I have a problem. It’s a problem of excess or maybe it’s a problem of absence. It’s like this: I buy gum, and the wrapper drops into my pocket, absorbed, a part of me. Right now there may easily be a folded-up flyer in my bulbous pocket for a concert that, deep down, I never intended to go to. It doesn’t stop there. I am all too familiar with the distinct sensation of a business card’s pointy edge scratching against my thigh. Restaurant mints from dates I’d rather forget come loose from their wrappings and glue themselves to the inside of my pants. Toothpicks are thorns in my side. I so often wish I could bring myself to sort out what I actually need in my pockets from what is just taking up space—and then throw out the unnecessary clutter. But, for some reason, I can’t. And so, the refuse keeps accumulating, day after day, below my hips—the hidden scraps weighing me down, slightly, but persistently, like sins.
When I work up the courage to confess my problem, people often respond with some well-intended, but empty gesture of commiseration. Nothing I suppose damages the Underground Man’s sense of alienation more than the sympathy of others. “I stuff things into my pockets and forget to throw them away all the time,” they say. “Isn’t it annoying?”
Listen, no useless receipt, destined-to-expire coupon, or mysterious free sample from the local CVS escapes the pull of my pockets’ black holes. And while I inconvenience many—stuck behind me as I search for the correct change for the bus or, worst of all, as I pornographically expose the contents of my pockets into the airport security tray, a chorus of annoyed grumbles behind me—I bear the burden of my problem alone or nearly alone.
There is one other person who truly understands. I only realized that I had a problem by watching him search his own worthless treasure trove of a pocket. It was like catching an unintended glimpse of myself in the mirror.
The dreadful moment of recognition came while watching my father rummage through his pockets on the London Underground. He was headed to catch his flight back home to Israel. My girlfriend, Alice, and I were sitting next to him. After sifting through his pockets for a few minutes, my father announced that he couldn’t find his plane ticket. I stood up so that he might use my vacated seat to look for it. From his pockets, coins in the currencies of at least three different countries emerged, along with several crumpled papers, including what appeared to be yesterday’s train pass. The Tube seat next to him, with its pile of pocket-lint dappled trash, looked like the surface of my desk or bureau in my own apartment in Brooklyn. In fact, most of my furniture acted as dumping grounds on the rare occasions when I purged my pockets.
I looked over at Alice, wondering if my father’s rubbish heap on the Tube seat also reminded her of my apartment. How could it not? The many tiny hills of trash in my messy home were a source of ongoing conflict between us. You see, laundry day was my Waterloo. I procrastinated on doing laundry until right before Alice came over. In my hurry I emptied my pockets of receipts, wrappers, and brochures for yoga, skydiving, Dianetics, and so on—onto the nearest raised surface. Sometimes Alice would get fed up and clean my place. At such moments I would receive a well-practiced glare while she crumpled one of my garbage hills into a ball and tossed it in the recycling bin as though nothing could be easier. Alice, I should mention, didn’t technically live with me. Rather, she lived with her parents. We were both in our twenties, but I had been on my own since my mother died when I was nineteen.
“I am sure they will give you a new ticket,” Alice said to my father as he frantically searched the exhumed papers from his pockets, splayed out on the Tube seat like organs on an operating table.
But then Alice whispered to me, “Can you tell him to stop making a scene.”
Few things upset Alice more than the negative appraisals of strangers, and so when I felt particularly annoyed at her, I would argue with her in public. I tried to explain to Alice that it’s pretty hard to “make a scene” in New York since someone is always, in that city of unbridled improv, making a bigger scene. But we were far from New York where my mother’s parents, escaping the pogroms of Eastern Europe, had arrived nearly a century ago. And we were far from Israel, where my father was born and had moved back to a few years before. England, though, was Alice’s ancestral home turf. Even on the subway in London, there was a slight sense of decorum that I imagine Alice appreciated, and which my father, as he cursed while searching for his plane ticket, was obliviously breaking.
I knew Alice was right: my father would get his ticket replaced (this being back in the time before e-tickets were the norm), though there might be an additional cost. But my father looked for lost items the way he argued about politics, which is to say, relentlessly. My father, by the way, is a self-described Marxist-Leninist.
Looking at him, appraising the little piles of trash on the empty Tube seat, I suddenly felt the low-level, semi-unconscious resentments I carried towards him all surge to the surface at once. I found myself half-hoping he wouldn’t find the plane ticket.
My father tended to defeat me in every argument we had. His winning strategy was two-fold. First, he would undermine me with the usual accusation that I was not “a serious intellectual.” From there he would systematically wear me down for hours until I fell into an abject silence, which he took for my complete and total agreement with his point of view. And so, part of me wanted him to never find the plane ticket—to indisputably lose for once.
* * *
Alice and I clashed like my clothes. The origin for this won’t come as a surprise—my father, a very tall and hefty man, shrink-wraps himself in the same size-too-small Salvation Army suit every day. His ties are often too short and always far too bright.
I used to take a certain pride in my lack of pride in appearance. I generally wore oversized thrift store sweaters with some pleated monstrosity of baggy dress pants (with incredibly spacious pockets). Of course, nothing matched (often not even my socks).
Both my father and I were not only clashers, whose clothes never fit, but we also wore the messes in our pockets on the outside. Neither of us believed in combs—a bourgeois luxury, I suppose. Our disheveled hair made us look like we had just awoken from a fever dream.
Alice had a much more aesthetic approach to life than me, which is another way of saying I thought she was superficial, and she thought I was a slob. Considering myself, despite what my father said, “a serious intellectual,” I felt I had better things to think about than how well or poorly my clothes fit me—better things, for instance, like judging Alice for the amount of time she spent getting ready to go out. Alice did her makeup so well that for a long time I did not think she wore any: something I admired about her. In other words, she made herself look “naturally” pretty in a way she knew men—myself included—would find attractive. To be fair she also judged me for my appearance.
“Can’t you just put a bit of effort in,” she would say as we were going out.
I’d shrug and say, “But this is just who I am.”
This was a favorite expression of mine. I was obsessed, back then, with existentialist philosophy, with notions of being my authentic self. In fact, I cringe remembering how I once used Simone de Beauvoir to criticize my girlfriend.
In response, Alice shot back, “I don’t know who that is and I don’t want you to explain it to me!”
It is only by the graces of time that mansplaining feminism was not in our collective lexicons or surely she would have, fairly, lacquered me with the term.
Although I’d prefer not to, the story of my relationship with Alice would be bereft without mentioning the underwear. I had a pair so hole-ridden that it looked like moths had been at them, though the holes had just accumulated with wear and tear—with the passage of time empty of decisive action. I remember Alice once grabbing the ratty underwear from the hamper and practically sobbing into the torn and ripped briefs like they were a handkerchief, pleading with me to throw them out. Didn’t she know me by now?
“I will never have sex with you while you are wearing these,” she said.
“I only wear them when I’m doing laundry,” I said, which was mostly, but not entirely, true.
“But just knowing you wear them, sometimes…is just… it’s just…”
“It’s just what?”
“A turnoff.” She didn’t relish saying it (entirely), but it was her truth.
It was an odd time to win the battle of wills with my libido, but to cave on this was an affront to my very being. I had too much character, apparently, to throw out this underwear-shaped piece of cheesecloth. In the absence of real swords to fall on, perhaps, we create them.
* * *
On my father’s last day in London, we planned to see either Midsummer Night’s Dream or Hamlet at The Globe Theatre. Alice wanted to see the former and my father, the latter. I was neutral, I told myself, though leaned towards Hamlet if only because I could identify with the protagonist. I think I also voted for Hamlet, or against Alice, out of spite—we had bickered most of the trip about our aesthetic differences. Yet, I did not side as much against Alice as it might have appeared. I wanted to undermine my father too. So, I let him make the plans. Sure enough he got the dates wrong. It turned out there was a performance of neither play that night. We stood outside the historical theater, admiring how majestic it was, even though nothing inside was happening.
We then sat in a nearby McDonald’s while my father checked the movie listings. Alice and I slowly picked away at some French fries like they were scabs. I suggested an indie romantic comedy, which neither Alice or I would like, but could mutually tolerate. My father wasn’t having it though. He pointed his big grease stained thumb over a Japanese film title.
“Clearly, this is the best choice,” he said.
When I mentioned that the comedy sounded good, he merely tapped the thumb, more grease than finger, at the film review page. My choice was given three stars, and his had five. He had done this throughout my childhood. All the comedies and action films that my friends watched were off the table when it came to spending time with my father. He wouldn’t waste his time on sheer entertainment.
I spent much of those formative years sitting next to my father in dark movie theaters, bored and resentful, with the added indignity of knowing that he thought he was giving me an education in good taste. I might have objected more, but I worried if we didn’t see one of his boring movies, we might end up doing our other regular weekend activity: protesting. I spent many a Saturday as a child standing outside some government building while my father yelled things I barely understood into a megaphone. And to think Alice hated it when we argued in public—when I made a “scene.” I am sure my father must have taken me to protests during the warmer months, on sunny days, but in my memory it is always snowing or raining, my father’s face is obscured behind a blow horn and my socks are wet. And so, given the options of where we would spend our Saturdays, my eight-year-old self learned to “appreciate” Bergman.
I remember us once protesting not far from a public skating rink. I can still hear the sound of skating children drowned out by my father’s yelling. His voice is garbled by his thick Hebrew accent and the close proximity of his mouth to the megaphone. All I can hear is loudness, and that’s when I see an eight-year-old Alice skating with her father, who is holding her mitten-covered hand tightly in his own. The last thing her father says before they leave my wholly imagined frame is, “Let’s get warm with some hot chocolate.” Meanwhile, I can’t feel my toes.
So maybe it was just Alice’s karma for getting the joyful childhood I deserved that caused her to fall for me: an aspiring “serious intellectual” and fully developed curmudgeon. I wish in this, and many other respects, I had taken more after my mother. She didn’t impose her taste or ideologies on me as a child. As long as it wasn’t R-rated, she took me to see pretty much whatever movie I wanted. She also was the one who actually raised me, making all the decisions about my education and health. She was a Marxist too, but despite regarding society as deeply and systemically unfair, she nevertheless did her best to teach me how to navigate my way through it.
The film my father chose for us was, of course, about eight hours long…. Well, two and half-hours at least and included many lengthy shots of snow falling.
“What did you think?” my father asked us as we left the theater.
“It was pretty,” Alice said, shooting me a glare that while lasting about a second encompassed the two and a half hours of intolerable boredom she wanted me to know she had endured.
None of us, including the person who was most affected by the information, had bothered to look at the movie’s running time. By the time we left the theater, my father realized he should have been at the airport half an hour ago to catch his flight back home. I could not help noting the irony of this—my father hated it when I was late. I used to attribute my father’s anger around my lateness to the fact that while not a sufficient condition, punctuality is pretty important to the success of revolutions. You could not have arrived fashionably late to storm the Winter Palace. And Mussolini, we are told, made the trains run on time.
I thought about rubbing my father’s nose in him running late for his flight. There was an opportunity in the situation to take advantage of a crisis. Isn’t that what Lenin would have done? But then I recalled the one time I got a peek inside what really drove my father’s obsession with punctuality. Once, when I was sixteen or so, I was a good half hour late to meet him for a movie that, of course, I had no interest in watching, and he really laid into me.
“You will never be a successful person in life,” he said.
To both our surprise, I cried, causing him to say, “I’m sorry. It’s just I don’t want you to have the same problems in life that I do.”
Remembering this interaction, I suddenly felt sorry for him. As we ran towards the Tube station, it occurred to me that I could just pay for him to take a taxi, which I knew he couldn’t afford. But I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.
* * *
My father, after much wringing of worthless papers, finally gave up looking for the missing plane ticket. He began collecting what I suppose we could call his “things” from the empty Tube seat. To both my horror and utter lack of surprise, he shoved all the gobs of paper, indiscriminately, back into his pockets.
My father informed the entire Tube car of his resignation with a deep, extended sigh.
I probably ought to have said something reassuring to him like, “It happens to the best of us,” or, more accurately, “I could have done the same thing.” I’d like to think that I withheld solidarity out of compassion. Commiserating over our propensity for loss might only remind him of his failures as a father. But it was hard to reconcile this thought with the realization that I wanted him to suffer the emotional consequences of his mistakes.
“Don’t worry,” Alice said to him. “It will work out.”
She was trying to be helpful, but I didn’t trust Alice’s sympathy to be abundant—rather something that was in relatively short supply, which she had to ration. My father was taking all of it. He forced an affirming smile at her, made all the more unconvincing by the fact he had a piece of French fry in his teeth. I couldn’t help recall that Alice had recently added my messy eating habits to her repertoire of criticisms. I then noticed my father had a thumb print-size grease stain on his shirt. I found myself fixating on it. When he spoke it was as if the stain were addressing me.
“Yacob,” he began, saying my name in Hebrew, “I think we came to a very clear position on Kurdistan. I am going to write an article for the newspaper when I get home. I’ll send it to you. As Marxists, we oppose nationalism, but the right to self-determination…” he said, uncharacteristically leaving his sentence incomplete.
My father tended to lose everything, but his train of thought, so I was concerned. He was also slouching. It was as though he wished, in his shame around losing the ticket, to make himself small enough to crawl inside his own pocket.
Perhaps, at this point, the right thing to do would have been to accompany him to the airport for moral support. I thought about him at the ticket counter, emptying the contents of his pockets, hoping he had somehow missed the plane ticket on the three previous searches while a lineup of passengers behind him fretted that this absent-minded idiot was going to cause them, the responsible people with tickets in hand, to miss their flights. The potential injustice of it welling up in their collective minds and me turning to face them, in defense of my father, shrugging my shoulders, as if to say, “Well, he’s a good person, just not the most organized,” when really my sympathies would lie with the mob.
* * *
In the summer my father wore sandals. Even I know one should not wear sandals with a suit—if only that had been the primary issue. Much to my embarrassment, my father seemed to want the world to know that he rarely clips his toenails. The keratin horns of his feet are so long as to curl slightly upwards like the shoes of an elf. I was not, as you might suspect, exactly vigilant about my own toenail length. I had once scratched Alice’s leg, in my sleep, with my big toe, but out in the world I had the decency to conceal my feet.
The first thing Alice said to me after she met my father, and once he was out of earshot, was: “You have to tell him to clip his toenails. They look gross.”
“I know,” I said, “but I don’t think he would really understand.”
That might have been a time to defend my father’s honor, explain that he was “a serious intellectual” and devoted revolutionary, and so he couldn’t be bothered with such a trivial matter. I could have added that despite his careless appearance, he had never had difficulty finding female companionship (whether they stayed was a different story), so what did it matter? But instead I jumped all over the opportunity to mock him behind his back.
“Well,” I said, “the daggers of his feet will come in handy once the revolution is underway.”
Alice laughed. It was something (perhaps the only thing) I knew she liked about me—that I could make her laugh, sometimes. If I needed to betray my father to reconnect a little with my girlfriend, it was worth it, or like Khrushchev’s betrayal of Stalin, just necessary. My father, I think, would have understood.
* * *
My father’s plane ticket emerged from some pouch in his suitcase. I wish he waved it enthusiastically like it was a ticket to Wonka’s chocolate factory, but he just sheepishly shoved it in his pocket.
I was so relieved, but less for him than for myself. I felt absolved of my guilt for not accompanying him to the airport.
I looked over at Alice, hoping the three of us, regardless of our motives, could share in the feeling of relief together. But Alice was inexpressive. She had fully checked out of the drama by then.
My father was quiet too, but contemplatively so. He seemed comfortably confined in his own intellect, the historical clash of opposites concluding in a tidy synthesis. History was a place where nothing gets lost. Despite my many criticisms of my father, I admired that he occupied his mind with such grand problems. I knew it was part of what made it difficult for him to be attentive to the smaller details in life. He was an absent-minded intellectual, but it was more than that. The problem was also an absence of care.
We finally arrived at my father’s stop. He hugged me hurriedly, and I swore I could hear the crinkle of balled up papers in our pockets collide briefly against each other like very light planets. And then the chime struck, indicating the doors were closing. My father gave Alice a very quick, unintentionally hard shake, before scrambling to exit the train. He left, it seemed, less of his own volition, and more like he was a collection of random papers the wind had picked up in a single gust and blown away.
I knew it would likely be years before I saw him again. The thought saddened me, yet I felt relieved to see him go—though only momentarily. It was just Alice and me now. I had hoped meeting my father might make her more forgiving of my inherited foibles, but if anything, it made her see my flaws as hopelessly determined or to see me as determined not to change—to remain, to use my favorite expression, “just who I am.”
Shortly after we returned to New York, Alice left me just as I always expected she would. When she told me it was over, I didn’t protest or ask for a reason and, perhaps out of mercy, she didn’t volunteer one. The breakup reminded me of my infamous underwear. One day it suddenly tore apart in two distinct pieces. But, of course, it wasn’t sudden—the underwear had been coming apart for years.
* * *
I’m fairly convinced that for changes to stick, they need to come from within. For example, I tried, for years, to quit smoking for the sake of others who cared about me. But my first truly earnest attempts came when I wanted to do it for myself, when I came to see it, more than anything else, as something I wanted to be free from. Having said that, I’ve started again and stopped about a dozen times, much like I have started and stopped really trying to keep my pockets and home relatively clean. I don’t mean to equate addiction with messiness—I just recognize a point of comparison. They share, in my experience, a half-hidden desire to hurt ourselves, simply because we are free to do so.
I mention smoking, in particular, because my father and I both go long periods being smoke-free and then fall back into it. It is but one of our several mutual ongoing struggles, which we can relate to one another by, and yet suffer alone. We also commiserate, but not directly, over our debris-filled pockets. This last trait speaks to the bigger issue that bonds us, but we tend to dance around it, perhaps, because it is so difficult to quite define, so vast that one can only walk around the perimeter.
We both tread just above the poverty line, in part due to our convictions. I used to be a starving artist, and now I am a starving graduate student. My father, on the other hand, is a Palestinian rights lawyer—his clients can barely afford to pay him. If he were less idealistic, he could make a good living. Possibly. By his own admission, my father is not the most competent at his profession. Many years ago he was offered a faculty position at a university in Jerusalem. They wanted him, he believed, to be their “token Marxist.” He rebuked the bourgeois institution and regrets this now.
“I shouldn’t have become a lawyer,” he told me. “I’m not organized enough.”
* * *
The day after my father left London, I received an email from him. He told me he had missed his flight, after all. He had transferred to a train going in the opposite direction of the airport, realizing his mistake only after it was far too late. He had to take a later flight for a fee. His email did not carry the abjectness of a confession, but rather a more matter-of-fact tone like a newspaper article. He could easily have kept this information from me. I doubt he told anyone else, but he wanted me to know.