Monthly Archives: February 2016

The Elevator


The spider that slid out of the trashbag that was inappropriately stashed in the elevator was just shy of an inch long. Small and underprivileged as it was, it would still have struck terror into Sophie, an insurance agent, had she seen it. Luckily, her eyes were locked onto the ceiling, regarding what looked like a cigarette lighter caught behind a shield beside a light fixture, fossilized and forgotten. The five by five foot space was a tight squeeze for the current occupants: the unwelcome, abandoned trashbag; an attentive terrier, hitherto yapping in a hot car in the parking lot, now accompanied by a ten year old boy named Jason. Plus Sophie. The arachnid raced across the worn carpet base only to halt inches before the dog’s lowering nose. Unperturbed, the animal emitted a slight grunt but then withdrew, uninterested. Who knows what animals make of life that moves with unnecessary numbers of limbs, without apparent purpose other than existence? Science knows what kind of instinct or rather reflex will have stilled the tinier creature, motivating its sudden simulation of death.

Jason asked the woman if she’d press the button for the second floor. Though it was a short, benign request, he spoke nervously, as Sophie resembled his Aunt Julie, a severe woman who used to babysit him until he finally spoke up to his parents about her tendency to hit. Jason didn’t think the tall woman by his side would hit necessarily, but she seemed familiarly tense, and might have said something plaintive about his bringing a dog into the building, which would have been bad enough. The time it took for the door to close seemed protracted causing an awkward, silent stalemate, and in Jason’s mind, a complaint about machinery that doesn’t work properly. Someone ought to check its parts, do a thorough maintenance job. Someone ought to do something, Jason thought. When the doors opened for the second floor, he exited hastily, perhaps rudely, while the terrier shuffled beneath his feet, casting another nonplussed glance at the spider. Picking up the dog, the boy rushed across a waiting area to an office where his mother waited, eager to show her fellow realtors the new family pet.

Replacing Jason was a bulky man wearing a post office uniform, who reached in front of Sophie to press a button rather than ask her to do it. It was his rudeness that caught her attention, not that of the boy. The man’s vast armpit opened up like a beast’s mouth preparing to bite—the emanating odor more than doubling the offense of the trashbag that still sat on the other side. The man shook his head, observing the clutter that forced closeness. What followed was a guttural witticism, smothered in heavy breath: something terse, fragmented and nasty about lazy Janitors, people below post office workers in the food chain, he evinced. Sophie returned a look that was not quite a thin smile, more a twitch of lips, followed by a look away, back to that cigarette lighter up above. She changed her mind, looked away from that, thinking the man might follow her gaze, notice the lighter and attempt chatter about that as well. This situation was a quintessential fear for Sophie, and for many women, she considered: being caught alone, in an elevator, with a man who might be dangerous; especially one who was sizeable and seemed gruff and impolite. The halting movement of the elevator was uncomfortable, but at least there wasn’t long to go. At 1600 Sadler Street there were only four floors. Sophie had just one left to go before meeting with her therapist on the top floor. Soon she’d be talking about men, anxiety, tight spaces, spiders, and failed attempts to quit smoking, among other things.

Therapist Daniel Pierce left his fourth floor office early afternoon, hungry for a late lunch on an hour’s break. In the hallway, he passed Bob, a postal worker with whom he shares a manly nod on a daily basis. He and Bob aren’t on a first name basis, just observant of each other’s insignia: Bob’s nametag, the sign on Daniel’s office. By the waiting area Daniel pressed the button that summons the elevator. He hoped its clunky, cumbersome movements would prove quicker than usual, as Bob is surprisingly swift in his circuit of deliveries, and if the elevator didn’t arrive soon, he’d be sharing a ride with the malodorous mailman. Behind him was a familiar sight: a grim-visaged woman, alone in the waiting area, looking flattened, too self-absorbed to read the fluff array of magazines or even notice others. The elevator door opened. Daniel stepped in and hurriedly pressed for the lobby, but Bob made it in time, crossing the threshold just before the doors closed. With a second nod, he acknowledged Daniel but also cast a glance in the direction of Sophie. He faced the counselor as the elevator went down, muttering ugliness: “uptight bitch” was the term Daniel was meant to co-sign with a knowing chuckle, perhaps an exchange of misogynistic platitudes.

It occurred to him—no, it reminded him—that if he doesn’t collude with such beliefs, he risks a dreaded reprisal. Daniel had always been wary of men like Bob; had often worried since he was a kid, and especially since that one time years ago on a commuter train when a thug accosted a female passenger and Daniel was the only other male around, that he’d feel compelled to do something, risk his own health and safety, in the service of either disapproval or actual, as in physical intervention, which wasn’t and isn’t his thing. The smell of Bob—that acrid reek of sweat from walking in the sun—wasn’t the problem. Nor was it the class divide. As the doors opened on the bottom floor, Bob stepped out first, gave Daniel a curt farewell, perhaps registering the counselor’s haughty rejection of him. Daniel moved away with a sigh, noticing a mild jump in his heart rate. It doesn’t take long to feel the specter of violence, he thought, whether it’s real or not. At the brink of the lobby doors he stopped and pulled back suddenly. Cursing and not understanding why he lifted his foot, revealing that which he’d glimpsed an instant before his last step. The spider was crushed.






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1600 Sadler Street


The office building of 1600 Sadler Street in Worcester Massachussetts is four stories high, making it one of the tallest in town, save for the new Mobile T building that went up four blocks away nearly a year ago. Perched on a slight hill, it has an advantage on three similarly sized department stores across the way, which were recently rebuilt upon plots scraped from the earth. On a wraparound balcony outside his office, Daniel Pierce stands overlooking the teeming traffic of late afternoon. His five o’clock appointment has texted him, saying she’s running ten minutes late, which is typical because of the rush hour, though usually Shirley’s lateness is closer to five minutes than ten. When he first signed a lease, Daniel thought he’d enjoy times like this: late afternoon reveries, peering down over the city, feeling comfortably detached and taking in the view while collecting thoughts ahead of a session. In November, an orange tint blends with brown hues on the red maples that line Sadler Street. From above there seems more vegetation than what’s apparent at ground level. The tree-line even seems uniformly cut, as if there were above it a secret layer of atmosphere created especially for the birds. This rarified space costs more for the humans that occupy it so it’s a good thing Shirley’s fee is on its way, whether she’s late or not.

The hard, damp chill sends Daniel inside, thinking of the time his office mate first walked him around, boasting of the balcony area and the view, the then modest rents. Better in the spring and summer, Daniel thinks after just a few minutes outside. He figures he’ll head downstairs, check in with the janitor, as in remind him that some are still around, working. The guy will be making his end-of-day rounds, storing hefty bags of trash in the elevator as he goes from one office to the next, reeking of New Bedford waste. Daniel hates it when he does this, though he doesn’t say anything. It doesn’t look good to Daniel’s clients, this time-saving habit. What must it say to them to have bags of garbage accompanying their ride to the top floor where the therapists tend to have evening appointments? The janitor’s routine seems to privilege the loud and garrulous realtors on the bottom floor, the insurance company hacks on the second. They’re all typically gone by late afternoon, Daniel notices. For their benefit the dirty work and security is done after hours, or close to it. By the front door, the stocky, lumpen keeper of the building is locking up, only to see Daniel stepping out of the elevator, already sporting a wan, diffident smile.

“Oh, right. You’re here tonight, huh?” the man says, sounding vaguely disappointed.

“Thanks,” Daniel replies, indicating the door, which he needs left unlocked, and then, fleetingly, the garbage bag. He moves subtly to the side, as if beckoning the bag to step outside. No, after you, is what it looks like.

“Sorry,” the man says, taking the hint. Mission accomplished, thinks Daniel. Meaning, he didn’t have to say anything. After a gratuitous trip to his car, he heads back upstairs, there to pass his neighbor in the hallway. Charles Mandalay is a construction consultant from Cambridge originally. He has models of his projects all over his office, as evidence of his good work and career path. He’s arrived at the top floor of 1600 Sadler Street as its oldest occupant and has the best suite in the building, on the east side, facing downtown. Sometimes on a Friday he invites others from his floor to stop by for a quiet party, a few cheese and crackers washed down with a choice of red or white wine. Daniel sometimes partakes of one glass maybe, even if he has an appointment or two left to go, because Charles offers a mint to go with the libations. His think-of-everything generosity and hearty spirit seems easy and authentic, if weary and sad. Charles has the look of a man whom others have left behind with all of his goods and memories. To newcomers who fret over rising rents, he schools about the resilience of the landlord, the indelibility of 1600 Sadler Street, and as he orates he stares out his window admiringly.

“The building’s paid for,” he proclaims, suggesting all should relax. They can’t, including Daniel. From that top floor balcony, they see a city closing in, becoming more crowded, making it difficult to get places, arrive for appointments, of whatever kind they are. The building’s old, someone notices. It has the feel of a place that will be torn down soon, replaced by a clothing store, maybe a condo unit or apartment complex. Daniel comments on the elevator: not so much about garbage left inside, but rather the age of the apparatus. Looking closely, one of his clients recently observed that its permit had expired a year or two earlier, which explained its sometimes staccato movement from one floor to the next. Since then Daniel has preferred the stairs at the back. When he isn’t inspecting the elevator for trash, he’s exercising his limbs, getting a workout on the concrete steps that lead to a heavy door, whose warped sound upon opening heralds hasty arrivals.

For the latecomers, especially the younger ones who are spry in the limb department, the jog to the fourth floor is quicker than the elevator ride. Breathless, they sometimes stride in, crossing the threshold to the therapeutic sanctum, meeting Daniel at his door. He stands like a porter, waving them inside. Some take a moment to orient themselves, to gaze outside at that wraparound balcony, at the view outside, the red maples just about visible from their vantage points. Others flop on Daniel’s couch, relieved to have made it in. The sessions are typically fifty minutes long, sometimes a few minutes longer, in defiance of the managed care rules. Those who stick around beyond the evidence-based allocation, who are there for the long haul to do good, in-depth work, often sigh and comment on the security, the time-out from life. This is their safe place, they say. They don’t want anything to change.



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Listening To You


So I conclude this four-part introduction to my paper on Tommy with a reference to its finale: a pop hymnal that Rolling Stone author Dave Marsh once described as “a moving passage expressing that all power emanates from the mob”. For new listeners, “Listening To You”, a refrain attached to the song, “See me, feel me”, might sound a little like the “Let the Sunshine in” passage from Hair, which ran contemporaneously on Broadway in 1969. The sentiments of these songs are indeed similar: an uplifting message of hope for the future, set against the backdrop of a circular musical theme.

The layered meaning of “Listening To You” is addressed in the second half of my paper, which traces the drama of Tommy, proceeding from the opening crisis (the murder of Tommy’s mother’s lover), which his parents cover up, which half-intentionally generates the deaf, dumb, and blind condition which in turn is a manifestation of Tommy’s dissociative withdrawal/silent protest against all that is dishonest. Living his life, Tommy finds a talent, pinball, and becomes a champion of the game and a kind of rock star. Later, as was de rigeur in 1969, he becomes something more than an exponent of light entertainment, something closer to a spiritual leader, inspiring youth in particular. In the midst of this, he is “cured” of his solipsistic withdrawal, transforming from a figure of eloquent silence to one that is socially engaged, if rather didactic in his promotion of “awareness”.

This latter development, to which I had listened casually for years prior to writing my paper, led me to consider other aspects of Tommy’s psychology beyond the effects of early childhood trauma while retaining consideration of that early history. In the service of this task, I turned to the writings of James Masterson and Harry Guntrip, two figures from the psychoanalytic family tree who, like John Bowlby, were writing about things like attachment and loss, schizoid withdrawal, and/or schematics of intrapsychic structure around the same time that Tommy was being made.  Drawing upon Masterson’s model of intrapsychic structure of self disorders, I played with the idea that Tommy Walker emerges as an adult displaying the features of Narcissism and Schizoid personality disorder (the combo presentation is more precisely delineated by Guntrip).

To explain, Masterson’s model is one of so-called object relations units, featuring representations of self and other, which constitute an individual’s false self (a kind of strategic way of being in the world, consisting of an aggregate of experience). According to Masterson, a person’s representations of self and other are nuanced depending upon the nature of their disorder: Borderline, Narcissistic, and Schizoid are the three main personality types his model outlines. Tommy’s Narcissism is exhibited in several ways: initially, his preoccupation with his image in mirrors seems the most obvious indicator; he is lost in himself. Later, he seems grandiose in his emergence as a star, in  his upbraiding of followers, and in his general sense of himself as a “sensation”. Like a tragic hero, he seems destined for a fall. It happens in the penultimate song, “We’re Not Gonna Take It” in which disillusioned (kids?) rebel against the restrictions of the rather farcical “holiday camp” and revolt against Tommy’s leadership. The lyrics bring to mind the kind of scenes that might have happened had fans of Woodstock not tolerated sitting in down-pouring rain, suffering lack of food, overcrowding and poor hygiene conditions for days upon end. Meanwhile, Tommy seems like an aloof figure: essentially withdrawn, somewhat paranoid and alienated, still fearful of being appropriated for others’ needs. His lingering schizoid dilemma is that of seeking attachment while protecting himself from harm, real or imagined.

The hopeful conclusion suggests a resolution of such conflicts, a transcendence of false self strategies such that Tommy and his followers can listen more intently to both outside and internal voices, integrating complex experiences of self and other instead of merely reacting against fate. More plainly, the finale promises that artists and their listeners can learn to move on from trauma, grow up, and deal with life’s triumphs and travails. If that all sounds rather trite or precious, then it may be, but at least it’s more positive or mature than “hope I die before I get old”. Then again, the opera’s libretto (if I may use that term) suggests more or less the same as what “My Generation” did four years prior to Tommy: that The Who would bond with its audience (the mods of the mid-sixties), and reflect their values, dreams, including the nihilism; their love and their hate. So Tommy ends with a refrain that you can sing in the shower, sing from behind the wheel of your car; sing by yourself or sing amongst a crowd. Take your pick, but while you sing, listen:

Listening to you, I get the music

Gazing at you, I get the heat 

Following you, I climb a mountain

I get excitement at your feet

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