes,” I said. “There is something in that reservoir that makes everyone in this city crazy.”

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