How to Walk by a Stranger Without Looking
Now, I don’t know if Agent Orange or some fairy dust got sprayed on everyone around here but things are just strange. Just really strange. I can’t even really explain it. It just feels like something is missing. Something is off. Like the flowers forgot how to flower or the moon forgot how to moon or just that Christmas hasn’t even felt like Christmas in a really long time. It’s always rainy or too sunny or something. Last year it was about 76 degrees in New York. I don’t know. I’m not too poetic or anything but something is off. I mean, my damn smile doesn't even work anymore sure, my mouth stretches and all—but there’s no smile. Nothing. Just a stretched mouth.
My name is Walter Warsinsky, in case you want to know. War-Sin-Sky. I try to write a journal entry every now and then just to rationalize my incapacity for living and working like everyone else. I’m just a cashier at a liquor store on Ditmars Boulevard in Astoria and I can barely do that. I don’t know if I was always this bad at stuff or I’m just bad at working or what. I barely feel alive. Or know where I’m going. Or who I am. Or anything about anything anymore. The best part of my day is writing a journal entry for 20 minutes and that’s not saying much.
I know this sounds crazy, but it feels like some phantom swooped into my room one night and took something from me. Like in that Space Jam movie where the little aliens swoop into Michael Jordan’s body and take his “stuff” and then he can hardly dribble down the court or anything anymore. It kind of feels like that—like someone took my stuff. It also kind of feels like this story I read about a parrot at the zoo (on nytimes.com. Something I check about thirteen times a day for whatever reason). There were all these colorful, chirping parrots but there was this one pale parrot staying way the hell away from all the other parrots. He was plucking his own feathers and everything. The guy asked, “What's wrong with that parrot?” Then the zookeeper says, “That parrot doesn’t think he’s a parrot.” Well, it also kind of feels like that.
Anyway, I live with my mom in the same house I grew up in. I know, I commute about forty-five minutes a day to work at a damn liquor store. It’s terrible. I went to a pretty good college, too. Or, so they say. I don’t know what I did wrong. Now I live in the same room I was in when I was sixteen. Same And-1 stickers and hot sauce stains on my desk. Same old baggy Nike clothes I never got rid of. Same newspaper cutouts of when I was a standout soccer player in high school; same cutouts of “Warsinsky scores 28 in win over Calhoun.” I was a pretty good athlete. I really was. Anyway, it’s all the same. Everything is the same. I don’t know what people talk about when they talk about growing up. Nothing changes.
Now I’m twenty-eight years old and can barely walk down the street. All I really wanna do is sleep. I wake up and want to sleep. I eat breakfast and want to sleep. I read a book and want to sleep. I’ve come to a non-understanding how people go from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. in this world without any damn sleep. Anyway, the hardest part of my day is probably just walking down the street and riding subways and stuff. I wish I was kidding or being artsy or trying to cash in on depression like half the other damn artists out there but I’m not. I really struggle. Half the time I walk by somebody I get this nervous tingly numb feeling in my forehead like I just got “shocked” or something. My problem is I just get really zoned into whoever is walking by me or next to me or looking at me or anything and I can’t un-zone them out. It just gets stuck. Like gum. Almost permanently.
It’s not just good-looking people and girls, either. It’s everyone. Old ladies with little puppies. This old Asian guy that collects beer cans on the street at night. The neighbor’s kids who cradle their lacrosse sticks next door. It’s very strange. Sometimes when I’m on subways, it feels like there’s some invisible yarn attached to all of our heads and if I just yanked a bit one way or the other—half the passengers would come tumbling down. Girls are the worst, though. Good-looking guys have become a recent thing. What happens is I get scared of being caught being scared by a good-looking guy and what that might mean and all. Anyway, I’m usually just walking into telephone poles or bushes or do this thing where I’m actually capable of tripping on the soles of my own feet. I honestly usually just sit down on the train with my hands on my head staring a spot in the ground waiting for whatever it is I’m waiting for to be over.
I call myself “The People Scarer,” in case you want to know. It’s the belief that I scare people by my sheer presence. I’m not too crazy looking or anything. It’s just in the airwaves or something. Once I start thinking about you, you can feel me thinking about you. It’s not a likable thing to say but most people think I should be a model. The old ladies that get “Happy Halfies” (that’s a 200ML bottle of Jose Cuervo—a half-pint) at the liquor store call me Bradley because they all think I look like Bradley Cooper. I don’t take great care of myself, though. I’d be better looking if I did. One time I was at the New York Public Library and an old Spanish guy tried to put a couple of quarters in my Starbucks coffee cup I was drinking outside. I was wearing a neon orange hat and messy finger-combed hair and this big unruly beard. I think it was in January (Side note: I don’t think I’ve used a comb since my third-grade communion. Also, I never quite learned how to use these electric Con-Air trimmers. I think I’ve had seven of them. All in the garbage now). My sister called the look “Boho Chic” as a joke. I think it used to be a thing. Pre-Trump Era stuff.
Anyway, people-scaring. I guess it’s not so much that I’m scary looking but what it is is that I just get so nervous about scaring people—scared of scaring everyone. I’m getting a little better now but for a while I just stayed away from happy people. I didn’t want to suck their happiness away from them or anything. I didn’t want to spread whatever I had on anybody else. It’s contagious. It really is. If there’s some very happy looking Nigerian guy on the train, or a very happy old Asian man looking out the window at a Starbucks, or a handsome looking happy looking guy just ordering a sandwich somewhere—I’ll stay away. I’ll pretend like I’m doing something else because I hate to see them start fidgeting and sweating and peeking back at me once they get nervous—once they feel me thinking about them. The look on the faces of kids is the worst.
It basically turns into a “Peek Fest” because one person thinks I’m looking at them but I’m not looking at them just thinking about them and trying not to let anyone know I’m thinking about them. Then they kind of think, “Hold on, why do I feel like he’s looking at me when he’s not looking at me?” and then she would do a couple more peeks or text furiously or do a million things at once to get her mind off me. The whole train kind of becomes one big unconsciously synchronized mess of twitching legs and frantic texts and side-peeks. This is what I’m talking about. The un-wiring of each other’s brains when my brain waves interact with the other person’s brainwaves and basically just makes it very difficult to order a latte.
For a while I was so tuned in with others that I mimicked them. I mean, I used to unconsciously copy their movements and patterns of speech and everything. It’s a very creepy thing but I couldn’t stop it. I was aware of the creepiness and it made it ten times worse because I knew it was creepy and didn’t want it to be creepy. I took a taxi and started talking to this guy from Rochester and then I started talking like I was from Rochester. He almost convinced me that I was a Buffalo Bills fan. That I went to Montreal for fun when I was 19. That I say, “haird” and “cair” and “bair.” I was really sick. I really was. I couldn’t be around anyone. I didn’t want to be around anyone. I just wanted “The Old Me” back. If I could just remember what “The Old Me” was then everything would be okay . . .
I still feel like I can feel what other people are thinking around me sometimes. Not like all the way in Hong Kong or anything but, you know, a taxi driver. A passenger on a train. A pilot. On planes, for example, I tried to intensely watch all those Channing Tatum movies because I’d think I’d get stuck in the pilot's head and we’ll crash if I didn’t keep my mind occupied. His brain waves would get hit by my brain waves and then he wouldn’t be able to fly. Taxi drivers usually peek back and forth at me or adjust their mirrors or turn on the radio very loud or open up their windows about a million times. You can feel the breathing getting heavy. Almost stop. This one time I looked at some lady on the road while I was driving and she nearly crashed into this telephone pole by a Panera. I looked at her eyes while she was driving on the other side of the highway and she just got that “shocked” feeling I was talking about and lost control of her car. Solid eye contact can be very dangerous.
Anyway, if you want me to be honest, I hate thinking about this stuff. If I had any advice don’t think about it at all. If you keep thinking about it, you’ll never leave your sixteen-year-old bedroom like me. Afraid to do anything. Afraid to see old friends who remembered The Good You and not the New Nervous You. The Unconscious-Fun-Having-You. Not this Childish-Hermit-Afraid-of-Everything-You. A guy that stares at walls all day and feels bad about himself. Stares out windows. Pretends he’s writing while lying in his old bed all day. Who on trains and at the movies and everywhere can only close their eyes. I want to keep happy people happy and good memories good. I don’t want to spread the contagion.
I still go to the gym, though. I work out six days a week. I sometimes skip shoulders and triceps days because I just don’t need big shoulders or triceps. My chest got big, though. I admit I work my chest way too much. It’s just because I feel small inside so now I have a big chest and skinny legs which makes it kind of difficult to walk. Everything about me is un-balanced and un-centered. I’ve been told I even have a very small head. I was going to make this video called “You Miss Head-Day, Bro?” where I walk around with my small head and big body and put it on whatever website people put that on but I just didn’t feel like it. I’m pretty poor though so I really should. I really do need some money.
Anyway, I’ve changed certain things I do. I go to movies on Monday mornings and sit way up at the front—in the middle—and never look back. I usually have a bent neck when I’m done. When I do go to the gym, I dash between weights and the yoga area to avoid people. If I get a weird stare in those big mirrors then I’ll go to the machines. If I get a weird stare there then back to weights and then a weird stare there then to the yoga area. If it gets very bad I just close my eyes and lift which I think is dangerous because there are lots of popping-looking veins on my face and stuff. I just don’t want to say, “I have to leave because I’m scaring everyone” so I just stay and lift. Plus, it helps with confidence. Creatine and muscle. The other plus is it helps my posture so I don’t get cut all the damn time. I get cut everywhere and am getting a little sick of it.
When I drive, I prefer night. Four am CVS runs for the majority of my things. During the day, I face my reflection mirrors towards the ground so I don’t people-scare anyone in the cars behind me. At traffic lights, I have my phone so I can text or look at videos so I don’t get distracted by the people in the cars around me. The peripheral vision is the worst—drivers to the left and to the right. There’s also always the guy in the car in front of me looking at me in his rearview mirror and the guy in the car in back of me looking at my reflection in my own rearview mirror. It’s a very long 2 minutes. Anyway, I just look at my iPhone. Politico. Mashable. BuzzFeed News. Trump did this and Trump did that and Trump did this. I just can’t fight the peeks anymore. Once I want to peek at someone I can’t stop. The strongest urge in the world is the urge to peek at someone. I swear.
Anyway, it’s all a big catch-22. All I want to do is be alone but the worse it gets when you’re alone. All I want to do is drink wine and watch Netflix but it gets worse and worse if you do that. Trust me. All I want to do is sleep but it gets worse if you sleep a lot, too. It stores up all the energy so when you go outside and you turn getting a two-for-one Ben and Jerry’s Cherry Garcia deal into a big event at CVS it’s bad. The best thing you can do is stay busy with people all the time and pray and just hope you’re too tired to think about all this stuff. Sometimes I just wish god would give me a good app idea or something but I’m getting too old to code. A prison sentence sounds nice, too. At least I don’t have to cook.
Now, I’ve heard some people say it’s anxiety. This is all just classic anxiety. This is just depression. David Foster Wallace, the author that put depression on the map at liberal colleges around the country, said it was like some “dark cloud just swept over him one day.” Yea yea yea. That’s not what it feels like at all. What it feels like is what I said—a very dizzy numb tingly feeling in the forehead. That’s depression. It’s not some dark cloud. It’s a stuttering, sporadic cloud. A cloud that copies what all the other clouds are doing to make it look more like a real cloud. Anxiety is a cloud that doesn’t know how to drizzle or rain or hail. It’s a cloud that doesn’t want to be a cloud. An imposter cloud. Or, if we can stop using metaphors for goddam once in writing, it’s just being at the dinner table with friends and wanting to slide away into some sewer and disappear.
Anyway, I developed a list of secret moves. I even contemplated calling this whole thing “A Secret Guidebook for the Awkward and Strange.” I mean, just all these moves in case you got “The Bug.” (That’s what my friend Steve calls it. “The Bug.”) Everyone keeps telling me that these damn books have to have solutions. The story is no good if it doesn’t have any solutions. So, I developed some things that might help.
The first move I learned is the “Squint-in-the-Sun” technique where you just squint and block your eyes from seeing the other person. You just got to pretend that the sun is kind of blinding you and you can’t see anything at all. I’ve done it on cloudy days, even. Nobody really notices. There’s the “Think-and-Pass” where, if you are walking in a city or anywhere really, you kind of just look up at all the old churches, skyscrapers, and stuff and go “Hmmm.” That’s all. Just a “Hmmm.” Just look very curious with your fingers on your chin—like a real architect or something—and then when they’ve passed, keep walking. There’s the “Out-on-the-Horizon” technique where I look way far ahead at something still—some building or something like that—and then walk by people. I remember my grandpa taught me to do that when you get seasick on a boat. To look at the sun in the distance. Anything steady.
Sometimes I use the “Did-I-Forget-Something?” technique where—right when the person is like ten yards away or so—I dangle change around in my pocket and pretend to look for keys or something like that. I also cough and sneeze a lot when people walk by. That works, too. The “Cough-and-Sneeze” technique. If you have glasses you’re lucky because you can take them off and adjust them or something when people walk by. The plus side is it kind of makes you look very smart, too. I don’t wear glasses but if you do it’s very useful.
I’ve seen some people read when they walk but I wouldn’t recommend it. I just simply don’t see how you can walk and read when most people can’t even sit and read. People are always reading in the wrong places, by the way. This has been a thing for me recently. Who wants to read at the beach when all those hot oily tanned up girls in bikinis are walking by? Nobody. Plus, you get sand and saltwater and sunblock all over the books. The sun dries it out, too. It’s like even the book doesn’t want to be there. Books are for rainy days. Coffee shops and rainy days.
Anyway, I suggest the “Chevy Blaze ’Em” technique where you just speed by people. Sometimes that’s all you can do while walking. The little workout can free your mind a little from thinking about whatever person you’re thinking about, too. One of the worst cases of people-scaring is when you’re walking right behind someone in the city and you keep walking the same exact route. They turn a corner, you turn a corner. They cross a sidewalk, you cross a sidewalk. They slow down but you kind of slow down, they speed up at the same time you speed up. I think if this were ever an artsy short film, it should be a musical. “How to Walk by a Stranger Without Looking: A Musical.” A musical with tap shoes so you can hear them thinking through the tapping of their feet. Anyway, the “Chevy Blaze ’Em” technique is where you just blow by them a million miles an hour. If it’s a girl, I especially recommend this. The “Stop-and-Randomly-Text-and-Read-Politico-and-BuzzFeed-News-Articles” technique works, too.
What’s also very difficult is the “Mexican Stand Off.” This is when you see a guy in your radar about 100 yards in front of you and it’s just you and him. Hallways. Streets. Nowhere else to go. This is the hardest. What I usually do is the “Early-Wave-and-How’s-It-Going?” technique where I hit them with a wave early, then head down for a couple yards, look up and just say, “How’s it going? What’s up? What’s new?” kind of thing. I never listen. Nobody ever listens. The key is to “Nod-and-Plod.” Just hit the floor and don’t look back. If you have to walk back by them again—like in high school or something and you have to use the same hall—I suggest taking a different route or timing the route such that you pass them at a different time. Something useful is the “I-Have-Such-Funny-Friends” technique where you find a very funny video (talking animals works great) and laugh a whole bunch while you walk by like “life is so great and a little awkward “Double-Pass” isn’t going to faze me. I’m looking at talking giraffe videos!”
Coffee Shops and subways are tricky because you’re stuck. Usually I end up feeling like the Mona Lisa—every which way everyone goes I’m looking. If I’m reading, I’m looking. If I’m staring at a gum stain on the floor, I’m looking. If I’m stretching my elbow, I’m secretly looking. It’s like trying to hold a sneeze trying not to peek around at everyone. It’s impossible. Anyway, in coffee shops, I use “The Bathroom” technique. It’s very simple. You just go to the bathroom a million times.
My dad makes fun of me all the time. I’m twenty-eight years old and he says the only book I’m ever going to write is going to be called The Bathroom Diaries about all the bathrooms I’ve visited. PF Chang’s. 03-18-17. Good flushing mediocre tile design. Overall, two thumbs up. Cheesecake Factory. 04-03-16. Clean but in just a satisfactory way. Nothing superb. No soap. Nice marble tile design. One thumb up. You get the idea. It’s actually half because I also really need to go to the bathroom. I have another nervous habit. I drink about 13 gallons of water a day. I’m not kidding.
Anyway, I don’t really have too many other techniques. The iPhone works great. It’s a lot more useful than books because it really sucks you into the thing—a lot quicker and faster than prose can. I never bought that whole “show but don’t tell stuff.” When did readers ever want to use their imagination? Every English teacher says show and don’t tell but all I see is everyone watching 13 seasons of Netflix a night. People don’t want to use their imagination. That old Elmore Leonard book Ten Rules About Writing is off. Everyone is just way off.
Anyway, I personally try to listen to music but I only got about ten songs because I always forget my Apple ID and password. I’m the worst at remembering passwords. So, what I end up doing is looking at the subway map I’ve already seen a million times. Or, in coffee shops, stare at people shoes. I look out windows a lot hoping for some rain or wind or some something. I just notice lots of little things. I recently noticed that in the summer girls are very self-conscious about their toes. I look around at girls’ toes and they always curl up and look nervously around. Must be hard to be a pretty girl with ugly toes.
Now, a lot of people keep telling me it’s just anxiety. I can tell you a lot of things but I still can’t tell you exactly what anxiety is. I can tell you what it feels like to shake. I can tell you what it’s like to stutter. What it’s like to read but only be really thinking if your sister is doing all right in school or hoping that your mom’s cough is not an alcoholic cough or hoping that purple bump on my lip isn’t a cancerous purple bump. I can tell you all that but I still can’t tell you what anxiety is.
I can tell you every time I go outside it’s like I’m walking on the red carpet at the Oscars—but there is no Oscars, no paparazzi, no camera, no nothing. Just me and a sidewalk. I can tell you about how it feels on a subway when it’s like I’m a frozen, shaking particle about to explode. I can tell about all that stuff about feeling the invisible yarn attached to all our heads and if I yanked one way or another everyone would come tumbling down. I can tell you about the Mona Lisa stuff. Skipping Christmas. Picking the mirror-less ends of booths at unknown and unpopular diners. Why I only see morning movies. Why I watch movies at all even though I don’t like movies. Why I stagger at times going to the gym. Why I spend nights googling things wrong with me. Thyroid Problem. Vitamin B-12 Deficiency. Fatigue Syndrome. Bi-Polar. Why I spend all night thinking of a pretty girl next to me, touching me, making me feel human.
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