WASHINGTON -- The problem with census data is there's never space for a longer answer to the question. (Yes, I live like this but I didn't plan to. See, here's what happened ... )
This week's newsy trickle across the national spreadsheet reveals, among other things, that more Americans than ever live alone. Twenty-seven million people, give or take. That's a lot of air guitar being played in private. That's a lot of bowls of cereal eaten over the sink around 1 in the morning. That's quite a few people who lost the love of their life, which meant they sold the house they thought was too big for just one person, and moved into a condo.
People who live alone now account for one-fourth of the grown-up population, outnumbering married couples with children for the first time. What's the real story here? Florida widows? Bridget Jones cliches? Toxic bachelors? Toxic gay bachelors? Sitcom neighbors who always live in the unit across the hall?
The census should be more like a nagging mother, or the husband of your best friend, or anyone who needs to know why you still live alone. If you checked off "single-person household," it seems like census workers should have rung your doorbell by now, brandishing clipboards, seeking amplified data: "But are you seeing anybody?"
Also, here is the median age of the entire population: 35.5.
After 35.5, you start to wonder if living alone wasn't too addictive in the end, and now you're physically unable to live with anyone else. Your college roommates are like ghosts now, you can't even remember what they looked like in their underwear. There are the former group house members who fell off your Christmas card list years ago. During happy hour, you pretend this is more sad to you than it actually is.
It takes a long time to realize that no one is watching the imaginary television show about you -- except for you. You're about 35.5 years old when you at long last come to this understanding.
Until then, living alone is exciting. The fourth wall of your apartment or house doesn't exist because that's where the studio audience is sitting and belly-laughing at all your zany day-to-day antics. Quick-witted neighbors drift in and out; if the ratings stumble, you move to another coast, and get new neighbors.
Thirty-five, lives alone ... . If the United States were an actual person, then everyone would be slightly suspicious of her, or him. Thirty-five and lives alone? Hmmm.
Woe to the solo: Wicked queens live alone in castles, waiting to eat children. Pedophiles, Unabombers, civics teachers, the fat and unloved.
But these are cheap jokes. Living alone is also joy. No one is pandering to your vote; most discussions of tax cuts and standardized testing in schools transpire without having to involve you. The prime-time television choices have never been so good, the late-night channel surfing even better.
Everything you ever suspected about the secret pleasures of living by yourself -- it's all true. The whole ugly mess.
Vanity Fair comes wrapped in cellophane around the 15th of the month, and you open it, and you read it. You can paint pictures and then paint over them. Nobody knows. You can leave a milk glass on the coffee table for, really, days. You can sleep diagonally, curled up to your favorite pillow. You can rent videos you shouldn't rent. You can also go another route and pray the rosary. You buy the kind of coffee that you like. No one cares. You live alone.
You shut the door and you're home, with yourself, and still the world seems terribly interesting.
May I present Mr. Franz Kafka, ladies and gentlemen:
"You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait. Do not even wait, be quite still and ordinary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked. It has no choice; it will roll in ecstasy at your feet."
When you live alone, you can rip paragraphs like that out of newspapers and affix them to your refrigerator, with a Jan Brady magnet. There is no household discussion of the appropriateness of the quote, or of Jan Brady, or whether visitors to the kitchen will think it's weird to have that on your refrigerator.
What's not on your refrigerator: Other people's soccer league schedules, other people's emergency numbers. When you live alone, this kind of stuff is in your head, or in the little book or electronic device you carry around with you. It's a clean life.
It's clean unless you die, alone, and then maybe it's a mess.
Fingernail clippings. Curly hairs on the rim of the tub. The certainty that these belong only to you.
The census workers should be taking notes on this.
Of course then they would never finish the census.
The people who live alone have entirely too much to say about why they live like this, how great it is, and also how empty it is. They would invite the census worker in and when they opened the refrigerator door to get the census worker a cool drink, there would either be too many choices or not enough: There would be eight kinds of beer, or there would be nothing but a swallow and a half of sour 2-percent. Twenty-seven million Americans: waiting for a knock on the door, or knowing enough to ignore it.
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