The Daily

First Person

The Gordon

August 24, 2015 | by

From a fifties-era Pan Am ad.

There was a time when I didn’t know Gordon Bishop, but that time’s not worth talking about.

I met Gordon in his shop, Tropics, sometime in the early eighties. I’d been walking through Soho and noticed a store I hadn’t seen before. Inside was a jumble of Javanese antiques—carved doors; four-poster beds; objects that seemed decorative, ceremonial, and incomprehensible—along with fabrics and wall hangings and kites and sculptures. It looked like Santa’s workshop, if Santa had a penchant for priapic statues of half-dressed men with enormous erections and wicked smiles.

No one seemed to be working there, but I heard flute and gamelan music coming from the back room. There was a curtain separating me from the music, along with the sort of velvet rope commonly seen in discos, and a hand-painted sign fixed to the rope: DO NOT ENTERRead More »

My Mother-in-Law Is My Best Reader

August 19, 2015 | by

A mother-in-law joke twenty-eight years in the making.

picassothelesson

Pablo Picasso, The Lesson (detail), 1934.

My first reader, best editor, and subtlest critic is my mother-in-law.

I’ve known H.—as I’ll call her to protect her privacy and preserve her from unsolicited requests for advice—for about twenty-eight years now. My girlfriend, now my wife, arranged for me to meet her parents for the first time at Veniero’s pastry shop, around the corner from my place in the East Village. When I went outside for a smoke, H. burst into tears. We have been best friends ever since. In those years, I’ve written six books, mostly novels, but I have been under her tutelage for only the last four, which is probably why the first two are not much good.

H. is one of a tiny core of first readers that includes my wife, J. (a professional editor), my sister, N., and my friend S. Before I give them a work in progress, I try to wait until I am satisfied I have done everything in my power to perfect it, but often they find such glaring structural or emotional flaws and gaps in it that a piece I’d believed to be cooked to a T reveals itself to be half-baked, at best. So implicitly do I trust my first readers, and so gratefully do I rely on them to be brutally and consistently honest, that I have abandoned entire drafts of a new novel on their recommendation. Almost invariably, I find that what they tell me about my own work is something I have known in my heart all along but have declined to admit to myself out of inertia, obtuseness, or fear. Only when I hear it from them does it become real to me, and actionable. I have permission to lie to myself—they do not. Read More »

Smoking with Lucia

August 18, 2015 | by

Remembering Lucia Berlin.

Lucia Berlin in Albuquerque, 1963. Photo: Buddy Berlin/Literary Estate of Lucia Berlin

Lucia Berlin was not PC. And she was not New Age. She never talked to me about “recovery” or “karma.” We never spoke of the Twelve Steps. It was understood: she was sober now. No need to talk about it. Especially when she could write about it. Her stories, populated with alcoholics and addicts, are rendered with an empathy, disgust, and ruthless wit that echo the devastating circumstances of her own life. She’d moved from isolation to affluence to detox and back again, and Boulder, Colorado—inundated with massage therapists, extreme athletes, and vegans—was an unlikely place for her to end up. Yet she spent much of the last decade of her life there. First in a clapboard Victorian beneath the red rocks of Dakota Ridge; later, when illness nearly bankrupted her, in a trailer park on the outskirts of the pristine town.

News of the trailer depressed me until I managed a visit, finding her at ease amid the shabby metal homes stacked on cinder blocks. It’s likely Lucia would have felt more comfortable watching a bull be gored in a Mexico City arena or huddling among winos on a corner in Oakland than she ever felt at her first place on posh Mapleton Hill. But that was where we spent nearly all of our time together. Usually at her kitchen table. Read More »

My Grandmother’s Wheelchair

August 6, 2015 | by

The author, posing with his grandmother, Natalie Faunda, in Budapest, 1990.

The author, posing with his grandmother, Natalie Faunda, at a park in Budapest, in 1990.

My grandmother had a stroke in her late sixties. She was out in her garden, struggling in the hot sun, when she collapsed into a row of tomato plants. 

A neighbor heard her cries for help and called an ambulance. It was a mild case of heat stroke, a doctor said; he sent her home. That night, having returned to her house on Vaughn Avenue—in what, even then, was one of the poorest parts of Youngstown: a neighborhood on the East Side called the Sharon Line—she suffered a second stroke. This one was much more severe. When she stabilized, days later, the right side of her body was paralyzed. She had a few months to live, maybe a year. 

Except that she didn’t; my grandmother would go on to live for nearly twenty years. And in the weeks that followed, at a local rehabilitation center, she learned to do with her left hand everything she’d done predominantly with her right: to write, to eat, to tie her shoelaces, to button her shirts. With the assistance of a quad cane, she eventually learned to walk—though in truth it was never much more than a shuffle. Read More »

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Flower Voyeur: A Comic

July 28, 2015 | by

California Street

July 24, 2015 | by

Learning to surf in the sixties.

Grajagan, Java, 1979. Courtesy of Mark Cordesius

For my eleventh birthday, my father took me to the Dave Sweet Surfboards shop on Olympic Boulevard, in Santa Monica. From the rack of used boards, I chose a solid, sunbrowned 9'0" with blue-green paneled rails and a fin built with at least eight different types of wood. It cost seventy dollars. I was five feet tall, weighed eighty pounds, and could not reach my arm around it. I carried it to the street on my head, feeling self-conscious and scared of dropping the board, but as happy as I had ever been.

It wasn’t an easy winter, trying to learn to surf. Even though the Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ USA” (“Let’s go surfin’ now / everybody’s learning how”) was on the radio, I was the only kid at my backwater school who had a board. We spent most weekends in Ventura, so I got in the water regularly, but California Street was rocky and the water was painfully cold. I got a wet suit, but it had short legs and no sleeves, and neoprene technology was still in its infancy. At best, the little wet suit took some of the sharpest chill off the afternoon wind. My father liked to tell a story about a day when I got discouraged. From the warmth of the car, he had been watching me flounder—I imagine him smoking his pipe, wearing a big fluffy fisherman’s sweater. I came in, my feet and knees bleeding, stumbling across the rocks, dropping my board, humiliated and exhausted. He told me to go back out and catch three more waves. I refused. He insisted. I could ride them on my knees if necessary, he said. I was furious. But I went back out and caught the waves, and in his version of the story, that was when I became a surfer. If he hadn’t made me go back out that day, I would have quit. He was sure of that. Read More »