by Michael Shorris
I spend a lot of time with the perpetually unimpressed. They are a specific species: a breed of people borne from too much, too interesting, for too long, that cannot be amazed. Nothing comes new, and nothing surprises them. They are somewhat insufferable and they are somewhat endearing and I can trace them all the same way. They’ve been fed art and music since they teethed, lathered in the Daily Show and the New Yorker, bathed in the quiet intellect and wry snark of their parents and parents’ parents. They are sarcastic and they are talented and they are cruel and they are juvenile. They are a cliché of a bored elite that much of the country hates. But I put up with them.
Where I come from, they are abundant. New York City perpetually inundates: one can’t walk very far without visual or aural interruption, whether from a man hawking discount stereos or a woman passing pamphlets for a backstreet rally. There is a constant stream of images too dense and too complex to process properly, moments of fraught and frightening realities overwhelming and meaningful in ways that can take hours to decipher. Below ground a bootleg DVD salesman carries his baby daughter on his shoulders, ducking his head and hers through the small doorway between bouncing subway cars; above ground a banker with a Zegna over his shoulder stands in socks on the sidewalk, smacking the shit off his polished shoes beside a blue scaffold in the minutes before morning--and what is one ever to make of these moments? How to explain them, let alone understand them? The bizarre becomes banal as the city’s endless ensemble of characters who might amaze anywhere else here blend into the background. The blanketed homeless man with sign reading “NY TIMES PUBLISHED POET WRITES YOU A SONNET” grew unexciting after a decade and a half of observation, and why wouldn’t he? It is only appropriate that the site of greatest stimuli, of most total inundation, is also the single most unavoidable: the subway. It was in total seriousness when, editing our high school literary magazine, we were forced to implement an unspoken quota on ‘subway poems,’ for they were almost too easy, borrowing from too many characters, shooting fish in a barrel in material pulled from that shrine to strangeness. For teenagers of my city, above ground and below, everything that amazes grows mundane, and everybody who grows up around this grows jaded.
Most everybody, at least. I’m sure some stay doe-eyed, and I do talk about a specific group of adolescents. They come from the good public schools, and many of their parents (including mine) wear their children’s public education as a badge of honor: it’s a certain cultural snobbery that looks down on the snobby prep schools of the Upper East Side while the snobby prep schools of the Upper East Side look down on us. Many come from LaGuardia, that institution of the arts ingrained in the American psyche as ‘the FAME school.’ The rest come from Stuyvesant, Science, Hunter, Lehman, and the like; a couple even sneak in from the more ‘progressive’ of private schools, like Little Red or Friends. The latter few are prized, in part because the public school kids don’t have houses large enough for parties. The kids are musicians, painters, poets, playwrights, actors, actors, and actors. [Some events are reserved for the thespians alone: ‘drama parties’ can be too intense for the less theatrically-inclined, so entrenched in role-playing that reality grows murky.] Many of them get together every couple weeks at Irving’s (parents’) house in Windsor Terrace, a sprawling outer borough brownstone probably worth its weight in gold, now thirty years since Irving’s parents (artists until they had kids; everybody’s parents were artists) first bought it.
It would be dishonest to distance myself too much from those I describe. I choose to spend my time with them, often, because the truth of it is that they are thoughtful people, talented musicians, painters, poets, playwrights, and actors. I romanticize people like them, always more fond of my mom’s impoverished ‘artist friends’--mentioned only after they’ve been fired from another failing magazine--than the dull bureaucrats and professionals of my dad’s life. More damning, I tend to enjoy some sort of Carraway’s detachment, that Tom Townsend taking-the-bus-to-the-deb-ball observers’ sentiment. For social study and for social life I stay with this odd clique, but I’ve slowly become more a part of the group than I’d like to admit.
There’s a strangeness to their humor, a specific edge to it almost built to exclude. There are prerequisites for spending time with them. You need musical and cultural currency--not pop references or celebrity knowledge, but a base understanding of a certain group of indie musicians and experimental writers. Theirs is an erudite taste, borne from a respectable avoidance of pop music, yet driven to greater and greater depths of obscurity in a quest for uniqueness that dominates everything from books to fashion to drinks. There’s no Budweiser: take a Pabst. Don’t spill it on your jeans, which hopefully were your parents’ or a thrift shop find--you’re above American Apparel, proud of that working-class Carhartt that sits too big on your slender upper-middle class frame. Reading some poems? Hope’s it Ashbery; that low-brow Billy Collins is on everybody’s bookshelf.
If it sounds like there’s disdain in my voice, it’s because there is. When I call the group--many of them my close friends--partially insufferable, I mean it. I try to rationalize the snobbery as an entrance fee, the price you pay for having interesting things to talk about and listen to; of course they’re a little pompous and a little pretentious, but so are any teenagers who try waxing philosophical. Nobody’s throwing up on the floor at Irving’s house because it’s not that sort of party; everybody’s pontificating on the roof, talking for hours and hours about matters of questionable importance. I kind of like that, a certain dorm room dream of endless gabbing. They’re probably full of themselves and full of it, but they’re not the worst of their kind. 
And when you speak the language at Irving’s, it’s hard to think of a more interesting place to be. There’s a reason I was so attracted to his parties. The music is undoubtedly some of the most interesting stuff around, because the kids choosing it have good ears: many are off to conservatories this year, some touring nationally. The art discussions, which I can’t even pretend to comprehend, are between kids who genuinely care about their craft, whose work has been sold in galleries and put in shows around the country. When the Scholastic Awards, that national talent search for artists and writers, holds its yearly exhibition for the national winners out of 300,000 submissions, nearly the whole room at Irving’s is unsurprised to find one another at its highest ceremonies. Talented, inside pool, and a little insufferable. A little annoying. It presents another danger: starting to feel special, important, as if the elitism in the air is deserved or fitting; beginning to believe you really might be better. There’s a reason city kids arrive in college some mixture of trendy and reviled.
I also need to emphasize their language, because the humor is such a strange network of references to places, experiences, and people. It sounds vague, but it’s difficult to describe: entire conversations between two people will run on an impression of a generally understood caricature with a made-up name--say Aunt Ann, a delicate family member far too excited to see you, asking about the kids and their colleges; Travis, a jock who only discusses the number of beers he’s crushed and the girls he’ll score; Lula, an art school student who isn’t interested in your conversation anymore; Johnny Ten-Toes, a gangster who says Dis and Dat and Dose; endless unnamed characters and voices, all understood because they’ve been experienced and observed in some way, all funny because they’re collective, products of the city’s stimuli. The jokes come with citations. One friend declares “kush too strong” when coughing from the most innocent of colds, the reference coming from the dozens of videos of rappers choking on joints, crackling out “shit, this kush just too strong.” The irony comes in the distance from reality, like all the impressions. They’re spot-on, flawless caricatures often done by kids who want to act for a living.
But so the jokes are an acquired taste. One friend of mine with little interest for acting and even less for impressions lost it a couple weeks ago, pulling me aside and telling me how sick of it he was. “They talk about nothing,” he said to me, “and when they talk about something it’s nothing I care about.” He wasn’t wrong, this old friend who’s broken from everything the group knows and signed himself up for the ROTC this year. He’s an object now, a specimen of strangeness who little smirks at irony and doesn’t love the gag when his peers across the country are the ones being mocked. Irving’s brother is a similar outsider, an older and unhappier member of the family uncomfortably home during the night parties, who once pulled his younger sibling aside and said that if he saw another girl drawing sketches in a Moleskine notebook he’d be throwing everybody out of the house, and meant it. I couldn’t blame him: it’s hard to describe the affect of the girl who sits in crossed overalls at a bustling party to draw what she sees. And yet, I still can’t help but feel some of kind of fondness for that, pretentious as it might be, for the very weirdness of it.
Still, I started to grow sick of the group in small ways. I walked one of the most cynical of the group the ten blocks to the subway on a fall evening and I was bored stiff by the conversation once we reached the train. Every word out of their mouth was an attack on somebody around them: always a critical analysis of anybody else’s faux pas, no matter how minor it might have been. The sin might be wearing skinny jeans, that trend that came and left hip homes with the elusive immediacy of all things briefly Cool. The mistake might be a haircut, a t-shirt, a backpack, any tiny indication that the owner was out of the loop. A few complaints I didn’t mind--I enjoyed a pleasant reminder of being in, knowing none were directed towards me--but I was tired by the time the platform was in sight. But I can’t particularly critique, because I’m part of the culture of complaint: I visited a friend’s dorm at RISD a few weeks back, and I decided I knew everything about her roommate (‘a nineteen year-old mid-Western mother’) by the mug on her desk that read “Home is where the he(art) is.” My assumptions were probably accurate, but it’d be wrong to say they were fair.
My truest trial came walking along MacDougal about a month ago, strolling a street frozen in time for the past forty years. Its falafel shops, its record stores, and its music clubs are all locked in the 1970s, and so is its bustling collegiate energy. Until a few months ago, even the painted sign for the Fat Black Pussycat--that club of Dylan fame--was still visible above a Mexican restaurant. I think of the street with a fondness for an era I never knew, from when the neighborhood was somewhere young people might live rather than tour, romantic, when you might bump shoulders with Basquiat in the morning or hear Hendrix in the evening. I douse the street and everybody on it in nostalgia. So came my shock, my horror, and my sheer anger when a girl in the group I walked with--a member of my party, an extension of myself--took a shot at everything I hold dear. As we stepped off the crowded sidewalk, one of the many comedy show workers who hawk the street night and day with their calls of ‘free comedy tonight!’ approached our group. I’ve never taken one of them up on their offers, but I remain dearly appreciative of the fact that they exist and that there are still comedy shows in the first place; that this street is packed with standup and jazz rather than blue-lit banks and chilly co-ops. These are the men and women part of a Past I’m perpetually disappointed I never experienced. And my Past came under attack.
“Comedy show?” asked one of the girls with a sarcasm the flyer man couldn’t hear. “I love comedy!” I felt my heart drop.
“You bet, man, right down the street,” he helpfully replied.
“And when? I just love comedy! Love it, love it! It’s so, New York!” she rattled off in a southern tourist’s drawl, before bursting out laughing. The comedy man stared blankly as she walked away. I couldn’t feign the smirk I was supposed to, and I snapped at her.
“Why would you do that? Why did you say that? That’s his job,” I agonized. “That’s what he’s there, paid to do, and you just made fun of him for what? What point?”
“Relax. It was just a joke,” she responded with a frustrating calm.
“But what was the point of it? Like, just fuck with that guy’s day? For what? Did he do anything to you?”
Another girl chimed in. “Chill out...she was just kidding. And the guy was like, harassing us.”
The misuse of an actual complaint made me even angrier.
“Harassing you? Is that what that means? He handed you--offered you--a flier, for a free show, what he’s paid to do--his job! How is that harassment, at all?”
“Look, you can drop it; it just doesn’t matter,” offered the initial offender.
I did drop it. And perhaps it didn’t matter. The ultimate product of the unimpressed, of the anti-popular, the chasers of obscurity, the performers of impressions, the kids so incredibly well-versed in music, art, and writing nobody has heard of, is, simply, not caring. The end result of living through so much so interesting for so long often seems to be--along with a jaded wit, and some creative talent--a disinterest, and a complete lack of concern for the consequences of any actions or statements, for how the butt of any joke might feel. It’s an ugly blasé free of conscience, licensed to drip cynicism until the sun rises; any quips would probably go over the head of the mocked, anyway, and apathy’s always in.
But I still come back to Irving’s each winter. I suppose my polemic is personal and toothless, an intervention without weight or conviction. I still snark, and I still sit with the snarky. I put up with the city kids, and I’m part of them. They are flawed but familiar and as much as I know exactly who they are, I also know exactly why they are. I can only hope the distinction keeps me some distance apart, that any moment of genuine awe or passion I feel is something radical, a refutation of a certain apathy that’s grown weary. It might be the clumsy uncool of the artless and earnest that turns out to be the panacea I seek.
One of the sculptors in the group, having recently dropped out of Cooper Union, told me with a straight face that he’s ‘post-sincerity.’ The worst part was that I couldn’t tell if he meant it.
 I heard tale from Oberlin, last week, of a group that says an un-ironic prayer for world tragedies before taking shots: ‘for victims of the genocide in Darfur,’ they say before downing vodka.
 The owner painted over it recently, and responding to criticism, asked a pertinent question: “Would you rather we set the whole city in cement?”
Michael Shorris is a student and a recovering apathetic.