I like waking up early, when everyone — except the guilty — is sleeping. It is a time of muted presence, bar the quiet hum of the SSD of my new comp — presence in the sense that Sufis call hadra.
Once there was never any quiet in my life.
Like many who have — how shall I put this? — wrestled with their inner demons on the precipice of the malbolge, there was always some insane voice in my head that rarely shut up, that always wanted to push things a little further.
Drinking was the only way to stifle that voice, to dull it, if nothing else, until some fanciful picture of the world as it should be emerged, replacing the unacceptable realities of the present, not to mention the depredations of the past, far and near.
But it never lasted.
Always in the end I was Jack Lemon in some seedy big city motel room, with a huge Vacancy red neon sign flashing just outside the room’s window, left half open, with the curtains flapping in the breeze, and me sitting on the edge of a beat up, stained mattress covered by a filthy sheet, shiny from the sweats I had when I had passed out earlier, coming to with only one warm unopened can of beer left, and no place to go in the morning.
It is as such times that one can be cornered into making a choice, perhaps walking outside in the mist and rain in front of some house of worship, its doors locked, and standing alone at the bottom of its granite steps, begging the void, with tears streams down your cheeks, just for the ability to not have a drink that day, just this once, or if that be too much, just for the next hour, that looms before you like sixty impossibles before sunrise.
An aching soul such as this can feel no rest until it palpably senses — at long last! after so much suffering! — the presence of the Spirit that is invisible yet everywhere.
It happened to me, on the steps of the Cathedral of St. John Divine, on a terrible night in October of 1986.
It is not something one readily forgets.
These days, I am thinking a lot about Sufism.
Sufism has become very fashionable in America — complete with out-of-context Rumi quotations, self healing life styles, and ponderous New Age blather.
I am interested in Sufism because I am a Sunni Muslim, from Egypt, where Sufism is practiced by a large segment of the population — looked down upon by the country’s co-called élite and the government-appointed imams at Al Azhar.
When you are a Muslim, there is something intensely visceral and pleasing about hearing the call to prayer — not as it has become in Cairo today, with dueling loudspeakers on countless minarets harshly cutting down the dawn with ear splitting, droning harangues — but perhaps more along the lines of one given by a sweet-voiced youth standing barefoot on a hill in the desert calling the faithful to assemble before God.
But I am also half English — born of a Christian mother — and have experienced my share — despite the haunting pull of the Ayenbite of Inwyt, that which Joyce called the agenbite of inwit — conscience, dameer in Arabic — of sins of the body against that dominion of spirit, cavorting along with agnostic self-confidence in the allure of technocracy as a panacea, a substitute, for what we have all lost. (E.g.: this virtual prayer rug that I weaved on CodePen.)
Yom el Din.
The way I see it, every day is a potential day of judgement, on ourselves, others, and the world around us.
Is the ability to suspend that judgement part of the Sufi way?
Enough of this self-indulgent meandering.
Am I not the sort of person who has Chrome Canary on his desktop, rather than a would be Eckhartian influencer who traffics in unprovable imponderables?
Time make some ahwa, take in this presentation, and get on with the day.
I woke up today feeling okay. I walked the dog, took care of some banking business then made myself of bowl of spaghetti with fresh garden herbs and Tunisian olive oil.
Suddenly I felt exhausted. And even a slight case of panic. It was still only 11am.
I had Comcast on the Soundscapes channel. My dog was on the couch next to me.
And as I read the news, I began to wonder: where all we all going? where is all this storm and fury headed? who is thinking about and planning for where we are going to be in 20 or 30 or 50 years from now?
In 50 years, will there even be a planet left?
I shall be 70 this summer — a number I never even thought about as remotely possible in my twenties and 30s, when the hard drinking was taking place, and I spent years lounging in NYC dive bars, getting fired from job after job, losing friends, making few new ones, and trying to understand how to deal with what I went through as a severely dissociated teen — after losing everything: my family, my language, my sense of who I was at 16, yoked without so much as being asked from a beautiful country I loved.
I encountered American racism towards Arabs and especially Muslims early on.
They made fun, for example, of how I spoke, or the clothes I then wore, or my ethnicity.
They kept me out of the good colleges I applied, even though I won creative writing awards in High School, scored in the 700s in my SATs, and was in a humanities honors class.
After all, I was to them nothing more than the equivalent of un sale arabe.
They, they, them — if it’s grievances you trade on, let me show you mine.
I guess it hit me, by the time I trudged up to Albany to attend a third rate university that nothing I did mattered.
That the fix was in.
And if the fix was in, then tout est permit, as the existentialists used to say. And when one day during my sophomore year I came across Douglas Day’s bio of Malcom Lowry, and read The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, I knew my path was set.
Even though alcohol and I were strangers, I would become a drunk. I would get laid for a while — for I was in fact handsome when young — but would gradually lose my looks. I would not mind dying before 30, I thought then, so long as the unfinished brilliant novel was left behind, to shame everyone — all those who never believed in me.
After all, nothing matters.
And so I drank, and drank, and drank some more in the lower Manhattan of the mid 70s.
And made sure that I threw away any opportunity that came my way, always managing to snatch defeat — as an Israeli politician once remarked in a different context — from the jaws of victory.
The years started to run, and opportunities became fewer and fewer. The girls became increasingly more damaged. I began to sleep on the couches of people I barely knew, one night here, the other night there, the other still maybe out in West Side park in a cardboard box in the middle of Winter.
I did not die at 30.
But with each passing day, I traveled further away from that boy who came to America in a boat at 16, ripped for no discernible reason from a place where everything was going his way.
The long nights unfolded, slowly at first, then quickly — as Papa might say. From time to time, I allowed a glimpse of what could have been to show, until the bold arrogance of youth finally gave way to the humiliating uncertainties of middle age.
Now I am 69.
I no longer look anything like that kid, but still feel connected to why he did what he did because will he will never forget or forgive what happened on a January morning in 1967. The guilty remain so even in death.
I cannot fathom what the future holds for me personally.
Eckhart preaches that all we have is now.
But my now is composed of so many interlaced versions of half true, half imagined stories that float with disconnected fury in my mind, then erupt like a volcano that is never dormant for long.
I don’t even know what now is.
Perhaps next year is when I will find this out.
Or next week.
There’s always a next time, something in the distance, until suddenly there isn’t.
The observable fact is that things are improving. That is the current datum.
Why is that?
I am not sure. For 17 long years, things were going downhill.
I am an emigrant from Egypt and the UK.
I came to this country in the late 60s.
I lived in NYC, and worked in Fintech most of my career.
In 2001, I lost a great job due to the tech meltdown. So I moved to Florida. Went to France for the summer, plenty of money in the bank still, thinking that when I got back I could take my pick and choose my next great career move.
Now during this time, a highly mysterious French programmer wrote a piece of software called “b2/cafelog ,” and a college kid called Matt noticed. I didn’t, though. I was too busy trying to find a job and feeling sorry for myself.
Hundreds (or maybe it was only 15, I can’t remember anymore) of resumés send-outs later, I still couldn’t find work.
Let’s see, I had worked as a programmer and systems analyst in Manhattan for over 25 years at some of the biggest financial companies in America, and I couldn’t get a job?
Was it 9-11, you know the Arab thing?
All of the above?
So I wrote to a childhood friend who, at the time, had great tech job in the Gulf and his answer was basically I’m kind of busy right now. This is a guy who I once helped by pulling family strings to make things easier for him in terms of being drafted in the Egyptian army. Send your res to Bayt.com, he said: that was his response, instead of, say, introducing me to any one of his many contacts in Dubai who might have offered me work.
Understandably, I got a little miffed about that. I learned that people have short memories. I learned that loyalty is not a two way street. I learned that people don’t always remember down that road what you once did for them, that sometimes they prefer to forget it entirely.
But I still had money in the bank.
So I said, fuck it, I am going to walk the deserts, not like some of the geezer Birkenstock tourists I recently saw in Tavira, Portugal, but like a nomad, a sort of Bruce Chatwin, minus the gay thing, with a knapsack and notebook, travelling literally to remote deserts, and spending the little money I had saved from selling the Greenwich CT house on a sort of extended Leaving Las Vegas binge. I wrote a few stories, during this time; they got published in Mizna, until that pub stop liking me and I told them to go fuck themselves.
This worked for a while, but underneath it all I was worried as shit. I was still in my 50s. What was I going to do with the rest of my life?
This more than kept my up at night; it ate me alive with worry.
It almost killed me. This life-threatening autoimmune disorder resulted in my body attacking itself; unfortunately, I exhibited ever possible manifestation or symptom of Graves, from pretibial myxedema to bulging eyes to erratic mood swings to purples bruises on my faces and elbows.
Unable to deal with the nasty behavior that hyperthyroidism often engenders in its victims , my wife almost left me — we separated for a year, and commenced divorce proceedings.
Alone, depressed, jobless, I was no longer the handsome young man with a bright future that she fell in love with some twenty years earlier. I had become the angry, resentful old Florida guy no one wanted around any more.
My life stopped having any meaning and my vacuous days seemed pointless.
I didn’t give up completely, though.
I still emailed strangers — or, rather, company bots — about getting something akin to my old “datum” job back, but I kept getting shot down, and finally no one even bothered answering my job applications any more. My wife even suggested at some point that I change my name — Americanize it, the way many immigrants to America used to in the past — and shave years off my birth date: in old school IBM punch card terms, to fold, spindle and mutilate my true identity into some fictitious heteronym; that is to say, to no longer be who I am; to become, in effect, a living lie, instead of a human being.
Finally, a friend took me aside, when I went up to DC, in a last-ditch attempt to get a consultant subcontracting gig.
He was someone whom I had hired in the old days, when I was a tech honcho at a billion dollar company based in Virginia.
He said: do you mind if I be honest with you? Even if you never speak to me again, I owe you this.
I said okay.
He took a deep breath and said your life is over in tech. You were at the top, once, but now you’re not a player any more. Face it: you’re never going to be hired in a tech position ever again, let alone be considered the IT visionary you once were. That was a long time ago, before all that went down happened. Tech is a young man’s game. You warned me about that yourself, once.
So do yourself a favor, he said.
Look in the mirror.
Ageist as this sounds, would you then have hired you as you are now?
My conclusion was that I could either turn to something like becoming an airport limo driver, or giving up and turn into the guy who goes to the liquor store at 9am and is never seen in public except for the early morning, darting beer and whisky runs.
What do you do when your life is over, except commit suicide on the installment plan, or be the codger who packs shopping carts at the checkout line at the supermarket?
In 2016, a lot of people were like me. The 2008 housing bubble had wiped them out financially. For some, it was the lack of construction work; for others, it was globalism that outsourced their well-paid union jobs; for white collar workers, many had simply gotten older and were no longer welcome in the offices where they once made other people rich.
And so, many of them voted for Donald Trump.
They needed to believe the con that he would make it all better. That he would put the screws on those guys who were responsible for your life turning to shit. Because that wasn’t your fault. What had happened had nothing to do with you. You had played the game fair and square and they came with their Moslem and Mexican and Jew ways and fucked your life up. It was Them that did it, those fucking bastards who wanted to take your place, and live in your house, and fuck your white daughter, while leaving you out on the curb with no place to go except rot like a piece of garbage.
Somebody had to answer for that.
Or so it went for many.
Others vanished. They became zombies, which is essentially what I did.
I stopped taking care of my physical appearance.
I stopped reading, because it was too hard for me now to do so, and I couldn’t afford the cataract operation.
I pointlessly walked the beaches, first for days, months, and then years.
For no reason.
With no purpose, except just to not to sit around.
Sometimes I saw the carapace of dead turtles that had washed up on the beach and were being picked clean by the seagulls and crabs. Sometimes I saw small boats that had shipwrecked. But mostly I saw old guys like me, either fishing or walking the beach for no reason other than there was nothing else to do.
What do you do when your mind is still alive yet no one wants you anymore because no one wants to deal with what everyone perceives is a loser?
Many people say they would rather starve than be pitied and turn into charity cases, but the soup kitchens are full people who had to swallow their pride for the sake of their families.
How do you stop from going insane, as everyone around tries one way or another to pry ever last dime you have on some car or insurance or payday hustle and you finally find yourself alone waiting to die in some 600 dollar a month studio with barely enough money left over to pay for food, your meds, and the beer you drink now to make all the hurt go away because you don’t matter anymore to anyone except every few years when some politician in a smart suit says this or that or the other thing and then goes away till the next election?
Of course not everyone my age went down that route.
Some started taking steroid shots, so their knees could withstand logging those he-man mega clicks on their expensive bicycles; others administered themselves testosterone injections and even Viagra, to get rid of the moobs and still be able to fuck that trophy wife or girlfriend; while others still pumped iron and did everything in their power to make the comeback that never happened, until they realized that there comes a time when not even Michael Jordan can play basketball any more.
So where did that leave me?
With all the gun shops in Florida, taking yourself out is a real easy option.
But… ultimately…. I finally ended up going another route.
Stay tuned for Part II of this maybe completely fictional, maybe not, post, when the reference I made earlier to the history of WordPress will start making sense and I’ll start to talk about positive solutions, despite still being trapped in a suffocating world that was slowly killing me.