A Meditation on Depression, Edward Hopper, and German-Speaking Women.
“A Town’s A Lonely Town,
When You Pass Through,
And There Is No One Waiting There For You,
Then It’s A Lonely Town…”
— “Lonely Town” from Leonard Bernstein’s “On the Town”
There’s such a thing as seasonal depression but, to me, it presents an interesting issue: am I depressed because of the season or because I’m depressed?
The easy way to determine this would be to think back to my state of mind in the summer. It sure seemed happier, at least on a macro scale. There’s nothing more lovely while simultaneously straining as a New York City summer. As Ella sang, “tell me what street, compares to Mott Street, in July?”
Mott Street and its neighbor Mulberry serve as the site of the last vestiges of Little Italy, the long-standing, former home of Italia’s “wretched refuse.” Presently, Chinatown, home to a separate diaspora, surrounds and continues to encroach into the former. To some, meaning fellow “eye-talians”, this is seen as something of an existential crisis — a threat to our identity. In contrast, I have always said “Little Italy would be larger if the Italians actually decided to stay.” Instead, we fled east to Long Island, south to Staten Island, and west to New Jersey.
The Chinese fled China as well, though I can’t imagine their commute being much worse than the New Jersey Transit.
See what I did there? I changed the conversation to avoid confronting my depression. Anyone who knows me probably caught that already. The D in Dylan stands for “diversion.” The Y stands for “Yankee”. The L stands for “Lackadaisical”. The A for “Adequate”. The N for “Nonperishable”.
It is far easier for me to focus on easy-to-fix concerns (war, poverty, the spectre of fascism, etc.) than it is for me to address my own internal, trivial, inconsequential issues (lack of self-worth, tendency to self-destruct, noncommital tendencies, etc.). One of my favorite movies addresses this tendency head-on. “Reds”, directed by and starring Warren Beatty, is a biographical film about one of America’s most prominent socialists, Jack Reed. Throughout the movie, interviews with comrades of yore who were familiar with Reed are peppered in. One of the old timers chastises Reed and the men like him, saying “A guy who is always interested in the condition of the world and changing it either has no problems of his own or refuses to face them.”
Perhaps it seems odd that I would rather ensure rail workers be allowed sick days than figure out how to be happy. To me, it makes perfect sense. After all, what would we do without trains?
“You Wander Up And Down,
The Crowds Rush By,
A Million Faces Pass Before Your Eyes,
Still It’s A Lonely Town…”
I have been fortunate enough to be in the company of many partners throughout my life. That specific subject is one I would very much like to expand on but I find it conflicting with that other sacred principle I hold so dear — a gentleman doesn’t kiss and tell. I personally have no problem when others elect to do so. I’ve undeniably hurt plenty of people over time due to either my inability to provide emotionally what most are looking for in a partner, or my handicap in the realm of commitment. It is not like I haven’t met people that I love dearly, that I love spending time with, that make me smile like a fool — it’s just that I could never allow someone to waste their time on such an obviously fruitless investment.
Imagine, for instance, you were a stock broker on Wall Street and a younger individual came in with money they had saved up for years with the intent to purchase stock in Sears & Roebuck in the year of our Lord, 2022
It is my holy duty to inform those who might entertain the idea of a committed relationship with yours truly that it would be the romantic equivalent of a flower garden in Carthage, post-salting.
This is nothing new — a man who warns others that they’re too good for him, he’s no good to be around, he’ll only hurt them in the end, etc. I’m a living trope in some ways. Masculinity only serves as a further crutch to these issues. I have openly admitted I need a therapist. I called one provider twice after receiving a recommendation from a friend but they never got back to me. I have referenced this fact ad nauseam when the discussion of therapy arises again. It has now been over a year since that initial effort.
Why should I speak to a therapist? I know I’m depressed. I know I’m a loon. Why should I waste an hour out of my week to talk to some stranger with a piece of paper pinned to the wall in a dollar store gilded frame about my feelings when a stiff drink and — oh yeah. Shit.
Things were so much easier when I drank.
I had a lovely pint of non-alcoholic Guinness with a stranger from that island nation I so often disparage — Great Britain. He, in a state of moderate intoxication, expressed his shock as to the existence of non-alcoholic Guinness. Even as I spoke on my sobriety, often delving into serious personal anecdotes and confessions, he occasionally interrupted to reiterate his bewilderment towards the drink’s existence. I assured him it tasted just like the real thing. To quell his curiosity, he ordered one for himself and one for me.
He shared that he had attempted to walk the straight and narrow in the past but his personal best was around 2 months or so. I told him that 2 months could turn into more. I don’t advocate temperance, necessarily. If I started preaching about the evils of alcohol and how no decent person would ever desire a sip, I would be in the same league as those ultra-conservative bible-bashers who rail against “unholy sodomy” yet always seem to end up in a men’s bathroom with company.
He told me he had previously worked on Wall Street, I asked him what stock in Sears & Roebuck was going for nowadays.
“Unless There’s Love,
A Love That’s Shining,
Like A Harbor Light,
You’re Lost In The Night…”
I attended an exhibit showcasing the work of my favorite painter, Edward Hopper. I was accompanied by 3 women, 1 Austrian, 2 German. I took German as a child because I am a fool. The Austrian is someone I love dearly who makes me feel less like a fool. I say this to her often, “Du bist eine schönes Fräulein.” It is the only thing I say regularly in German, in addition to “gesundheit.”
The exhibit was held at the Whitney Museum of American Art in lower Manhattan. It was cold, the walk from the 14th Street 1 stop was a miserable trek regardless of the beauty that is Chelsea at sunset. They had beat me to the museum so it was a solo journey. I took in the relatively untouched nature of this particular city neighborhood, mercifully spared of the developmental whims of New York’s bored and wealthy (a dangerous combo) real estate community.
The Teutonic Trio often descended into conversations in their mother tongue, leaving this diverting, lackadaisical, adequate, nonperishable, Yankee all by his lonesome. If I felt too lonely, I would subtly ask for translations with a customary “Was?”
Prior to the Hopper exhibit, we toured a floor focused on Puerto Rican art in the wake of Hurricane Maria. Walking through the exhibit, I read the inscriptions for each piece. The inscriptions, even the pieces themselves, felt like pleas for justice from the victims of a crime to the unwitting accomplices. A conversation occurred between a white patron and a Black security guard. I listened in, as I tend to do, and heard the man lamenting about Herschel Walker, the GOP candidate for Senate in Georgia, who is also Black. I’m not sure what brought about this conversation or what exactly the guard herself thought about the fact that it was occurring, but I took a moment to thank my lucky stars I never had to engage in similar conversations with patrons during my time as a security guard.
Yes, friends, yours truly, this living, breathing, wheat reed, was a security guard for a short period of time — tasked with guarding billions of dollars worth of jewelry, no less. I assume the Cartier Mansion thought any would-be thief would take pity on such a minuscule threat and opt not to plow through me while holding a bag containing Elizabeth Taylor’s necklace.
My Austrian friend had recently finished a book I had recommended, “Cat’s Cradle” by Kurt Vonnegut. This was the second Vonnegut she had read, both following my recommendation. She complains sometimes that our cultural exchange tends to be one-sided. Are we surprised that an American man has a tendency to treat his culture as paramount? She admits, though, that none of my suggestions have been duds.
One of the pieces in this exhibit featured red string interlaced between and connecting a variety of family pictures. The string connected through the front and back of the images, usually passing through the eyes of the photos subjects.
Stealing a line from the novel, said by a character to highlight the lies (both harmful and harmless) our parents tell us to make sense of an insane world, I whispered “no cat, no cradle.”
I then read the inscription: the father depicted in the portraits had killed himself following the hurricane and the destruction of his home.
See the cat? See the cradle?
I will say that to my future diploma-pinner.
“See the cat? See the cradle?”
“Unless There’s Love,
The World’s An Empty Place,
And Every Town’s,
A Lonely Town…”
Entering the Hopper exhibit, I was overcome with excitement. To see paintings in person is simply a religious experience. To see what humanity, this gangly bunch of self-important primates, can do when we put our hands to good use is the only thing that has kept me going through the years. It’s that faint light in a dark room that keeps your eyes open, hoping to catch the outlines of the wall to discern where you are.
I still don’t know where I am, how I got to be here, or why I have to be here. The candle still flickers though.
A young man and woman stood to my right. I heard the instantly recognizable accent of a well-to-do American. A sound that this unwilling Catholic can only describe as “Protestant” in tone. His date revealed that her childhood was spent in Kyiv, the capital city of Ukraine. The man offered his sympathies, prefacing it by saying that he knew she had likely heard the same offering a million times over.
Imagine, following your identification as an American, non-Americans said something like “I’m so sorry about what’s happening in your schools, it’s awful.”
There is no reason for me to doubt the man’s sincerity, other than my suspicion towards any man’s sincerity when they have intentions with an individual that extend into the night, myself included.
I thought about what it must be like to see your hometown bombed, your people killed, your entire culture threatened. A video suspended above the exhibit quickly stole my attention away from that thought. It was a black and white video of the route taken on the long-gone, elevated 9th avenue train. My mind turned back to the New York of that era and a fabled America where the nation’s potential was bursting at the seams and the horrors of modern war had not yet stripped our species of any semblance of innocence it may or may not have ever had.
This urge to turn to the past and the soothing siren song of nostalgia is dangerous. I cannot judge those that do so, though. The world is chaotic and cruel. With the absence of a personal Shiva or Yahweh, I’m forced to accept that there is no wave of the wand that can cure us of these facts and provide a utopian world of structure — where justice is automated and wrought on those who aim to disrupt it.
We alone are responsible for the damage we inflict on the world, others, and ourselves. I wish I could blame God for it, that’d take a lot off my plate.
“There is no reason why good cannot triumph as often as evil. The triumph of anything is a matter of organization. If there are such things as angels, I hope that they are organized along the lines of the Mafia.”
— Kurt Vonnegut
Hopper’s paintings depict the quiet, unassuming moments that fill 99% of our time here. The early morning where the sun bathes Brooklyn brownstones in a breadth of bright light. The evening where the elevated train provides a movie show for its passengers in the form of exposed apartment windows. An intermission in a theater, a wife aimlessly pressing her finger against a piano’s keys as her husband buries himself in the news of the day.
No one has depicted the loneliness one feels in one of the world’s most populated cities as perfectly as Hopper.
Call me emotional but I did fight back tears for a moment when I really took in what I was witnessing. I hadn’t realized until that moment that Hopper was undoubtedly my favorite artist. I catch myself focusing on the very same moments, locations, and experiences that Hopper found so compelling every day. The picture of humanity at its most intimate — naked and exposed for all to see.
I found her sitting at the rear of the exhibit, looking out of the wall-to-wall window that presented the same city depicted in the paintings, now nearly unrecognizable. I sat with her, I looked at this same city.
I told her about the pair on the date, how I felt about the sincerity in his extended sympathies. She said it was simply what one does in that situation. “What else could you do,” she asked. I wanted to say “kiss her on the cheek, take a flight to Warsaw, cross the border, join the ranks, and plant some poor Russian boy six feet into the blood-stained Earth,” but I did not. I just kept looking out at the city and sunk further into the chair with her.
I wish I could tell those Russian boys the comforting fact that there is no cat or cradle. There never was.
There is her. There is the city. There is myself. There is a way to feel better.
There is a way to make this place less lonely.
“Unless There’s Love,
The World’s An Empty Place,
And Every Town’s,
A Lonely Town.”