John Haskell, Dec. 13, 2011. Sparks Steak House, East Forty-sixth Street.
John and I met for dinner at Sparks Steak House on East Forty-sixth Street. He was writing a piece on city restaurants where mobsters have been gunned down. Sparks has fine steaks but an even finer history of murder under its front awning. (Mob boss Paul Castellano and his guard were shot out front by mobsters wearing white trench coats and black Russian ushanka hats.) I live on West Forty-sixth, so I walked through Times cytotec mexico Square and crossed a few more avenues to the restaurant. I passed through the thirty-year-old murder scene out front, came inside, and a rambunctious party filled the reception area. John was already there, in the middle of the party. He waved me his way and we were shown to our table.
John Haskell: I was walking down the street, singing some Christmas carol, like a Nat King Cole thing …
Gian: Out loud?
JH: Yeah, kind of singing, people walking around. The weather’s nice, it’s Christmas time, and I was feeling happy. Happiness is appreciation. I think appreciation has something to do with the fact that you’re going to die. It’s like, “This is life, and it’s going to be over, but this is the moment now.”
Talking around the idea of happiness is holy stuff. Its definition and how to attain it is what Aristotle would ask of Plato in a dusty Athenian salon thousands of years ago. But today, happiness is rarely a topic of discussion outside of a therapist’s office or a sorority dorm room. To be happy, we have learned, we must also be naive. It’s come to seem something corny, even cheesy. Personally, I tend to associate happiness with celebration, because I’ve always thought people were at their best when celebrating. Woes are set aside, spirits are at full throttle, and people get careless and free. For John, it helps to go out the door.
JH: I’m happy when I’m outside, maybe with people shopping or under the blue sky in the sunset. You experience that more as a kid. You look at a sunset and go, “Wow, I’ve never seen that.” But after ten thousand sunsets you go, “Yeah I’ve seen it.” But it’s good to go out there and say “Yes, that’s nice.”
G: It’s good to go out. It helps to be around people. I don’t think that’s the case for everyone though.
We do a lot of our love and friendship through windows and screens. How unbothered by it I am is what bothers me most. People are growing more and more socially inept, and you can watch it. The faces of the increasing number of socially anxious people look like robots’ faces in old movies when they go haywire with blinks and tics, swimming eyes and springs popping out. The presence of others seems to be key to living a happy life, but people are more often opting for isolation. I’m afraid we’re making it hard on ourselves.
JH: I must say, I really like to meet people I don’t know: bumping into someone or making eye contact, having that little conversation.
Not all childhoods are happy childhoods, but many are. How soundly and long one slept, and what joy summers were, before we found out people were shit. Youth is precious because most of us look back on it kindly. It’s consoling to think that no matter how unbearable our lives turn out to be, we at least had a couple of nice times before we sat up and looked around and figured out where we were.
JH: I remember when I was a kid, out of high school, in Europe, I flew into Luxembourg and was going to hitchhike to Paris. I stood on the side of the road and stuck my thumb out, and I was scared, I was petrified, but I also felt “Oh my god, this is so exciting.”
If I had to choose a period of my adult life in which I was happiest, I’d say it was during university. There was this one philosophy professor. I’d always watch him walking near campus, alone, but with a smile on his face. This smiling intrigued me to no end. During his Phaedrus lectures, he seemed to radiate a strange joy into the classroom. He made you want to know what he knew. I was under the impression that there was some tidbit of information, a few words I hadn’t yet heard, standing between me and a reason to smile when I walked alone.
G: What’s the one time that stands out as happiest though?
JH: I think it was the first time I rented a car. I flew into some airport in some town somewhere, went to the office and got the car. It was more like ecstasy than happiness. I was just driving a rental car, but there was something thrilling about it. Those thrilling moments don’t happen as much to me now. The downside of those moments is that I was younger, so I also felt more anxiety.
G: I think I confuse happiness with joy. I feel happy now though.
JH: Well, I think there’s happiness which is like Texas happiness, smiling and everything is good, a little bit with blinders on. And then there’s more—not so much a Buddhist happiness, but an acceptance happiness. If people get promoted, they’re happy, but that’s not happiness. They want the next one. They want the next big thing.
John and I talked for three hours. We had martinis, steaks, bottles of wine, and grappas. We were lit already, and after hanging around in the air of the murder scene out front (John got down on the sidewalk, on his back, and posed for a picture as the corpse of Castellano), we went up the street to find another bar. We didn’t want the next promotion, but the next drink was in order. The bar we found was a sad bar, and I remember feeling as if we’d pushed our luck. We’d had a great time already, but we were trying to hold onto it and it stagnated. We had our drink quickly and said good night.
JH: But how much is happiness conscious? I remember one time as a kid in high school running across the parking lot, and I just loved to run, but I didn’t think of it as happiness then. So what part of happiness is the awareness of it and what part is not even thinking about happiness, but just doing it? I think happiness has a little self-consciousness, but it’s weird because it’s enough to tell you ‘This is a moment’ but not enough to say “I want to preserve it and hold on to it,” because then it stagnates and dies.
When I think of happiness, I see myself chasing ass, or being newly fascinated with a friend. I see myself either by their side, or constantly texting. A lot of those times I’m drinking too much and eating too much or I’m in the back of a cab at five A.M. with a friend jawing on about something too much. There is often music. That’s some of the time. Other times I’m somewhere alone, with nothing. It’s quiet, and I can see myself happy and thinking. I just can’t see what it is that I’m thinking about.
But, when I think of happiness, I mostly see myself with others.
JH: The thing about that is it’s all about desire. It’s all about wanting to be with that person. I remember in Chicago, I fell in love with this girl. I remember being with her, but what I remember more than being with her was that it was the dead of winter in Chicago, snow coming down, and getting on the bus to meet her. Standing in the snow, wind in my face, waiting at the bus stop, the bus never coming, waiting to meet her. It was not so much about her as the feeling I had of being in the world—the snow which I hate, the cold which I hate, but I could feel my face alive, I loved that snow and I loved that cold. So I think it’s not so much the person as the feeling.
Giancarlo DiTrapano edits The New York Tyrant.