Down (and Out) Town
Updated: Feb 22
By Matt Gordon
Nine years ago, I moved to a new city. At first it was all tingly exploration and romanticized feels—treading new trails in new boots, exploring an unfamiliar mall in fresh slides, being asked to leave the library barefooted (I had exhausted the shoe budget pretty quickly). And of course, there was downtown. It was like being in love, what with the overpriced shops and downtrodden beggars; yes, indeed, it was like falling in love . . . with a murderer.
For a couple years, I tried to fake it. Pretending to like coffee, I’d order a cup at the trendiest place and sit outside—even though it was far too cold out there—and watch drunken college students stagger around at 8 AM on a Saturday: Oh, the good old days. Or I’d order a nice cone of hipster ice cream and sit outside—even though it was far too hot out there—and watch drunken college students stagger around on a Tuesday afternoon scorcher. In those early days, I’d spend almost as much time sitting around down there as the college kids did staggering around. But they’d always outlast me, and I’d take a page from the books they weren’t reading and stagger around looking for my parking spot to head home.
Fortunately, on the way out I could usually find my car. I could spot it because it tended to be crammed between two of the largest trucks on earth, and dislodging it was similar to removing a tooth in my childhood days—a steady, persistent back-and-worth wiggle. But the thirty minutes of vehicular gyration was nothing compared with the merry-go-round to-do of finding a spot in the first place. Speaking of childhood, this parking process was like the favorite past-time Musical Chairs, when a single chair is cruelly removed each round so one kid is made to feel like a moron when the music stops. Parking downtown was like that, but rather than a dozen or so of us playing, there are about 1000, and instead of 999 spots, there are eight. Eight parking spaces. Cue the music! I took to playing The Entertainer on loop as I made my own loops, weaving the gauntlet of drunken college students and unhoused people, and finding it harder and harder, thanks to modern fashion ideals, to tell the difference.
Then one day I just stopped. I stopped stooping downtown. I quit pretending to like coffee and be bohemian. I burned some art just to make sure I was really entrenched in my new identity. Sometimes I was forced to drive near downtown, the staggering co-eds on the outskirts attempted to lure me into their spaceless domain, but I punched the gas and blew through the stop lights and drove clear into old age. I had become a curmudgeon who parallel parks complaints into conversational spots, no matter how tight they are. I found comfort in my discontent, joy in my surliness. I had sworn off and sworn at downtown, and, though clearly nearer to dying, I felt alive. I considered writing an op-ed decrying tripping hazards or poor lighting downtown, but the newspaper offices are downtown so I didn’t really want to be in league with them. Life, suddenly, had become lighter, freer.
And then an expensive boutique that sells athletic wear that makes people’s backsides look big while making the rest of their body look small opened up and my wife had a birthday. I had already gotten her a gift that did no such bodily incantations, but in an offhanded remark
I picked up that she wanted a pair of shorts from that establishment— “I really want a pair of those shorts and they are on sale today,” I think was how her cryptic comment went.
I removed my robe and slippers and wedged into a pair of discount blue jeans and a shirt that I had received as a gift a few Christmases ago. It still had the tags. Probably from one of the grandkids or something. I discarded my readers, and popped a Werther’s to take the edge off. Aside from the butterscotch breath, I had returned to my proper age—it was sad to go back in time like this; sadder still to miss my stories while I was away; saddest yet to be headed to that nightmarish downtown. I covered my teary eyes with expensive sunglasses and headed to meet fate.
I should here mention these sunglasses, a paradox of youth and old age. They are a hip brand, the kind any drunken college kid would be thrilled to have. And I’ve found, after receiving them as a gift from my workplace, that I cannot live without them—a trait that reminds me of my grandfather or his father before him and the untouchable comfort items to which the elderly cling to the death. After receiving the glasses, I caught myself saying things like, “I don’t know how I lived without these” and “Took me nearly forty years to have a nice pair of sunglasses, and there is no going back.” The person I would say these things to would then ask me if I was a rewards member, and I would pay for my items and mosey out of the store. I love these glasses, and even the hellscape of downtown looks a little rosier through their UV protective lenses.
The Entertainer danced on my speakers, and, shades on face, I whistled The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly lick and entered the forbidden zone. I passed the numbered streets, the staggering Wednesday hordes, pulled toward the store, and saw, astonishingly, an open spot right across from the shop! The spot in front of it had a little red hood over the meter, like it was a captive undergoing torture in a secret location, which meant no mega trucks would park me in! I didn’t even need to Austin Powers it into my parking spot. It was the easiest parking scenario of my entire life! I looked in the rearview mirror to confirm with myself that this was reality, that I hadn’t slipped into some parallel universe or was having a mere comatose dream with the real me just lying dormant in some hospital bed. What stared back at me was the absolute timeless handsomeness of a high-end pair of sunglasses. So this is how the world conspires to serve the rich and facially well-affixed? Maybe even downtown is a renewed possibility with these perfect shades? I winked, but, thanks to terrific tinting, you’d never even know.
I removed the sunglasses and sat them in my seat, not wanting to wear them in the store or scratch them in my pockets. No, they’d be more secure out here, locked up and safe from any misguided interaction with gravity.
Without them I felt more naked than many of the co-eds staggering about, so I hustled in and did my business. I bustled out, deed done, and hurried across the street to my waiting car. I was in a rush to get back to the safety of rural neighborhoods and my lovely sunglasses, yet the thought did cross my mind to go grab an ice cream cone for old time’s sake. I was snapped out of this course of action and back to harried reality by a large truck coming my way, making sure to drive especially close the parked vehicles on that side of the street. Had
I remained much longer, he would have squashed me like a small beetle—him unaware of the encounter while my innards oozed out of exoskeleton. I opened my door, threw myself in, and SNAP! something had gone very wrong. At first, I thought it was my back—had coming downtown aged me so much that I had thrown my back out? I wiggled around and my body felt just as cumbersome and ineffective as it always did. But in that movement, I felt something beneath me.
I reached. I felt. I grabbed. I moved. I looked.
The arm of my sunglasses had snapped clean off. They and I were broken. Utterly in ruin.
NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! came my guttural yawp.
WHYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY! An unhoused person overheard and put a dollar under my windshield wiper.
I snatched up my phone—oh why couldn’t I have sat on it instead, on anything else really! I typed in the brand and product name. What stared back at me was darkness. It was a figure so monstrous, so unfair, so far-fetched.
I drove to the nearest gas station, running over staggering co-eds like driver’s ed road cones. I rushed in, heading to the little sunglass display rack, the only place I’ve ever made sunglass purchases in the past. I looked at the price of the cheapest pair—this is how I shop, people—and did the quick math. 28. I could buy one pair of replacement glasses of the kind that brought me such joy and confidence and life, or I could by 28 pairs of this crap. I ran over to the swirling hot dogs. Looked at the price. Did the quick math. I could buy one pair of the exquisite sunglasses I had sat on, 28 pairs of the terrible ones, or 70 hot dogs.
With tears in my unguarded eyes and hot dog on my breath, I drove. I took the long way home, sure to avoid downtown altogether; off and squinting into the sunset.