I am sitting in a hotel room in Austin, Texas, looking across an urban canyon at the curtain wall of a high, buff-colored office building. The sun has yet to rise, so I can see into its empty offices; but my eye is especially drawn to what appear to be small conference rooms at the corners. I see little round tables, wire-frame chairs, and conference rooms stacked like soup cans, one above the other, right up the corner of the gargantuan hive.
I imagine all of the meetings that have occurred at those tables: all of the clipboards, the laptops, the cell phones, the nervous or menacing clicks of retractable ballpoint pens. I imagine of all the of the brash young men who will be broken, and the broken old men who were once brash. I imagine all of the terribly earnest young women, and how soon their faces will harden into “mommy is not amused.” (Why are young women so terribly earnest? What do they hope to accomplish with that face that says “mommy is not amused”?)
I walked the length of Sixth Street last night. It’s a lot like Bourbon Street, and a lot more like Bourbon Street than it was when I last walked it, twenty-five years ago. There were plenty of young women dressed like hookers, who were not, I suspect, actual hookers. And there were plenty of young men who were going, but not quite gone, to seed. There was one raggedy man in the gutter undergoing a psychotic episode, likely amplified by drugs, with another raggedy man stooped over him asking if he was O.K..
And there were, of course, people who looked like me, many of them beaming with the dopey delight of a dog that has been taken off the leash and allowed to chase a tennis ball in the park. They were worker bees on leave from the hive.
No doubt many of those young women of meretricious appearance will also, come Monday morning, take a wire-frame seat at some conference table, their faces terribly earnest, their thumbs ominously poised on the buttons of their retractable ballpoint pens.
Sixth Street is an outrigger to the hive, most especially for the young men who are still brash and the young women who are still terribly earnest. It is not just the booze and hook-ups, although the booze and hook-ups certainly help. It is also the raggedy man undergoing a psychotic episode in the gutter. He helps, too. It is the grunge and the sordor and the odor of vice, perversion and the underworld. These help a lot.
Worker bees eat this stuff up!
They eat it up because they are, like me, in the grip of nostalgie de la boue. Sitting behind their laptops at those little round tables in the corner conference room, they feel homesick for the mud. Their mud is not exactly my mud, but when I hear the click of a ballpoint pen and look up to see that “mommy is not amused,” it is the mud for which I pine. I pine in the way a Swiss mercenary was said to pine when the sound of a cowbell reminded him of Alpine pastures.
One feels nostalgie de la boue when one feels that one has risen too far or too fast. Literary critics sometimes used the expression to describe a heroine of humble origins who was swept into a higher class, only to pine away with thoughts of ma and pa and the little ol’ cabin home in the hills. Social critics sometimes use it to describe the unease that rustic man feels in a world that is over-civilized.
He finds himself at a meeting in a corner conference room, and there finds himself thinking:
“I want to go home
I want to go home
Oh, how I want to go home.”
This home for which he is homesick is not, in fact, the mud from which man was made (whether by God or the evolutionary process), but when one is seated at one of those little round tables, one does strongly suspect that home lies in that direction.