With Margot Livesey and Siri Hustvedt
2537 Broadway, at 95th St, New York
With Margot Livesey and Siri Hustvedt
2537 Broadway, at 95th St, New York
With Margot Livesey and Siri Hustvedt
2537 Broadway, at 95th St, New York
Writers in Conversation: With Justin Taylor and Darin Strauss
Lillian Vernon House, 58 W. 10th Street, New York City
An impromptu reading and discussion among friends, with wine! All welcome.
The Community Bookstore
Original Title: Happy Ending
Where: The Regency Hotel, on Park Avenue and 61st Street
Why: It doesn’t usually happen for me this way, but I had an experience and it prompted me to begin a story. As experiences go, this one was brief: on Christmas Eve, my husband, kids and I were having cheeseburgers with my mom and stepfather at the bar of the Regency hotel (a kind of tradition with us). Washing my hands in the bathroom, I noticed a fat green wallet inside a wide-open bag beside the sink. I had a thought along the lines of: She’s lucky it’s me, seeing this wallet, and not a different kind of person. Which led to the question: What kind of person? Who is the woman who would look down while washing her hands, see a wallet, and take it? That question stayed with me. Although I wasn’t intending to work on stories — in fact, I was trying to begin a novel set in the Brooklyn Navy Yard during World War II — I sat down with that wallet in my head and a pen in my hand, to see what might happen.
History: I myself have been repeatedly robbed: by a motorcyclist in Spain when I was 22, backpacking with friends; years later by a guy in Lisbon who tore my purse off its strap and ran away; by a woman sitting next to me in Penn Station as I waited for a train back to college in Philadelphia, who finessed my wallet from my open bag (I caught her and snatched it back, leading to some intensely awkward moments before she left her seat and moved away). Once, in my early years in New York, someone cut my lock at the gym and stole my purse. Later I received a phone call from the thief, posing as a Citibank employee, and she duped me into giving her my PIN number (in the guise of changing it), then went immediately to a cash machine, and overdrew my checking account.
It began the usual way, in the bathroom of the Lassimo Hotel. Sasha was adjusting her yellow eyes shadow in the mirror when she noticed a bag on the floor beside the sink that must have belonged to the woman whose peeing she could faintly hear through the vaultlike door of a toilet stall. Inside the rim of the bag, barely visible, was a wallet made of pale green leather. It was easy for Sasha to recognize, looking back, that the peeing woman’s blind trust had provoked her: We live in a city where people will steal the hair off your head if you give them half a chance, but you leave your stuff lying in plain sight and expect it to be waiting for you when you get back? It made her want to teach the woman a lesson. But this wish only camouflaged the deeper feeling Sasha always had: that fat, tender wallet, offering itself to her hand — it seemed so dull, so life-as-usual to just leave it there rather than seize the moment, accept the challenge, take the leap, fly the coop, throw caution to the wind, live dangerously (“I get it,” Coz, her therapist said) and take the fucking thing.
“You mean steal it.”
He was trying to get Sasha to use that word, which was harder to avoid in the case of a wallet than with a lot of the things she’d lifted over the past year, when her condition (as Coz referred to it) had begun to accelerate: five sets of keys, fourteen pairs of sunglasses, a child’s striped scarf, binoculars, a cheese grater, a pocketknife, twenty-eight bars of soap, and eighty-five pens, ranging from cheap ballpoints she’d used to sign debit-card slips to the aubergine Visconti that cost two hundred sixty dollars online, which she’d lifted from her former boss’s lawyer during a contracts meeting. Sasha no longer took anything from stores — their cold, inert goods didn’t tempt her. Only from people.
“Okay,” she said. “Steal it.”
Original Title: “The House of Shame”
Where: At Green Apple bakery (now closed, I noticed last week), after dropping my kids at school, annoyed by people who were talking loudly.
Music: The sassy, playful sound of Dyme, a pair of identical twin female rappers I was supposed to write about for the New York Times Magazine (but didn’t, in the end). While they were nothing like Stop/Go, and I was sorry their album was never released, I did avail myself of the look and feel of their home recording studio.
History: Only one of Bennie’s shame memories (which I ended up cutting) was based on fact: in a meeting with some hip hop artists at a Greek Restaurant in Queens, Bennie inhales a flake of filo dough and can’t cough it back out, leading to much hacking, teary-eyed embarrassment. In my case, this happened in 1992, in Astoria, where I’d gone after work from my temp job at the Tribeca Film Center to sample spanakopita in a few bakeries before ordering some for my boyfriend’s thirtieth birthday party. I inhaled a flake of filo dough and it hunkered down in my lung and would not depart. I had to leave the bakery and stand on the sidewalk, under the elevated subway tracks, trains grinding over my head as I coughed in a panic, wondering if a single flake of filo dough could kill me. It seemed almost miraculous when the flake finally dislodged and my life resumed. My boyfriend was directing a production of Antony and Cleopatra, and the birthday party happened after his show, in the massive, dilapidated loft that our friends Alex and Rebecca were renting on lower Broadway. Toward the end, we wheeled out a huge cake from Carvel, layers staggered like a Ziggurat, decorated with Egyptian stencils I’d bought at the Metropolitan Museum Shop.
The shame memories began early that day for Bennie, during the morning meeting, while he listened to one of his senior executives make a case for pulling the plug on Stop/Go, a sister band Bennie had signed to a three-record deal a couple of years back. Then, Stop/Go had seemed like an excellent bet; the sisters were young and adorable, their sound was gritty and simple and catchy (“Cyndi Lauper meets Chrissie Hynde” had been Bennie’s line early on), with a big gulping bass and some fun percussion — he recalled a cowbell. Plus they’re written decent songs; hell, they’d sold twelve thousand CDs off the stage before Bennie ever heard them play. A little time to develop potential singles, some clever marketing, and a decent video could put them over the top.
But the sisters were pushing thirty, his executive producer, Collette, informed Bennie now, and no longer credible as recent high school grads, especially since one of them had a nine-year-old daughter. Their band members were in law school. They’d fired two producers, and a third had quit. Still no album.
“Who’s managing them?” Bennie asked.
“Their father. I’ve got their new rough mix,” Collette said. “The vocals are buried under seven layers of guitar.”
It was then that the memory overcame Bennie (had the word “sisters” brought it on?): himself, squatting behind a nunnery in Westchester at sunrise after a night of partying — twenty years ago was it? More? Hearing waves of pure, ringing, spooky-sweet sound waft into the paling sky: cloistered nuns who saw no one but one another, who’d taken vows of silence, singing the Mass. Wet grass under his knees, its iridescence pulsing against his exhausted eyeballs. Even now, Bennie could hear the unearthly sweetness of those nuns’ voices echoing deep in his ears.
Where: At the counter by the window of Le Petit Abeille, a little Belgian café near where my husband and I lived on West 28th between 6th and 7th Avenues. Then, our block was crowded with flower wholesalers, although that trade seems to have largely disappeared from our old block. There was a huge amount of traffic, maybe because of the flowers: lots of honking semi trucks that sometimes made even my beautiful workspace, with its view of the tip of the Empire State Building, hard to work in. On the day I went to Le Petit Abeille, it was raining, and I didn’t want to go back outside, so I kept scribbling away.
Why: I’d been obsessed for a while with celebrity profiles — one of the most debased literary forms currently in existence. My reaction to them was complicated: I hated their fawning, yet felt sympathy for the writers struggling valiantly, always, to uncover something new and meaningful — or at least to present the same tired goods in a way that felt fresh.
History: I have written one celebrity profile: of Calvin Klein, for ELLE, many years ago. The occasion, I think, was the follow-up to his wildly successful first perfume, CK1. While I nurtured fantasies of a deep exchange with Mr. Klein, the profile I produced was no different — and certainly no better — than any other. However, I did get a lot of free CK1, whose lemony smell I still love. I wore it for years and years before I ran out.
Fact: The worst reading of my career — by far — happened at the University of Southern Maine a few years ago, and involved “40-Minute Lunch.” I’d been billed as an “experimental” writer, so I felt like I needed to read something strange or risky. I sensed a minute or two in that I’d made a colossal mistake. I had read “40-Minute Lunch” aloud once before, at Bread Loaf, with children in the audience, and there had much hilarity. This time I was met with deep, perplexed silence; the folks in Southern Maine weren’t feeling my angry, jealous, fawning interviewer. The reading became a split-minded experience: one part of me was boring my way doggedly through the story, while another part was engaged in an active, urgent discussion: They hate it now, and he hasn’t even tried to rape her yet! Should I stop reading and say, Look, I can see this isn’t working; why don’t we all just move on to the reception? Why did I ever think this story was funny? It’s offensive, in bad taste — I can’t believe I wrote it. And this is the tasteful part…Etc.
Movie stars always look small the first time you see them, and Kitty Jackson is no exception, exceptional though she may be in every other way.
Actually, small isn’t the word; she’s minute — a human bonsai in a white sleeveless dress, seated at a back table of a Madison Avenue restaurant, talking on a cell phone. She smiles at me as I take my seat and rolls her eyes at the phone. Her hair is that blond you see everywhere, “highlighted,” my ex-fiancée calls it, though on Kitty Jackson this tousled commingling of blond and brown appears both more natural and more costly than it did on Janet Green. Her face (Kitty’s) is one you can imagine looking merely pretty among the other faces in, say, a high school classroom: upturned nose, full mouth, big blue eyes. Yet on Kitty Jackson, for reasons I can’t pinpoint exactly — the same reasons, I suppose, that her highlighted hair looks superior to ordinary (Janet Green’s) highlighted hair — this unexceptional face registers as extraordinary.
She’s still on the phone, and five minutes have passed.
Original Title: “Class of ’79”
Where: The soft, ink-stained red-and-yellow checked upholstered chair my husband and I bought at IKEA soon after we got married, in 1994, for me to write in. And sleep in — I nap a lot while writing. In fact, all those years of napping have so compressed the chair’s left armrest that I can feel the wood inside it pressing uncomfortably on my left ear. The sensation doesn’t stop me from continuing to nap with my head in that spot, but I’m hopeful that it’s reducing the length of my naps.
History: I went to the Mabuhay Gardens a lot with my high school friends, and even alone, but much as I longed to merge with the scene around me, I was never more than a watchful, anxious, invisible presence. In retrospect, this seems a lucky thing; in the apartment of a pair of punk rock sisters a friend of mine was living with, “getting high” did not mean smoking a joint, as it generally did in San Francisco in the late seventies, or even taking mushrooms, or dropping acid, but shooting heroin with a communal needle. There was one woman who didn’t have the money to buy a fix, so she was left to use the drug-soaked piece of cotton left over when the others were done. In her excitement to finally receive it, she dropped the cotton onto the nubby white wall-to-wall carpet. I remember her clawing and pawing at that carpet, bringing up lumps of synthetic lint and examining each one in hopes that it was the missing cotton. I helped her look. I can’t remember if she ever found it.
Late at night, when there’s nowhere left to go, we go to Alice’s house. Scotty drives his pickup, two of us squeezed in front with him, blasting bootleg tapes of the Stranglers, the Nuns, Negative Trend, the other two stuck in back where you freeze all year long, getting tossed in the actual air when Scotty tops the hills. Still, if it’s Bennie and me I hope for the back, so I can push against his shoulder in the cold, and hold him for a second when we hit a bump.
The first time we went to Sea Cliff, where Alice lives, she pointed up a hill at fog sneaking through the Eucalyptus trees and said her old school was up there: an all-girls school where her little sisters go now. K through six you wear a green plaid jumper and brown shoes, after that a blue skirt and a white sailor top, and you can pick your own shoes. Scotty goes, Can we see them? and Alice goes, My uniforms? but Scotty goes, No, your alleged sisters.
She leads the way upstairs, Scotty and Bennie right behind her. They’re both fascinated by Alice, but it’s Bennie who entirely loves her. And Alice loves Scotty, of course.
Bennie’s shoes are off, and I watch his brown heels sink into the white cotton-candy carpet, so thick it muffles every trace of us. Jocelyn and I come last. She leans close to me, and inside her whisper I smell cherry gum covering up the five hundred cigarettes we’ve smoked. I can’t smell the gin we drank at the beginning of the night, pouring it into Coke cans from my dad’s hidden supply so we can drink it on the street.
Jocelyn goes, Watch Rhea. They’ll be blond, her sisters.
I go, According to?
Rich children are always blond, Jocelyn goes. It has to do with vitamins.
Believe me, I don’t mistake that for information. I know everyone Jocelyn knows.
Original Title: “Your Past is My Future”
Where: Near a place where my younger son was taking a day-long Lego robot-building class during Christmas vacation. It was one of those warm December days. After dropping him off, I tarried — for what felt like the first time in decades — in Madison Square Park. I was surprised by how fine and manicured it looked, how upscale, really. Then I realized that my point of comparison was 1987, when I’d first moved to New York and was sleeping on a foam couch in someone’s dark living room on West 69th Street, and working as a temp. One of my early jobs was on East 23rd Street, right by Madison Square, and on my lunch breaks, I would bolt outdoors and sit in on a bench there, watching junkies nod off on all sides of me. Then I would go back to work, having brushed up the night before on whatever word processing program was required (usually WordStar or WordPerfect) at a place on Broadway where you could rent computer time. I always brought my own floppy disc with fiction I was working on, so that I could switch back and forth between what I was supposed to be doing and what I desperately wanted to do.
Music: Curve, DOPPLEGANGER
History: After the foam couch on West 69th Street, I moved into a 5th floor walkup studio on East 27th Street. It was a glorious apartment: a narrow room facing south, quiet and flooded with sunset at the end of each day. I lived there for two years, but in my mid-twenties time seemed to pass more slowly, so according to my current perceptions it felt more like five or six years. I worked from 1:00 to 6:00 pm as a private secretary, and wrote fiction from 8:00 am to noon. On weekends I went running along the East River. After the Williamsburg Bridge, I followed exactly the path that Rob and Drew take, past the warehouse, under the FDR. That’s when I discovered the garbage beach where the last scene of “Out of Body” takes place. Whenever I reached it, I would stop and stand on the garbage for a while, watching boats pass along the river and listening to the roar of traffic on the Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges. That garbage beach seems to have disappeared. I’ve looked for it from the Brooklyn Bridge — where I run now — but there’s no sign of it; the space between the Manhattan Bridge and the Brooklyn Bridge looks as sparklingly refreshed as Madison Park.
Your friends are pretending to be all kinds of stuff, and your special job is to call them on it. Drew says he’s going straight to law school. After practicing awhile, he’ll run for state senator. Then U.S. senator. Eventually, president. He lays all this out the way you’d say, After Modern Chinese Painting I’ll go to the gym, then work in Bobst until dinner, if you even made plans anymore, which you don’t, if you were even in school anymore, which you aren’t, although that’s supposedly temporary.
You look at Drew through layers of hash smoke floating in the sun. He’s leaning back on the futon couch, his arm around Sasha. He’s got a big, hey-come-on-in face and a head of dark hair, and he’s built — not with weight-room muscle like yours, but in a basic animal way that must come from all that swimming he does.
“Just don’t try and say you didn’t inhale,” you tell him.
Everyone laughs except Bix, who’s at his computer, and you feel like a funny guy for maybe half a second, until it occurs to you that they probably only laughed because they could see you were trying to be funny, and they’re afraid you’ll jump out the window onto East Seventh Street if you fail, even at something so small.
Drew takes a long hit. You hear the smoke creak in his chest. He hands the pipe to Sasha, who passes it to Lizzie without smoking any.
“I promise, Rob,” Drew croaks at you, holding in smoke, “if anyone asks, I’ll tell them the hash I smoked with Robert Freeman Jr. was excellent.”
When: In 1987, when I first came to New York in hopes of becoming writer (but in fact working many hours as a temp), I took a workshop with Phillip Schultz, who was then teaching out of his West Village living room. During the course of that class, I wrote a story called “Safari” that for some reason I never brought in — it might have been too long. But I did end up reading it to Phil over dinner, or coffee, in a West Village restaurant, around 1988. The story was about a teenage girl whose family is part of a larger group on safari in Africa — something I’d done with my own family in 1980, when I was seventeen. I don’t remember much about that early “Safari,” except that it was meandering and unfinished, and included a blank-faced actor whom the narrator speculates “assumed expressions only when paid to.” Some years later I stumbled on an old draft and was struck by that phrase about the actor — irked that I hadn’t found some use for it since.
Then, in 2008, twenty years after the original “Safari,” I wrote “Ask Me if I Care,” in which Lou tells his “girls” about his trip to Africa. Though I knew Lou was a minor character in the scheme of GOON SQUAD, I couldn’t resist following him onto that safari.
Music: Nada Surf’s LET GO.
History: There was an actor on the safari my family went on, too. His name was Tim, and he had a Walkman — the first I’d ever seen. It was a huge novelty on the trip, everyone wanting a turn to listen through the orange foam headphones. That was our last trip together as a family; my mother and stepfather separated within the year, then divorced. We took lots of pictures of Africa, but were disappointed when we got the film developed back at home: the animals looked the size of ants.
“Remember, Charlie? In Hawaii? When we went to the beach at night and it started to rain?”
Rolph is talking to his older sister, Charlene, who despises her real name. But because they’re crouched around a bonfire with the other people on the safari, and because Rolph doesn’t speak up all that often, and because their father, Lou, sitting behind them on a camp chair (as they draw in the dust with little sticks), is a record producer whose personal life is of general interest, those near enough to hear are listening closely.
“Remember? How Mom and Dad stayed at the table for one more drink — ”
“Impossible,” their father interjects, with a wink at the bird-watching ladies to his left. Both women wear binoculars even in the dark, as if hoping to spot birds in the firelit tree overhead.
“Remember, Charlie? How the beach was still warm, and that crazy wind was blowing?”
But Charlie is focused on her father’s legs, which have intertwined behind her with those of his girlfriend, Mindy. Soon they will bid the group good night and retreat to their tent, where they’ll make love on one of the narrow rickety cots inside it, or possibly on the ground. From the adjacent tent she and Rolph share, Charlie can hear them — not sounds, exactly, but movement. Rolph is too young to notice.
Charlie throws back her head, startling her father. Lou is in his late thirties, square-jawed surfer’s face gone a little draggy under the eyes.
“You were married to Mom on that trip,” she informs him, her voice distorted by the arching of her neck, which is encircled by a puka-shell choker.
“Yes, Charlie,” Lou says. “I’m aware of that.”
When: On a trip I took with my husband to Southern Italy after renting a house outside of Lucca with a bunch of New York writer friends.
Where: We stayed in Naples for about a week. It’s unusual that I would set a story in a place where I’d spent so little time, but I knew even while we were there that it might happen — Naples was so grandly moribund, and the paradox of its former sumptuousness juxtaposed with its present-day debasement was keen. I actually did see a red-haired girl buying Marlboros from a basket lowered from a window, and wondered who she might be, and what she was doing there. At another point, my husband and I were walking through a quiet part of the city when an old woman leaned out her window and shooed us away from the street we were just entering. She said something we didn’t understand at first, but soon realized was “Ladrones, ladrones.” Thieves. Needless to say, we went a different direction.
Why: The real occasion for this story was an issue of The New Yorker entitled “The Future of American Fiction,” that everyone knew was in the works (it was 1999 by then, and a commemorative, predictive spirit had taken hold). Of course, I wanted to be included; I mean, who wouldn’t want to be part of such a lofty project? More to the point, who wouldn’t react with misery to the notion of being excluded from it? I finished the story, submitted it…and was rejected. One of those blows that feels insurmountable.
When Ted Hollander first agreed to travel to Naples in search of his missing niece, he drew up for his brother-in-law, who was footing the bill, a plan for finding her that involved cruising the places where aimless, strung-out youths tended to congregate-the train station, for example — and asking if they knew her. “Sasha. American. Capelli Rossi” — red hair — he’d planned to say, had even practiced his pronunciation until he could roll the r in front of rossi to perfection. But since arriving in Naples a week ago, he hadn’t said it once.
Today, he ignored his resolve to begin looking for Sasha and visited the ruins of Pompeii, observing early Roman wall paintings and small, prone bodies scattered like Easter eggs among the columned courtyards. He ate a can of tuna under an olive tree and listened to the crazy, empty silence. In the early evening he returned to his hotel room, heaved his aching body onto the king-sized bed, and phoned his sister, Beth, Sasha’s mother, to report that another day’s efforts had been unsuccessful.
“Okay,” Beth sighed from Los Angeles, as she did at the end of each day.
“I’m sorry,” he said. A drop of poison filled his heart. He would look for Sasha tomorrow. Yet even as he made this vow, he was reaffirming a contradictory plan to visit the Museo Nazionale, home of an Orpheus and Eurydice he’d admired for years: a Roman marble relief copied from a Greek original. He had always wanted to see it.
Where: At the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, where I was teaching. It was my fourth visit to Bread Loaf; I’d begun as a waiter (a scholarship that allows you to serve meals in exchange for attending the conference) right after returning from England, in 1987, and over the next twelve years I’d moved up through the hierarchy to instructor. But I’d never gotten any work done during the two-week conference. In 1999 I decided to write a short story every day I was there: just sit down in one of Bread Loaf’s trademark green wooden chairs, in the middle of a field, with 30 minutes or so, and see what happened. “You (plural)” was the only story that came to anything, and it emerged pretty much as it is. I don’t remember much about the others, except that one, called “Night’s Candles,” was about a boy who falls in love with a lobster.
Music: Anything by Carlos Santana
History: In the San Francisco neighborhood where I grew up, there was an older boy with the last name of Rolf. When I was a teenager, I heard that he’d died. I never knew how — in fact, I don’t even know if it’s true. But I’ve thought of that boy many times over the years — and of his mother, whom I remember clearly, for some reason. He had her face.
Irony: My stepfather was nothing like Lou, mercifully, but he was a charismatic man whose personal life was often in upheaval. When I first wrote “You (plural),” I found myself reflecting on the fact that he could never be old or infirm — anything less than the vital, iconic presence he had always been in our lives. Yet when I returned to “You (plural),” nine years later, my stepfather was long dead, after a brief, merciless bout of leukemia.
It’s all still there: the pool with its blue and yellow tiles from Portugal, water laughing softly down a black stone wall. The house is the same, except quiet. The quiet makes no sense. Nerve gas? Overdoses? Mass arrests? I wonder as we follow a maid through a curve of carpeted rooms, the pool blinking at us past every window. What else could have stopped the unstoppable parties?
But it’s nothing like that. Twenty years have passed.
He’s in the bedroom, in a hospital bed, tubes up his nose. The second stroke really knocked him out — the first one wasn’t so bad, just one of his legs was a little shaky. That’s what Bennie told me on the phone. Bennie from high school, our old friend. Lou’s protégé. He tracked me down at my mother’s, event though she left San Francisco years ago and followed me to LA. Bennie the organizer, rounding up people from the old days to say good-bye to Lou. It seems you can find almost anyone on a computer. He found Rhea all the way in Seattle, with a different last name.
Of our old gang, only Scotty has disappeared. No computer can find him.
Rhea and I stand by Lou’s bed, unsure what to do. We know him from a time when there was no such thing as normal people dying.
There were clues, hints about some bad alternative to being alive (we remembered them together over coffee, Rhea and I, before coming to see him — staring at each other’s new faces across the plastic table, our familiar features rinsed in weird adulthood). There was Scotty’s mom, of course, who died from pills when we were still in high school, but she wasn’t normal. My father, from AIDS, but I hardly saw him by then. Anyway, those were catastrophes. Not like this: prescriptions by the bed, a leaden smell of medicine and vacuumed carpet. It reminds me of being in the hospital. Not the smell, exactly (the hospital doesn’t have carpets), but the dead air, the feeling of being far away from everything.
Original Title: “XO”
Where: From 1990 to 1995, my boyfriend and I lived in a dollhouse-sized apartment on East 7th Street (which I used as Bix and Lizzie’s apartment in “Out of Body”) between 1st Avenue. and Avenue A. I ran a lot along the East River, taking the 6th Street overpass to get there. Alphabet City was still pretty rough, and aside from eating at the Life Café, which was on Avenue C, I rarely went East of Avenue A except to get to the river. During my runs, I often passed people fishing under the Williamsburg Bridge. One was a sound designer who worked with my boyfriend, and he told me that occasionally you could catch striped bass in the East River. I didn’t begin “X’s and O’s” until a couple of years later, after my boyfriend and I had gotten married and moved to an apartment on West 28th Street. By then, around 1997, New York was having a moment of widespread breathlessness about “information,” and “dot.coms,” and the transcendent future all this was hurtling us toward. Which led me to wonder: what about the people who have no part in this enthralling colloquy, no access to whatever future it might bring? That question led me to Scotty.
Fact: It was only after I’d begun writing about Bennie Salazar for GOON SQUAD, many years later, that I realized that he was the music producer from “X’s and O’s.” That character, originally named Jonah, was much flatter — as if he were missing some genetic material required to give him life.
Oddity: Only after writing “X’s and O’s” did I learn that mob hits are sometimes presaged by the deposit of a dead fish on the future victim’s doorstep.
Here’s how it started: I was sitting on a bench in Tompkins Square Park reading a copy of Spin I’d swiped from Hudson News, observing East Village females crossing the park on their way home from work and wondering (as I often did) how my ex-wife had managed to populate New York with thousands of women who looked nothing like her but still brought her to mind, when I made a discovery: my old friend Bennie Salazar was a record producer! It was right in Spin magazine, a whole article about Bennie and how he’d made his name on a group called the Conduits that went multiplatinum three or four years ago. There was a picture of Bennie receiving some kind of award, looking out of breath and a little cross-eyed — one of those frozen, hectic instants you just know has a whole happy life attached. I looked at the picture for less than a second; then I closed the magazine. I decided not to think about Bennie. There’s a fine line between thinking about somebody and thinking about not thinking about somebody, but I have the patience and the self-control to walk that line for hours — days, if I have to.
After one week of not thinking about Bennie — thinking so much about not thinking about Bennie that there was barely any room left in my brain for thoughts of any other kind — I decided to write him a letter. I addressed it to his record label, which turned out to be inside a green glass building on Park Avenue and Fifty-second Street. I took the subway up there and stood outside the building with my head back, looking up, up, wondering how high Bennie’s office might possibly be. I kept my eyes on the building as I dropped the letter into the mailbox directly in front of it. Hey Benjo, I’d written (that was what I used to call him). Long time no see. I hear you’re the man, now. Congrats. Couldn’t have happened to a luckier guy. Best wishes, Scotty Hausmann.
Original Title: “Reach”
Where: In Prospect Park, after dropping off my son at Hebrew School, in a shrinking patch of sunlight on the grass, listening to bicyclists whipping past on the road behind me and wishing it were slightly warmer.
Music: The Frames, FOR THE BIRDS
History: My husband and I moved out of our apartment on West 28th Street in January 2001, three weeks after our first child was born. We made the jump to Brooklyn, a place I hardly knew except from trips to BAM. Before we sold our co-op, we learned that the two squat buildings east of us had been bought by a hotel company, which planned to build a skyscraper there. For years after we moved, nothing happened. And then, maybe three years ago, getting off the 1/9 train at my old stop on West 28th Street, I noticed construction beside our old building. The skyscraper was beginning to go up. Our apartment had four windows, all facing east; through one of them, where I’d placed my desk, I could look almost straight up at the Empire State Building. I remember that building so many different colors — a beautiful prong of New York, reminding me of why I’d come here in the first place, without family or job — with nothing more than a desire to be here. By now, that window must be covered up.
Last bit of history: It was only as I wrote about Alex not having seen the original World Trade Center that it struck me in a deep way that a whole generation of young New Yorkers has never seen those buildings — their experience of the city is purely post 9/11. Which of course is a strange idea for those of us who were here before. One of my first jobs in New York involved catering for the Port Authority; taking the 2 train from the West 69th Street apartment with the foam couch, getting off inside the World Trade Center and vaulting by elevator into a vast internal kitchen, thick with foody humidity, where (in my memory, anyway) there were mixing bowls the size of bathtubs. I wore a black skirt, dark tights and a white blouse, and my job was to arrange cookies on white paper doilies for luncheon meetings in the Port Authority offices. Naturally, I hated it. But I do find myself remembering that job, now and then.
“You don’t want to do this,” Bennie murmured. “Am I right?”
“Absolutely,” Alex said.
“You think it’s selling out. Compromising the ideals that make you, ‘you.'”
Alex laughed. “I know that’s what it is.”
“See, you’re a purist,” Bennie said. “That’s why you’re perfect for this.”
Alex felt the flattery working on him like the first sweet tokes of a joint you know will destroy you if you smoke it all. The long awaited brunch with Bennie Salazar was winding down, and Alex’s hyper-rehearsed pitch to be hired as a mixer had already flopped. But now, as they eyed each other from lean perpendicular couches doused in winter sun that poured from a skylight in Bennie’s Tribeca loft, Alex felt the sudden, riveting engagement of the older man’s curiosity. Their wives were in the kitchen; their baby daughters were between them on a red Persian carpet, warily sharing a kitchen set.
“If I won’t do it,” Alex said, “then I can’t really be perfect.”
“I think you will.”
Alex was annoyed, intrigued. “How come?”
“A feeling,” Bennie said, rousing himself slightly from his deep recline. “That we have some history together that hasn’t happened yet.”
Where: In a black folding chair in our stamp-sized backyard, interrupted by frequent fussing over the fruit and vegetable plants my kids and I grow from seeds: cucumbers, pumpkins, tomatoes, beans, carrots, watermelons, cantaloupe, and peppers.
Music: Pink Floyd, Animals
Why: As I was writing “The Gold Cure,” I got curious about Bennie’s failed life in the suburbs, and about his wife, Stephanie. Before I began “A to B,” I’d figured out that Stephanie’s brother was the celebrity assailant from “40-Minute Lunch,” which I’d written some years earlier. I’d assumed that the drama of “A to B” would surround Jules’ return to life outside of prison — only as I was working on the piece did I realize that it was the story of the end of Bennie and Stephanie’s marriage.
History: I’ve never lived in the suburbs, but I do have a sense of country clubs — first from Rockford, Illinois, my mother’s hometown. My grandparents belonged to a golf and tennis club where my grandfather golfed assiduously in bright pants, where my grandmother played bridge, and where my mother declined to marry when she learned that two of her close friends, who were black, would not be welcome on the premises. In Chicago, my father and his family belonged to a tennis club with beautiful clay courts, where I played and swam during my visits to them each summer. I think the deep inspiration for “A to B” was really the sensory atmosphere of country clubs: the sound of tennis balls, the smell of the snack bar, the mothers tanning their pregnancy-stretched bellies, the fathers subtly eyeing the teenage girls around the pool.
Stephanie and Bennie had lived in Crandale a year before they were invited to a party. It wasn’t a place that warmed easily to strangers. They’d known that going in and hadn’t cared — they had their own friends. But it wore on Stephanie more than she’d expected, dropping off Chris for kindergarten, waving or smiling at some blond mother releasing blond progeny from her SUV or Hummer, and getting back a pinched, quizzical smile whose translation seemed to be: Who are you again? How could they not know, after months of daily mutual sightings? They were snobs or idiots or both, Stephanie told herself, yet she was inexplicably crushed by their coldness.
During that first winter in town, the sister of one of Bennie’s artists sponsored them for membership to the Crandale Country Club. After a process only slightly more arduous than applying for citizenship, they were admitted in late June. They’d arrived at the club on their first day carrying bathing suits and towels, not realizing that the CCC (as it was known) provided its own monochromatic towels to reduce the cacophony of poolside color. In the ladies’ locker room, Stephanie passed one of the blondes whose children went to Chris’s school, and for the first time she got an actual “Hello,” her own appearance in two separate locations have apparently fulfilled some triangulation Kathy required as proof of personhood. That was her name: Kathy. Stephanie had known it from the beginning.
Where: Brooklyn Bread, on Court Street, where I drank strong café lattes and ate egg-and-cheese sandwiches after dropping off my older son at school. There was a wiseguy feeling to that neighborhood that I enjoyed, being a devotee of The Sopranos — a show I often heard discussed, with discerning enthusiasm, at Brooklyn Bread.
Why: This may be the only story I’ve written in direct response to a newspaper article, but I don’t remember the original article; only that it sparked the thought of a publicist getting hired to rehabilitate the reputation of a genocidal dictator. I wanted badly to be included in an anthology called This Is Not Chick Lit, which was coming out the following summer. I’d been laboring for a while (in a health food café in Brooklyn Heights, near my younger son’s preschool) over a story called “After the Fact,” about an unidentified investigative squad that examines and catalogs artifacts from the daily lives of people who have just died — this had seemed like a fantastic idea when I first came up with it, but I couldn’t make it work. In desperation — the Chick Lit deadline was approaching — I hauled out my publicist/dictator idea, switched cafes, and wrote in a focused frenzy. It wasn’t until after I’d finished “Selling the General” that I realized that the faded movie star (originally named Pia) was of course Kitty Jackson, from “Forty-Minute Lunch.”
Dolly’s first big idea was the hat. She picked teal blue, fuzzy, with flaps that came down over the general’s large dried-apricot ears. The ears were unsightly, Dolly thought, and best covered up.
When she saw the general’s picture in the Times a few days later, she almost choked on her poached egg: he looked like a baby, a big sick baby with a giant mustache and a double chin. The headline couldn’t have been worse:
GENERAL B.’S ODD HEADGEAR SPURS CANCER RUMORS
LOCAL UNREST GROWS
Dolly bolted to her feet in her dingy kitchen and turned in a frantic circle, spilling tea on her bathrobe. She looked wildly at the general’s picture. And then she realized: the ties. They hadn’t cut off the ties under the hat as she’d instructed, and a big fuzzy bow under the general’s double chin was disastrous. Dolly ran barefoot into her office/bedroom and began plowing through fax pages, trying to unearth the most recent sequence of numbers she was supposed to call to reach Arc, the general’s human relations captain. The general moved a lot to avoid assassination, but Arc was meticulous about faxing Dolly their updated contact information. These faxes usually came at around 3:00 a.m., waking Dolly and sometimes her daughter, Lulu. Dolly never mentioned the disruption; the general and his team were under the impression that she was the top publicist in New York, a woman whose fax machine would be in a corner office with a panoramic view of New York City (as indeed it had been for many years), not ten inches away from the foldout sofa where she slept. Dolly could only attribute their misapprehension to some dated article that had drifted their way from Vanity Fair or InStyle or People, where Dolly had been written about and profiled under her then moniker: La Doll.
“An American Boy”: Bosco as a young man, trying to become a rock star in New York. Haunted by the fact that he walked out on his wife and young daughter. Falls for a journalist writing a profile of him.
“Where Are You Going?”: Rolph in his twenties, in New York, having joined an experimental theater group to work on a project that involves walking up to total strangers, asking, “Where are you going?” and — if the strangers are willing — following them to their workplaces, or homes, or wherever. As I write this, I realize that this was basically the project of my book: to walk up to strangers and follow them home.
“Eyes and Ears”: My first attempt at a PowerPoint. Susan (Ted Hollander’s ex-wife) is a market researcher/spy whose job is to create a log of how people spend their time on airplanes. Her boss is Dolly Peale, who lives in the same upstate town. Susan visits her feckless son, Alfred, in Chicago, and has an accidental meeting with Ted, who is now involved with a Columbia professor writing her new book on pauses in rock and roll songs.
“Artifact”: Sasha in college at NYU. Thinking a lot about a fragile boy named Leif, whom she met and tried to rescue while traveling in China. Sasha goes to a party at Bosco’s loft after a Conduits gig and steals one of his Columbian artifacts. He confronts her and suggests she get help.
Other Important Ones:
“Cemetaries of London” by Coldplay
“Unsquare Dance,” by Dave Brubeck
“The Passenger,” by Iggy Pop
“Sideways,” by Let’s Go Sailing
“Black and Red,” by Negative Trend
“Wish you Were Here,” by Pink Floyd
“Mother Mother,” by Tracy Bonham
“No More Heroes,” by the Stranglers