Wednesday, October 13, 2010

How to Buy Hat Factory Painting

Bare walls give me the creeps. I'm always distressed and frankly a bit amazed especially in the homes of well-off people, homes equipped with the best appliances, expensive furniture, and two-hundred dollar faucets, when people either have nothing at all on the walls, or some very expensive signed stupid lithograph by a famous artist for which you know they paid way too much money at some gallery. These are the same people whose book shelves, if they have any at all, are lined with first edition hardcovers of worthless airport novels, still in their pristine dust jackets as if barely read or not read at all: in fact, one gets the sneaky feeling they bought them simply to adorn the shelves (in which case one wonders at the mentality that would do so, say, with novels by James Patterson and Jackie Collins rather than by Tolstoy or Proust).

But never mind; this post is about paintings, not books, and about the bare walls that should be under them. Bare walls disgust me. Every naked space on a wall is space that could be taken up by a piece of art, and not just some prefab kitsch like those horrible wide-angle framed photos of island beaches at sunset with corporate bromides typeset an small-caps with very wide kerning, a sure sign that whoever inhabits the place is a dyed-in-the-wool, card-carrying philistine. Nor do I mean commercial posters whose frame jobs cost twenty times more than the artwork they contain. Nor do I mean signed lithographs, silk-screens, or other expensive reproductions of Calders or Picassos or Dalis or any of the dead fat-cat artists on whose corpses the commercial fine art world continues to gorge itself, or try.

I mean the works of living and struggling artists who are not famous yet but trying mightily to be, or maybe they aren't trying at all, maybe they simply paint for the joy of painting. There are many of them, and their paintings belong on people's walls.

Why, when it comes to fine art, are so many otherwise intelligent people so willfully ignorant? It's not merely that they don't appreciate good art, it's that they don't even try, ever. They know less, most of them, about art than they do about the engines under the hoods of their cars. They think it's too complicated, elitist, an enterprise for snobs. They don't seem to get that a piece of art, a painting, a good painting, it very simply something done by an artist. Among all the living artists they are entirely free to choose those works that appeal to them: nothing wrong with that. They need not fear the scorn of critics who may not approve their choices. However, they deserve to be scorned when, rather than make any effort to live with genuine art, they put overpriced insincere bragging-point crap selected by experts on their walls, or worse, nothing at all.

How do you go about buying real art, then? Genuine art that isn't overpriced or otherwise out of reach? Let me show you how simple it can be.

A few weeks ago I happened to read in a back issue of a literary journal that had been left behind on a shelf in the office I've inherited with my new job a short story by a woman named Jennifer Moses. I enjoyed the story very much, though it is not the point here. In the back of the journal were biographical note on the authors, each of them accompanied by a small, personal photograph. In place a a photograph of Jennifer or her family, I found one of a painting. For Jennifer, it turned out, is a writer and painter.

Now, two things struck me about this painting. First, it was done in a naive style. Naive art, for those who may not know, is art that either purposefully or by accident dispenses with the "rules" of perspective, light, proportion, composition, scale, and so on. Rousseau was a naive artist, but there have been many. I myself am a naive, and proud of it. In fact I felt as if this painting could have been done by me, which, I guess, is a rather narcissistic reason for my liking it, but then why would I paint my paintings not to like them?

The second extraordinary thing about this painting is that it was a painting of a hat factory. And hat factories, as you may know, are central to the novel I have been working on.

So I checked the artist's website, and sure enough she had done many lovely paintings, but only this one of a hat factory. So I emailed her and asked: is it for sale? Mind you, I really can't afford to be buying painting these days, but I had to ask. She wrote me back very quickly saying a)that the painting had already been sold and b) but she would be glad to do another for me. The price: $200, framed. And (she added) if I was not pleased with the result I needn't buy it.

Well, I guess I don't have to tell you my response. The painting hangs in a place of honor in the university home where I am living, whose walls, when I moved in, were bare. And that's how you buy a painting.

Monday, October 11, 2010

From a Novel-in-Progress

I've been working hard on a new novel, and also on my "Your First Page" blog, and hence I have been neglectful of this blog. When that will change I don't know, but here at least I can offer my few intrepid followers a sample of my work-in-progress, from a novel I'm calling HATTERTOWN (the capital letters are important: they are meant to mimic the names of the towns extinct hat factories as they appear in block letters down the shafts of the equally extinct smokestacks that shoot up from the landscape like ruddy brick fingers.

The sample paragraph is from a scene fairly early in the book in which the narrator imagined his mother's reasons and regrets with respect to marrying his stepfather, the owner and operator of the town's last dying retail hat store. You'll read it and tell me if you think it's any good.
"From where I half-crouched behind the beaded curtain I couldn’t see my mother, but I could picture her lying there, spread out on the parlor sofa, her long former dancer’s legs hidden under a plaid throw, cigarette in one hand, sherry glass in the other, for to go with her smoking she had taken up this other habit, a glass of creamy sherry every evening before bed—and sometimes, lately, more than one. She drank, I suppose, for the same reason she’d started smoking again, to take the edge off her disappointment, the disappointment of a woman who, having married a second time not out of love but for money, discovers that in fact she has done so for neither. Had my mother, when she married him, the vaguest inkling that Walter J. Waple was in financial straights? Certainly not. Had she had any such inkling would she have married him? Again, no. But she’d had no such inkling. About Walter J. Waple she had known very little, as a matter of fact. She knew only that he was a widower who lived in a grand stone house on Crown Heights Boulevard with a wraparound porch and stained glass windows and a turret with a witch’s hat roof and a circular driveway edged with day lilies—or were they daffodils? He had a retarded son, poor man, and perhaps for this reason he was alone, though it seemed not a very good reason, not to my mother. He owned the town’s only retail hat store, and so he must have been rich; at any rate, he was not poor, and he did not work in a hat factory. He did not smell of fusty damp wool and harsh chemicals and sweat, but of sweet pipe tobacco and cologne. His fingernails were polished and trimmed square with no a trace of factory grime under them. He didn’t swill bourbon or try to drown or disfigure his children. He was courteous and well mannered and never once presented himself to her without a bouquet of roses. Perhaps he was not rich. Perhaps he was not worth a fortune but only earned a considerable income. Still, it would be enough. With said considerable income he would buy her gowns and in his shiny blue Buick would take her out to dine (not to eat, mind you, but to dine) at gentile New England establishments with names like The Cobbs Mill Inn, The Wild Turkey, The Old Oak, The Spinning Wheel, or to that Swedish place on the lake, what was it called, the Viking’s Table, the one with the smorgasbord, where the chef always came out to greet the patrons in his puffy hat. He’d order a martini, extra dry with a droll olive, and she a Brandy Alexander. At the long banquet table buckling under steaming vats of half-drowned meatballs, golden one-eyed fish, gleaming amber turkeys, diamond-scored, clove-studded hams, and pantied racks of lamb, Mr. and Mrs. Walter J. Waple would fill their plates and life would be good."

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Elephant in Marshall Field’s Window: My Glimpse of Saul Bellow

As we pulled up the driveway there he was, an old man with white hair sitting in a rocking chair on the front porch of his Vermont farmhouse, reading the newspaper. I was with my friend Oliver. We’d been invited to the Bellows for dinner that night. For a while we sat drinking beers in our own rocking chairs to either side of Saul as the sun started down and he turned the pages of his paper—the Sunday Times—though he wasn’t reading it. He was eighty-five years old then, still pretty much there, though he had stopped writing, and he tended to repeat himself. Otherwise, though, he seemed content in that way that only great men seem able to achieve, and only when they arrive at grand old age after long lives filled with struggle and success, the contentment born of finally laying down the sword and shield. As a writer Saul Bellow was finished and he knew it, but he had nothing to regret or apologize for, having done all anyone could have asked him to do and more.

And now he sat there in his rocking chair on the front porch of his Vermont farmhouse turning the pages of his paper with the sun about to go down, telling a story about Trotsky, probably his favorite story of all, how when he was an undergraduate studying anthropology at the University of Chicago he and a fellow student decided to hitchhike to Mexico and gain an audience with the expelled Bolshevik revolutionary.

“We got there a day too late,” Bellow said. Trotsky had been killed the day before. “But,” Bellow went on, “we were allowed to see the body.”

He and his friend were escorted to a room. There lay Trotsky, under a starched white sheet in a hospital gurney, his beard brown with iodine or blood—either he couldn’t recall or had never been sure. Both what he remembered he saw with perfect clarity, as if it hadhappened the day before. “It was the sort of thing you never forget,” he said.

Before the sun went down completely Oliver and I went for a swim in the Bellow pond, a Huck Finn style pond with a small sagging dock and bullrushes all around. The water was murky but cool. Some of the Bellow girls swam with us. Except for Saul and his three-and-a-half year old daughter, the rest of his family consisted of brunettes of all ages, all of them beautiful. We finished our swim and walked in wet bathing suits back to the house for dinner.

I forget what we ate. Something warm and good—stew with salad and warm beets, something like that, or a vegetarian dish, served with a red wine. Oliver, Saul, and I sat together at one end of the long rustic table (everything about the place was rustic). As Oliver tends to when we're with others, he let Saul and I do all the talking while he listened and laughed and smiled. Saul, on learning that I had written a children's book, said he once had an idea for one himself.

“Really?” I said, taking a more than polite interest. “What was the idea?”

“It’s called ‘The Elephant in Marshall Field’s Window.’”

“Sounds great. What’s it about?”

“I don’t know,” Saul leaned in close to me and whispered conspiratorially. “All I know is it’s called ‘The Elephant in Marshall Field’s Window.’ I haven’t worked out any of the rest.”

From there somehow he drifted back to seeing Trotsky when he was eighteen years old. This sensational episode of his young manhood, it occurred to me—an event that may or may not have played a role in his becoming an author—had become for him a sort of reference point, a lighthouse at sea, shining a beacon that lit up his past—but fitfully, as beacons will.

After dessert, and after watching Saul’s three-and-a-half year old daughter dance for us, Saul, who’d had a long day, said goodnight, and Oliver and I in turn bid our farewells to the rest of the Bellow clan. Saul died three years later. He was eighty-seven.

Among today's young writers and readers Bellow has since fallen into something like neglect, a shame, since his books remain worth reading. I still think of him as a literary Titan, our most legitimate heir to Melville. Those who wish to disparage his works point out that when writing fiction the man had trouble checking his intellect at the door—and that starting with Augie March he stopped trying. True, true. But then who among us wouldn't have trouble keeping Saul Bellow’s intellect at bay? Among all his books you'd be hard pressed to find a single uninspired line. The texture of his prose alone is worth the substance of most others'.

As for me, from now on I’ll think of Saul Bellow as a neat old man who once glimpsed Trotsky’s bloody beard and imagined an elephant in Marshall Field’s window. Oh, yes, and who wrote a few masterpieces and won the Nobel Prize.

Photo by Jill Krementz

Monday, July 26, 2010

Miss Connecticut

She must have gotten on in Springfield while I slept. I awoke to find her sitting there next to me, wearing a zippered down coat and looking, as far as I could see, much too pretty to have landed there beside me on a stinking Peter Pan bus bound for Danbury from Brattleboro. I must have been twenty-two, twenty-three, something like that. 1980, or thereabouts.

As dusk settled on the tobacco fields and barns and crowded in on the tired bus, fusing together shapes in the dim cabin, we got to talking. I explained that I was returning from a visit with some of my high school chums in Vermont, all artists of one sort or another, all waiting tables or washing dishes. She with a hint of reluctance confessed to having been crowned Miss Connecticut a few weeks before, and being on her way to New York City, where she would spend three all-expenses-paid days at the Grand Hyatt hotel before boarding a plane for Miami to take part in the Miss America pageant there. Though in the darkness I couldn't see it, I heard the smirk in her voice, along with a note of sad disbelief, as if she considered the whole affair ludicrous.

I myself had always thought beauty pageants silly, so why was I self-conscious sitting next to Miss Connecticut, as if she were a goddess or the Pope? In the darkness I imagined her in white taffeta with sash and crown, smiling for the cameras, her sparkling teeth throwing back the glare of flashbulbs. I cracked a bad joke about Bert Park’s dentures, to which she said, “Who?” betraying both our ages. We spoke of nothing for three or four miles before she turned to her book, and I to the dark window.

I wondered about physical beauty as applied to people. Is it really skin deep? Are physically attractive people not somehow superior to plain or ugly ones? I'd been reading Middlemarch, by George Elliot, and remembered her disastrous affair with the Darwinist Herbert Spencer, of his own conclusion that the end was a preordained by Elliot's famous ugliness by her "heavy jaw, large mouth and thick nose"—qualities no intellectual attraction could redeem. "The lack of physical attraction," Spencer admitted—bragged?—later, "was fatal. . . Strongly as my judgment prompted, my instincts would not respond." I wondered how many potential lovers I'd never given the time of day to for similar reasons? Do believers read divine judgment in the distribution of beauty? What makes less sense than a contest where the participants exercise no skill, where the winner is determined by the performance not of the contestants, but of the judges?

The bus rolled on. And though it remained too dark for me to see her, and though I did my best not to be moved by the received wisdom of a silly contest, the more it rolled, the more beautiful my fellow passenger grew there next to me. Or maybe I'd been dreaming. Maybe she wasn't so beautiful. Maybe she'd pulled my leg and had the face of a gorilla, or a lizard. But no, she was Miss Connecticut, and gave off the sweet, silent, secret, intoxicating essence of beauty.

By the time we pulled into Hartford she'd fallen asleep with her head on my shoulder. For the rest of the trip I didn't budge. I was very uncomfortable, but felt like the luckiest man alive.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Cornered by Criticism

It's been months now since my last entry here. I've been two-timing you, giving my attention to another blog, this one called "Your First Page." There, I invite authors to submit (anonymously) up to the first 350 words of a manuscript-in-progress, and offer a free critique. To date I've commented on 40 first pages.

It's been a lot of work, and fun. I worried first that no one would send me their pages, then that I'd be overwhelmed with submissions. Neither worry has materialized. I get a trickle of pages every week—usually no more than five or six—just enough to keep up with. When I've done 100 I'll stop.

I've enjoyed the process. Each page presents a sort of puzzle, or several puzzles. First, I have to decide what's working and not, and why. That's probably the easier part. The next task is to contextualize the issues raised by a first page. To give an example, one of the last pages I commented on was from a detective or crime novel. And so, along with the critique, I did a short historical overview of detective fiction. That sort of thing.

Then there's the challenge of offering advice and criticism that's honest without being brutal or condescending, or worse, belittling--a trap I fallen into at least once. The author let me know it. As his comment reveals he was angry. I don't blame him. In the end I made good, and he has since become one of the blog's biggest fans. You might say we "met cute."

Belittling people is one of the risks one runs when offering criticism—especially when trying to make the criticism relevant and entertaining not just to the authors of the works in question, but to others. Attempts at humor can easily come off as condescension, as humor at the expense of the authors who have bravely offered their works to public scrutiny.

There's an even worse risk with respect to my own writing. Criticism and creativity are at odds. I used to not think so; I used to tell myself, "Why can't critical commentary be an art form like any other?" Sure there's an art to it. Whenever we shape thoughts into paragraphs we create something. But it's a heady art, an intellectual art, and art that engages the brain, not the heart. And the more time you spend in your brain the less well you know your heart, until it atrophies, its tissues dry out and harden.

Have I sacrificed my own creativity at the alter of criticism? Will I finally be one of those who (as one critic said of my work recently) can't, therefore he teaches? I never wanted to be a teacher who writes; I wanted to be a writer who teaches. Speaking of another kind of art, actor Paul Schofield described himself between performances as an empty vessel waiting to be filled by the next role. Outside of his roles the actor has nothing to say or add. This is why (Schofield said) interviews with actors are terribly boring. There is nothing beyond the art itself. Any discussion or analysis of that art diminishes both the art and the performer. Between roles, the actor should disappear, or at least keep his mouth shut.

Schofield's words touched me. All this writing I do about writing—how much has it diminished me? Am I strangling myself? Cutting off the blood supply to my own creative work, turning it into dry criticism? It that what I really want, to be a critic and not an artist? For years now I've wondered if teaching has hurt or helped me as an artist. Now I worry and wonder if it's too late, if I've poisoned the well of inspiration with all my critical ink. Am I creating, or destroying?

Whatever we do with a generous spirit is creative. Whether we write criticism or poetry, whether we're paid or not, whether it's published in the Paris Review or the Cappuccino Foam Review (or nowhere at all) doesn't matter. What matters is intent. If the intent is pure, the work will be pure. If we write out of generosity and not out of ambition, whatever we write can rise to art.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Pure Flux: The Writer Revisits His Murdered Darlings

Like Depression-era mothers, we fiction writers hate throwing things away. Instead of hoarding used Saran Wrap and dunked tea bags for rainy days, we squirrel away used words: titles, phrases, sentences, paragraphs—sometimes whole chapters or scenes—stuff that never made it into our finished stories or novels, or made the first cut only to be excised during the ruthless process of revision. Some of mine:
Story idea: A letter written from a far-away planet, in every sense an ordinary correspondence but with occasional passing references to alien weather, flowers, fauna, etc. A romantic letter from a lover in outer space.

Campaign against public buses masquerading as trolley cars.

Dust settled onto the knick-knacks, on the lids of canned fruit and tomatoes, on the brown shoulders of the gallon bottle of Taylor Cream Sherry, into the nooks and crannies of doilies, the braids of the rug, the folds in her Japanese fans, the slats of her blinds, the gold-pocked fabric covering the speaker holes of her brown Phillip’s radio, made of brown Bakelite.

Park Slope yuppie talk: "We've kept the grand ballroom intact and we have a library."

Woman wetting dry dog's nose.
The injunction telling us to “murder [our] darlings” says nothing about where or how to dispose of the bodies. And so many of us do with them more or less what Norman Bates did with his mother. Stuffed into sagging shelves, tucked into file folders and notebooks—reams of dead inspirations on yellowed paper, to be perused during fits of writer’s block, as if somehow our own dead words might spring to life and rescue us from artistic decrepitude.
WASP eating habits: potato salad, macaroni salad, borcht w/ yogurt, Russian salad. Mayonnaise fetish. Arterial sclerosis.

“Be careful going down those stairs.” Lights turned on and off. Sort of house people get murdered in. Smell of basements. Dust and debris. People who never throw anything out. “When it doubt, throw it out.” You can learn a lot about people from their basements.

Mr. B's wife's former husband Congressman.

Titles of books put on shelves. June suspects him of stealing book; sees it in his shoulder satchel; he thought Mr. B had lent it to him.

Tell me you’ve never had so little faith in your power to generate new words that you’ve gone, in despair, after the old ones like a kid prying chewing gum from the bottom of a church pew, that you’ve never been so creatively down at the heels that you’ve gone slumming in your own refuse heap for an inspirational bone or two. We’ve all done it, all of us who justify ourselves by filling pages with words. We excavate our verbal compost heaps in hope of finding a fresh carrot or potato growing there, and turn up nothing finer usually that orange peels, sodden coffee grounds, egg shells.

Yet sometimes amid the rinds and refuse a glimmer catches my eye. I’ll read a sentence with curiosity, admiration even, fragments equivalent to unpaired socks, and as useless.
X spilling his salad dressing, blaming the world for his clumsiness, cultivating his phobias like a squirrel hoarding nuts

I have never been enlightened in my life, not for a day, or an hour, or even a minute. Wisdom is not something that sticks to me.

When do we get to be artists?

“The frilly skirts of waves teasing the shore.”—Nabokov

Blue of:
  • —cheap cigar smoke
  • —blue whales
  • —distant mountains
  • —Siberian Husky eyes
  • —cardiac arrest
  • —frozen winter nights
  • —faded color movies
Black of:
  • —black holes
  • —subway grime
  • —metal stained fingers
  • —tarnished silver
  • —dried blood
  • —missing teeth
  • —wet streets at night
  • —eclipsed moons
  • —electrical tape
Of all the things I've ever written, none are more pleasing to me than the random jottings in my notebooks. The finished plays, essays, stories, novels—I can hardly stand to look at them anymore, so dead are their words on the page. They have nothing left to offer me, none of the unexpected and sometimes even jolting surprises that the random jottings in my notebooks give me. That's what I want most for myself as both a writer and a reader: to be continually surprised, to write, or to have written, words that, no matter how many times you read them, they come to you fresh and clean as if you've never read them before.
Scratchy looking trees, naked branches crackling against the winter-white sky

Poetry: the “radiance”—words that open us up to eternity, that break through the walls of reason and time, that go beyond our so-called understanding to give us a taste of Eden, the “heavenly moment.”

Tinnitus—this “om” in my head, the undercurrent of the universe, all vowel sounds combined, existential feedback, the humming universe, a silver needle threading its way through my skull, the immortal/eternal silence announcing itself.

Our worries grow old.
I've dreamed of writing a book of such random fragments, a plotless masterpiece. And why not? Miller, Becket, Genet, Joyce, Durrell—all wrote books with little if any plot. Prompting the following syllogism:
  1. Tropic of Cancer is a great novel.
  2. Tropic of Cancer has no plot, therefore
  3. To write a great novel, simply dispense with plot.
Ergo, Pure Flux, the title of my projected plotless wonder of a book. Not only would it hold no trace of plot, there'd be no characters, so settings, no scenes, no useful information, and few if any worthy ideas, nothing of psychological, historical, scientific, or social significance. It would be a pure book, unsullied by such things, consisting entirely of fragments detached from whatever meaning[s] they might have had within a context—as pure and without reference to external things as an abstract expressionist painting, something by Rothko or Kline or maybe Richard Pousette-Dart. Archibald McLeish said, “A poem should not mean but be.” My novel would mean nothing and be entirely irrelevant to everything.
“Like trying to preserve soap bubbles.”

All these people who think bottled water will save them.

He breathes rare air.

Beckett counting his farts.

He lay splayed on the rock with his eyes closed, the noon sun painting abstract masterpieces under his eyelids. The sun warm, the air cool, no sound but the wind through the trees, the honking of geese, a distant dog bark.

So long as things are in flux, everything is possible. As soon as they solidify all the bright possibilities turn to gray stone.

“It was evening. I had just crawled out of the shelter for my evening guffaw and the better to savor my exhaustion.”—Beckett, Malloy

“When you lay in the grass you were under the azure map of clouds and sailing continents, you inhaled the whole geography of the sky.”—Bruno Schultz

Tsvetaera: The Noise of Time
To my knowledge such a book has never been written. Tropic of Cancer —a book that is by turns shocking and shockingly dull (much duller now that I'm no longer eighteen and in love with all things audacious), Miller's book is about many things—misogyny, hunger, sex, bodily functions (especially digestion). There are scenes in Tropic of Cancer, characters, too—surreal scenes and caricatured characters, vicious assaults on the men and women who were foolish enough to offer the starving author their beds or their bankrolls—or both. A gob of spit in the eye of God, Miller calls his book, but this serves him too well; it's more like a bucket of bile spewed up by Miller by way of thanking his benefactors.
I am living at the Villa Borghese. There is not a crumb anywhere, nor a chair misplaced. We are all alone here and we are dead.
But long before Miller spewed his bile there'd been other plotless novels, Huysman's A Rebours (Against the Grain or Against Nature, 1884), for instance, with its
garden of poisonous flowers, mouth organ of chromatic liquors, and banquet of all-black foods (olives, caviar, blood pudding). But Huysman's book too is about something: fin-du-siècle decadence. And what it lacks in plot, characters and drama is more than makes up for with its bravura set-piece descriptions. My plotless tour de force would go further, dispensing with narrative altogether. It would describe nothing. It would be anti-descriptive, the literary equivalent of one of those black holes in space.
We are death. What we call life is the slumber of our real life, the death of what we really are. The dead are born, they don't die. The words are switched around in our eyes.—Bernardo Soares, The Book of Disquiet
To my "black hole" standard two other novelists—if you can call them that—come closer than Miller or Huysmans. One of these was Fernando Pessoa, the Portugese poet who, when he died of cirrhosis in 1935 at age forty-seven, left behind a trunk of unpublished writings, thousands of pages of poetry and prose scribbled mostly on loose scraps of paper, and attributed to a retinue of imaginary characters or heteronyms, each with his own biography, including one Bernardo Soares, whose temperament most closely matched Pessoa's. Pessoa credited Soares as the author of his planned but never completed Book of Disquiet
(Livro do Desassossego), a "factless autobiography" consisting of most if not all the prose fragments found in that trunk. To the extent that a "book" exists at all it exists not thanks to Pessoa, but to the intrepid editors, scholars and translators who compiled and collated these fragments, and the publishers who slapped them between covers. Would that every dead writer with a trunk full of scraps were so lucky! In spite of which, The Book of Disquiet remains a fragmented, arbitrary, infuriatingly redundant performance, held tenuously together by nothing more than its author's obsessive love affair with gloom and ennui. Strip away all of the biographical baggage—Pessoa's and his heteronyms'—and what's left is a commonplace book of tedium, and more than a little tedious itself.
Title: Damn it all to Hell

Cupcake Monologues: jokes about cupcakes.Differences between cupcakes, muffins, brioche, etc. discussed. Muffins as renegade or reformed cupcakes: puritan, Episcopal cupcake. Lutheran cupcakes. Purged by the Inquisition. Hidden by the Dutch under floorboards. Do you know the Muffin Man? And did he really wake up so early in the morning? Brother asleep on couch, downing aspirin, in constant need of analgesics, always in pain. “Do you mind if I lie on your bed? I promise I won’t mess it up too much.”

Title: If You Must

Walking with Brother, each telling the other what book he should write. “Why don’t you write a book called Crap?” Write your own crappy book. Peter examining G’s wristwatch, imagining the pain and unhappiness of the man who wears it. The pain absorbed by the face of the watch.

Story: Too Close to Home
Closer to our own time and place are the plotless "novels" of David Markson, one of which is in fact titled This is Not a Novel. Most readers won't disagree. In place of the usual ingredients of a novel, Markson serves up a tapas menu of trivia mainly to do with famous authors and how they met their ends (Gibbon died of complications from a hydrocele). Mixed in with these morbid factoids are occasional lines devoted to the book's only "character," and I use the term loosely, referred to simply as "Writer" (note the capital 'W')—who's goal, we learn, is to write a novel without plot, characters, and so on: i.e. the one we're reading.
Katherine Anne Porter died of Alzheimer's disease.
It's a "Look ma, no hands!" performance. Does Markson bring it off? Arguably, provided one describes a novel very loosely as a work in prose of a certain length that holds a reader's interest and ends well. With its litany of
highbrow morbid trivia, Markson's book does indeed hold one's interest, much the same way a bag of potato chips ("Bet you can't eat just one!") satisfies one's appetite while not amounting to a meal. As for ending well, the book simply ends, but then one doesn't expect it to do anything else. In fact with its ample white spaces I found Markson's book irresistible. I kept it on my night stand and would drift off usually after learning how three more famous writers had died.

But even Markson's book has a subject—its author's unwillingness to bow to the requirements of a standard novel—and thus fails to live up to my dream of Pure Flux. It was left up to me to write such a book. If theme was the stumbling block, my book would do away with it.
He had a terror of crowds, afraid their ordinariness would rub off on him.

He looked with infinite kindness upon the elderly, who wore their sufferings like pearls and could no longer bear the future. The liquid sadness in their eyes reflected his destiny, the future a sky-blue tear.

Worst possible name for a dairy: Golden Flow Dairy
Closer to Pure Flux are the so-called "Waste Books" of Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (produced between 1765 and 1799), books that make no claim to being formal literary works but are merely observations or aphorisms collected by the author as one collects seashells.
François VI, Duc de La Rochefoucauld, Prince de Marcillac (1613-1680) is best known for his maxims, most of them only two or three lines long. Produced around the same time, Pascal's Pensées appear at first to be nothing but random notes and jottings, many incomplete at his death, though most scholars agree that had Pascal lived he would have cut and pasted these draft notes into a more coherent form, very possibly to their detriment. Then there are writers like Goethe, whose maxims have been culled from other writings and made into books without their author's aid or approval, so they don't count. On the other hand, commonplace books or "commonplaces" were albums or scrapbooks of quotes compiled by readers who who, like the hermit who builds sculptures out of junk, wished to create something uniquely their own out of other people's words.
My brother danced like a professor, something halfway between a foxtrot and fornication.

Title: The Treachery of Everyday Objects

Game: walking down the sidewalk deciding which faces belong to people who would save your life (good faces/bad faces). Man plays this game with wife/girlfriend.

The eternal question: what do I think about when I think about nothing?
My dream of Pure Flux is nothing more or less than the alchemist's dream of making something worthwhile (gold) out of something worthless (lead), something new and fresh that lives on the page as if composing itself before our eyes as we read—not written, but thought or felt, without purpose, without plan, without premeditation, without contrivance . . .

And best of all without much effort, with the fragments accruing like lichen on the surface of a rock. Anyone who's ever studied lichen knows what beautiful colors, shapes, patterns and textures it often forms, the abstract masterpieces it produces on the surface of rocks. I ask you, Gentlemen: What purpose does lichen serve? None. I rest my case.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Pure Flux: The Author Revisits His Murdered Darlings

Like Depression-era mothers, we fiction writers hate throwing things away. Instead of hoarding used Saran Wrap and dunked tea bags for rainy days, we squirrel away used words: titles, phrases, sentences, paragraphs—sometimes whole chapters or scenes—stuff that never made it into our finished stories or novels, or made the first cut only to be excised during the ruthless process of revision. Some of mine:
Story idea: A letter written from a far-away planet, in every sense an ordinary correspondence but with occasional passing references to alien weather, flowers, fauna, etc. A romantic letter from a lover in outer space.

Campaign against public buses masquerading as trolley cars.

Dust settled onto the knick-knacks, on the lids of canned fruit and tomatoes, on the brown shoulders of the gallon bottle of Taylor Cream Sherry, into the nooks and crannies of doilies, the braids of the rug, the folds in her Japanese fans, the slats of her blinds, the gold-pocked fabric covering the speaker holes of her brown Phillip’s radio, made of brown Bakelite.

Park Slope yuppie talk: "We've kept the grand ballroom intact and we have a library."

Woman wetting dry dog's nose.
The injunction telling us to “murder [our] darlings” says nothing about where or how to dispose of the bodies. And so many of us do with them more or less what Norman Bates did with his mother. Stuffed into sagging shelves, tucked into file folders and notebooks—reams of dead inspirations on yellowed paper, to be perused during fits of writer’s block, as if somehow our own dead words might spring to life and rescue us from artistic decrepitude.
WASP eating habits: potato salad, macaroni salad, borcht w/ yogurt, Russian salad. Mayonnaise fetish. Arterial sclerosis.

“Be careful going down those stairs.” Lights turned on and off. Sort of house people get murdered in. Smell of basements. Dust and debris. People who never throw anything out. “When it doubt, throw it out.” You can learn a lot about people from their basements.

Mr. B's wife's former husband Congressman.

Titles of books put on shelves. June suspects him of stealing book; sees it in his shoulder satchel; he thought Mr. B had lent it to him.

Jan. 21, ‘04—at Wave Hill (post being stood up by J —):
  • A biography (D. Schwartz)
  • A loose but nonetheless satisfying bowel movement
  • The sun striking the Palisades, heralding an icy walk home
  • The search among long shadows for my own; for a way to be in this world from which I’ve fled, or has it fled me?
Tell me you’ve never had so little faith in your power to generate new words that you’ve gone, in despair, after the old ones like a kid prying chewing gum from the bottom of a church pew. Tell me you’ve never been so creatively down at the heels that you’ve gone slumming in your own refuse heap for an inspirational bone or two. We’ve all done it, all of us who justify ourselves by filling pages with words. We excavate our verbal compost heaps in hope of finding a fresh carrot or potato growing there, and turn up nothing finer usually that orange peels, sodden coffee grounds, egg shells.

Yet sometimes amid the rinds and refuse a glimmer catches my eye. I’ll read a sentence with curiosity, admiration even, finding it full of surprises and delights, fragments equivalent to unpaired socks, and as useless.
X spilling his salad dressing, blaming the world for his clumsiness, cultivating his phobias like a squirrel hoarding nuts

I have never been enlightened in my life, not for a day, or an hour, or even a minute. Wisdom is not something that sticks to me.

When do we get to be artists?

“The frilly skirts of waves teasing the shore.”—Nabokov

Blue of:
  • —cheap cigar smoke
  • —blue whales
  • —distant mountains
  • —Siberian Husky eyes
  • —cardiac arrest
  • —frozen winter nights
  • —faded color movies
Black of:
  • —black holes
  • —subway grime
  • —metal stained fingers
  • —rubber bullets
  • —tarnished silver
  • —dried blood
  • —missing teeth
  • —wet streets at night
  • —eclipsed moons
  • —electrical tape
I dreamed of the plotless novel. Miller, Becket, Genet, Joyce, Durrell—all wrote plotless books. Why not me? Why bother with all the grim determination when great writers have shown that it can be done without? Prompting the following faulty syllogism: a) "Tropic of Cancer is a great novel." b) "Tropic of Cancer has no plot," therefore c) "To write a great novel, simply dispense with plot."

Ergo, Pure Flux, the working title of my plotless book. Not only would there be no trace of plot, there'd be no characters, so settings, no scenes, no useful information, and few if any worthy ideas, nothing of psychological, historical, scientific, or social significance. A pure book, unsullied by such things, consisting entirely of fragments detached from whatever meaning[s] they might have had within a given context—as pure and without external reference as, say, an abstract expressionist painting. Archibald McLeish wrote, “A poem should not mean but be.” My novel would mean nothing and furthermore be unrelated to or representative of anything above, beyond, or outside itself, the verbal equivalent of a Rothko or Richard Pousette-Dart.
“Like trying to preserve soap bubbles.”

All these people who think water will save them.

He breathes rare air.

Beckett counting his farts.

He lay splayed on the rock with his eyes closed, the noon sun painting abstract masterpieces under his eyelids. The sun warm, the air cool, no sound but the wind through the trees, the honking of geese, a distant dog bark.

I feel this close to being an artist.

So long as things are in flux, everything is possible. As soon as they solidity all the bright possibilities turn to gray stone.

At the Mercantile Library. The dust and silence settle like a cloak on me. Tunneling mole-like through the cool, dusty stacks. Librarian’s relationship with mother. Toward the end: infrequent visits and long afternoons of poker. Phone calls with reports of the latest deaths. First baby sitter, etc.

“It was evening. I had just crawled out of the shelter for my evening guffaw and the better to savor my exhaustion.”—Beckett, Malloy

“When you lay in the grass you were under the azure map of clouds and sailing continents, you inhaled the whole geography of the sky.”—Bruno Schultz

Tsvetaera: The Noise of Time
For sure I wouldn't be the first to write such a book. Henry Miller did it with Tropic of Cancer —a book by turns shocking and dull—much duller now that I'm no longer eighteen and in love with audacity. Yet Miller's book isn't without ideas. It's deeply misogynistic, for starters, vile in its assessment of all things human, and especially hard on those to whom the starving author held a hand out. And there are scenes in Tropic of Cancer, and characters, too—surreal scenes and caricatured characters based on the men and women to whom the starving author owed his sustenance. A gob of spit in the eye of God, Miller calls his book, but this serves him too well; it's more like a bucket of bile spewed up by Miller in gratitude to his benefactors.

But long before Miller spewed his bile there'd been plotless masterpieces, Huysman's A Rebours (Against the Grain or Against Nature, 1884), for instance, with its
garden of poisonous flowers, mouth organ of chromatic liquors, and banquet of all-black foods (olives, caviar, blood pudding). But Huysman's book is very much about something: fin-du-siècle decadence. And what it lacked in plot, characters and drama is more than made up for with its tour-de-force set-piece descriptions. My plotless masterpiece would go further, dispensing with narrative altogether.

By that measure at least two other novelists—if you can call them that—came closer. One of these was Fernando Pessoa, the Portugese poet who, when he died of cirrhosis in 1935 at age forty-seven, left behind a trunk full of unpublished writings, thousands of pages of poetry and prose scribbled mostly on loose scraps of paper, and attributed to a retinue of imaginary characters or heteronyms, each with his own biography, including one Bernardo Soares, whose temperament most closely matched Pessoa's. Pessoa credited Soares as the author of his planned but never completed Book of Disquiet
(Livro do Desassossego), a "factless autobiography" consisting of most if not all the prose fragments found in that trunk arranged. To the extent that a "book" exists at all it exists thanks not to Pessoa, but to his editors and translators, who compiled and collated his fragments, and the publishers who bound them between covers. In spite of which The Book of Disquiet remains a fragmented, arbitrary, and redundant performance, unified by its author's obsessive love affair with ennui. Strip away the biographical baggage—Pessoa's and his heteronyms—and what remains is a sort of compendium or commonplace book of tedium, and more than a little tedious itself.
X's sight diminishing. Reads to us more of his “Melanoma Notebook.”

Christmas Eve

Title: Damn it all to Hell

Cupcake Monologues: jokes about cupcakes.Differences between cupcakes, muffins, brioche, etc. discussed. Muffins as renegade or reformed cupcakes: puritan, Episcopal cupcake. Lutheran cupcakes. Purged by the Inquisition. Hidden by the Dutch under floorboards. Do you know the Muffin Man? And did he really wake up so early in the morning? Brother asleep on couch, downing aspirin, in constant need of analgesics, always in pain. “Do you mind if I lie on your bed? I promise I won’t mess it up too much.”

Title: If You Must

Walking with Brother, each telling the other what book he should write. “Why don’t you write a book called Crap?” Write your own crappy book. Peter examining G’s wristwatch, imagining the pain and unhappiness of the man who wears it. The pain absorbed by the face of the watch.

Story: Too Close to Home
Closer to our own time and place are the plotless "novels" of David Markson, one of which is in fact titled This is Not a Novel. Many readers won't disagree. In place of the usual ingredients of a novel, Markson serves up a tapas menu of trivia mainly to do with famous authors and how they met their ends (Gibbon died of complications from a hydrocele, et cetera.). Mixed in with these morbid factoids are occasional lines devoted to the book's only character, referred to simply as "Writer" (note the capital 'W')—who's goal, we learn, is to write a novel without plot, characters, setting, or scenes: i.e. the one we're reading. "Look ma, no hands!" Does Markson bring it off? Arguably, if one describes a novel loosely as a prose work of a certain length that holds a reader's interest and ends well. With its litany of
highbrow morbid trivia Markson's book did indeed hold my interest, but only as a bag of potato chips satisfies my appetite without equaling a meal. (As for ending well, the book simply ends, but then one doesn't expect it to do anything else.) In fact with its generous white spaces Markson's book is hard to resist. I kept mine on my night stand and would drift off usually after learning how three more famous writers had died.

But even Markson's book has a subject—its author's unwillingness to bow to the requirements of a standard novel—and thus fails to live up to my dream of Pure Flux. It was left up to me to write such a book. If theme was the stumbling block, my book would do away with it.

He had a terror of crowds, afraid their ordinariness would rub off on him.

He looked with infinite kindness upon the elderly, who wore their sufferings like pearls and could no longer bear the future. The liquid sadness in their eyes reflected his destiny, the future a sky-blue tear.

Worst possible name for a dairy: Golden Flow Dairy

Closer to Pure Flux are the so-called "Waste Books" of Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (produced between 1765 and 1799), books that make no claim to being formal literary works but are merely observations or aphorisms collected by the author as one collects seashells.
François VI, Duc de La Rochefoucauld, Prince de Marcillac (1613-1680) is best known for his maxims, most of them only two or three lines long. Produced around the same time, Pascal's Pensées appear at first to be nothing but random notes and jottings, many incomplete at his death, though most scholars agree that had Pascal lived he would have cut and pasted these draft notes into a more coherent form, very possibly to their detriment. Then there are writers like Goethe, whose maxims have been culled from other writings and made into books without their author's collusion or approval, so they don't really count. On the other hand, commonplace books or "commonplaces" were albums or scrapbooks of quotes compiled by readers who who, like the grizzled old hermit who builds sculptures out of junk, wished to create something uniquely their own out of other people's words.
My brother danced like a professor, something halfway between a foxtrot and fornication.

Title: The Treachery of Everyday Objects

Game: walking down the sidewalk deciding which faces belong to people who would save your life (good faces/bad faces). Man plays this game with wife/girlfriend.

The eternal question: what do I think about when I think about nothing?
I know this: that of all the things I've ever written, none are more readable to me than the random jottings in my notebooks. The finished plays, stories, novels, even letters to friends and lovers, all are relatively dead on the page. They don't give me that jolt of surprise that the notebooks do. That's what I want most for myself as both a writer and a reader: to be continually surprised, to write words that, no matter how many times you read them, each time you read them come to you fresh and clean as if you've never read them before.
Scratchy looking trees, naked branches crackling against the winter-white sky

Opening lines:
  1. I want to live in a dictatorship ruled by a ruthless poet.
  2. I’m so empathetic it’s pathetic.
  3. I can see by the necktie you’re wearing that you’re a scoundrel.
  4. If I don’t have a transcendent experience soon I’m going to kill myself.
Poetry: the “radiance”—words that open us up to eternity, that break through the walls of reason and time, that go beyond our so-called understanding to give us a taste of Eden, the “heavenly moment.”

Tinnitus—this “om” in my head, the undercurrent of the universe, all vowel sounds combined, existential feedback, the humming universe, the immortal/eternal silence announcing itself.

Our worries grow old.
My dream of Pure Flux is nothing more or less than a dream of producing a book that lives and breathes spontaneously, as though composing itself before our eyes—not written, but thought or felt, without purpose, plan, or premeditation, without contrivance, with no agenda but to exist—to exist as moss and lichen cling to the surface of a rock (what purpose do they serve: what story do they tell? what narrative or theme justifies them?). Imagine words scattered across a page in random patterns like lichen across the surface of a boulder? That's what I long to read—and write.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Muffin Man


Do you know the muffin man, / The muffin man, the muffin man, / Do you know the muffin man, / He lives on Drury Lane?
Yes, I know—or I knew—the Muffin Man, though I'm not sure I knew his street address, or, if I did know it, that I had any idea where Drury Lane was. I learned of him from Pam Albert. She lived in a silver house down the street with a pond in the front yard that we called Pollywog Pond, since it was full of tadpoles.

From when we were two until we were seven, the three Albert sisters— Pam, Peggy, and Sally— babysat for my twin brother George and me. From them we learned about pollywogs and tadpoles, daddy long legs and inchworms, cattails and milkweed, the Milky Way and the Big Dipper. The Alberts all but adopted us. When we got lost in the woods behind our house, Mr. Albert, who cleaned and repaired furnaces for a living, lead the search party.

Though I loved all three Albert sisters, Pam was my favorite. She taught me the Muffin Man song, the first song I ever learned. Thanks to that song for me the Muffin Man rose to a position of mythic stature equal to that of Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, while the simple lyric planted firmly and forever in my child's mind the image of a plump man in a white smock with matching puffy cap peddling his cart piled with steaming golden muffins, plump as their maker, down the street at dawn, ringing a bell with which he roused his customers from the depths of their sleep. As with most fairytale characters, there was something equal parts reassuring and foreboding about The Muffin Man, something to be desired mixed with something to be feared.

When I first heard the song I'd never seen, let alone eaten, a muffin. My Italian parents were still coming to grips with sliced Wonder Bread. Odds of a muffin materializing in the Selgin household were nill. Yet I could taste them in my mind, and even imagined their smell wafting through my bedroom window as the Muffin Man pushed his cart from house to house. Other children woke up craving waffles and Maypo; I woke up craving muffin.

Back then, in the early 1960's, muffins were much less common than they are today. Until late in the 19th century, what we today call a muffin didn't exist at all. The first recipe for a 'muffin' in print dates back only to 1879, in a book titled Housekeeping in Old Virginia, a recipe calling for a batter "the consistency of pound cake [baked] in snow-ball cups as soon as possible." As for the word "muffin," it dates back only as far as 1703, its origins uncertain, deriving most probably from the low German moofin, muffen, or muffe, meaning "small cake," though etymologists also suspect some connection to the Old French "moufflet," meaning "soft."

Though for a time nothing distinguished the American muffin from its English equivalent, as the two nations parted ways so did their recipes, with the English muffin remaining a flat, round, spongy, air-filled concoction prepared with yeast-leavened dough and cooked on a griddle, while the American version evolved into a sort of "quick bread" prepared from a sweet batter and baked in individual molds.

If anyone deserves credit for the American muffin, it should probably go to Professor Eben Horsford and George Wilson who invented baking powder in 1854. Before then housewives had to rely on much slower potash. Thanks to baking soda, muffins could be made quickly and easily, and thus became an ideal breakfast food. Unfortunately, as quickly as they were made, they grew stale, and thus were rarely seen outside of private kitchens until preservatives appeared in the 1950's. These early muffins were made from common grains—corn, oat, wheat bran—with nuts, raisins, and apple slices sometimes added to the batter. By the turn of the century, muffins had grown so popular in her 1898 Boston Cooking School Cook Book, Fannie Farmer provided no fewer than 15 recipes for them. By then baking pans with lozenge-shaped molds were often used, pans rendered obsolete in the 1950's, when paper muffin cups were invented; the paper cups in turn gave way to Teflon and other types of non-stick pans, some in elaborate shapes. Around the same time packaged muffin mixes became hugely popular, making the easy muffin even easier. Meanwhile entrepreneurs sought for muffins the franchise food eminence enjoyed by doughnuts and french fries. It was not to be. Though muffins never attained the dubious distinction of world's most popular fast food, by the the time Pam Albert taught me the Muffin Man song every diner in the country featured an array of them under a glass pastry dome. In such places muffins were as obligatory as Heinz ketchup bottles.

* * *

My first muffin is more memorable to me than my first non-innocent kiss (in fact I've forgotten my first kiss). It was at Caldor's department store, the 1960's equivalent of K-mart. At the front of the store was a counter where you could get sandwiches, ice cream sundaes, and other snacks. We were on our way out, my mother and brother and I, when I spotted it there, glowing under a glass dome—a lonesome golden corn muffin. It was late afternoon. The bright counter was deserted; the man behind it rinsing a stainless steel milkshake cup in his conical paper cap. I tugged at my mother's blouse. She shook her head: it would spoil my appetite for dinner. Please, I said. At last my mother relented. Out of the bargain my brother finagled a hot dog.

The counterman offered to warm the muffin for me, but I couldn't wait. Before I could stop him he cut it in half—not from the top down, but sideways, creating two hockey-puck like wafers. He served it to me on a small round plate edged with a green stripe. Even allowing for having been split in two, in shape it was unlike today's muffins. For starters it far more modest in size, three inches across at most and maybe two inches high, and lacking the bulbous, mushroom-like caps of current muffins. Instead, this muffin was nearly flat on top, with the subtlest rise at its center, and an even more subtle gradation forming a flange or brim at its circumference. From top to bottom it was a perfectly even, golden-brown, spongy in texture. Not wanting to mute its flavor with soda or chocolate milk, I ate it with a glass of water, ignoring the knife and fork the counterman had given me, choosing instead to tear it into bite-sized bits with my bare hands. Its grease coated my fingertips, so I was forced, forced to lick them following every bite. I ate with Zen slowness, wanting to savor every morsel, to prolong the experience, picking up crumbs and licking them one by one like flecks of gold off glossy, greasy fingers. At last my mother could no longer contain her impatience. She yanked me off the stool and dragged me—still licking my fingers—through the store's automatic doors and into the parking lot where her boat-like black Mercury waited. All this time the Muffin Man's song ran through my head.

Years later, when I was a struggling artist in New York City, muffins became my all-purpose food. I ate them for breakfast, lunch, and sometimes even for dinner. Corn muffins were my favorite. They were the perfect "starving artist" food: tasty, inexpensive, and filling—not terribly healthy, but not that unhealthy, either. And muffins offered something more than nutrition: the were a source of comfort, too. Their very shape suggests comfort: round and soft, like a mother's breast. Add warmth and sweetness and you get the full package. Other foods might have done more for me by way of vitamins and other nutrients, but few offered more solace. On my worst days, days permeated with gloom and doom, I'd step into a coffee shop, sit at the counter, and order a corn muffin toasted lightly with butter and a cup of coffee. No sooner would it be placed before me than the gloom would dissipate, replaced by something warm and reassuring, the sense that somehow things would be okay after all. How doomed can a world be with corn muffins in it?

Eventually my source of comfort turned against me. Having spent the better part of a decade eating practically nothing but corn muffins, I developed an allergy to them that left me bloated, feverish, and with epic headaches. I spent the next decade avoiding all foods with corn or corn syrup in them, meaning just about everything from pickles to coffee creamer.

Just as I forwent my beloved muffins, the rest of the country developed a mania for them. Suddenly—like the mushrooms they so resemble in shape—muffins sprang up everywhere: not just in diners, but in cafes, health food stores, even in posh restaurants. And just as suddenly they went from being a humble, working-class food to being trendy, gaudy and huge, pumped up to grapefruit size on muffin steroids. And where once they'd been simple concoctions of whole grain augmented with a sprinkling of raisins or nuts, suddenly muffins were made of everything from zucchinis to sour cream, from peanut butter to avocados. Granola muffins, cappuccino muffins, strudel muffins, applesauce muffins—muffins whose entire purpose in life seemed to be nothing less than denying their muffinhood. And just what, I ask you, distinguishes a chocolate muffin from what we used to call a cupcake? Take away the whole grains, add a ton of sugar and some frosting, and what have you got if not a cake by some other name?

And though a good muffin may be many things, a cupcake isn't one of them. The difference isn't merely semantic. Muffins are—or were—less sweet, and never frosted; some were even savory. They were meant to exist somewhere in the continuum between cake and bread. Still, I'd bear no grudge against alternative muffins if within their swollen ranks one could still find a classic corn or bran muffin. In fact those are the two types of muffins one is least likely to encounter these days. Except in diners (themselves a vanishing species) one isn't likely to find corn muffins at all. That the purveyors of postmodern muffins show such ignorance of—contempt for?—the prototype should annoy more people. It's one thing to come up with variations on a classic; it's another to do away with the original altogether. To those who like chocolate muffins, I say let them eat cupcakes. Only let me have my corn muffin, too.

Like most cries in the dark this one will go unanswered. Times change, and so must muffins, I guess. Soon my beloved corn muffin will have gone the way of ocean liners, locomotives, and other quaint relics of the past, resurrected every now and then as a museum piece or curiosity for the sake of a handful of nostalgic geezers. The future belongs to the young. And the future of muffins belongs, apparently, to cake eaters.

Meanwhile I still eat corn muffins wherever and whenever I can find them. And whenever I'm troubled by this changing world, I take solace in the lyrics of a song my babysitter taught me. Do I know the Muffin Man? Indeed I do.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Leaving This Place

Soon I will leave this place. No more house shaped like a big A. No more gentle walks over spiky pine cones down the gentle slope to the gray, lonesome dock. No more swimming across the lake and back. No more twenty minute drive to and from campus, stopping the car by the mailbox on the way home, leaving the engine and the radio on as I check the mail. No more turning on NPR at seven thirty in the morning while waiting for the espresso pot to bubble. No more waking up at 3:30 in the loft bed and searching the bookshelves as if by magic some new, unread book might have self-generated there. No more sleepover visits by the fat neighborhood stray calico cat with the stiff lump of fur on its back. No more climbing down the rusty dock ladder and avoiding its spider webs. No more glasses of wine on the rear deck with the sun setting red and blue over the lake. No more view of same lake from loft office where I spent too much time at the computer. I have graded my students. I have examined their portfolios. I have attended my last departmental meeting and thesis defense. I will miss my students. I will miss my colleagues. I will miss the little town where I've felt so welcomed. I will miss the student dives and the fancy restaurant (one) where I had my martinis at the bar. I will miss getting those peanut butter cup cookies at the Blackbird Cafe. I will miss having Pam make me double decaf espressos with just a little hot milk in the other cafe, the one in the library. I'll miss my little office (that wasn't mine, really, but only borrowed). I'll miss the people I worked with here. I'll really miss them. I won't say their names. I'll leave a piece of myself here, in Georgia. Such is the visiting professor's life.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Hewlett-Packard

Corvallis, Oregon, 1980. 4:30 a.m.

Too tired to go home and sleep, you wander with your guitar to the park, a square block of grass in the middle of the town. Under a full moon the grass glows. At the northern water fountain you bend to slurp, then sit on a bench serenading yourself. As you do a voice from nowhere says, “You play beautifully.”

You look up at a short, pudgy, dark-skinned boy with a droopy hangdog face. “Oh, please don’t stop. Please—go on.” As you start playing again he says, “Do you mind?” and sits down on the bench next to you.

He says he works the graveyard shift at the Hewlett-Packard factory, his voice soft and dripping with sadness. “I get home too early to sleep and too late to talk to anyone. Honestly,” he says, “I’m a little bit depressed. Sure you don’t mind me sitting here?” You shake your head and keep playing. He watches you with a hungry look. “You play beautifully,” he says again. Then: “Would you mind doing me a favor? Would you come back to my apartment and play your music for me there? I’ve got a color T.V. and some movies we can watch. You can sleep on my sofa if you get tired. It would be a lot nicer than staying in the park all night long, wouldn’t it?” You’re reminded of that Robert Frost poem, the one that begins, I have been one acquainted with the night.

You go to his apartment. By then, you see, you don’t give a shit. You have nothing to fear. And you understand, too, that, whatever intentions this person may have, his loneliness is real. When you lived in New York, when you were going to art school and trying your luck in show business, you got used to telling strange homosexual men to piss off, or just stepping over them, as you did with the actor who looked and sounded like Richard Basehart and who claimed he was with the Royal Shakespeare Company before inviting you to the studio apartment he had sublet and mixing you both screwdrivers. Soon he was stretched out on the floor reading aloud dirty passages from Henry Miller’s Opus Pistorum, his hand busy in his pants as you stepped over him on your way out the door. No: you had no qualms about telling such men to piss off. Sometimes you waited too long, but you had no qualms.

But this man is different. He’s younger than you, first of all, and he seems so sad, so thoroughly depressed and lonely. You resent the fact that life has left him and others like him so alone. You want revenge for his sake, for the sake of all lonesome people everywhere, yourself included. To the conditions that give rise to such extremes of loneliness you wish to convey one great Fuck You! So you go home with him.

His apartment is in a modern building, a single room with an attached kitchen modestly furnished, with white plush carpeting and no paintings or posters on the walls. While he fries up some Jiffy popcorn and mixes up a batch of cherry Kool-Aid you peruse his video collection, settling on Escape From Alcatraz, starring Clint Eastwood.

Halfway through the movie you doze off. The boy’s whispers wake you. “Hey, there,” he whispers. “Do you trust me enough to let me give you a back rub?” You nod. As he kneads your shoulders you drift into a dream. You dream yours lying in a field. In the dream, while lying there some farmers come with torches and set fire to the field. You wake up choking on smoke, groping for an escape, but it’s too late; you’re surrounded by flames. You see yourself from above at the center of a ring of fire.

When you wake up there’s a blanket covering you. The boy sleeps nearby on the floor. You massage his shoulders for a while. Then you cover him with the blanket and leave.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Memories for Mom

I think of growing up and remember all kinds of things. I remember our house on the hill, and big willow trees along the driveway, and all those magical places in the woods and fields that we turned into “forts.” I remember the Wolf House, the rotting shell of what had been a guest house in the woods, and the old dilapidated chicken coop down by the barn that our inventor father converted into his laboratory, and that my brother and played in until it collapsed.

I remember the white picket fence that was always in need of paint and with tines missing here and there, and the mulberry tree that grew at one end of it, remember? And the time I nearly sawed down one of the three enormous maple trees around the house. All kinds of things like that I remember. The little slate stone patio next to Nonnie’s room and that we never used, and the forsythia bush that was visible outside of her window, and under which we built a baseball dugout that we used maybe twice, since there really wasn’t enough room in the back yard for a baseball field (instead George and I played “catch” on the grassy raised terrace behind the house). All these things I remember, but there are thousands more, all kinds of sweet little memories, like the space under the stairs leading down to the basement, how George and I would worm our way behind the trunks and other things stored there and play “Gilligan’s Island,” though what the basement stairs had to do with a motley crew of stranded castaways is anyone’s guess.

But the other thing I always remember is riding around in your black Mercury, how enormous that car seems in memory, so much like a boat, with its big chrome bumpers and scratchy upholstery and the hump in the middle of the rear seat. I remember us going to Danbury, to Jenung’s and the Bargain World and McRorey’s and other shops in and around Main Street, to Woolworth’s where I’d search the lollipop rack for my favorite flavor, root beer, and where we’d sit at the counter and order frankfurters for lunch. There was another store, too, that stands out in my memory because it seemed to stretch infinitely backwards, a never-ending store, I don’t recall its name, but they sold lady’s fashions and probably boy’s clothes, too (though these, I think, may have been upstairs at the top of a creaky wooden escalator).

These are good memories, very good memories, memories so good they make me slightly queasy with nostalgia. You were a good mom. You took us everywhere and did lots of things with us. I remember the carousel in the Buster Brown shoe store: do you remember the carousel? It was in the back of the store. And the Marcus Dairy bar—we used to go there, too. There was one on Federal Road on the way to Caldor’s; at least I think it was a Marcus Dairy, now I’m not so sure. And the one by the airport, though we didn’t go there so often. I remember the one on the way to Caldor’s had these big bowls of green relish on the counter, and how I would order a hot dog just to eat the relish.

Oh, yes, and there was another place you used to take us to on the way to Lake Candlewood, to the Landing (remember the Landing?), a place just at the start of Federal Road, before the Howard Johnson's there, called the Chuck Wagon, where they served fried chicken and had a salad bar with baked beans, coleslaw, and three-bean salad: George and I were crazy about that place, and especially about the three-bean-salad, so sweet it turned vegetables into candy. We liked going there and we liked going to Val’s Hamburgers and Carvel: all of these good places were on the way to the Lake Candlewood, where we’d meet up with Dotty and Hank and Papa Joe and Vera and Dut and other people whose names I don’t remember anymore. Papa Joe would take me out on his Sunfish sailboat, and Hank would take us out in his little motorboat that he’d always have to bail a bit first (with the bilge water smelling of gasoline). Afterwards we’d all eat obliquely-sliced barbecued skirt steak with macaroni and tuna fish salad. I hated the skirt steak; liked the macaroni and tuna fish. I remember, too, that we had all kinds of elaborate rubber and plastic gear (bought at the Bargain World) with which to broach the Lake: a rubber raft that took forever to inflate, goggles, and fake plastic scuba tanks whose nonfunctional air hoses George and I sliced through with steak knives playing Lloyd Bridges in "Sea Hunt."

But mostly I just remember lumbering around in the back seat of the Mercury, a car I didn’t much like back then (I thought it gave me headaches), but which I look back on very fondly now: I even look back fondly on the car that replaced it, the poor Rambler, which no one but you and the collector who bought it from you for $500 liked. I remember going to visit to Hollandas, and Ludwina B. and her daughter Jane.

In reliving all these memories I don’t know whether to feel happy or sad, because I miss things so much. I miss the innocence and simplicity and protection I felt back then, as a child. I had no idea, of course, how lucky I was, what a heaven childhood is: no child really knows it until it’s too late. As children we long to be men, and then at last we become men only to realize our longing for childhood. We appreciate everything once it’s gone. I do. Why is life that way? I miss so many things. I miss shopping at the Grand Union and the First National with you, and insisting that you buy frozen baked clams and prepared spareribs sticky with red Chinese barbecue sauce and Ovaltine and egg nog and anything highly caloric and otherwise useless.

Now I've got a daughter. Some day I'll be part of good memories like this of hers. I hope.

Well, I’d better stop reminiscing. It’s probably not all that healthy. But I do enjoy remembering. And my memories are almost all like these ones, good. And I felt like sharing them with you.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Lady Who Gives Permission

Today I’m going to see The Lady Who Gives Permission. Her apartment is on the Lower East Side, near Orchard Street, where vendors hawk shoddy clothes from their stalls. It’s a five story walk-up. The Lady Who Gives Permission lives on the fifth floor. It’s out of the way. But then The Lady Who Gives Permission is not a convenience. She doesn’t make house calls, either. You go to her; she doesn’t come to you.

Okay, maybe you don’t go to her.

But I do.

Every week, once a week. Sometimes I need to see her more often, in which case she does her best to squeeze me in. The Lady Who Gives Permission is on a tight schedule. Her dance card, as they say, is pretty full.

So I climb up the five flights. On each landing more light bulbs are blown so ap-proaching the top is like swimming upstairs into deep water, until there’s no light left at all and I start imagining secret black fish with tentacles. The stairwell smells of dead tuna fish, dust, mold, boiled cat urine. Why The Lady Who Gives Permission lives in such a dump is beyond me.

I wipe the sweat from my brow, knock. It takes The Lady Who Gives Permission five minutes to unbolt her six locks plus police bar. She opens the door a crack and peeks through, and out floats a stiff whiff of her perfume, a blend of roses and funeral lilies. She lets me in without a word.

There are two chairs, both rattan. The Lady Who Gives Permission has a thing for straw. No other furniture. Just a bean bag in the corner next to a guttering candle, and the large wicker chair that’s hers alone. The candle flame is repli-cated in the hundreds of beads of a curtain that divides the room, her “parlor” she calls it, from the rest of her apartment.

The Lady Who Gives Permission doesn’t ask me how I am, doesn’t offer me a drink, doesn’t hand me a tissue to wipe the sweat from my brow in summer or the snot from my nose in winter. She sits on her big round peacock-like wicker chair, lights a thin black cigarillo and looks at me, exhaling, the faintest of smiles cross-ing her dark lips.

“Well, now,” she says.

Those lips, by the way, are thin. The Lady Who Gives Permission has Hennaed hair tied in a rutabaga-sized bun behind her head. Her eyes are also thin, her cheeks rouged and flat, her earlobes droopy, her forehead shiny, her skull dandruffy, her fingers nicotene-stained, her teeth as golden as corn, her breath a heady blend of garlic and wine. Needless to say I am not physically attracted to The Lady Who Gives Permission. She does not interest me that way. Nor am I drawn to her mind, or her soul. From The Lady Who Gives Permission I want but one thing, and that is. . .permission.

“So, Julius, what’s on your mind today?” she asks, relighting her Tiparillo, or whatever it is, with a silver lighter in the shape of a grenade.

“I’ve been thinking,” I say hesitantly, “of going to Turkey.”

“Turkey?” she says, lifting a heavily made-up eyebrow. “You’ve been thinking of going to Turkey, have you?”

“Yes,” I say. “I’ve been thinking of going to Turkey.”

“Would you like permission to think of going to Turkey, Julius?” she asks with a tight little smile.

“No,” I say anxiously. “I want permission to go to Turkey.”

“Oh!” She takes a sip of mineral water. She always keeps a bottle of mineral water handy next to her wicker chair, but never, ever offers me any. For all I know there’s vodka inside. Or paint thinner.

“Turkey,” she says, bombing her Oriental rug with ash.

“Yes,” I say. “Turkey.”

“Why Turkey?” she shrugs. “Why not Greece? Or Rome? Or Timbuktu?”

“Because,” I say standing my ground. “It’s Turkey.”

She looks up at me, annoyed. “So, go to Turkey then. What do you want from me?”

Now it starts: the squirming. There’s no point fighting it. It happens every time. It’s part of the ritual.

“Just tell me it’s okay, okay?”

“Okay,” says TLWGP. “It’s okay. There. Satisfied?”

“You didn’t mean it,” I say, trying to keep my cool. “You have to mean it!”

“Of course I didn’t mean it, you fool! You expect me to mean it? You expect it to be that easy, big boy?”

“I just want your permission,” I say, my voice turning whiny already. “And don’t call me big boy. I hate it when you call me big boy.”

“What should I call you then, little boy? Would you prefer that?”

“Don’t call me big boy or little boy,” I say.

“What should I call you?”

“Don’t call me anything.”

“Are you being rude to me?”

“No! No, I wasn’t—I mean, I didn’t mean to be rude.”

“But you were, weren’t you? You say you didn’t mean to be, but you were mean to me just now, Julius, weren’t you? You came here to ask me for something. Wouldn’t you say it behooves you, under the circumstances, to be nice to me?”

“Yeah, sure, but--”

“Yeah? Sure? But? Is there some reason why you shouldn’t be nice to me?”

“No, but--”

“But?”

I look around helplessly, my knees knocking together. I wonder why I’m here. I always wonder. Why this woman? Who is she to me? And why doesn’t she do something about the air in here, like open a window?

“Very well, Julius,” says The Lady Who Gives Permission. “You may go to Turkey.”

“I may?” I say.

“Yes, you may.”

“Oh, thank you, thank you!”

“Please stop thanking me, let go of my hand and get up off the floor.”

“Sorry.” I get up and sit back on one of bean bag chair.

“And please don’t apologize. How many times do I have to tell you not to ever apologize to me?”

“Sorry. I mean—”

“For God’s sake. Never mind. What else?” She clips a fingernail.

“I’d--I’d like to have. . .an affair,” I blurt.

“Oh, so now you’d like to have an affair?”

“Is that asking too much?” I wonder.

“I don’t know, is it? What sort of an affair?”

“You know,” I shrug. “With a woman.”

“A married woman?”

“No! Well, yes. Could be. I don’t know.”

“You mean you haven’t made up your mind?”

“How can I make up my mind when I haven’t met her? Yet.”

“Oh, you haven’t met her yet. Why would you want to have an affair with some-one you haven’t met?”

“I thought if I had permission ahead of time it would. . .you know. . . simplify things a little.”

“Oh, you want things simplified,” says TLWGP. “That’s understandable. We all want things simplified. Very well: you may have your affair, once you find whoever. Just try not to get caught and don’t get any diseases.”

“Oh, I won’t, believe me, I won’t!” I say enthusiastically.

“Will that be all?”

“I’d like to stop swimming.”

“You’d like to stop swimming?”

“I swim a mile a day.”

“You’ve said so.”

“Well I’d like to at least, you know, cut down.”

“Which is it, then, stop or cut down?”

“I’d like to cut down first, then, eventually, stop,” I decide.

“I see: you’d like to cut down first then eventually stop. Hmm. Well, I’ll have to think about that, won’t I.” TLWGP thought. “Very well, you’ll cut down first, and then, eventually, stop. And what else can I do for you today, my dear?”

“My mother,” I said sheepishly. “Do I have to call her once a week?”

“When will you learn not to ask me such questions?”

“I’m sorry. I mean. . . I meant. . .Can I--”

“May you what?”

“May I call her every two weeks?”

“Done. Will that be all?”

I stand up and give her the money. Cash only. I’m about to go when something occurs to me. “Beggars,” I turn around and say.

“Mmm?”

“Panhandlers? Do I have to keep giving them money?”

“I don’t know: do you?”

“It’s just that. . .well, there’s at least one every block between the subway station and where I live. That’s six blocks, six panhandlers, a quarter per panhandler--that’s a buck twenty-five each way, coming and going. That’s two fifty a day. It adds up,” I say reasonably.

“And you would like to. . .” She cocks her head.

“If I could just give to every other panhandler.”

“Why don’t you give them all dimes instead?”

“Dimes. . .dimes!” The idea hadn’t even occurred to me. You have to admit she can be brilliant. “You’re right!” I said. “Jesus, you’re right!”

“We really have to stop now,” she says.

But I can’t resist; I’m on a roll. “Masturbation. I do it . . .like. . .three times a month. In the shower. While my wife reads in bed. Can I keep doing it?”

“Can you?”

“May I?”

“Of course you may,” she says wearily. “Really, Julius, must you waste your permissions that way? I’m sorry, but I’ll have to charge you for that.” She holds out her hand; I pay.

I’m at the door when something else occurs to me. “I pick my nose.”

“Ditto,” she says, and I hand her more money.

“And I don’t always wash my hands after--”

“I believe we are through for the day,” says TLWGP.

She opens the door for me. I hesitate.

“Wait. There’s—one more thing.”

“What is it?” she asks, blowing a sigh, tapping her foot.

“I’d like a hundred million dollars!”

“See you next week,” says The Lady Who Gives Permission, shutting the door behind me.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Blackout


I was twenty, living on a loft in Soho, a different place in the summer of 1977: tougher, grittier, its cobblestone streets jammed with trucks and strewn with dumpsters slathered with graffiti and torn poster bills. No boutiques, no Balthazar.

Back then lofts were raw and illegal. Artists lived in them. Ours belonged to a professor at Pratt, a sculptor named Hockhausen. He sublet it to us, his students—an architect, a filmmaker, and a sculptor with two kittens, one black, one white, named Sacco & Vanzetti. The professor left behind some cans of household latex in different ugly colors: gray, purple, brown, pink. He left some big sheets of paper, too.

I carried everything up to the roof, and spread out a dozen sheets, their corners held down by bottles and bricks. With lettering stencils, a roll of masking tape, and a rough plan, I went to work. Pollack and Johns were my heroes. The paintings I made on the roof, surrounded by ventilators and tarpaper, owed everything to them.

Under a breezeless summer sun I worked all day. The forecast was good. I left the paintings up there to dry and went to bed in my cubicle. Each of us had his or her own private area. The filmmaker had one of two lofts, the architect the other; the graphic artist had her own room at the loft’s north end. I had the cube: a windowless box built into the loft’s center and painted white inside and out, the absence of color relieved only by a smudge or two. It was like living in a giant sugar lump. I considered hanging some of my paintings in there, but then it occurred to me that the white walls bearing down on me might be a source of inspiration.

I woke up the next morning to find the floor covered with pink, purple, gray, and brown paw prints. I ran up to the roof. All my paintings were ruined. The cats had run all over and ruined them.

The same day Sally, my high school sweetheart, called. A quiet girl into whose silences I read depths that probably weren’t there, I’d left behind in Connecticut to go to art school. Though I’d seen her over the summer, I wasn’t sure if I still loved her. She was more like a habit I couldn’t break. She was three weeks pregnant, she told me. No, she wouldn’t get an abortion. I reasoned; I argued; I pleaded. My words echoed off the white walls of my cube. Afterwards I walked onto the fire escape. The towers of Wall Street burned against the deepening dusk. I saw myself unloading crates of frozen fish at the Fulton Fish Market. As I stood there, John, the sculptor, came out in his bathrobe. He stood six-feet-four. “You know,” he said, seeing the look on my face, “if you were a woman I’d want to make love to you.”

That’s when the lights went out. Except for a few neighborhoods in the Rockaways the whole city went dark. Looters walked out of stores carrying frozen turkeys and television sets. Four thousand commuters had to be evacuated from the subway trains and tunnels. Anarchic mobs ravaged neighborhoods; in all thirty-seven hundred arrests were made. The lights were out for over 24 hours. Con Edison called the blackout “an act of God.” At least one man disagreed. “Tonight we are without God,” Father Gabriel Santacruz of Bushwick told his candlelit flock.

A week later, at Bridgeport Burger King across the street from Planned Parenthood, Sally and I sat at a table sipping milkshakes. A bright sunny August day. Thick slabs of sunlight poked through the window. Neither of us said a word.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Damian

He hadn't had sex in two years. Except for a run around the park now and then, he never exercised. Two weeks out of every month he lived on fruit juice and nuts, and that's when not fasting. The rest of the time he ate avocados, bananas, and other fruits. He had wanted to be an actor since he was five years old, when he saw James Cagney in White Heat on TV. He would practice with a toy gun in front of a mirror. You slap me in a dream, you'd better wake up and apologize. He was twenty-four years old.

We met at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. We were both undergraduates. I was there mainly to study painting and illustration, though I had no idea, really, what I wanted to do. I'd done some acting back in high school, and Pratt had a theater department. So I signed up for an acting class. That's where I first saw Damian.

He wore a waist-cut shiny green (it must have been satin or nylon ) bombardier jacket with a furry collar over a red tee-shirt. The teacher, whose first name was Nancy, had us doing improvisational exercises. In one exercise we were supposed to be trapped with people in a stuck elevator. I watched Damian and three other classmates do the exercise first. They got in the elevator and acted normally, facing the front, not speaking. Then Nancy said, "Stop," meaning the elevator had stopped. Everyone reacted in different ways. One student cried, another panicked, a third cracked jokes. Damian's improve stole the scene. He started convulsing. We couldn't tell if Damian's character was having an epileptic seizure or a heart attack. Whatever it was, it was very convincing, so convincing Nancy broke in and cut the scene. But Damian kept convulsing. A thin stream of vomit bubbled out of his mouth and down the front of his red tee-shirt. Nancy yelled for someone to go call the police. That's when Damian broke into a smile. It was all part of the act, vomit and everything.

He was extremely good-looking, Damian was. He looked like a Puerto Rican version of young Marlon Brando, with dark brown skin. This alone would have impressed me, since I was a big Brando fan and considered Brando the epitome of male beauty. He had the same tall forehead, sculpted jaw, thick flat brows, thick neck and broad shoulders. He knew he was beautiful, you could tell by his walk. He didn't walk; he strutted. I asked him if he worked out. "Nevah." He said it just like that, "Nevah," with a kind of mid-Atlantic accent and a whif of disgust. "I don't believe in exercise."

I asked him if he didn't exercise how he stayed in such good shape?

"I was born this way," he said with a smile. "And I eat well."

He invited me to his home. He lived in Manhattan, on the Upper West Side in the high nineties, in a high rise apartment building on Amsterdam Avenue. I remember walking into a brightly lit lobby with a security guard and linoleum and waiting a while for the elevator, which had graffiti all over it, and pennies jammed into the round holes drilled into a cover on the porthole window, which had been smashed. Damian lived in a studio on a high floor. Sounds of at least five radios leaked out into the hallway, but once I entered Damian's sanctuary and he closed the door those noises were left behind, replaced by a woman's voice crooning some old American standard.

"Who's that singing?" I asked as Damian took my coat.

"You don't know?"

I shook my head.

"Judy," he said.

I had no idea who Judy was.

Damian took my coat and put it on a hanger in his sliding closet, next to his green satin jacket. I was impressed. I'd yet to meet anyone with an apartment of their own, let alone one in Manhattan, let alone one with a sliding closet door. He showed me the view from his window. If you looked hard over roofs and past the buildings and trees you could see gleaming white patches of the Hudson River. It was winter; the streets were full of snow. The sky was a bleary gray watercolor, wet on wet. Damian showed me around the apartment. There was only one room, really, shaped like an L, with the bedroom occupying the bottom of the L, and a galley kitchen just off to the side of it through a curtain. Over the bed he had draped sheer yellow fabric, forming the impression of a Bedouin tent or Mongolian ger there in his apartment. A stick of incense burned. The walls were decorated with his paintings, macabre works featuring dead birds and funereal flower arrangements on crackled black backgrounds. To the center of one painting a small, coffin-shaped box had been affixed. "Go on," Damian said. "Open it." I did. Inside was a small dead bird. It gave off a sharp whiff of decay. I closed the box.

"Death intrigues me," Damian said.

"Why?"

"I don't know. Because it's everywhere. It's part of life. It doesn't depress me. It's just part of the cycle. If things don't die then nothing can be born."

I nodded.

That afternoon we went for a jog in the park. Although philosophically opposed to strenuous exercise, Damian didn't mind jogging. It relaxed him, he said. He had an extra jogging suit that he lent me. By late in the day the sun had melted the snow so the streets were full of slush. We jogged around Central Park. The same hills that had me gasping Damian broached effortlessly, without exertion. "All you all right?" he asked, jogging in place as i caught up with him. "Fine," I said, panting. We had gone once around the park--a distance of over six miles--when he waited for me again and said, "Are you tired?" I shook my head. "Good," he said, and started around a second time.

That same night, as I lay sore and exhausted on his couch, Damian prepared dinner. He made a dish called "baccala," with salt cod, tomatoes and avocado, and sat watching me eat as he sipped from a large plastic bottle. "Aren't you eating?" I said. Damian shook his head. "I'm in my fast," he said. He fasted for three weeks at a time. Nothing but water with a dash of honey and lemon juice. He did it four times a year. "You should try it with me some time," he said.

So I did. We fasted together. We started in November. Three days of fruit and leafy vegetables, three days of juice, six days of water (flavored with lemon juice and a few drops of honey), and then the reverse. Through the course of the fast I'd want to do at least three enemas, Damian informed me. "Otherwise nothing moves."

When doing a fast like that, you're not supposed to overtax yourself. No strenuous exercise, so said Damian. I didn't listen. After two weeks, once I got past the hunger and headaches, I felt so great I wanted to go out and run ten miles. So I did. I ran all the way from Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, where I was living, to Damian's apartment building on the Upper West Side, a distance of over ten miles. It felt great, my body like a feather on air. I felt I could run forever. Damian scolded me. "You could have passed out in the middle of Broadway," he said. "You could have died."

"Death intrigues me," I said.

The watery part of the fast fell on Thanksgiving day. I was invited to a Thanksgiving party at my friend Crystal's apartment in the Village. I remember standing among the guests holding my little bottle of lemon and honey flavored water and sipping from it as they ate turkey, stuffing, candies yams, the works. I didn't mind. The only thing that bothered me was that every other word people spoke seemed to be about food. That's all anyone talk about. What they'd eaten the day before, what they were going to eat the next day. This meal, that meal. This restaurant, that restaurant. This recipe, that recipe. It amazed me how obsessed everyone was with food, with the very thing I was doing without. "Have you ever eaten at..." "Did you try the pad thai at..." Twenty days earlier, under President Jimmy Carter's watch, a group of militant Islamists had raided the American embassy in Tehran and took 53 hostages. We were going to war, I was sure of it. And here all these people were stuffing their faces with turkey and talking about food. I left the party in disgust. How could people waste their time with such trivialities as food? I made up my mind that eating was disgusting. I'll never do it again, I thought, sipping from my water bottle.

When I next saw Damian I had broken my fast and was eating normally like everyone else. He asked me how it had felt.

"Strange," I said. "At first it felt great, but then I couldn't get along with eaters any more."

"That's what happens. If you do it regularly you'll adjust."

But I never did it again.

*

I think it was on my third or fourth visit with Damian that I slept over. We shared his bed, the one under the yellow drapes. I remember feeling a strange combination of comfort and fear as I lay next to him, feeling the magnetic pull of this beautiful dark body next to mine, both of us in our underwear. It wasn't so much that I wanted to touch him (I was never that way), only that I knew how nice it would feel is I did. But I didn't. We slept like brothers. He was like a brother to me, Damian was. My Puerto Rican brother. He called me that once. His white twin. No, he didn't say brother; he said "twin," "my white twin." I remember how proud it made me feel to hear him call me that. As if having one twin wasn't good enough; I needed two. I needed a Puerto Rican twin who looked like a dark Marlon Brando.

We went to the Dominican Republic together. It was Damian's idea. He went there regularly. We booked a hotel in Santa Domingo and rode a packed bus to the beach called Boca Chica--"Sweet Mouth." Our first afternoon on the crowded beach, Damian rubbed a concoction of baby oil and merchurochrome on his brown skin. Then he told me to wade out into the surf about two dozen yards and look back at the shore. "Just watch," he said.

I did as ordered. I waded out twenty meters or so and then I turned and faced the shore in time to see all the heads there turning as Damian paraded his mahogany limbs down the beach. Men, women, children, dogs, no one could take their eyes off him, he was so magnificent. For the rest of that long day strange women threw themselves at him, inviting him point blank to sleep with them. I saw it happen. Damian showed absolutely no interest. He waved them away like flies. I asked him why. "Oh, Peter," he said. "I am so thoroughly bored with all of that. I've had enough sex to last me a lifetime." He sighed. "Life is too short." In fact, I remember thinking, my friend Damian didn't need anyone else to make love with. He had himself. And who could compare?

"But don't you get lonesome?"

He shook his head. "Me? Lonesome? Nevah!"

*

For many years we were very close friends. He really was like a brother to me. Then suddenly Damian stopped returning my calls. I still remember my last visit to his apartment. I remember it because of an odd thing that happened. Remember that green jacket he used to wear? Well, it had been a while since I'd seen him wearing it, and so I'd asked, "Whatever happened to your green jacket?"

"What green jacket?"

"You know--the one you always used to wear? The satin one with the fur collar."

"Oh, that awful thing! I burned it!"

"Burned it?"

"Yes--I burned it! I couldn't stand to look at it any more."

"Why burn it?" I said. "Why not give it away? Hell, I'd have liked it!''

"You don't understand, Peter. If I gave it to you I'd have to look at it whenever you come over. And I couldn't bear that!"

"What about Goodwill--or the Salvation Army?"

"It's the same problem. One day I would be walking down the street and--ugh!--there would be that awful jacket, following me around like a ghost! No, I wouldn't have it. And so I burned it. I always burn my old clothes!"

The reason I remember my last time in Damian's apartment is because, while he was showering, I just happened to look in one of his sliding closets--not the one where he would always hang my things, another one. There, hidden deep behind some other clothes, was the green satin jacket. I reached a hand in to caress the fur collar. As I did I heard my name and turned. Damian stood there, dripping, with a towel around his waist. He slid the closet shut.

That was my last visit there. After that I called and called and always he made excuses, until at last I got fed up and stopped calling.

*

By then I was myself living with my wife on the Upper West Side, less than ten blocks from the apartment building where Damian still lived. It bugged me whenever I thought about it, to know he was that close and we never saw each other, that he had so completely lost his interest in our friendship. Why? Because I was married? Because he hadn't become a great actor? He'd played a member of a street gang in a low budget feature. That was it, his biggest role. Okay. So what. I hadn't been so successful myself. In fact I was something of a failure. Life is like that. New York is tough. Who cares? We'd known each other--what? Over ten years. And he no longer returned my calls. Fuck him! it made me so angry.

Then one day--this was around 1990, I guess--I was walking alone down Broadway when I saw a man in a plaid shirt selling posters. I recognized one of the poster images. It was a lithograph of one of Damian's paintings, the one with the dead bird in a coffin, only the coffin wasn't three-D. I turned to the man in the plaid shirt. "I know this artist," I said. The man looked at me. As he did I realized: the man was Damian. Only it wasn't Damian. He was too short, too slim, too old and insubstantial to be Damian. This man had gray hair. His shoulders were bony. He had dark red scabby blotches all over his face. This, I said to myself, is Damian, but in another dimension, in the Dimension of Death. This is Damian dying.

"Damian?" I said--and instinctively, without thinking, reached out to touch one of the scars.

"Don't!" he said, and pushed my arm away.

"Damian--how are you?" But of course I knew the answer: he was dying. He had AIDS. How did he get it, without having sex? I asked myself but didn't wonder.

"I'm fine," he said. But his eyes said something else. They looked deeply, fiercely into mine and said, Keep walking, go away. Forget you have ever seen me like this.

I forget what was said then. Somehow we parted--awkwardly. I left him there on a corner of Broadway selling his posters, dying. I never saw him again.