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The Decay of Lying
The first time I saw Hymie after his Florida tour, he was sitting on one of Edgecombe Avenue’s many park benches, smoking a cigarillo, the picture of the Harlem Renaissance – a middle-aged jazz drummer with high ideals, lounging along a street lined with boxed trees, their boles fluffed by flowers. A strong September sun beat the block like high noon in midsummer. Still, Hymie looked cool in his garter-stitch turtleneck and high socks, unshod, surrounded by a sleek rucksack and New York-brand tote-bags.
He greeted me as he always has, with a big smile that pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose. “My man,” he drawled, skipping the handshake out of respect for the two dogs on my arm.
I’d seen him last at his usual haunts: sitting on a plastic chair posted outside a dental clinic but a few blocks from my apartment. Always with the dogs on my arm, upon whom he never failed to dote. He’d told me of his forthcoming trip to Florida, all the guys he was going to tour with down there – a string of players beneath my scope of influence, which is comprised of jazz giants like Miles, Thelonious, and the like. Hymie’s guys had names like Phil, or Ike, or the “guy who wrote the jingle for that Lotto commercial.” Guys who’d almost made it, if only they’d been born in another time.
We fell into our usual banter like old chums. Meanwhile, a drug deal was going down across the street, where the sidewalk was less tended, cracked, its boxless trees thrust up from dust and weeds. The deal’s casual disposition revealed New York’s progress on what crimes require law enforcement – and that Harlem’s homegrown still seek equal opportunity, which gentrifying incomers now flaunt, even if unwittingly, across the streets we share. Hymie has always pushed money over race as America’s greatest source of discrimination. Regardless of whether I agree, I’d feel justified in saying so only because he said it first. That’s just the way race works in America.
But today, Hymie wasn’t just a cool jazz lizard estivating on a park bench, enjoying a cigarillo after a long and hot tour of America’s dangling participle (in more ways than one). Put bluntly, Hymie seemed strung-out. Above his garter-stitch turtleneck, his head boasted a whack-a-mole of angry boils and feral pustules raging in ceremony with the second summer’s sun. Despite the insouciant repose, his hands were twitchy, his feet shifty. Every few moments he leaned over to pick at the skin under his high socks, which seemed dotted – evidence of track marks.
The fireworks had scared Rosetta, our lab-corgi mix – there was otherwise no explanation for why our skittish rescue, who distrusts everyone she meets, would hide under Hymie’s legs as he sat in his plastic school chair outside the dental clinic near my apartment. (I’d later discover that he worked at the clinic in the capacity of performing ‘odd-jobs’.) Thanks to Rosetta, we got to talking.
We then bonded over his name – Hymie is historically Jewish – and then jazz, and then general life items. We must’ve talked for an hour that first night – with Rosetta under his legs the whole time and our other dog, Yankee, grinning at passersby, hoping for a pet. Worried that my partner would fret over my extended absence, I bid Hymie farewell, not conscious of the likelihood that we’d meet again.
Of course, we did. During the day this time. He was sitting outside the clinic with his cousin, a kind and reticent woman near my age. It was then that Hymie first held forth about money’s unparalleled capacity for dividing people into fractious classes. Guiltily, I questioned whether he meant to appease or forgive me for being white – neither of which I believed so much as feared. We’d speak also of existential matters, like the primary emotions that define our lives’ distinct decades (the anxiety and hope of our 20s, the surety and ambition of our 30s, the triumphs and crises of our 40s…), or the correlation between genius and despair.
Over time, I sensed something specious about him. Some of his stories began to contradict themselves during future iterations. He evaded questions that might’ve required too much detail, which might’ve been to preserve a sense of privacy, but I suspected he was trying to avoid said contradictions.
One day, Hymie invited me to see him play at The Shrine, a small bar and venue on Adam Clayton Powell. I brought my partner and a friend from my block. We watched two bands play well past the hour Hymie had told me he’d be on. Satisfied that he was a no-show, we caroused our way down the strip and ended up at a bar where, if you’re not black and over fifty, you’re going to make a lot of acquaintances based purely on standing out – a testament to the denizens’ hospitality. My partner ended up involved in a dance-off. The night turned out fine.
The next time I met Hymie outside the clinic, dogs-on-arm, he deflected his no-show at The Shrine: in a few days he’d be leaving to tour Florida. I truly thought it was the last time I’d see him. That, as abruptly as he’d come into my life, he’d make his exit.
In the Oscar Wilde essay from which this one takes its name, Oxford’s finest satirist creates a conversational dialectic between two characters, Cyril and Vivian. The dialectic hashes out Vivian’s draft of an article-in-progress, titled ‘The Decay of Lying: A Protest’. Distilled through their dialogue, Wilde argues that, contrary to common convention, Art does not imitate Life, but quite the opposite; that we only see what we’ve already imagined; and that Life and Nature would be utterly dull without Art’s aesthetics and abstractions, around which mold we cast our interpretations of Life and Nature.
Roughly three years ago, I published an excerpt of Emerald City, my then novel-in-progress, in Potluck Mag. The excerpt follows one of the novel’s three protagonists, Julia, an undergrad at a fictional college in Seattle. Stricken with grief, Julia goes on a walk one morning – which, strangely enough, sets up a chance encounter with a genial street musician with a bad case of scrofula.
Ironically, noticing Julia’s puffy features – that she’d clearly been crying earlier – the jazz busker jokes that she must’ve had a bad reaction to collagen. The joke permits him her confidence, and they take seats on a nearby bench, where she confesses to having recently lost her father to addiction and her now ex-boyfriend to the underworld of dealers and drug mules.
After listening to her story, he tells Julia that he once played with Miles Davis, way back in the day. He tells her how Miles sat second chair to him out of respect for his venue. The busker admits that he was just good enough to know he’d never be one of the greats. Though entirely unrelated to Julia’s dilemma, the admission serves to limn his message that we all have problems, but we also have a choice: to persevere, or not – a simple spin on Shakespeare’s timeless entreaty. Put in plain words like these, Julia would’ve distrusted him – and despite his tacit finesse, she still does.
Just as Hymie’s blackness, in my eyes, allowed him to speak on discrimination’s orders of magnitude.
But there’s a deeper motive as to why Julia distrusts the busker, who appears to the reader as an otherwise honest and open character. His advice that she must simply persevere, as clean and clear as it is tacit and somewhat glib, contrasts starkly with Julia’s obsessive, spiraling thought process. Therefore, to trust his advice would be to admit the corrosive nature of her grief – which wouldn’t necessarily be true, despite that the busker is right in the most practical sense. Then again, in the most practical sense, we’re all fated creatures. So where would bare facts leave Julia, if not worse off than she already is?
Of course, I did see Hymie again, on that park bench along Edgecombe – just a few days after he’d ‘gone on tour’.
To be painfully honest, his sordid state paralleled so many of New York’s homeless population, save for the clothes. Still, I couldn’t help but see in him something of a Kerouac, a Dylan, a Burroughs – any of those beatniks who absorbed the first volley of stigma so the rest of us could live peacefully outside convention.
Of course, Hymie is a black man, a jazz man, a Harlemite. My associating him with white literary types seems a projection on my part, pouring much of myself and my experience into what I see in him – synthesizing those subconscious value judgments we’ve so cogently dubbed as implicit bias.
Then again, unlike the beats – save for Burroughs – I was quite fond of Hymie. Furthermore, I trusted him. I trusted him despite all the reasons he gave to make me distrust him. Mostly, I trusted him because I saw myself in him, and if I couldn’t trust him, I couldn’t trust myself.
I wanted to ask what he’d been up to this past month – really. But I’m no Frank Abagnale Sr. – no Hollywood representation of an abandoned father. I’m just a fellow artist whose work thrives on adorning my existential trials.
Not long after we’d begun talking for the last time – before we’d even gotten a chance to catch up – Hymie rendered impotent my desire to tease out of him the truth about ‘Florida’.
“Never seen you away from that clinic,” I said.
“We just didn’t jive,” he offered, in defense of no formal accusation. “That’s life.”
“You still playing shows?”
“Trying to line up a few gigs.”
“Well, I’m busy right now moving into a new place…”
…And after telling me where he was moving, Hymie’s eyes flitted. His voice, at first calm, if a bit unsteady, grew anxious and hurried.
“Now listen, don’t tell nobody about where I’m at. I’m trying to stay off the radar, you understand?”
It was suddenly entirely reasonable – if not probable – that he’d just copped from one of the dealers hanging out along the other side of the street. But how to have a frank conversation about something he’s too ashamed to speak about? This, I learned quickly after bidding him farewell for the last time, was a question equally suited for myself.
At the start of my three-year stint in psychoanalysis, my analyst and I agreed that I’d stop taking any drugs – except alcohol, in moderation. I did. My analyst believed that people take drugs because they’re sad. I find this highly reductive, like an economist who bases their theories on the ‘rational consumer’, which does not exist. We often seek or are exposed to things we don’t need, or even want. And need and want are themselves loaded terms.
Then again, about two-and-a-half years into analysis, Rosetta was hit by a car. I felt responsible, and within the next 48 hours I was self-medicating for my guilt. I’d already been using Kratom for over a year, but now I’d picked up pot again. And marijuana is the drug I choose for my reset button, my escape.
Anyone looking from the outside would have a difficult time labeling me with a substance problem. Then again, I’m afforded a coterie of close friends, two of whom are themselves doctors, with whom candid discussions about substance use allow us to lend nuance to absolute phrases such as ‘recreational use’, ‘self-medicating’, and ‘substance problem’.
Hymie, I would wager, does not. I’d also wager that his capacity as the resident ‘odd-jobber’ for a dental clinic didn’t afford him great health insurance, if any at all. If he did, how would it have altered his trajectory? Because the reality is, drug use is motivated by many factors, but no matter what, people will get hooked on anything they take every day. So what differentiates an addict from an upstanding citizen prescribed Adderall is largely a matter of circumstance. That is, if we call a kid with a daily Adderall regimen an addict – which in many ways they are – we must call the psychiatrist their dealer. Hence the opioid crisis, which has gained attention from President Trump only because of the targeted demographic’s (i.e. white folks’) endemic transitioning from prescribed use to illicit use. This did not happen during the crack epidemic, despite that it was state-sponsored, because of implicit and explicit bias against blacks.
Perhaps Wilde puts it best in another of his essays, ‘Pen, Pencil, and Poison’, in which he writes, “Crime in England is rarely the result of sin. It is nearly always the result of starvation.”
And then there’s the matter of honesty. Over the two years since I first finished a feasible draft of my novel, I’ve been guilty of adjusting reality to suit my perceived image. Two summers ago I began working with a junior agent to Susan Golomb at Writers House. I told people I had an agent, even though we’d yet to sign official paperwork. Alas, a few months later, that Susan’s assistant left the industry altogether, and with him an agent for my book. I’ve had countless close calls akin to this one, when it appeared all but certain that I was about to enter an agreement with this agent or that editor. Though I never outright lied – e.g. I truly thought that junior agent was locked in – I did say whatever I subconsciously felt would best suit my interests.
Whether or not he knew why, on some level Hymie understood that lying about his jazz career and dissembling his drug use helped quiet his problems – just as embellishing my novel’s progress and self-medicating helped quiet mine. You might even notice how I softened the language when it came to my habits, which parallel Hymie’s in all but their severity and impact. I can’t help but attribute this to my circumstance, which allows me to veil drug use behind phrases such as ‘self-medication’ and ‘recreation’.
Upon reaching this point in the essay, I called the dental clinic. It was then that I confirmed with the receptionist that Hymie worked there in the capacity of completing various odd-jobs. Though curious about this specious-sounding title, I didn’t press her for details.
“Are you looking for him?” asked the receptionist.
“Yeah,” I lied. “Last I heard he was in Florida.”
“He told us Georgia,” she said with notes of exhaustion.
My novel’s trumpet busker was right: to play with Miles – or the guy from the Lotto commercial – requires incredible talent. The correlation between ability and success in this world, however, is hardly perfect. I’ve learned this the hard way: there seemed an inverse correlation between how many prominent writers, influential agents, and editors praised my novel and the probability that my novel would be acquired by a reputable press. Yet here I am, with a release date set for Emerald City, a new lease on a lovely apartment, and a healthy Rosetta – whose accident, thankfully, revealed a tumor on her spleen, which we were fortunate enough to be able to pay to have removed.
My novel’s busker might’ve chalked this up, at least somewhat, to perseverance. And Hymie persevered too, as we all must. But his brand of perseverance didn’t come with batteries included. That is, Hymie’s didn’t come with public schools boasting top-five SAT scores, or houses with pools in their backyards, or a family business that could tack school loan repayments onto his starting salary. All of which, you’d think, should’ve been more than enough to power up my perseverance mechanism, and yet I’ve spent thousands of hours with mental health professionals, been bailed out of jail twice (the third time was on my tab), and have been prescribed Adderall – I’m not sure I have to unpack this irony again.
I wouldn’t be breaking philosophical ground in saying that deception and dissolution aren’t ideal. However, they are real. As in, they’re inside us all, to varying degrees of latency and expression, and they do facilitate our lives at times. Understanding these motives, as has been proven by studying unsavory phenomena such as serial killing and addiction, is far more productive than shaming and humiliation. Such tactics imply that we can root out the ‘bad apples’ – which, as often as not, is dog-whistle phraseology for the disenfranchised and traumatized. The results of our empathetic double-standard are evident across the board. Just look at the sentencing disparities between ‘white-collar’ and ‘street’ crime.
In the original version of ‘The Decay of Lying’, Oscar Wilde deployed his inimitable brand of satire, flirting with the axis of ambivalence, only to pull away at the last moment, thus holding forth in stark relief his essay’s central irony: that our reality is the greatest lie of them all; that Art steeped in unbending realism reveals merely our dullest similarities, which we call human nature. Ethical stalwarts might call Wilde an amoral fop. In some ways they wouldn’t be wrong.
However, on the whole, I can’t help but commiserate with Wilde’s definition – and attendant denigration – of realism. Never has there been an age like this one, in which so many versions of truth are being cultured under so powerful a microscope – as if we still can’t accept, as a society, that we lie not only to gain advantages, but also to try and make things better and more beautiful; that the masks we wear out in society are made from the stuff of this benign or even expeditious mendacity; that we embellish and dissemble our words, conceal or lend flourish to our acts, not only in service of greed, but also to adorn the mundane fatalism at heart of our existence.
Wilde taught me that lying is perhaps the most honest thing an artist can do. After all, what is fiction but a well-drawn-out lie? Furthermore, meeting Hymie was Life’s way of imitating my Art. And being that friendships are an art form, a constant curation of our interpersonal experience, saying the right thing isn’t always the most honest thing – or rather, saying the most honest thing isn’t always the truest thing. Far from standing in direct opposition to ethics and prosperity, understanding this truth about human nature – that we lie with the intent to make our lives better and more beautiful – seems as indelible from as it is imperative to our hopes for social progress.
Brian Birnbaum received his MFA in fiction from Sarah Lawrence College. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Smart Set, Atticus Review, LUMINA, 3AM Magazine, The Collagist, Political Animal, and more. His debut novel, Emerald City, which deals heavily with addiction, is forthcoming in 2019 with Dead Rabbits, whose NYC reading series is spinning off into a literary press funded by a former Amazon dev manager. He is an only child of deaf adults (CODA), and he works in development for his father's deaf access company.
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