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There’s a woman copping a smoke in the doorway of a building one stop up from where I get off. It’s right next to a Men’s Wearhouse. The windows are done up for Christmas already: one of those foxily silver male models looms in a window-filling poster, dapper in a dark suit, holding up a puppy with a big red bow around its neck. The next window over, he’s casual in a den somewhere, a nice bright sweater, a mug of something hot and spiced in one hand. He’s wearing the same airbrushed grin in both shots, and not a silver strand is out of place: a metrosexual CEO, his hands never dirty, his lucre never dreaming of filth. Someone just like him was hanging in those windows last year, and the year before that: the river is never the same, but it takes a while to wear a loop into an oxbow. As it were. I mean, it isn’t even Thanksgiving yet, but here’s the Christmas swag; the Payless down the street got its holly-swaddled signs up the Friday before Hallowe’en. I ought to be livid. It’s one of the harmless little things I let myself blow up over. (Not until Black Friday, people! Please.) But I’m not. I’m not. —And her? She’s standing there in her business drag, blowing smoke: taking a break from answering the phones, stepping and fetching, a early morning deathly dull sales conference with successorized PowerPoints, trying to sort 500 boxes of document production for the upcoming class-action suit. She might have been copping a smoke there yesterday, too, or last week, or the year before; maybe I just never registered her. Maybe I never looked up in time. Maybe her schedule changed; maybe she just started here. Maybe she was working in Tualatin last week. The river is never the same, but how different is it, really? A little ripple here, that’s gone before you know it? A different twig rolling down the current than the one that was there a minute ago? The scree shifted a little when you weren’t looking? What does any of that matter? Don’t these people realize Everything Changed last week? Don’t they see what happened? Doesn’t anyone?

The second of November, 2004: and nothing was ever the same again.

And sometimes what I’m listening to is Paul’s band, Arms; a lot of the time what I’m listening to specifically is “Build on the 9s.” And yes, I know, the song is built out of nine sections, and no take was ever more than nine bars long, and they chopped it all up and edited it back together, and they’re singing “Build on the 9s, build on the 9s,” because, you know, that’s what they were doing. But they recorded it in 1999, when the tail wind that carried us through that decade hadn’t yet begun to sputter, and even if a decade is a wholly artificial demarcation, a journalistic convenience that they use to trivialize and to dismiss important events and important ideas (important events, and important ideas), and just when did the ’90s begin, anyway? The World Wide Web? Clinton’s inauguration? “Right Here, Right Now”? That night the Wall came down? —Remember when all our wars were going to be for the right reasons? (They weren’t, but remember?) Remember when we were going to abolish stupid work and outsource ourselves in our pyjamas? (We never really could, but remember?) Remember when somebody would show up at your cubicle with an orange messenger bag full of DVDs and ice cream you’d just ordered online? When the hit TV show was “Northern Exposure”? When we were all going to move to Prague and become uncitizens of the Middle World? Remember when the clouds finally looked like they were lifting and the sunlight lit up the sky and the drums kicked in and then they blew that amazing horn break that sounded like it was going to last forever? Remember when we were going to save the world?

Those are the nines, right there: nine one, nine oh, nine three, nine five, all the way up to ninety-fuckin’-nine. (Eight nine, even, and the Wall, coming down. There’s a photo of me somewhere, with a ponytail, in the long dark coat I still wear to work when it’s cold, chipping away at that Wall with a hammer and chisel. When I was six or maybe five we went through Checkpoint Charlie and Mom was told she couldn’t photograph an old bombed-out church in East Berlin, so she turned around and caught its ruined reflection in the oranged glass cladding of the people’s office box across the street. —My God. Was it all really that long ago?) —Build on those nines, dammit: and the song lurches in its engagingly undrunken way from nine-bar to nine-bar, and all those names come thundering through the speakers, universal in their particularity. The increasing us and the decreasing them. The past didn’t go anywhere! The nines are still here, all about us. Build on them!

And I’m listening to that because it’s something I need to know, here and now. It’s easy to forget.

Remember Y2K? Remember why we were gonna party like it was 1999?

The twelfth of December, 2000: and nothing was ever the same again.

Later than eleven
Trying to make the earth into a heaven

So, yeah: saving is what misers do, and there’s something else I’m listening to, when I’m not listening to that. What I’m listening to is the Mountain Goats, and specifically what I’m listening to is “The Plague.”

There will be cotton clouds
Above the fields, as white as cream
There will be loud singing in the churches
As we all come out to take one for the team
And all our great schemes and plans
Will slip like fishes from our hands

And the rivers will all turn to blood
Frogs will fall from the sky
And the plague will cover
The country with its anger

La la la la
La la la
La la la

  1. Charles    Nov 11, 11:26 PM    #
    That, on the other hand, I have no disagreement with. Also, beautiful and painful. Also, never knew that about "Build on the 9s."


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