Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Password: Zanzibar

It was a wet March night I was walking to the meeting of the Society of People Who Secretly Like Billy Joel. It was hard keeping your shoes dry, because in the part of town where the meeting was, the gutters were never clean and so inches of dirty water would breach the banks of the curb. It was also a long walk because no member is allowed to go directly to the secret location for that meeting; it’s safer for everyone this way.

I actually had not realized that my shoes were soaked until they began to emit that sad squeaking sound. And then I felt it all once. Billy Joel, I thought, could write a song about this. I was tempted on this lonely night to sing or hum one of Billy Joel’s songs, to cheer myself, or express my loneliness better, a loneliness I had only found expressed in Billy Joel. This too, of course, was out of the question, expressly forbidden. Being a member of the society of people who secretly like Billy Joel is a heavy burden, but for some of us, it is the only alternative.

What is wrong with liking Billy Joel? Someone who has joined the Society of People Who Secretly Like Billy Joel has asked himself this question, many, many times. And he has asked it in silence. He has heard his favorite songs play on the radio and pretended not to be interested or know the words. He has hidden the ecstasy crowding over his heart. He has gone to record stores and flipped passed every album he would loved to possess, but quickly, feigning interest in Billy Idol or Billy Squire. He has never bought the album. He has bought other albums with one or perhaps two Billy Joel songs on them, but these he has wrapped as gifts. If he dares, he has almost hummed in the noise of crowds and on the bus, or perhaps into his pillow before sleeping. But inaudibly.

The meetings aren’t much. We meet at the appointed time, in the appointed place. Our entrance is staggered so as not to attract attention. So we are never seen together, or meet each other outside the meetings. This is one of the rules. No one speaks. There is always a lot of coughing and throat clearing. Some of us are getting on in years; I would say that none of us are really happy. Are we happy at the meetings? No. We hide the ecstasy crawling over our hearts, and no one who must hide their joy is truly happy. In fact, they are quite miserable. We hide it from each other, we hide it from ourselves. We are afraid to look each other in the eye. We are those who come and wait, come and wait to be happy, who lack the will to express our joy or change but still hope that something will happen. We are those that wait for joy. Even a coward can want to be happy. It might seem counterintuitive to an outsider, why people who secretly like Billy Joel and who have met for the explicit purpose of enjoying his music in secret would feel a need to restrain or curb their outward enjoyment of his gifts during the secret and secure meetings. There’s a lot an outsider cannot understand. But it is not absurd. Shy people can still feel painfully shy around other shy people, even at a meeting to confront their shyness, fat people, their fatness.

If anyone knew about out secret society, they might think that it was a waste of time. They would say to us: get over it. This is why our meetings are in secret. Those who have loved, loved completely, that is, without hope. Those who have ever had anything but the most banal ambitions for themselves and for that reason, could not bear to go forward. Those who where ever dazzled by some far off country of their dreams which for that reason they could not visit. Those who have felt the presence of God. They understand.

So we huddle together: our circle is small and pathetic, on broken plastic chairs in an abandoned space with mildewy rags stapled over the windows. But, in all its poverty and wretchedness, this is our church, our City of God, our Society. This is all we have.

What did we think of Billy Joel’s public listeners? His fans even? Did we secretly envy and admire them? No, we despised these people. We imagined them sitting back with their girlfriends -or wives even, on a summer night, after a few beers, listening to “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” or even with their children on their knee, explaining, “The Stranger”.

It is hoped that someday there would be a female member of the Society of Private Individuals Who Secretly Like Billy Joel. In actuality I suspect that each of this had this reason for joining.

She might be a librarian, a volunteer, a widow. Someone intelligent and whose experience and whose lack of experience matched our own. Like a sister or a mother. Wouldn’t this make us complete? In my mind I imagined her shy but steady company giving me courage. I imagined us united in our quiet enjoyment, our secret passion. How her lips would one day innocently and involuntarily mouth the lyrics and I would see it, I would hear it escaping her. We would tremble together. I would save her some lukewarm coffee to warm her thin shoulders afterwards. We might walk a little of the way, not together, at first, but not out of sight.

And how bold and how brave I might be for such a person, for a gentle soul who could know this thing about me, who heard the same music. For her, I could be so strong, so fearless, I felt. I could even imagine being one of those open-shirted listeners, having a beer on a fine afternoon, listening to our favorite album, not caring about the neighbors, even, the sound falling down on them from the apartment balcony, like our love, my hands publicly touching her modest behind in a friendly, familiar way.

I knew these fantasies and feelings were wrong and I despised myself for having them. And yet there was no one I could confess them to, even though I knew, intellectually, that the other members of the Society must have these same fantasies.

As for the rest of the Society, they were a sad lot, pitiful if not actually despicable, though perhaps that is not fair, since we have never seen each other in generous or flattering lighting. The clothes we wear are protean and nondescript and we sedulously avoid eye contact. Some of us might be handsome, even, but it is impossible to know, for everyone more or less looks the same: wary, suspicious, afraid. It does something to the face. If we know each other, it is by our foibles, a cough or an unpleasant smell. During the music, we close our eyes. This is not a written rule, but it is the foundation of our Society. Lest we see in each other the mirror of our ecstasy.

Once my neighbor exclaimed:“It’s literature, it’s like Dos Passos!” I always hated him a little. I had figured him for a pendant, an academic, as though knowledge or scholarship could shield him from his shameful joy. Each of us is ashamed of the part of himself that likes Billy Joel, but I hate all the more our weak rationalizations. I suppose we love that part of ourselves, too, we must treasure it as its greatest secret. But there is no place in our lives for this secret so we have only this dank room, this no place, with the windows blacked out and the volume turned so low.

He was not at the next meeting. Members who exhibit unacceptable behavior are rapidly banned. They are simply not told where the next meeting is; rather, they are told, but misinformed. It is not clear who makes the decision, or when, though I always imagine the decision is made collectively, justly. Swiftly and speechlessly. There are no warnings. This happens often. The Society is quick to protect itself, to excise, to avoid.

This might not seem like much of a loss to an outsider, but consider that he probably doesn’t even have his own copies of Billy Joel’s music, that he has never written down the words to his songs and if he has looked them up, he has carefully cleared the memory of his computer. Consider that this is all he has: the one day that he is not alone. That he might feel, even momentarily, that he was part of something and approach, with timid respectful steps, something truly beautiful, if only to praise it mutely in a dumbshow of invisible joy.

If I could fall in love, if I could find a single friend, if I could trust someone. Did not each of us wait for such a moment, every night, when we came to such meetings, a moment where there would be an opening, where someone would say, or do something.

I sometimes have these thoughts when I’m waiting.

And I am waiting. It should be my turn to go in soon. I have seen no one, but that is as it should be. It is a place we have used before, which is something we try to avoid. It’s an awful place, but they are all awful places. This one in particular has nasty loose wiring and smells like concrete dust, stale cigarettes and standing water. I make my break for the entrance. The knob does not turn. It is slippery with rain so I try to dry it. It is locked.

There is no sense in knocking. I can feel what is behind the door.

And that every night from now on was going to be like this, and every street.

I could go somewhere, to a bar, somewhere with a piano, perhaps. They would not know me, but they see instantly that I was not such a bad sort, just a regular guy, coming in from the rain, soaked to the bone. I would jocularly curse the weather and the rain would hang off my chagrin. They would see my laugh lines. Someone would agree. I would order a beer. I would warm up and they’d ask about the weather again and we’d laugh and it wouldn’t be a thing. We’d just talk, as people after work, enjoying a beer, getting out of the rain. I’d buy someone a drink. They would buy me a drink. A stupid song would come on the jukebox, one that everyone hated. Or the piano player -the piano man, would ask for requests. “Hey,” I’d say,”how ‘bout some Billy Joel?” We would sing. We would all sing together. We would know the words.

I am going home. I am walking home. I am just going home.

TURN #92: WEEK 78; WORDS: 88,178