The Underground

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Shoes do not fit. Through friction and pressure the foot is calloused and contorted into an inconsistent though workable approximation of the shoe, and the shoe, too, is abraded and stretched to a somewhat accommodating shape. Wearing sandals for the first time this year, I feel my heel missing and hitting the side-straps. Eventually, when it becomes more comfortable to wear these sandals, I’ll find lumps of dead skin around my heel. My feet are thus riddled with new forms that are familiar until I look at them.

Ashland, too, is not so much itself as it is the results of pressures from various elements. But unlike my feet and sandals, which need only be turned over to be inspected in their entirety, Ashland as a whole can never be seen. You can look at a map or a satellite photo of course, but this does not show the many occlusions, boundaries, and ambiences of being in different places in Ashland. There are many Ashlands, each contained within but expanding outward from a single view.

These rabbit holes are a part of some people’s lives and not a part of others’. The places I walk through every day comprise a netherworld of unfamiliarity to others. This is particularly true of residential blocks. When I for some reason pass through those areas where I don’t know anybody I am reminded that this is someone’s neighborhood. And even those in the same neighborhood live in different neighborhoods: We notice different things as we pass through; we have differing sketchy narratives of our neighbors.

There is of course also the larger split in Ashland, between tourists and locals. These two Ashlands are not without their interweavings. While downtown is largely driven by tourism, locals, including myself, come here sometimes for the very pleasure of feeling like a tourist. Get an ice cream cone and saunter in the direction of the park and you’re there.

The Underground is like one of the calloused lumps on my heel. Sometimes as a local you want the opposite pleasure, that of disappearing from view and from viewing. Inevitably, these attempts to disappear are not entirely successful. But The Underground has tried hard to create a space for it. The stairway down to this grotto of a cafe is marked only subtly with less of an advertisement than a reminder. However sneaky the signage, though, tourists also come here, to feel like locals.

When I say people come here to disappear, I mean that there are no windows. So the light is perpetually warm and artificial as if it were night.

If this were somewhere else, and I am encouraged to think that it is, I would be able to hear subway trains rumbling by. Its location below street level has the effect of muffling everything. Down in the semidarkness it becomes possible to hold the experience of the street above and to to examine it, to turn it over. Of course, it’s also easy to set it down. It no longer matters as much, which makes it possible both to listen to and to ignore.

The sensory relief of being below can also give way to a kind of hypersensitivity. Small sounds take up the whole stage: creaking chairs, someone clearing his throat, mugs being set down, and of course the jet engine sound of the milk steamer.

On my way here I passed a small girl of four of fiv crying on a bench. There appeared to be no adult attached to this child, or anyone attending to her crisis. As such she was a major disturbance to the convention of self-sufficiency that pervades the public street. It’s bad enough, according to this convention, when a stranger talks to you or asks you for change. (These are the exceptions that make the rules.) But those sorts of aberrations even denizens of towns of 20,000 such as myself get used to. A child crying alone in public is more than uncomfortable, it is alarming. Which does not mean that anyone actually breaks convention to address the alarm. I walked behind three others, all of us pretending to ignore her and even and especially as we stood only a few feet away. Should one stop, ask what is the matter and where her parents are? There were kinds of political correctness to be navigated if action is to be taken, for instance: Was she necessarily taken care of by her “parents”? As I was about to turn the corner I looked back in her direction and saw who looked to be her dad, just returned from somewhere. But who knows, maybe he was just a less inhibited stranger.

Such tense uncertainties are dulled down here. I can still hear distant sounds of cars going by and particularly loud passers-by, but I am safe from them. Such an atmosphere seems not just at odds with caffeination but also with people coming here to get away from small town familiarity. The public conventions of the street that I escape from here are reinstated between locals inside. Up there strangers pretend to ignore each other; down here acquaintances ignore each other. Well, some of us do. The problem with a crowd of people coming to get away from each other is that they make their mutual desire extraordinarily difficult to carry out. You have two choices, really. You can either practice a kind of willful ignorance that you hope others will recognize and play along with or you can become a part of the community get-together.

Before I undertook Psychocafegraphy I had trouble working up the nerve to even enter a coffee shop alone. This was because everywhere I felt surveyed by those who knew who I was, and even by those who didn’t. I still feel this way, actually. I didn’t want to be known as the kind of person who goes to coffee shops, and even worse, someone who goes to a lot of different coffee shops out of boredom. (Perhaps Walter Benjamin’s romance of boredom offers some comfort on this last shame: “Boredom is a warm gray fabric lined on the inside with the most lustrous and colorful of silks. In this fabric we wrap ourselves when we dream. We are at home in the arabesques of its lining. But the sleeper looks bored and gray within his sheath.”) If I walked in to X place, someone would see me and think “ooh la la, he’ going there.” And every time I go into one of these places I still worry that someone who knows me will be there. I worry about the awkward play of surreptitious looking that often takes place. This place tries to heal the anxiety of such encounters, to flatten them into a pleasant chance conversation or the safety of complete mutual ignorance. What is the price of this nullification? What is lost in life underground?

Its capacity to numb is why it’s odd that this place serves coffee, and not alcohol. And it’s also why I haven’t drunk coffee more than once in the past week. Caffeine elevates anxiety to dizzying, productive heights. It takes you beyond the inhibitions of nervousness, to a euphoria somewhat akin to an adrenaline rush. It becomes possible to work on large doses of caffeine because it pushes the choices involved in mental activity to crisis, makes them more urgent. It is also possible to stall while heavily caffeinated, much as one might freeze when faced with a situation without a safe option. The Underground has the opposite effect of caffeine. It puts urgency as far away as it does downtown. Yet coffee is served here.