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04.25.07 1:55 p.m.

You must learn to be still in the midst of activity and to be vibrantly alive in repose.  

-Indira Gandhi


Important Conversation about Music and Commitment

The evening begins with Dan Kessler giving the prologue, introducing me (through an anecdote about his night sleeping in the mountains) to the various Vonnegutesque characters I may or may not encounter this night in New Paltz. This is understandable on the part of Dan and fate. New Paltz is a web of associations and memories for anyone who has spent even a little time within its boundaries. It is difficult to go even a few feet without someone proffering a story for your consideration. There, above the Moonlight Café, Kate and Tina once lived. Over there, in the stone houses, I shared a lachrymose kiss with Emily five years ago. There is the nook in which I hid before my creative writing class that one depressing semester when Emily's mother was diagnosed with breast cancer.

We leave Dan's apartment under the assumption we will get dinner, but he asks if I mind our making a momentary stop at 60 Main. I inform him that I never mind 60 Main, leaving out the part that I also doubt it will be as brief as he states. 60 Main is almost Dan's living room, for all intents and purposes, and he is eager to mingle with his ubiquitous friends or make new ones. We stand near a table of people I assume to be Dan's friends, a boy half reading a book whose title he makes sure we can see, an attractively scattered painter, and a sweet faced girl. He is an acquaintance of several hundred of the occupants of the town given his job at the Bakery and his melodic alter ego Ambivalent Elephant and I see no reason to second guess that these people know him.

I listen for minutes to their conversation while Dan goes of to have an Important Conversation about Music and Commitment with Eric the Former Virgin. I sit ten minutes before anyone asks me my name, as this is an irrelevancy. I always feel a little odd not introducing myself as Xen, but I came here at Thomm and feel I should so remain. In my head, I don't really have a name, just syllables I recognize as referring to me. "Thomm" and "Xen" I like. Any derivation of my surname, even my surname in its wacky completeness, I enjoy measurably less reeking of either grade school mockery or academic stuffiness.

The girl, Liz, speaks in sedate terms of the sex club she visited in the Bronx. She does not look like someone who would attend a sex club, pleasantly curvy with a silver nose stud, but I am biased toward my stereotypes. I assume that these clubs exist primarily for the comfort and pleasure of the doughy middle-aged men with cop moustaches and their middle management wives. I probe her for details, if I can be forgiven the verb choice, as I have no real context for such things. I want to know neutral specifics. How are these things run? Is there a cover? What sort of protection is offered? Is it set up in someone's home or more of a warehouse? How are the rooms sectioned off? Did she feel comfortable? Was it one at a time or more of a free for all, no holes barred? I don't ask these things so I can one day visit, but merely since I don't actually know what to expect. I am gullible, but quick to disabuse myself of false notions in the presence of someone willing to divulge salacious first hand experience. It could make for the setting of a marketable story, after all. I would be equally enthralled if she went to a Republican Youth meeting or demon-worshiping cult. Do they eat the babies' intestines and why? Is it as a sacrifice to their Dark Lord? And what does the demon cult do? She told me not to ask her and just take a picture

Shabbat the painter - who clearly stepped from a Philip Roth novel - interjects in my stream of queries, asking of Liz of the partner she did choose, "If I may be blunt, does this mean you ate her pussy?" I am quietly grateful the she resisted rhyming. There is a charm to watching Shabbat paint and repaint over her art in the closest artistic approximation of writing I have ever seen. She is compelling to watch, her painting taking new forms, none that are clearly anything but abstract. She wears a tight white peasant blouse that pushes her breasts up and out, but still seems capable of breathing and does so with apparent relish. She had the air of one's best friend's kid sister, who suddenly seems far less like a kid after a long dark night of pubescence.

Dan remembers that we were headed across the street for dinner after forty-five minutes. I ponder my interest in the painter but I do not offer her my card because I have learned this is seen as gauche. She may safely ask if a girl committed certain carnal acts with a near stranger, but it is too intimate to suggest I would like this bizarre but typical interaction to count as a legitimate connection. I consider giving her a small red-haired troll I happened to have in my pocket, but nix this as well as I only have one of those on me and there may be another recipient with whom I have had more than a five minute in-depth conversation.

Despite my fond recollections, I do not appreciate all the characters who populate this space. While I am writing on one of the communal computers, I overhear a pretentious man rambling on about philosophy to no one in particular. I do not mind this at first until he finds foil in the form of Ella, who entered only to get a cappuccino. Within seconds, this man adjusts his opinion (that Fredrick Nietzsche's death in an asylum completely invalidates his entire collected philosophy) enough that he can argue with and condescend to her. Perhaps this is the only way he can think to engage women in chatting with him, as he is nearly twice her age and bald.

She takes the stance that it isn't fair to call people sane or insane, especially in the world of philosophy. The very ideas that inspired in youth can come from the drive that leads to morbid depression after the age of forty. Or, like our bald example in 60 Main, one could simply shout bumper sticker slogans at attractive passersby in a simulacrum of debate and then act utterly self-satisfied when they leave with their overpriced coffee. I choose to ignore any sentence prefaced by the speaker taking twenty seconds to utter the phrase, "I believe Socrates once said..." which I believe has saved me a lot of grief.

After dinner, Dan asks if I mind if he plays his sarod outside of 60 Main, where Eric has spent the last the last half hour banging on his tablas. I assure him that he is in no way responsible for my entertainment and I do not at all begrudge him playing to the warm spring night. I type a bit more on the computers, until the pretense philosopher asks if he can use mine. I allow him, because I really should be more social despite how productive I become typing in any public place. He sits at the computer for a minute, staring at the screen without pressing any of the keys or using the mouse in any material way, before standing. Whatever he hoped to accomplish he did so by interrupting my typing.

I leave 60 Main for the cement embankment before it that serves as an impromptu porch seven days a week, where Dan is playing his sarod to Eric's accompaniment. Next to them are Zack and Cristin, just conveniently in the neighborhood. The fact that people can and do appear at random in New Paltz is one of its greatest charms, though one that escaped me when I was a student here.

After a few minutes of conversation, the group in from of the coffeehouse - many whom I do not recognize by name but only as a sort of ubiquitous window dressing - engulf a well dressed man putting up posters to reelect Mayor Jason West. While it would be safe to assume that I probably do not know the governor of your state, to say nothing of the mayor of your nearest college town, I rather expect that most people's ears would at least vaguely perk up at the mention of Jason West's name. For those who only have the faintest notion that his name might mean something, West was the man who faced nearly thirty felony counts of solemnizing marriages without a license (or similarly specious wording) when he allowed gay couples to get married in 2004. Given the general liberal bend of most colleges, he is still held up as something of a folk hero despite his reelection being opposed by some community member who has much less appeal to the students. As I have never been registered in New Paltz and am simply a friend to the queers of the world, I have only ever been a fan from afar.

I observe this campaign worker patiently explaining West's policies in detail for a while before I look at the monochrome picture of Mayor West on the poster and realize that we are not being addressed by a mere knowledgeable campaigner. At 10:30 at night, Mayor West is hanging his posters next to those advertising shows at Oasis and Cabaloosa and taking half an hour out of his activities to answer the questions of students, stoners, and the probable insane. That aside, he is charismatic and seemingly unflappable, explaining that he intends to run a clean campaign based on the issues rather than the negative one his opponent seems to want. He tells us how he wants to make Main Street one way and increase the sidewalks "so the tourists up from Westchester can give loitering hippies a wide berth" and thus restore more commercial vitality to the local businesses. He confessed unabashedly to being pro-loitering, a bold and welcome stance for any politician. He also wishes to change the zoning laws to turn what is presently a fairly rustic section just off of Main Street into its cluttered twin. He spits the phrase "urban sprawl" and I pause for a moment. He explains that this is wasted space, even though the trees live there. If it were turned into businesses and apartments, however, the rent would drop throughout the town because there would be added housing and less incentive for people to turn their homes into tenements. Housing would improve, students and businesses would prosper, and there would soon be universal peace. He does not mention trying to overturn the ban on gay marriages again, though he did get off without a single charge sticking. He no longer seems to press these ideological points, instead focusing on the pragmatic, how he can personally make New Paltz a better place both for the native hippies and the Westchester tourists to unload themselves of their cash.

I can think of no other place and few finer times to have a political debate with the incumbent than before a faintly communistic coffee house in a college town. I hope West is successful in getting reelected, if just because New Paltz is exactly the place where there should be wider sidewalks to accommodate the loitering friendly. Gatherings, especially those of social significance, should occur organically, with the soundtrack of improvised Indian music and on a sidewalk in spring.

Just as I think the night is over - just as Dan, Eric and I are walking back to Dan's apartment - some girls shout from a third floor window as we pass through the alley, "You guys want some mojitos?" I don't know them. I don't need to know them. Dan looks to me for confirmation of this sudden plan, still thinking he has responsibility for my entertainment.

"I've never begrudged people having mojitos," I grin, excited that New Paltz is so fruitful tonight. I've also never begrudged going into the apartment of strange girls owing to yelled invitations. Next to the loitering friendly, such invitations are one of the joys of life, dancing instructions from the gods.

Soon in Xenology: Funerals.

last watched: Dead Like Me
reading: Principia Discordia
listening: My Better Self



Thomm Quackenbush is an author and teacher in the Hudson Valley. Double Dragon publishes four novels in his Night's Dream series (We Shadows, Danse Macabre, and Artificial Gods, and Flies to Wanton Boys). He has sold jewelry in Victorian England, confused children as a mad scientist, filed away more books than anyone has ever read, and tried to inspire the learning disabled and gifted. He is capable of crossing one eye, raising one eyebrow, and once accidentally groped a ghost. When not writing, he can be found biking, hiking the Adirondacks, grazing on snacks at art openings, and keeping a straight face when listening to people tell him they are in touch with 164 species of interstellar beings. He likes when you comment.

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