Welcome to the singles bars and hotel rooms of the virtual cityby Nicholas Thompson / January 20, 2001 / Leave a comment
Published in January 2001 issue of Prospect Magazine
I met clay in the basement of a smoky club in New York’s East Village. I had brought a bizarre multi-tonal guitar to play at one of the club’s weekly open-microphone sessions. After I finished, Clay asked me if he could borrow the instrument. I said, sure, assuming that he’d give up after a few tortured moments trying to navigate the tiny frets. But his hands moved gracefully and he began to play a gorgeous blues tune.
We spent the rest of the night talking and playing music together, next to a pile of beer bottles and a pool table. He looked about 21 years old and wore black. He said he had grown up in Canada, somewhere near Toronto. He had sex with lots of people, men and women. He loved the blues and he didn’t want to talk about his life before New York. He was keeping some stuff on the floor of a couple of friends’ apartments, but many nights he just looked for a sexual partner and stayed with him, her, or them.
I never figured out Clay’s whole life story and I never saw him again. But it seemed that he was following the path of thousands of men and women who have drifted to the big cities to fulfil their dreams and to escape home communities where the woman at the drugstore knows everybody’s name. Some become enraptured with the shadows of the city and stay there. Others go for a short trip. Still others do something in between, and look back either fondly or regretfully on their “youthful experiment.”
Most of us, at some point, long to be like Clay. We want to fulfil our desires, be anonymous, make up a history if we have to, and wander in the bright lights and the musty corners. But we generally don’t. The bus trip’s too long; we’ve got a real life to live; other desires and goals are more important. Now, however, it’s easy to be like Clay. Many people are making up their own worlds, having sex with dozens of people, shifting identities every day. How? By going online. Men and women who never would have made it to New York have found their own digital cities. They’re replacing their real worlds, and the complex relationships which organised their lives, with the internet.