Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Books, Books, Books

I have been asked by a Facebook friend to respond to the following series of questions.

1) What author do you own the most books by?
Nelson Algren, whom I loved when I was younger but whose books have not aged well.

2) What book do you own the most copies of?
I have two copies each of two favorite books, paper and hard, including Caine's Book by Alexander Trocchi, and The Disenchanted, by Budd Schulberg. The paperbacks are for thumbing; the hard get taken down only on special occasions.

3) Did it bother you that both those questions ended with prepositions?
I teach undergraduate comp and have seen worse.

4) What fictional character are you secretly in love with?
None save my own when things go well.

5) What book have you read the most times in your life (excluding picture books read to children)?
Excluding drafts of my own work I would say Cain's Book, for the quality of prose.

6) What was your favorite book when you were ten years old?
Caps for Sale: a Tale of a Peddler, Some Monkeys, and Their Monkey Business, by Esphyr Slobodkina. My babysitters would read me this story of a peddler whose stock is taken hostage by a gang of m onkeys in a tree. It made a profound impression on me.

7) What is the worst book you've read in the past year?
The Road, Cormac McCarthy. It may have been more than a year ago, but my disgust lingers. McCarthy can write and I have loved some of his work, but if you ask me (you did, sort of) this is an egregiously simple-minded and even cartoony exercise in apocalyptic sentimentality served up in a prose style that all-too-perfectly suits it's subject: abominable.

8) What is the best book you've read in the past year?
I very much liked a book called My Friends by Emmanuel Bove. Alas, it and he have both been entirely forgotten.

9) If you could force everyone you tagged to read one book, what would it be?
I'd have to choose differently for each, wouldn't I?

10) Who deserves to win the next Nobel Prize for Literature?
I don't care.

11) What book would you most like to see made into a movie?
One that means little to me.

12) What book would you least like to see made into a movie?
One that means a great deal (but there's little fear of that).

13) Describe your weirdest dream involving a writer, book, or literary character.
I once dreamt that a manuscript of mine was returned via UPS. I opened it up expecting the usual letter of rejection. Instead I found my own submission letter stamped with the phrase "GREAT ENOUGH" in big red block letters. An accompanying note from an editor explained that though my novel was neither great nor poor, it was great enough, and had therefore been accepted for publication.

14) What is the most lowbrow book you've read as an adult?
I've tried without success to read James Patterson, Dan Brown, et al. I usually get only a few pages into such books before I have to stop. It's not just the poor writing, but the utter lack of logic and hamfisted sensationalism. I don't get why anyone reads them. I've read some popular books that weren't so bad but I don't remember what they were. I remember enjoying Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Not lowbrow, really, but very popular. It doesn't hold up.

15) What is the most difficult book you've ever read?
Finnegan's Wake--but I bailed after thirty pages.

16) What is the most obscure Shakespeare play you've seen?
I don't recall--it was too obscure.

17) Do you prefer the French or the Russians?
French. Those Russians talk too much. Though Dead Souls is hard to resist. And then there's Lolita, but that's an American novel with a French plot written by a former Russian.

18) Roth or Updike?
Updike—when he's good. Though Roth is never as bad as Updike when Updike is bad.

19) David Sedaris or Dave Eggers?
Neither, if you must know.

20) Shakespeare, Milton, or Chaucer?
Shakespeare.

21) Austen or Eliot?
Eliot.

22) What is the biggest or most embarrassing gap in your reading?
Gaps, plural. Parade's End, Ford Maddox Ford (I've read the first novel); Proust (ditto).

23) What is your favorite novel?
It's like choosing among children. Can't be done. Shouldn't be done.

24) Play?
A toss-up between Streetcar and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, but the latter mostly for sentimental reasons, since it was the work that turned me from painting to writing.

25) Poem?
The Observation Car, by A.E. Hope.

26) Essay?
Again, too many to choose from. But off the beaten path I'd go with How to Build a House, by Lawrence Durrell.

27) Short story?
A Distant Episode, Paul Bowles. I'm also very fond of Cheever's Goodbye, My Brother. All You Faceless Voyagers, Ivan Gold. These are pretty heavy tales. On a lighter note: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.

28) Work of nonfiction?
The question is so broad--how can the answer be narrow? I just threw a dart and it landed on Father & Son, by Edmund Gosse.

29) Who is your favorite writer?
Used to be Algren. Now I love so many good writers. Bellow I've liked consistently. I don't think he could write a bad sentence. But more obscure writers like Ivan Gold and John Fante interest me more.

30) Who is the most overrated writer alive today?
There are quite a few of these, several of whom live in Brooklyn. And that's all I've got to say about that.

31) What is your desert island book?
Cain's Book. A purposefully, aggressively bad novel in superb prose by a man in rebellion against ambition in all its forms.

32) And... what are you reading right now?
Beautiful Losers, by Leonard Cohen

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Publication Day

Three important events mark this date of April 15:

1. On this day 97 years ago, the Titanic struck an iceberg and sank, taking over 1200 souls with her.

2. Income taxes, in case you don't already know, are due.

3. My novel, Life Goes to the Movies, has been published.

The first two events are familiar to practically everyone. The third event—if you can call it that—will, I'm afraid, remain obscure to all but a handful of my friends.

This, I admit, is unfortunate—especially for me, since I spent nearly twenty years, off and on, working on the book. Yes, folks, twenty years—counting all the revisions, all the drafts, all the queries and submissions and rejections to and from agents, editors, contests, you name it. If between 1989 or so, when the novel was first drafted, and today there were places to which a novel might be sent, rest assured that it was sent there.

I will not back into the murky water's of my novel's history. If that interests you, there was a fine essay on that subject written (by me) a few years ago and published in Poets & Writers. Or write to me and I will send it to you, if you're so curious.

My subject here is a different one, and it is this: the very LOUD and ABSOLUTE silence that has greeted this event. For as someone once remarked: "Nothing is louder than the silence of a book being published." (The someone, too, happens to have been me.)

What people don't but should tell those who dream of writing novels is that, among other things, it is a waiting game. You wait for an idea, and then you wait to have the time to execute it, and then you wait for more ideas—for sentences, paragraphs, and pages to take shape (true, this is a more active kind of waiting that some people call thinking, but really it's more like waiting with a pencil or pen in—or keyboard at—hand). Then, when the work gets done, you wait for people to read it, and wait, and wait, and when they have read it you wait for their remarks, which may or may not come, and when and if they do come you realize that you must go back to work and wait for more ideas, brighter, better ones, hopefully, since the first ones weren't so bright after all, and then more waiting for more ideas, until at last the next draft is done and the next and then you send it out and then more waiting. You wait for the agents who wait for the editors who have hundreds of manuscripts to read (all, incidentally, as or more important than yours). And then, when at last they have gotten to your plucky little monument of paper, you wait for them to read, and when they've read, you wait eagerly, patiently, for the rejection notice that will in all likelihood follow.

But then, at last, and assuming you are very, very lucky and talented, at last, an editor takes the book, and then you wait for him or her to sell it to his or her bosses, which takes another forever and may not happen at all. But let us not draw things out unnecessarily here. Let us assume that all has gone perfectly well and that, voila, you have your book contract in hand. Then you wait to have your editor's feedback, and you wait to find the time to do ANOTHER draft, and then you wait for your editor to be satisfied, and then you wait as the manuscript sits in a pile somewhere collecting dust while waiting to be copy edited. And you wait and you wait.

Then come the copy editor's notes. And you make another round of corrections. And then you wait for the galleys. And then the galleys come and you make MORE corrections. And then you wait for the corrected galleys. And then you wait for the cover. And you wait for the authors to whom you have written begging for blurbs to respond. And if and when they respond and say yes then you send them the book and then you wait for the blurb, and wait and wait. And finally you have all or enough of your blurbs and you write the jacket copy and then you wait some more. And so now, you ask yourself, what are you waiting for? For the DATE OF PUBLICATION.

And then the DATE OF PUBLICATION (which may or may not fall on the day the Titanic sank and taxes are due) finally arrives.

And you wait. And you wait. And nothing happens.

Nothing.

But—however—if you sit quietly and listen very, very hard, you may just hear it. Hear it? That sound. Do you hear it? Listen. Beyond the birds singing in the trees (if you live where there are trees and birds), and the rush of traffic on the highway (if you happen to live near a highway), and the clatter of freight cars on the train tracks (if you live by a railroad): do you hear it? Yes? No? Listen . . . Listen . . .

Hear it?

That, my good friends, is the sound of my book being published.

Friday, April 10, 2009

The Virgin of Crete

From an old notebook, Chania, Crete, May, 1996:

"Talk will save us."—Bitsy

"Bitsy"—that's the name she went by. A professor of English and history on leave from a U.S. Navy supply ship at port in Sondra. We'd been together less than an hour when I said, "Look, we're not going to get married. We're not even going to have an affair. We won't have sex, and most likely we'll never see each other again. So we can at least be totally honest with each other. Which may prove more interesting than all of the above."

And so we did it, we were completely honest, well, up to a point.

Until I got to know her better, I could have sworn that I had met a woman so virginal she made Doris Day look like Marilyn Chambers. She confessed to me—her first and biggest confession— that at twenty eight she was still a virgin. Then she went on to explain why she talked so much, which she did: an endless stream of banter and chatter, of rapid-fire puns and quips delivered with the relentlessly desperate zeal of a stand-up comic playing a dead crowd. Hyperverbal, and smart as all get up especially when it came to her principal subjects (Raoul Dahl and Faulkner her favorite authors).

She liked to season her talk with nautical jargon, none of which I can remember beyond "bilge" and "stow." I distinctly recall her using the word "loppertyjawed" to describe the crooked style in which the Toonerville Trolley was drawn. According to her, her Kentucky home life was a mix of "To Kill a Mockingbird" (with dad as Atticus Finch) and "Little House on the Prairie," but with a mother who quoted Keats and Eliot and dad taking her to watch the May Day parade, shaking every hand that passed by, and no hobbies or talents, none. "Shaking hands with everyone—that was dad's hobby."

But also art songs, opera, American musicals, the Navy, ships, torpedoes, Kentucky, and sex. At last we got around to discussing that. An interesting discourse, with Doris Day and me sitting on the dark quayside with a crescent moon peeking down at us through spongy appliqué clouds, and a rock 'n' roll band throbbing away behind the Naval museum, the green phallic lighthouse flashing its ("pulsating, hot") red light across the dark wet harbor. I wore my white linen shirt and freshly laundered blue Dockers and felt I looked quite handsome, with my deep suntan and brushed back hair. She wore dark glasses that made her look her age, almost, and not eighteen. A plain, healthy, American face, destined, I thought, to improve with age. She told me I looked like Maxmilian Schell.

It was funny how, when we finally got around to the subject, she relaxed, became more sincere, spoke more slowly, stopped quipping and punning. It was a good, honest talk. She said she wanted to save her virginity--if not for the perfect man, at least for one who might be worth marrying. Meanwhile, she told me, she contented herself with orgasms in storage rooms and under blankets ("You men can't get away with that!"). As for her fellow Navy boys, they would either use the shower stalls or "have themselves a sock date."

"What's a sock date?"

"A date with a sock."

"Oh."

The subject having turned to masturbation, we spoke of our preferences, our favorite strangest places (her: "aircraft carrier supply room," I: "a moss-lined craggy split in a rock in the woods behind my childhood home"). Then on to more elaborate topics, like the smells of both sexes (men: Clorox and mushrooms; women: vinegar and chips). Bitsy even brought up the caloric count of semen: three calories per teaspoon. ("Happy dieting!")

And then I walked her home, but not before remarking the literary symbolism of our lighthouse companion ("pulsing its red hot light," "green with envy," "hard and silent in its lonely vigil"). The last bus back to the Navy port left at one a.m.; it was only a quarter past eleven. But I was tired, eager to return to my lodging, to get showered, do some writing, jerk off and go to sleep. One the way to the bus stop we encountered a gang of her shipmates seated at a cafe. They eyed me suspiciously, as a father eyes the first boy to date his sixteen year old. We walked right past them. "Let's give them something to talk about," said Bitsy. Then I left her at the stop, saying, "Will you be all right here?" Foolishly, since she had the whole U.S. Navy looking after her.

I said we were completely honest "up to the point." The point was when I left her with a phony name and address. To this day I'm not sure why I did it, and to this day I regret it.

Sorry Bitsy, wherever you are.

The Ship That Keeps on Sinking

In the mid 1990’s, Franklin, my therapist, suggested that I do a self-portrait of myself as a naked child. The assignment was designed to liberate an innocent, joyful, spontaneous spirit from the anxious, striving, and self-conscious man I had, by age thirty-eight, unfortunately, become.

Like eating vegetables, meditating, and all things meant to do me good, I resisted the exercise. I didn’t want to paint myself as a child. I pictured those cloying, doe-eyed paintings of children that decorated the waiting room of my pediatrician’s office. Every week my therapist would ask, “Have you done the painting yet?” Finally, he stopped asking.

Around the same time, while in Philadelphia on business, I wandered into an antique shop and saw a reverse painting on glass of the sinking Titanic. As a child I’d always been fascinated by ships, and especially by ocean liners, a fascination ignited by my first visit to New York City with my papa when I was five years old, and I saw a group of them, the Queen Mary, the France, the United States, lined up and looking, with their vanilla superstructures and red-cherry funnels, like gargantuan banana splits in their berths.

Around the same time I first saw, on the boxy wooden Magnavox in our living room, the film version of A Night to Remember, Walter Lord’s minute-by-minute account of the sinking of the Titanic. The vision of the liner’s counter stern rising out of the water, looming with its lights still ablaze against a starry sky, made an indelible impression on me; possibly my first experience of awe. On the brown shopping-bag covers of my school textbooks, and in my loose-leaf notebooks, I sketched the sinking Titanic over and over again, as if somehow by sketching it I could bring the events of that incredible night up close and make them personal. And though I included in my sketches tiny bodies plunging into the water, I never thought about those people, I never considered their horror; I never concerned myself with the human tragedy. I only thought about the ship, about funnels and propellers and portholes and that looming, massive hull. The first long paper I ever wrote for a school assignment was about the Titanic, complete with a cutaway illustration of the ship—its details completely improvised, down to the wallpaper on the cabin walls.

The painting in the antique shop was about four-feet wide and a foot and a half tall, with a cheap gold-painted plaster frame. My then-wife and I had just bought our first apartment on the Upper West Side. The apartment featured a sunken living room with a dining alcove above it. We painted one wall of the alcove bright red, and docked our most extravagant and expensive furniture item there: a 1920’s maple English bar unit, with a hinged top that opened to a Busby-Berkley display of blinding light and mirrors etched with droll cocktail shakers and martini glasses. The painting, I thought, would look splendid over it. It was not a realistic depiction. All the details were somehow, spectacularly wrong. The funnels were much too tall and wide, the iceberg a monumental exaggeration, the colors impossible. It was a child’s dream of the Titanic sinking, a work of unfettered naiveté. It reminded me of the sketches I had done in grade school. The antiques dealer wanted $800 for it, too rich by far for my blood, so I let it go.

But the painting wouldn’t let me go. It haunted me, as a matter of fact, so much that tried recreating it from memory. The result fell well short of my aims. So I tried again, and again. Rather than attempt any form of realism, I aimed for what I had seen in the reverse painting: a child’s interpretation of the disaster, with everything somehow perfectly, inevitably, sublimely wrong. Soon, like Monet with his lily pads, Degas with his ballerinas, Morandi with his dusty brown bottles, I’d found not only my perfect subject, but a perfect style to go with it. I was a naive artist.

There followed some 75 paintings of the Titanic. They lined the walls of our Upper West Side apartment (with its appropriate sunken living room), in both sinking and non-sinking poses.
One day I brought one of the paintings to my therapist.

“Congratulations,” he said.

I had done the assignment.

* * *

The sinking of the Titanic has obsessed generations. It is the Belle Epoque’s answer to Noah’s Ark. As legends go, it looms as large. It has all the necessary elements: a drama of disaster unfolding upon a world stage. As with Noah and his ark, it is a tragedy where a select few prevail, while the rest are doomed. And while the story of the Titanic may not take in the entire globe, it takes in quite a big chunk of humanity: rich, poor, heroic, cowardly. The ship’s passenger list represented almost as many specimens of humanity as the beasts aboard Noah’s vessel stood for all species. Indeed, had the Titanic story never happened, sooner or later someone would have had to invent it.


In fact someone did. In 1898, fourteen years before the Titanic went down, a struggling author of seafaring tales named Morgan Robertson penned a novel about a magnificent liner’s fateful encounter with an iceberg in the north Atlantic on a freezing cold April night. As Walter Lord describes it in his chilling forward to what remains by far and away the best book about the Titanic disaster (one that treats the events of that night cubistically, like a still life by Braque or Juan Gris):

The real ship was 882.5 feet long; [Robertson’s] fictional one was 800 feet. Both vessels were triple screw and could make 24-25 knots. Both could carry 3,000 people, and both had enough lifeboats for only a fraction of this number. But then this didn’t seem to matter, because both were labeled “unsinkable.”

On April 10, 1912, the real ship left Southampton on her maiden voyage to New York. Her cargo included a priceless copy of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam and a list of passengers collectively worth $250 million dollars. On her way she too struck and iceberg and went down on a cold April night.

Robertson called his ship the Titan; the White Star Line called its ship the Titanic. This is the story of her last night.

The title of Robertson’s novel was Futility, and as Lord points out it was meant to underscore the folly of all human attempts to rise above their limits and rival their gods.

Having finished seventy-five Titanic paintings, I decided to hold a salon. We did it in our apartment. My wife made period hors d’oeuvres to go with the champagne. I hung a trumped up Titanic life preserver (the real ones didn’t say her name) on the apartment door, and hired a solo cellist to play ragtime and Nearer My God to Thee. The event took place on a Saturday. Over a hundred people stopped by throughout the day, coming from as far as Vermont, Washington D.C., and Georgia.

Only one guest disappointed us by not being able to come, a man who lived across town, but who, because of an infirmity, responded with regrets to my faxed invitation. However—his typed letter went on to say—if I gave him a rain check he would do his best to come some other time.

Two Sundays later, in a wheelchair pushed by his attendant, Walter Lord arrived, trembling with Parkinson’s disease, but alert and eager for my offerings. Tea and crumpets were served. One by one as he sat at the dining room table, I took the paintings down from the walls and showed them to him, and he nodded his approval. When I asked him to explain his own obsession with the Titanic, Mr. Lord gave this quite simple answer, “Well,” he said, as if it were perfectly obvious, “if there’s anything better than a great ship, it’s a great ship that sinks!”

* * *

But Mr. Lord (who died in 2002) and I were far from alone. Few are not drawn to the story of the Titanic. The salient feature of all legends and myths is that they need to have happened. Something in our collective unconscious yearns for them. What reality can’t or won’t provide, we concoct (“The Abominable Snowman.” “Elvis lives!”). Even when, as with the story of the Titanic, reality is generous to a fault, providing us with as much awe and horror as we could wish for, still, we feel the need to enlarge, embellish, and to otherwise augment her best efforts.

People need disasters; we need tragedy; we need horror. But we need to enshrine—to protect and preserve and contain—it in myth, like a lion in its cage, where it can fascinate yet do us no harm. The world is a dangerous and often grim place, life itself a treacherous and tragic enterprise, with doom our ultimate destination and no possibility of escape.

We are all passengers on the Titanic.

Hence, despite all attempts by oceanographers and historians including Walter Lord to put to rest any lingering doubts as to what, exactly, happened on that cold April night—thus sinking all Titanic myths once and for all—still, the ship, along with her precious cargo of legend and lore, keeps bobbing up again and refuses to stay sunken. The reason is simple enough: the supply of facts may be limitless, but the imagination knows no limits.

Children are especially susceptible. One day as I was walking through Grand Central Terminal, bringing one of my seventy-five paintings to a downtown gallery, a little girl walking with her dad caught what must have been a very brief glimpse of the canvas. She cried, “Daddy, daddy—the Titanic!”

She couldn’t have been more than four years old. Yet she knew.

She knew.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

After the Planet Uranus

She was a good-looking woman, though I didn't appreciate it at the time. Greek. Ourania, her name. After the planet Uranus, third largest and seventh from the sun. Pronounced: ooh-ray-née-yah. Small, dark, petite. She came into the snack bar of the state college in Connecticut where I was an undergraduate. I had transferred out of two other schools. This was my third, and, I swore, would be my last. At twenty-three I was older than most of my fellow undergrads, a dubious distinction that I wore as a kind of ragged badge, thinking of myself as having been "out there in the real world." Thinking of myself as worldly, jaded.

Everything about her was oval. Her eyes, her cheeks, her lip, the overall shape of her head. She looked like a collection of eggs from all different kinds of birds. I was sitting there, alone at one of the big tables in the snack bar, plucking the Spanish guitar that someone had given me in exchange for an art school drawing. She introduced herself.

"I think we should get to know each other," she said.

I said, "What for?"

She drove an oval car, an Anerican Motors Pacer. It looked like an egg on wheels, like something hatched rather than built. Ourania's egg-like quality should have made her seem cute to me, since eggs are cute. But it only made her that much more ridiculous (eggs are also ridiculous). In her giant red egg she pulled up my driveway the afternoon after we first met. I remember thinking, God, here we go.

It was winter. There were still a few inches of snow left on the ground from a storm a few days before. My parents were away, gone off on a rare trip together somewhere in Mexico. My twin brother was away at Drew in New Jersey—or was it Duke in North Carolina? I never could get George's colleges straight. But then I never got anything straight back in those days.

It was strange having that big house all to myself. The day before the storm I had been sitting alone in the living room when I heard a strange scratching sound coming from the fireplace that we never used. Squirrels were known to get trapped in there. I figured it must be a squirrel, and jiggled the flue. With a feathery flop something brown fell to the fireplace floor, then took off and sailed across the room, straight into the far wall, where it fell to the floor again. It picked itself up and flew on into the dining room, where I found it perched on the china hutch: an owl. For the next two days that screech owl was my constant companion. I sat there with guitar serenading it, and it sat up there staring at me with those two yellow eyes, so big they all bit filled the creature’s face. We didn’t let each other out of sight. Finally, having failed to get it to eat raw hamburger, I caught it and threw it outdoors and watched it fly away.

Though the house was empty, and we would have been more comfortable there, Ourania, who had grown up on a barren island in the Cyclades, insisted that we go into the woods. We carried a blanket and a thermos of hot tea, our boots crunching through snow and cracking twigs. I remember, as we walked carrying a blanket and a bottle of wine, seeing through the thin layer of snow the broken remnants of childhood toys my brother and I had played with, shards of green plastic tanks and other war-game gear, a plastic helmet, a plastic hand-grenade. The woods hadn't changed. Only the games were different. Make love, not war. We climbed higher to a grassy clearing and stretched the blanket over the snow.

A few days later she found me in the snack bar again. "I want you to know that I'm leaving my husband," she said. I hadn't even known she was married, or maybe I'd forgotten. I said, "Why tell me?"

She said, "I thought you'd want to know, that's all."

Through the whole rest of that semester she kept after me. I made it clear I wasn't interested, that we'd had a fling and that was that. She wouldn't give up. I tried being reasonable, I tried being rude. I even laughed at her. Nothing I did or said could dissuade her. Finally, when the semester ended, I moved back to New York City, and figured that would end it.

It didn't. She kept after me. Letters and phone calls. I finally said to her, "What is wrong with you?" But the letters kept coming, so did the calls. I'd hang up on her; she'd call back. I had to change my phone number, it got so bad.

I started out knowing why I was telling this story and now I've forgotten.

I'd been in New York for about six months, struggling with my friend Mark Borax to make it as a musician, playing gigs in seedy, empty dives, living in a ratty tenement over the Holland Tunnel, where the grease fumes from the coffee shop downstairs saturated the air in our bedrooms, and the noise and flashing lights from the tunnel obliterated sleep. Gruesome times, these were. To pay the rent we worked in a Xerox shop, sucking toner fumes and dealing with angry customers who complained when their copies weren't straight. One day, home from work, as I climbed the tenement's twisty staircase, I twisted my ankle. The next day I couldn't get to work and so the boss fired me. I found myself unemployed and desperate.

Then a letter from Ourania came. She was living in New York, working as a typographer at a midtown advertising agency. "I hire freelancers," she wrote. She could pay up to $35 dollars an hour. Good money back then. "If you like," she wrote, "I can teach you."

What choice did I have? I wrote her back right away and said I was willing. She told me to meet her at the agency the following Saturday morning. We spent the day there, alone in the empty ad agency, with me learning typesetting code. Afterward we had dinner together, her treat. When I asked her why she was being so nice to me, she said, "Because I like you."

A few weeks later, when I'd learned to set type and was freelancing regularly at her agency while still living in that smelly, noisy hole over the Holland Tunnel, Ourania asked me if I would like to move in with her. I didn't hesitate. I said yes. By then, I was so grateful to her for having bailed me out of my crashing life, I would have agreed to almost anything she wanted of me. Who was I, after all, to turn down her hospitality—I who had made such a botch of my own existence, and who owed my sustenance to her?

So I broke my lease, packed up my things, and went to Astoria, where she lived near the second to last stop on the R elevated line, in a neighborhood of low, ugly, flat-roofed buildings sprinkled with Greek cafes. These days Astoria has some panache, but back then it was a dreary nowhere land. Even the fruits and vegetables on display at the corner grocery stands looked unhappy. The railway bridge, which soared over the neighborhood on massive, stone, Roman aqueduct pylons, cast its shadow over a park where children and adults played, and which, though green and full of trees, oppressed me no less than everything else in the vicinity. It was as if George Seurat's La Grande Jatte had been piled onto a barge and tugged to Hell.

As for Ourania's apartment that we lived in, about it I remember as little as possible, beyond its being a one-bedroom over a garage. In its modest dining alcove Ourania had installed a massive oak dining table meant to seat twelve, with the ludicrous result that on could not move around the goddamn thing; you had to get up and push all the chairs against the wall, and even then it was hard to circumnavigate. We had our first fight over and about that table when I suggested, insisted, that she remove a leaf or two. But no: she wished to impart the illusion that we entertained guests in great numbers and high style—to whom I cannot say, since we never had any guests, ever. Furthermore, and like everything else in the apartment, the dining table was covered with a thick polyurethane sheet; I assume it was polyurethane, or polystyrene, or some other substance with a hideous chemical pedigree. Sofa, chairs, pillows—everything but the coffee table was swathed in this substance that might have been used to manufacture body bags. The effect was to make the apartment's already funereal cheap reproduction Louis XIV furnishings look embalmed. In fact a smell of formaldehyde did indeed linger throughout the apartment's three rooms. This may have been from the fixative that I used to spray the pastel drawings I had started to make around then, or it may have been the solvent Ourania used to dissolve the hideous scarlet nail polish she wore, or her hairspray, or it may have been the polyurethane coverings. Whatever it was had a high ether content. It's odor permeated every sip of beverage or bite of food I took in that place.

We did a lot of fighting in that apartment. Oh, we fought like dogs. Worse, like cats we fought. Though she was quite little, with fists small enough for me to wrap mine around, still, she could pack quite a punch. I would wake up the next day with bruises and welts all over my arms and chest. She threw things, too. Along with the cheap Louis XIV furniture, the apartment bristled with cheesy ornate vases and other decorative objects of glass. These were what Ourania threw when she got angry, to where I wondered was that what she'd bought them for in the first place?

To get away from her vases and our fights, I'd take my pastels and sketchpad out into the streets of Astoria and sketch the bums living in our neighborhood. There was a group of them living in an abandoned playground nearby, that did nothing but pass around bottles of hootch in brown paper bags. I still remember their names: Jimmy, Red, Tex. They sat around there day after day, sucking from what appeared to be the same wrinkled bag. Their clothes, their gestures, the way they talked, suggested another era, as if they had been beamed into that apocalyptic landscape from 1932, brown bag and all. I found them amusing, but mostly because I dreaded going home. I dreaded the fights, sure, but I also dreaded the lovemaking that followed them just as surely as mushrooms follow a spring rain, and which was the only way out of those fights: a lovemaking that, for me, felt as obligatory as emptying the trash, or hauling ashes from a furnace. I got to hating our lovemaking as much as I hated the fighting that gave way to it. And if all that wasn't enough to not look forward to, I hated her cooking, too. Though her father was a professional cook, Ourania had apparently inherited none of his gift. She would bake spaghetti in the oven, as Greeks apparently do, but she would either burn the stuff or drown it in grease. Whatever she put in the oven she burned. I'd come home to thick acrid clouds and charred meat, and have to sit at that miserable dining room table chiseling my way through dinner like some famished Michelangelo. If I offered to cook myself, Ourania would burst into tears, equating my offer with her failure, one of her many failures, including her failure to get me to love her.

Oh, I tried, I really did. I wanted to love Ourania. I felt that she deserved my love, that she had earned it, and that I owed it to her. And yet—one doesn't have a choice in these matters, really. The heart does its own choosing, its own tabulations. Love may be blind, but no one ever said it was fair or just. But I did try. I swear I did. I tried especially because, never having lived before with a woman, I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it and do it right. I had this image of domestic bliss, of slippered feet on the hassock and martinis before supper, and of spontaneous lovemaking between sections of the Sunday Times. Compared with the sort of life that I had been living, of gritty floors and tuna out of cans and the sounds and lights of the Holland Tunnel infesting my dreams, living with Ourania had to be an improvement. And I had wanted it to work. I had wanted to prove to myself that I could be domesticated, and that I could create in partnership with a woman an atmosphere of comfort and support, a place of safety and warmth and stability, what my mother and father, who'd fought viciously throughout my childhood, had failed to create for me. I wanted to prove to myself that I could do better, that I was not biologically determined to repeat their failure, their misery.

One muggy summer evening, Ourania having turned the lamb shishkebabs into charcoal briquettes, at my suggestion that we go out to eat, she grabbed the knife from the counter and, still holding the serving plate of ruined lamb, threatened to disembowel herself. I stood there, not knowing what to do or say, wondering if this was some sort of joke. But her tears were real, and the knife shook with alarming vigor and authenticity in her grip. “Calm down, calm down,” I said, and, having disarmed her, eased her out of the smoky kitchen and into the bedroom, where we sat side by side on the polyurethaned bed, and where we we made love, our sweaty bodies sticking to the stiff plastic.

Things only got worse after that. Our fights spread out of that small apartment and into the streets of Astoria and beyond. We fought in the streets; we fought on the subway. Something about screaming at each other that way in public exhilarated both of us. There's the sense of power that comes, in part at least, from gathering in the frightened responses of bystanders. People are afraid of screaming couples, with good reason. The level of murderous rage evoked by their screams is high enough to scare off the most seasoned gang members and hardened criminals. Types you would normally cross the street to avoid, gold-chain bearing thugs with barrel-sized arms bulging from T-shirt sleeves would back out of our way, the looks on their scarred faces saying, "No way am I messing with that." It gave us a power we otherwise lacked: at our jobs, among acquaintances, over our own lives. Where fighting alone with each other at home just made us feel sad and desperate, having it out in broad daylight made us formidable, turned us into a blend of street performers and terrorists. It got to where fighting at home just didn't do it for us anymore; our hearts weren't in it. We had to take it into the streets; we needed the R train; we needed witnesses. From Vernon-Jackson to Newtown and 29th; from Queens Plaza to Hunter's Point, from 23rd and Ely to Ditmars we'd scream, our enraged voices tangled up among the R train's elevated girders.

It ended when she caught me seeing another woman, a cartoonist that I'd met and who lived in an apartment building on the other side of Ditmar's Boulevard. It was not a significant affair, yet it provided me with some respite, with a little nook of comfort in a life that otherwise seemed to consist of nothing but sharp corners and razor blades. I thought O. would murder me. Instead she packed up and moved out, leaving me there alone among those plasticized furnishings and walls ingrained with the smells of charred meat. She even left me the kitten that we had rescued from the pound, and that we had hoped, naively, would bring some calm into our lives. I waited for her to return for her furniture, but she never did, and when, a month or two later, I left that apartment, I left all her things there with it.

That's it. There's nothing more. I never saw her again. Having reached the end of this story, I still find myself wondering why I have told it. Maybe someone out there will tell me.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

How the Vest was Won


"The king hath yesterday declared his revolution of setting a fashion for clothes which he will never alter. It will be a vest. I know not well how, but it is to teach nobility thrift and it will do good."--Pepys in his diary


The king was Charles II, the year 1662. Thus what began life as a cassock in the mid 1400's and evolved into a doublet by the first half of the 16th century underwent its final transformation to become a small, sleeveless jacket shorter in length and open in the front, providing ample opportunity for men of the period to show off their frilly shirts. The vest was born.

Others were less enthusiastic than Mr. Pepys. In his own diary of 1666 John Evelyn records how when the King "put himself solemnly into the Eastern fashion of the vest...divers courtiers and gentlemen gave his Majesty gold to wager that he would not persist in this revolution."

They should have kept their purses shut. For though the history of men's fashion is replete with styles that have come and gone (stove-pipe hats, spats, leisure suits), vests endure, and have for over four-hundred years, longer than neckties and collars.

A waistcoat, a "coat of the waist." Who needs a coat for the waist? No arms, no legs, no collar. A square yard of fabric--hardly enough to keep warm in. You can't tuck your pants or shirt into it. And those silly little pockets good only for pocket watches and snuff boxes, things no one uses anymore.

What good is a vest? You may as well ask what good are peacock feathers? Vests are made for showing off. Poor hairless and featherless man, his rubbery flesh available in but a few dull colors, his choice of suits even duller. And the necktie--that skinny, skimpy concession to individuality. A man needs more. Like the peacock he needs to strut his stuff, to show his true colors. Hence the vest!

It was another king, King George IV, who initiated the fashion of leaving the bottom button undone. He did so by accident, having forgotten to button it before attending a party in his honor. His friend, fashion arbiter Beau Brummel, quickly, so to speak, followed suit. The habit persisted.

As did vests, growing more functional in the 1800's, made of lush fabrics depicting everything from hunting scenes to naval engagements, their mysterious myriad pockets hiding everything from love letters to pearl-handled derringers.

There followed the age of the fop, whose extraordinarily expensive vests featured buttons of perfumed wood or mother-of-pearl, and floral fabrics which, according to Constantin and his Almanac des Belles Maniers, could "be seen from one end of the street to the other." Admired or loathed, the wearers of such vests were impossible to ignore.

Over time the brilliant expensive fabrics were replaced by plainer stuff, velvets and silks of rich but solid color, cypress greens and heady violets. In the late 1800's they came in paisleys, plaids, and checks, and these in turn were followed by still more sober fabrics, until vests grew as plain as the clothes worn over them, giving rise to the three-piece suit.

Today vests once again trumpet their rich fabrics, and so they should. For unlike a suit, the best is no starched-down disciplinarian, no buttoned-down banker, no stiff-collared preacher, but a colorful orator whose locutions are as inspiring as they are manipulative: the Elmer Gantry of garments.

But a vest is more than a manipulator. It's a seducer, a set of signals as subtle as whispers or as obvious as flashing ambulance lights.

Note the geometry of the vest, a series of V-shapes or chevrons aimed downward, indicating a man's belly as the way not only to his heart but to his other desires, the focal point of his libidinal urges, his masculine center of gravity. Sexual attraction may start with the eyes, but from there it heads south. Indeed, the "humble" vest, with its trail of buttons and V-shapes pointing to the groin, may fill a more vital need than any other garment in the male closet, namely that of procreation.

As a boy I instinctively felt the power of vests, out of fashion when I came of age in the early 70's and available in stores only as a dull component of duller suits. Inspired by a TV show called The Wild, Wild West whose James Bond-style hero wore tight ones of dazzling brocades, I had my mom sew me one. With a tight brocade vest, I, too, would beat up dozens of bad-guys at once, including Bobby Mullis, who went to St. Mary's and used to persecute me at the bus stop.

Off we went, my mother and I, to the fabric store, where like prospectors sifting for gold we sifted through bins and racks of elaborate brocades to emerge with one yard of the most expensive fabric in the store, along with six buttons no less ornate and costly. An hour later I stood watching from behind as mom stooped over her Singer, making sure she curved the lapels just right.

Two days later, at the bus stop, wearing my vest, when Bobby Mullins shoved me I shoved back. We exchanged blows. His broken nose spattered its blood across my gold vest. I left the stains there. Blood and gold.

Years later, when I worked as a caricature artist at parties, I wore dazzling vests that I designed myself. I needed to keep my drawing arm free and unencumbered by any sleeve. But that was just an excuse. It was the peacock, not the artist, who needed his vest. I had my tailor make me a dozen, each more showy than the last. Two years later I outgrew them all, my chest broadened from swimming laps.

Today I seldom wear vests, mostly because I never see any that I like. The referees of fashion can't seem to get it right. Vests shouldn't be loose-fitting or boxy. They should slim the wearer by emphasizing the V-shape of his torso, and should never come down to the thigh lest they resemble the doublets of yore. The buttons should be small, and thus avoid looking like coals on a snowman. A vest should have lapels; without them they look flimsy. As for the fabric, if it doesn't call any attention to itself what's the point? Not a moose-call, or a peacock dance, but more than a stage-whisper. The same fabric should be used front and back, black satin backs being a concession to cheapskates aware that backs wear faster than fronts, but since vests these days are worn often without jackets, they should look good from all directions. Finally, vests should never be made of recycled neckties, washable paper, or canceled American Express cards.

And remember: leave the bottom button undone. Who are we to argue with kings?