Blogger Here. You’re in for a wonderful treat, a reflection by Jenni baker on an event mirroring a moment from Infinite Jest.
Poor Tony Krause was on my train.
It was mid-July 2009, and I’d just made the multi-block morning trek from my overpriced one-bedroom apartment in Bethesda, MD, to the metro station of the same name.
Thrust out of academia’s comfortable arms just one month prior, I had begrudgingly agreed to give being a professional writer in the ‘real world’ a go for one year before gleefully enroll in a doctoral program that would allow me to return to and remain in school for perpetuity.
You won’t find it altogether surprising that I was eager to prove — no matter what ill-fitting business casual attire I was forced to stuff myself into each day and regardless of how many hours I eked away in a cubicle — that I would still read very smart books. I joined the Infinite Summer online group and made sure each morning that, along with my keys and my wallet, Infinite Jest found its way into my workbag.
The copious underlining and exclamation marks I’d made leading up to that morning would suggest to any onlooker I saw some parallels between the lives of the books’ motley characters and my own. I never expected, however, to find one in Tony Krause’s heroin withdrawal as I descended into the metro station that morning.
It was clear something was wrong as I boarded the metro car from the dimly lit platform:
a shaking man does, after all, stand out on a morning train.
Unlike Poor Tony, this man was African-American, clearly more than 45 kilos and absent the former’s female accoutrements; however, he was similarly “one of those loathsome urban specimens that respectable persons on trains slide and drift quietly away from without even seeming to notice they’re even there” (304).
He convulsed violently, his mass creating a forward momentum that pulled him further out of his seat with every quake. Within seconds, his body succumbed to gravity, and he tumbled face first onto the floor as the train departed the station. In his new position, his over-sized sweatpants had slid down his waist, exposing the tops of his haunches. At a certain point, he lost control of his bowels, and the carpet darkened underneath him.
I’ve shared various versions of this story in the nearly three years since the incident; in almost all of them, I paint myself as a gape-mouthed Midwesterner, incredulous that my fellow commuters would refuse to look up from their Washington Posts or offer assistance to someone who was clearly so unwell. I, without a doubt, would have done something if I had known about the emergency call button in the metro car and if I wasn’t, in my big city newness, still moderately fearful of never-encountered situations.
You’ve probably already sensed that this is bullshit, of course. Like your Infinite Jest respectables who “quietly retreated as far as possible from the puddles in which [Poor Tony] sat,” I kept my distance, my own pink face no doubt looking stricken (403).
Another unkempt man alone at the end of the car pressed the emergency button, stopping the train at the next station — the “we’re holding for a sick passenger” announcement unleashing audible sighs from those not five feet away from him — until paramedics could descend and extract the man from the car.
When they arrived and lightly dismissed him as passed out from intoxication, I gathered my first words of the morning to say I’d seen him seize – an act the others on the train had either not seen or felt was unworthy of reporting. In the more flattering version of this story, this is — bien sûr — the moment I heroically stand up and advocate for this man whom all others have cast aside.
I have no doubt that those who read your work will see similarities in their own experiences; it seems inevitable that one will, sooner or later, get an odd feeling of déjà vu when a small plot point from Infinite Jest’s 1,079 pages pops up in real life.
I mean my letter more as a confession.
After a morning of recounting the event to coworkers — including excitedly emphasizing to a more literary-minded colleague that this was just like something in a book I’d been reading — I spent my lunch hour re-reading the Poor Tony seizure section.
Looking at those few pages with the morning’s experience under my belt, I considered what I hadn’t once thought about all day: the perspective of the man who shook. I was too focused on what was happening to me on my commute that morning, too eager to tell others what I had experienced, that I’d failed to consider what the same events looked like to the man immobile and alone on floor of the metro car.
I’ll never know if the man on my train was suffering from an addiction, had forgotten to take his seizure medicine that morning or was experiencing a freak event unprecipitated by external cause. I just know that it didn’t occur to me to really care until I was forced inside Poor Tony’s head during his own shake-up until you forced me to consider how I would feel if faced with similar circumstances.
In closing, I’m not a religious person, but it’s my understanding that confessions turn on a need for redemption as well as some sort of promise from the confessor to do better in the future.
It’s tempting to wrap this letter up with a nice bow, swear to you that my eyes have been forever opened, and that I will now always know how to react when faced with atypical individuals and events. I think we both know life’s too ambiguous and messy for that. I also hope you won’t hold it against me when I say I’m not seeking your forgiveness.
What I can say is this: your Poor Tony and the one on my metro car helped drive home one of the tenets of the book — that we are each alone and struggling in our own ways. Some of us have the luxury to do so behind closed doors, when we take off the face we wear to meet the faces that we meet, while others of us are forced to fight our private battles in public. I believe it’s recognizing this shared suffering and letting it govern our behaviors that will help us make much-needed connections and do the right thing in the end.
Jenni B. Baker is the founder and editor-in-chief at The Found Poetry Review and is currently working on a manuscript-length found poetry project called Fest, derived from David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. By day, she works as a nonprofit writer and editor in the DC area.
So safely within the Washington Metropolitan Area that I can claim I live in Washington, DC, without the ridicule one might incur for claiming to live in, say, Chicago when one really lives more than 60 miles away in DeKalb.[back]
I, like many twenty- and thirty-somethings I’ve seen in my three years in the city, happily brandished the tome on public transportation not only to distance myself from the Dan Brown and Dean Koontz readers, but also to signal to any eligible bachelors in eyeshot that there was a smart lady in their midst.[back]
While other children with a parent in the Air Force had the opportunity to move to California or Germany, the Baker family was entrusted to make sure South and North Dakota didn’t get too out of hand.[back]