I finally, in an idle moment, looked it up. There it was, something forgotten from my childhood and not the flowering plant Primula veris, native to my part of rural England. Cowslip is an antagonistic warren of rabbits that vexes the protagonists in Richard Adams' classic Watership Down.
In Wateship Down Cowslip's warren is a place of luxury, a fat, docile nation of rabbits who's lives are easy and leisurely. The burrow is beside a large and well tended garden from which the rabbits are assured a plentiful and unending source of food. Basic needs attended, they devote themselves to art and to fashion. They have poetry, courtly manners and all the trappings of civilized life, things alien to the rabbits from other, less well apportioned warrens.
I kept thinking this word whenever I would pass a fashion or gossip magazine. I thought of it whenever I overheard someone complain in strident tones about the preparation of their six dollar cup of coffee or that they had to work late the night that I much anticipated film was to be released. It came to me as I saw a girl, eighteen like I'm the pope, arguing loudly with her father over the injustice of him refusing to pay for her to get a breast augmentation. It scratched at the back of my understanding through days and days of twenty - four hour news obsession with a recently deceased stripper, gold digger and diet product spokeswoman who's life was only so notorious as the voyeur nation made it. I thought of it when I saw the bald man on daytime TV trying to solve the problems of people who have let themselves gorge until the were the size of automobiles. I thought it when I saw a man cry and scream over his wrecked BMW without stopping to ask if the other driver was injured. I thought "Cowslip." I did not think it when watching reports from Iraq. It did not come to mind when an ambulance passed me. I did not think it when I read that someone had been murdered not far from my neighborhood. I did not hear the whisper when I chatted with my friend with AIDS. I only thought it when emotions ran high over or when attentions were wasted on things of little consequence. Then, in those moments the back of my mind would fill with an echo, "Cowslip"
The problem with Cowslip's warren is that the farmer who tends the garden is well aware of the rabbits raiding his crops and tolerates their incursions so that he can set snares and other traps, using Cowslip's cohorts as a ready food source. The relationship is symbiotic, the farmer ignoring the incessant nibbling upon his vegetables and the rabbits sublimating their grief and anxiety over the all-too-often loss of a fellow in the form of cultural trifles.
Is that not what we, as a culture, are doing each and every day? We ignore, with such constance and such efficiency, the matters of import in our lives and in the world outside our warrens. We, Americans, maybe all of us in the industrialized west, have become so accustomed to easy, luxurious lives that we loose our most basic perspective on survival. We are fed, clothed, sheltered, defended, educated, heeded and catered to. The expectation of these things has become so axiomatic in our culture, so taken for granted, that we might not notice if we lost them.
Evidence: we have time to pay attention to the custody battle over a reality star's baby and feel the need to televise it through the night. We pay six dollars for a casual fix. Movies and award shows are some of the biggest events of our year. Our fellow humans eat themselves beyond the point at which they are ambulatory. We worry more about our vehicles than our own safety. Girls in high school think it reasonable to ask for a boob job. We have time to watch TV. I have the time to write this blog and you have time to read it, Cowslip.
Take a minute sometime today and step away from Cowslip's warren. Forget your office and your car. Ignore the news and the next episode of whatever. Don't think about your diet, your portfolio, your bills, your plans for the weekend or about fighting traffic. Be thankful that you will never have to hunt for your food and that you will never have to fight off predators. Remember that you will probably never be murdered. Remember these things because, in all likelihood, you will, one day, find yourself in an ambulance. Remember that, even if you don't, someone you know will fight in Iraq. Remember and cherish the time you spend with your friend with AIDS because you have one, even if you don't know it. Remember that whatever vexes you, troubles you or inconveniences you, whatever obstacle you face is a gentle rise in the land, a hillock, a down, not a mountain.
Most of all, be glad you live in Cowslip's warren and not in Efrafra.
The lights are low but this hardly matters, the whole front wall is made of untinted glass and all of the eyes of the world can stare in as I stare out. The street lights on Virginia Avenue clearly illuminate the faces of the other patrons, the stained labels on bottles of scotch, the imperfections in the surface of the antique tables and the corona of smoke that forms a shadowy miniscus above the revelers' heads.
A man sits on stage with a guitar. He strums with practiced apathy. His voice is unpolished granite and his songs are rough things of working class woe and sexual comedy. Half the room is riotous, clapping and singing along to his conflagration of notes and chuckles. Half the room couldn't be bothered.
I sing along. I join in the revelry, the swilling of beer, the cheering for toasts and the percussion of clapping hands. Most nights this is my joy. This is the place where I can crawl out of the dankness of my own head and see the world as others see it, where I can commune with a community and not with the fey between my ears and my own doubting guts. Tonight one of those nights. I've no joy, no song in me to make me sing. I glance around the table at the people I readily call my friends and find that, tonight I don't have anything in common with any of them, not tonight.
I don't know why I feel this way, detached, apathetic, nihilistic and simply un-present. To be sure, there's much on my mind but isn't that always the case of affairs when I'm foolish enough to be awake. Tonight's just not a night for revelry, not a night for joy. So, I don my coat and I tip the singer a dollar. I swig my the last of my beer and, without goodbyes to my erstwhile companions, step out into the cold. It's refreshing, the cold, so much more immediate, so much more engaging that the bar or the beer or the jostling between my ears. Some nights are just like that.
"Are you sure?" she asks?
"Yeah, I'm sure."
We didn't exactly splurge on dinner, no steaks, no drinks so the bill isn't exactly awe inspiring. One valentine's day I spent as much on a meal as I had once spent on a used car but that's not the case tonight. I hand over cash and a pretty sizeable tip and we're on our way to the car.
This isn't exactly the norm for us. We've been together nearly two years and it's become our habit to go dutch. We're both college educated, full time, professionals, after all. Our lives have become so intertwined that each of our respective finances affect and concern the other. Concordantly, we have come to share the monetary onus on most dates.
Sometimes, though, I just feel it's my responsibility to pick up the tab, just because. I know there's probably no rational impetus for this. Is this some deep packed bit of social conservatism that I didn't know I had? Is this my obligatory streak of male bravado making itself known? Am I sublimating some urge to have control over the relationship?
Early in a courtship a man is obligated to pay the couple's way as a show of success, to display that he is not impoverished. In many respects, professional and financial wherewithal have supplanted size and violent aggressiveness as the primary indicators of male fitness. As the relationship goes on, or at least as our relationship has gone on, that social burden ceases to be exclusive and the woman is often expected to shoulder some of the cost. I'm sure not every relationship works this way but it seems to be the standard as I've noticed.
So, this begs the question. Given the supposedly egalitarian times in which we live, at what point in a relationship should the financial aspect of that relationship become mutual? Does either partner have a greater responsibility? Is this a vital part of partners' bonding or is it a vestigial habit left over from Victorian styles of socialization? What aspects of a relationship mediate the shared responsibilities?
"What happened to you?" She asked me. Her voice said that she had not mistaken me for someone else, though she couldn't know me. No one here knew me and that's why I came all this way.
I looked up at her, not pretty, not ugly, the kind of person of persons that one could dismiss as casually as a cough while laughing. "What happened to you?" She asked, again.
"I've been broken." I told her. Broken by fate and by hate and hitting pavement and by too many movie promises, I omitted.
"You'll heal." I chuckled and she ignored me. "You'll be just fine."
I made a show of making friends with the newspaper as if to say I was only interested in one friend at a time. When I glanced up she had evaporated. "You'll be just fine." She had said.
Y'know, I probably will be.
I've never understood why so many places close at night while others do not. Certainly banks, real estate offices and corporate attorneys need not have office hours late into the night. I will also grant that hospitals, hotels, pharmacies, gas stations and Waffle Houses probably wouldn't make much sense if they weren't available 'round the clock. There are many establishments, some that do remain open well past regular business hours, that, like hospitals and Waffle Houses, might serve their clientèle better to be open at all times.
If I'm up all night, I might need a cup of coffee and I'll probably want one superior to what's available at Texaco or Gluttonous Gilby's 24-7 [TM]. Why aren't coffee shops of any quality open into the wee hours of the morning when they might be most useful? The Starbucks up the street is open until eleven at night but, whole truth told, I don't need a venti cup – o – fetamines at eleven. I'm perfectly wide awake at eleven. Three – thirty roles around; I need a pick me up and the choices from most all night establishments more resemble the oil drained from a dirty big rig than anything I would want to put in my gullet.
Clubs and bars, at least where I live, are legally required to close well before three in the morning. There used to be a handful of all-night clubs in my city but they've been forced out of business by fees levied upon them in exchange for the privilege of being open at the hours when people most want their services. If I'm not done partying at two-thirty, who is the city council to tell me, or the thousands like me that we have to go home or find one of the myriad of barely legal speakeasies in order to maintain our revelry?
I pay all my bills in cash. I don't trust and I simply don't like invisible money. I understand that it's the way of the economic world these days and that, one day, cash will be a once-was about which we'll tell our grandchildren but as long as I have the option of paying my bills in cash, I'm going to do so. Unfortunately, the number of places that I can physically pay for basic services, whether power, water or shelter is dwindling and the hours those few places are open are becoming shorter every year. Why aren't the offices for the power company and for my apartment building open all night? That would certainly make my life much easier. I know it would for a number of others. Let's throw the DMV in there while we're at it.
I understand why many restaurants are open late and even why some never close but answer me this, why are only shitty places open all night? I probably shouldn't say that. There are a scant handful of quality eateries that are open at all hours and I frequent most of them. However, when four in the morning rolls around, a disproportionate number of the available bistros will have fluorescent lighting, poly-laminate menus and will proudly declare that breakfast is “available anytime.” Why can't a few more quality houses of repast be open at the hours I choose to keep. I'm not asking for the rainbow room, I just want a few more choices that don't involve the words “diner” or “house” in their names.
Finally, in the words of Three Dog Night, “If I were the king of the world, I tell you what I'd do,” the place that would be open twenty-four-seven, three – sixty – five, the store that would never close, not even on high holidays, national observances or in the face of hugely inclement weather. In a perfect world the quintessential all night business would be the bookstore. I cannot count the number of times I've been up when only vampires and the people on infomercials are stirring and been out of books to read. Borders and B&N both close at eleven in my neighborhood and damnit, that's not good enough. I need Miller at midnight, Hemingway through the witching hours and Chaucer at dawn. I need to know that my mind will not be abandoned when the sun sets and the candles burn low.
Most people live humdrum, 9-2-5 lives. They're only interested that the bank is open for an hour after they finish work at the office, that their favorite restaurant is open when they want to eat in the evening and that they can fill up the tank on the way home before the nightly news so they won't have to wake up five minutes early tomorrow.
I don't live in that world. There are plenty more like me that aren't content with or that have never been allowed that place in the world. We want something else. We're not asking that the whole world keep our ours, just that we're not left with the economic effluvium of the service industry.
This is how I will make my fortune. I'm going to open the world's first all night bookstore/ coffee shop/ fine bistro/ one stop utilities center. Who's investing?
Today a random bicycle moment sprang to memory. I was riding home from my job in Sandy Springs and was something like thirteen miles into the sixteen mile trek. The last leg of the journey took me up Monroe Dr., a narrow, topographically dynamic, poorly kept and poorly lit stretch of road that runs from just north of downtown east to my neighborhood. An SUV of truly obscene proportions pulls up along side me. "Nice bike!" calls the driver in that tone that indicates he is unimpressed with my machine and more than just a bit contemptuous of me as a person. He pulls away before I get to look at him, rumbling away with a stomp of the accelerator that might have used up a full barrel of crude oil. His superiority is ill displayed when he gets caught at the next light and I pull up casually behind him, proudly displaying my much narrower carbon footprint and granite like calves.
I glance in the open window, from which the remiss bicycle comment had recently emanated. On the journey up the hill I had invented, mulled, dismissed and re-engineered a half dozen flippant remarks that I could have made to the driver but a look at him stopped me short. He was fat, no, not fat, obese. He was the kind of orca plumper that keep ending up on daytime talk shows. His head was almost conical from the growth of blubber about his neck. The folds of his stomach rolled up and over the arm rests. His arms seemed disproportionately short due to the girth of his midsection and he was forced to bury the bottom of his gut in the steering wheel in order to reach far enough forward to steer.
All of my come-backs were irrelevant. There was nothing I could say to this man, this bloated sack of protoplasm, driving a car so big as to dwarf anything sort of a Sherman tank. Here was the quintessential uber-American, over weight, over consuming, over proud and absolutely unaware of his own ridiculousness.
I looked him over, from his chubby ankles to his bulging throat. I glanced long at his Excursion, too big to navigate most of the side streets that branch off from this road. Perhaps it was heartless, but I laughed out loud, not a giggle, not a chuckle but a rolling gaffaw, a laugh that seemed to roll out from a gut as wide as his. I laughed like an idiot until the opposing light turned yellow and then pedaled on without a word.
It might have been tactful to say, "Why yes, yes it is."
That's how I feel today, like a fallen angel, destitute on a street corner, tinkering with my heavenly trumpet, waiting for God's kingdom to call.
"The phone's gonna ring. It's gonna happen. It has to happen."
There's the one I call "The Professor;" I don't know that he's an academic. He might not have finished grade school for all I know but he has that professor look about him, white pony tail, dusty, fashionless clothes and unreasonably thick glasses. He is always walking somewhere, newspaper in hand, with a haste that makes me wonder what could be so important. I've a dollar that says he smokes a pipe.
There's "The Fallen Faced Man." Though easily seventy years old, his body has not even begun to fail him. He strolls about with a powerful but leisurely gait and a wardrobe that belies years of physical labor and working class values. I would notice him no more than anyone else if not for the fact that his face does not seem to cling to his skull, as if he were wearing a rubber Halloween mask while sitting too close to a camp fire.
There's "Homeful Mike" who I did once talk to. I say he's "homeful" because, though he conducts himself with the small army of homeless folk that populate my part of the city, he has a modest apartment a few blocks over.
There's "Chinese Guy" who is black but wears a conical reed hat and rides a dilapidated bicycle, reminding me very much of an extra from any movie set in nineteenth century Shanghai.
There's "Scooter Lady," who, unlike The Professor, I'm pretty sure is an academic. I see her at the coffee shop most of the times I go in there but have never spoken to her. I only remember her because I have seen her pull up time after time on a four stroke motor scooter, though she seems to own quite a few of them as I'm sure I've never seen her on the same one twice.
Finally, there's "The Crackwhore," who's designation needs explanation only insomuch as I've noticed her wardrobe has, in the past year, gone from dumpster dive chic to Salvation Army vogue. She still has a dozen, obviously fabricated, stories as to why she needs a dollar. She still gets belligerant when turned down and she never has the wherewithal to remember that she's asked you for money twice a week for nearly four years and never had any success.
I see each of these people, on average, about twice a week. I wonder if they notice me or am I, unlike them, not obviously unique enough to discern from the vulgar mass. I wonder how many other people I pass each day, every day, and never really see. How many times have I stood in line, crossed the street, waited for the bus or shared a counter at the diner with the same handful of folks and never even seen them. Is there someone else out there that notices me each time I buy a cup of coffee of cut across the church parking lot, someone that has their own internal nickname for me and that I never recognize. Could The Professor or Scooter Lady pick me out of a lineup? I know that The Crackwhore probably couldn't.
The world may be smaller than we imagine.