Life as a Loser
Smith Street
By Will Leitch
Mar 29, 2004

It's a beautiful day in New York City today, one of those days that reminds you why you're here, one of those days when you feel like you're a part of something bigger, something important. No other city can make you feel like this, like you are plugged into some massive generator, like you are an essential part of a machine that never stops churning. It's one of those days when the sidewalks feel like they're vibrating.

So I decided to take a walk.

Almost immediately after I stepped out onto Smith Street in Brooklyn, some lady with two strollers plowed into me. Not only was she pushing two strollers, she was carrying four bags of groceries, wrapped around each of her arms like a straitjacket. She was so harried that she not only didn't apologize when she almost knocked me over, I'm not sure she even noticed. One of her babies was wailing; the other was playing with a bag of frozen peas. The woman wasn't being chased by anyone, but she might as well have been; she was so caught up in what was assuredly a stressful journey home, if everyone she passed on the street turned out to be not wearing pants, I bet she wouldn't have noticed that either. And this seemed to be a regular thing for her, this pushing of children, this carrying of bags, this nonstop clutter and clamor. I wondered how long it had been like this. She was young; I bet it wasn't more than five years ago that her friends were holding her hair back as she threw up in the back of a dingy East Village shithole. When did it switch for her? When did the tide turn? It was probably a gradual thing. She felt she was getting older, that the world was starting to close in on her, she met a nice guy, she settled down, she had children (twins!), and before she knew it, she was carting the sum of her existence down a nondescript street in Brooklyn, aware of nothing but this. She had the look of someone who had not thought about herself in a long, long time.

Two kids are hanging out in front of the 99-cent store. They're always here, whether the store is open or not. They're black kids, and they're always passing headphones back and forth. They're very bored. They always comment when someone comes into the store; when I went in to buy toilet paper the other day, they saw my long hair and said "Hey, here comes Beatle-fucking-mania." I laughed, trying to show that I get it, I'm hip, and they scoffed at me, told me to "laugh it up, Beatle man." I can see these kids from the window of my apartment. Sometimes a third kid joins them, but I don't think they like him very much, even though he clearly likes them, or at least wants their approval. He'll stand there, next to them, talking more than they are, and they treat him like he's not there. Occasionally I'll see him standing there by himself, waiting for them to show up. He'll wait a very long time, if necessary. I wonder if he considers them his best friends. I bet he does.

I continue down Smith. There's a bar called Vegas less than a block from my apartment which, every time I look in there, seems to have the same five people in it. They're the types who come in at noon, set a stack of bills in front of them and just let the bartenders refill their drinks and take from the stack at their leisure. They don't seem sad, or happy; they barely talk. The bar doesn't even have a TV. They just look forward, sipping their drink, tired. I wonder how they got this way too. I wonder what their apartment is like. I imagine it is spare and dark. If the bar didn't close, they'd never go there. I sometimes go to Vegas myself, when I want the same experience of solitude among strangers. I've never talked to any of them. None of them have ever talked to me. It's a comfort.

In front of me, a couple is fighting. They're desperately trying to disguise their argument from the world of the street, and they are failing. I can't make out the specifics of their tiff, but it seems that there's something that he always does that drives her crazy, something that makes her feel she is making a mistake by continuing to be with him, and that he has little desire to stop doing it. She is saying, "I don't know why you always do this," and he is trying to ignore her, walking faster and looking away, but she is right behind him and she is speeding up, and I am speeding up to stay with them, and she is starting to yell now, and what had been his mutterings a few seconds earlier are starting to become shouts. He is waving his arms in a robotic manner, as if this is a conversation he has had too many times already and lacks the energy to give even the most feeble resistance. He says something to her that I can't make out, and she stops and begins to cry. He tries to keep walking, wants desperately to keep walking, but he can't now, and he turns to come back to her, looking sympathetic and guilty, and I speed past the both of them and know exactly how they both feel.

Because it's a nice day, two women are having brunch outside of a fancy French bistro. I have been to this bistro before, and it's exactly what you'd think: shitty service, overrated food, and way too expensive. Places like this are always crowded for reasons that escape me. The two women, probably in their late 20s, are dressed in business suits and have leather handbags next to them. They are wearing a lot of makeup. They both went on dates last night, and they're deconstructing the dates, which is usually the most fun part of dates. One was going on and on about her date's face; I guess he had a bad acne problem in high school and still carries the scars. He's a stockbroker, it seems, and he walked her home and kissed her good night, and she was kinda grossed out but kissed him anyway, and if he calls, she'll go out with him again, sure, why not. The waiter comes by, and the two women scowl and complain to him about something, and he looks apologetic but probably isn't, he probably hates them, he probably hates all of them.

I see an old acquaintance walking toward me. She works in the media world too, and back in the dot-com days, we used to get invited to some of the same parties. She waves and kisses me on the cheek, which I don't like doing, since I barely know her and don't know where that cheek has been. She tells me she just saw a story about me, a story that a ton of people saw, apparently, and she calls me a superstar but I don't think she means it, I think she thinks I don't deserve a story written about me and I figure she's probably right. I nod and smile and say everything you're supposed to say when you run into someone on the street and don't really have anything to say to them but have to talk anyway. She asks me what I'm up to. I tell her I'm just walking. That's all? That's it. I'm just walking. It's a lovely day.

I need cigarettes. I walk into a Rite-Aid and stand in line behind a man who is having trouble with his credit card. He is saying that this is impossible, that his card works just fine, why don't you run it again? The woman behind the counter doesn't really care and just wants to go home; she runs the card again, and then another card, and then another, and none of them are working, and the guy is starting to yell now, and the woman never changes her apathetic expression. He throws his hands in the air, curses, and storms to the door. He is moving too fast, though, and he smacks right into the automatic doors. The woman behind the counter smirks, looks at me, and says "Next."

My cell phone rings. It's my mother. My sister is graduating from college in May, a joyous occasion most overdue, and Mom wants to know what airport I'll be flying into, what day, what time. She asks me if I've written my column yet, my last column, and I tell her I haven't. She tells me not to give out her age, like she always does, and I tell her that there's no way I'm going to use space in my last column to tell the world that she's *# years old. She asks me what I'm going to do when I don't write the column anymore, and I tell her I won't do anything much different at all, that'll I'll walk down the street and pick up my laundry and pay my bills late and drink too much, like I always do. She tells me I drink too much, and I agree, I just said that, Mom.

It's starting to get dark, and I'm on deadline. It's time to go home. I buy some Diet Coke and some batteries for my Discman. My roommate isn't home, so I shut off all the lights in my apartment, like I always do, and sit down at my computer and begin to type. It is so simple here, so peaceful. I see so many people out there, who don't know what they're doing in this world, who are just like me. I wonder where they find their peace. I wonder where they go to slow everything down, to try to make some sense out of the chaos, to try to strip out some meaning from a planet that is doggedly determined not to provide it. I wonder where they step outside of themselves and relax, and think, and just be. This is where I find it. Alone, in a dark room, listening to the screams of Nirvana, the sound of helplessness. This is the only place I know to go to.

I fear that I might be lost without it. I feel it is all that I have. What else can I write? I don't have the right.

This is the final Life as a Loser column. Thank you for letting me do this.



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