It is 7:00 P.M. and I am in the Alexander Library at Rutgers University where I go for my Ph.D. My carrel overlooks the busy highway and the river past that to my right. I am looking out the window and thinking about what to do, as I have a million things on my mind. By the way, I came here to read and take notes for the class that I will be teaching in the spring semester, which is around the corner.
I enjoy school and reading for my classes. I really do. But, sometimes it gets meaningless and monotonous. Tonight seems to be one such moment. When I get these moments, I want to leave school work aside and do the things I like. I want to take long, endless walks and get lost in the mist and cold of the day and the darkness of the night.
I enjoy looking at the passing cars, running river, students walking, the buildings and the horizon on a bright and sunny day. But, if you give me a choice, I prefer a cloudy day. There is something about the dark and damp that elevates my energy, albeit not in a pleasant manner.
But, for some reason I enjoy it. On such days, I love my walks even more. The walk from home to the coffee shop is filled with excitement. I had hardly tasted coffee in Pakistan until I came to the States five years ago. Now I have become addicted to it. Associated with influence from the West, coffee drinking in local parlance back home is a fashionable thing to do.
However, I am far from being a coffee aficionado, as my love for Dunkin’ Donuts to some is one of the poorest of coffee tastes one could have. But, hey! You know what, as the German playwright Bertolt Brecht said, “Sometimes it is more important to be a human, than to have good taste.”
Or as Franco Moschino, the Italian fashion designer, said, “Good taste does not exist. It is our taste. We have to be proud of it.” Anyways, with a cup of coffee in my hand and walking and wandering seem to be the most banal thing, but it brings me joy and meaning.
The meaning of being alive and feeling my existence, as I ponder over life within and without in the expanse of the seeable and imaginable universes, or as the British philosopher Bryan Magee said the “phenomenal” and “noumenal” worlds.
The thing I love the most about Dunkin’ Donuts is its styrofoam cup. It does not burn my hand, and I can open and close it as and when I want to take a sip. It keeps the coffee warm and my hands cool. But, I am afraid that I won’t have that privilege by 2020, as the chain has officially committed to phasing out the cups and replacing it with paper.
Good for the environmentalist but bad for my happy walks and long library sit-ins made possible mostly by coffee cups to my left or right on the desk. But I guess I will have to compromise, as living longer and healthier and with everyone seems better than living just happier, momentarily. Meanwhile, I will figure out something else that can elevate my spirit.
Describing my love for coffee took more time than I had planned to spend on it. But that is the beauty of writing for me. It brings to existence the most banal elements of life. Elements that get ignored and buried under what most of us commonly accept to be essential: Pleasure, sex, money, career, status, etc. You sit to type and words begin to appear one after another on the page. It seems as if writing writes itself.
Anyways, during my boring moments, I read writers that I enjoy. Last week, I started Albert Camus’ novel, The Stranger. Camus, an existentialist philosopher, is a brilliant writer. His style is quite simple but descriptive and captivating, capturing everyday life’s details in a way that fascinates the mind. For example, looking at the main street of a district in Algeria from his balcony, he says, “Next came a group of young fellows, the local “bloods,” with sleek oiled hair, red ties, coats cut very tight at the waist, braided pockets, and “square-toed shoes.”
I love this description. Only these two lines tell me a lot about the Algerians of the time. “Red ties,” tight coats, “braided pockets” and “square-toed shoes” show that they were fashionable and perhaps under the influence of the West as Algeria was a French colony until 1962. I may be wrong but the description is exquisite and gives a way to speculate about the lifestyle and culture of Algeria. Camus died in 1960, before the independence.
The square-toed shoes reminds me of my childhood and the fashion wave of the shoes that once engulfed the village. It was so much in vogue that we wanted them at any cost for Eid (a Muslim holiday), even if that meant fighting our uncle inside the shop and on the busy streets of the city.
Camus does to his reader exactly what E.L. Doctorow says good writing should: “Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader – not the fact that it is raining, but the feeling of being rained upon.”
At another place, while describing the funeral procession of his deceased mother, Camus says, “I also had a look at the warden. He was walking with carefully measured steps, economizing every gesture. Beads of perspiration glistened on his forehead, but he didn’t wipe them off.” “Beads of perspiration” on the Warden’s “forehead”— are’t you fascinated by this? I love the level of attention. What James Salter said about writing explains why I love Camus’ style. Salter believed that “writing was greater than other things” in life.
He says: “Call it a delusion if you like, but within me was an insistence that whatever we did, the things that were said, the dawns, the cities, the lives, all of it had to be drawn together, made into pages, or it was in danger of not existing, of never having been. There comes a time when you realize that everything is a dream, and only those things preserved in writing have any possibility of being real.”
Perhaps, it is the same belief, or delusion if you will, that seduced me to write than read tonight. I fear that if I don’t write about certain moments of my life, they would be in “danger of not existing, of never having been,” as Salter so beautifully puts. But the company of coffee, long walks and Camus may help me to preserve them.