The other night, at a rock show, in a face mask, straight-hair wig (I’m known as a curly-haired being), and t-shirt from an NYC souvenir shop that said “Do I look like a f*cking people person?” I stood for over half an hour next to an ex I was with for nearly five years, and he didn’t recognize me.
I was witness to the general comportment of this person in front of total strangers – a thing I’d have thought I’d never experience again. I didn’t make myself known, unsure if after a couple unanswered emails if I’d be welcome, but also genuinely enjoying the novelty of remaining unseen, reinvented, transcendent.
But, in a haze of white wine, while being driven home, I found myself leaning deliberately into shadows to hide the fact that I was unexpectedly in tears – struck with the sensation of my own insignificance, the violent absurdity of knowing a person intimately and then falling back into not knowing them, without rhyme or reason.
(Note: in reality the endpoint of this story is actually rather pleasant – sequel soon to come – but we’ll stop here for the purposes of this entry.)
As mentioned in my last post, I’ve been reading Carrie Brownstein’s memoir, Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl. One thing she recounts is how formative concert experiences helped her conclude, at a fairly young age, that she’d never be happy as simply a fan of her favorite artists; she wanted to be the performer who HAD fans. The imploring refrain of the Stone Roses’ song “I Wanna Be Adored” might be a good way to sum up the impulse.
If you’ve been following along, you might remember I started Brownstein’s book on my last night in NYC. Immediately after returning home, while eating lunch outdoors, I overheard two guys pontificating about the total opposite of this desire: the desire to be nothing more than an anonymous cog contributing to the operation of a vast system.
I’ve always been torn between these two impulses. I love the power that performance gives me to interact with others on my own terms and frame myself in accordance with my own desires. But being incognito remains seductive. I’m reminded of an email I once wrote to my aforementioned old friend, with whom I’d once written a song. He contacted me out of the blue several years ago, seized with an urge to collaborate musically again, and I passed, explaining that I’d begun to want nothing more than being an average citizen with a day job and no obligation to be creative. (Little did I know that, not long after, my drive to express myself in song would come roaring back stronger than ever.)
It gets worse. If I ask myself what about going incognito is so attractive, I find the answer is this: it lets me avoid the ick, the hard labor, of performing relationship maintenance across decades, through times of political upheaval and the airing of peculiar opinions, through devastating personal reinventions and unrelatable choices, through heart-wrenching personal tragedies. The chore of explaining my viewpoints and absorbing conflicts and rejections.
In short, it allows me to be a fair-weather friend. A.K.A., the very picture of insufferable selfishness.
Then again, I loathe the idea of being forgettable. Unflattering truth be told, I want everyone who has ever loved me to keep loving me, at least a little bit. Not to the point that it impedes their happiness or keeps them from other meaningful relationships – no, just enough to imbue our collisions with a precious, enduring existential import.
I’ve followed a semi-famous local musician for a while, and for a time her social media postings would infuriate me. In retrospect I see it’s probably because I could tell she struggled with these opposing impulses just as I did. Wanting her art to reach the people who needed it, terrified of being lost to time – but also shamelessly insular (as her parents had been), resentful of the obligation fame imposed on her to be constantly available, to share of herself, to have claims made on her time – the destruction of incognito.
Nothing to see here, really – just a classic illustration of wanting to have AND eat.