Issue 204, Spring 2013
For nearly twenty years now Leonard and I have met once a week for a walk, dinner, and a movie, either in his neighborhood or mine. Except for the two hours in the movie, we hardly ever do anything else but talk. One of us is always saying, Let’s get tickets for a play, a concert, a reading, but neither of us ever seems able to arrange an evening in advance of the time we are to meet. The fact is, ours is the most satisfying conversation either of us has, and we can’t bear to give it up even for one week.
Why then, one might ask, do we not meet more often than once a week? The problem is, we both have a penchant for the negative. Whatever the circumstance, for each of us the glass is perpetually half-empty. Either he is registering loss, failure, defeat—or I am. We cannot help ourselves.
One night at a party I fell into a disagreement with a friend of ours who is famous for his debating skills. At first, I responded nervously to his every challenge, but soon I found my sea legs and then I stood my ground more successfully than he did. People crowded round me. That was wonderful, they said, wonderful. I turned eagerly to Leonard. “You were nervous,” he said.
Another time, I went to Florence with my niece. “How was it?” Leonard asked. “The city was lovely,” I said, “my niece is great. You know, it’s hard to be with someone twenty-four hours a day for eight days, but we traveled well together, walked miles along the Arno, that river is beautiful.” “That is sad,” Leonard said. “That you found it irritating to be so much with your niece.”
A third time, I went to the beach for the weekend. It rained one day, was sunny another. Again, Leonard asked how it had been. “Refreshing,” I said. “The rain didn’t daunt you,” he said.
I remind myself of what my voice can sound like. My voice, forever edged in judgment, that also never stops registering the flaw, the absence, the incompleteness. My voice that so often causes Leonard’s eyes to flicker and his mouth to tighten.
At the end of an evening together one or the other of us will impulsively suggest that we meet again during the week, but only rarely does the impulse live long enough to be acted upon. We mean it, of course, when we are saying good-bye—want nothing more than to renew the contact immediately—but going up in the elevator to my apartment, I start to feel on my skin the sensory effect of an eveningful of irony and negative judgment. Nothing serious, just surface damage—a thousand tiny pinpricks dotting arms, neck, chest—but somewhere within me, in a place I cannot even name, I begin to shrink from the prospect of feeling it again soon.
A day passes. Then another. I must call Leonard, I say to myself, but repeatedly the hand about to reach for the phone fails to move. He, of course, must be feeling the same, as he doesn’t call either. The unacted-upon impulse accumulates into a failure of nerve. Failure of nerve hardens into ennui. When the cycle of mixed feeling, failed nerve, and paralyzed will has run its course, the longing to meet again acquires urgency, and the hand reaching for the phone will complete the action. Leonard and I consider ourselves intimates because our cycle takes only a week to complete.
Yesterday, I came out of the supermarket at the end of my block and, from the side of my eye, registered the beggar who regularly occupies the space in front of the store: a small white guy with a hand perpetually outstretched and a face full of broken blood vessels. “I need something to eat,” he was whining as usual. “That’s all I want, something to eat, anything you can spare, just something to eat.” As I passed him, I heard a voice directly behind me say, “Here, bro. You want something to eat? Here’s something to eat.” I turned back and saw a short black man with cold eyes standing in front of the beggar, a slice of pizza in his outstretched hand. “Aw, man,” the beggar pleaded, “you know what I . . . ” The man’s voice went as cold as his eyes. “You say you want something to eat. Here’s something to eat,” he repeated. “I bought this for you. Eat it!” The beggar recoiled visibly. The man standing in front of him turned away and, in a motion of deep disgust, threw the pizza into a wastebasket.
When I got to my building, I couldn’t help stopping to tell José, the doorman—I had to tell someone—what had just happened. José’s eyes widened. When I finished he said, “Oh, Miss Gornick, I know just what y’mean. My father once gave me such a slap for exactly the same thing.” Now it was my eyes that widened. “We was at a ball game, and a bum asked me for something to eat. So I bought a hot dog and gave it to him. My dad, he whacked me across the face. ‘If you’re gonna do a thing,’ he said, ‘do it right. You don’t buy someone a hot dog without you also buying him a soda!’ ”
I have always lived in New York, but a good part of my life I longed for the city the way someone in a small town would, yearning to arrive at the capital. Growing up in the Bronx was like growing up in a village. From earliest adolescence I knew there was a center of the world and that I was far from it. At the same time, I also knew it was only a subway ride away, downtown in Manhattan. Manhattan was Araby.
At fourteen I began taking that subway ride, walking the length and breadth of the island late in winter, deep in summer. The only difference between me and someone like me from Kansas was that in Kansas one makes the immigrant’s lonely leap once and forever, whereas I made many small trips into the city, going home repeatedly for comfort and reassurance, dullness and delay, before attempting the main chance. Down Broadway, up Lexington, across Fifty-Seventh Street, from river to river, through Greenwich Village, Chelsea, the Lower East Side, plunging down to Wall Street, climbing up to Columbia. I walked these streets for years, excited and expectant, going home each night to the Bronx, where I waited for life to begin.
The way I saw it, the West Side was one long rectangle of apartment houses filled with artists and intellectuals; this richness, mirrored on the East Side by money and social standing, made the city glamorous, and painfully exciting. I could taste in my mouth world, sheer world. All I had to do was get old enough and New York would be mine.
As children, my friends and I would roam the streets of the neighborhood, advancing out as we got older, section by section, until we were little girls trekking across the Bronx as though on a mission to the interior. We used the streets the way children growing up in the country use fields and rivers, mountains and caves: to place ourselves on the map of our world. We walked by the hour. By the time we were twelve we knew instantly when the speech or appearance of anyone coming toward us was the slightest bit off. We knew also that it excited us to know. When something odd happened—and it didn’t take much for us to consider something odd, our sense of the norm was strict—we analyzed it for hours afterward.
A high-school friend introduced me to the streets of Upper Manhattan. Here, so many languages and such striking peculiarities in appearance—men in beards, women in black and silver. These were people I could see weren’t working class, but what class were they? And then there was the hawking in the street! In the Bronx a lone fruit-and-vegetable man might call out, Missus! Fresh tomatoes today! But here, people on the sidewalk were selling watches, radios, books, jewelry—in loud, insistent voices. Not only that, but the men and women passing by got into it with them: “How long’ll that watch work? Till I get to the end of the block?” “I know the guy who wrote that book, it isn’t worth a dollar.” “Where’d ya get that radio? The cops’ll be at my door in the morning, right?” So much stir and animation! People who were strangers talking at one another, making each other laugh, cry out, crinkle up with pleasure, flash with anger. It was the boldness of gesture and expression everywhere that so captivated us: the stylish flirtation, the savvy exchange, people sparking witty, exuberant response in one another, in themselves.
In college, another friend walked me down West End Avenue. He told me that in the great stone buildings that lined the street lived musicians and writers, scientists and émigrés, dancers and philosophers. Very soon no trip downtown was complete without a walk on West End from 107th Street to 72nd. For me, the avenue became emblematic. To live here would mean I had arrived. I was a bit confused about whether I’d be the resident artist-intellectual, or be married to him—I couldn’t actually see myself signing the lease—but no matter; one way or another, I’d be in the apartment.
In summer we went to the concerts at Lewisohn Stadium, the great amphitheater on the City College campus. These concerts came to an end in the midsixties, but in the late fifties, sitting on those stone bleacher seats July after July, August after August, I knew, I just knew, that the men and women all around me lived on West End Avenue. As the orchestra tuned up and the lights dimmed in the soft, starry night, I could feel the whole intelligent audience moving forward as one, yearning toward the music, toward themselves in the music: as though the concert were an open-air extension of the context of their lives. And I, just as intelligently, I hoped, leaned forward, too, but I knew that I was only mimicking the movement. I’d not yet earned the right to love the music as they did. Within a few years I began to see it was entirely possible that I never would.
I grew up and moved downtown, but nothing turned out as expected. I went to school, but the degree did not get me an office in Midtown. I married an intellectual, but then quickly got divorced. I began to write, but nobody read me above Fourteenth Street. For me, the doors to the golden company did not open. The glittering enterprise remained at a distance.
Among my friends, I am known for my indifference to acquisition. People make fun of me because I seem to want nothing; neither do I know the name of anything, nor can I readily differentiate between the fake and the genuine, the classy or the mediocre. It isn’t high-minded disinterest, it is rather that things have always sent me into a panic; a peasantlike discomfort with color, texture, abundance—glamour, fun, playfulness—is the cause of my unease. All my life I’ve made do with less because “stuff” makes me desperate.
Leonard has developed a style of living that seems the direct obverse of my own but, truth to tell, I think is its mirror image. Overflowing with Japanese prints, Indian rugs, eighteenth-century furniture upholstered in velvet, his place feels like a set of museum rooms of which he is the curator. I see that he is filling in the physical surround as desperately as I am not. Yet he’s never been at home in his apartment any more than I am in mine; he, too, needs to feel concrete beneath his feet.
For me, New York, the real New York, always meant Manhattan, but for Leonard, who’d also grown up in the Bronx, it was still the neighborhoods. From the time I first knew him—more than thirty years ago now—he walked the streets as I never had, into Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island. He knew Sunnyside, Greenpoint, Red Hook, Washington Heights, East Harlem, the South Bronx. He knew the meaning of a shopping street in Queens with half the stores boarded up, a piece of Brooklyn waterfront restored, a garden lot in Harlem full of deranged-looking flowers, a warehouse on the East River converted to a third-world mall. He knew which housing projects worked and which were a devastation. And it wasn’t just the streets he knew. He knew the piers, the railroad yards, the subway lines. He had Central Park and Prospect Park by heart. He knew the footbridges on the East River; the ferries, the tunnels, the beltways. He knew Snug Harbor and City Island and Jamaica Bay.
He often reminded me of the street-urchin protagonists in postwar Italian movies: those handsome, ragged children of Rossellini’s who imprint on Rome by knowing the city inside out. Leonard always looked like that to me when we took one of our long hikes through the boroughs: hungry, as only a working-class kid can be, for information; the kind of information that makes the ground beneath your feet yours. With him as my guide, the neighborhoods spread out for miles in all directions, often looking to my uninformed eye like wasteland until I began to see them as Leonard did: an incomparable sea of ghettos forever bleeding new life into a rectangle of glamour and prosperity.
On these treks of ours the character of time and space often changed as we walked. The concept of “hours” evaporated. The streets became one long ribbon of open road stretched out before us, with nothing to impede our progress. Time expanded to resemble time in one’s childhood, when it seemed never to end, as opposed to time now: always scarce, always pressing, always a marker of one’s emotional well-being.
At a New Year’s party Jim comes rushing toward me. Sarah nods and turns away. A year ago I was tight with one, two years ago with the other. Tonight I realize I haven’t seen him in three months, her in six. A woman who lives three blocks from me appears, her eyes shimmering. “I miss you!” she breathes wistfully, as though we’re lovers in wartime separated by forces beyond our control. Yes, I nod, and move on. We’ll embrace happily, me and all these people: not a glance of grievance, not a syllable of reproach among us. And, indeed, there is no call for grievance. Like pieces in a kaleidoscope that’s been shaken, we’ve all simply shifted positions in the pattern of intimate exchange. Many of us who not so long ago were seeing each other regularly, will meet now more often by accident than by design: in a restaurant, on the bus, at a loft wedding. Ah, but here’s someone I haven’t seen in years. Suddenly, a flare of intensity and we’re meeting once a week for the next six months.
I am often reminded of the tenement friendships in my childhood, circumstantial one and all. Round, dark-eyed women, filled with muted understanding for the needs of the moment. What difference did it make if the next-door neighbor was called Ida or Goldie when you needed someone to lend you ten bucks or recommend an abortionist or nod her head during an outburst of marital rage. It mattered only that there was a next-door neighbor. These attachments, as Sartre might have put it, were contingent rather than essential.
As for us: never before in history has so much educated intelligence been expended on the idea of the irreplaceable—the essential—self; and never before has devotion to the slightest amount of psychological discomfort allowed so many to be treated as the contingent other.
Michel de Montaigne describes the great friendship of his youth with Étienne de la Boétie as one in which a perfect communion of the spirit made the “soul grow refined.” In the 1790s, Samuel Taylor Coleridge worshipped an idea of friendship that embodied the same ideal. Living at a time when persons of sensibility yearned for communion of the spirit, its frequent failure to materialize in friendship made Coleridge suffer, but the pain did not threaten his faith, not even when he lost the friendship that defined all others.
Coleridge and Wordsworth met in 1795 when they were, respectively, twenty-three and twenty-five years old. Wordsworth—grave, thin-skinned, self-protective—was, even then, steadied by an inner conviction of his own coming greatness as a poet; Coleridge, on the other hand—brilliant, explosive, self-doubting to the point of instability—was already into opium. Anyone except them could see that they were bound to come a cropper. In 1795, however, a new world, a new poetry, a new way of being was forming itself, and, at that moment, both Wordsworth and Coleridge, each feeling the newness at work in himself, saw proof of its existence reflected in the person of the other.
The infatuation lasted a little more than a year and a half. At the end of that time, the chaos within Coleridge doubled its dominion; the pride in Wordsworth stiffened into near immobility. The person each had been for nearly two years—the one who had basked in the unbroken delight of the other—was no more. It wasn’t exactly that they were returned to the persons they had been before; it was only that never again would either feel his own best self in the presence of the other.
One’s own best self. For centuries, this was the key concept behind any essential definition of friendship: that one’s friend is a virtuous being who speaks to the virtue in oneself. How foreign is such a concept to the children of the therapeutic culture! Today we do not look to see, much less affirm, our best selves in one another. To the contrary, it is the openness with which we admit to our emotional incapacities—the fear, the anger, the humiliation—that excites contemporary bonds of friendship. Nothing draws us closer to one another than the degree to which we face our deepest shame openly in one another’s company. Coleridge and Wordsworth dreaded such self-exposure; we adore it. What we want is to feel known, warts and all; the more warts the better. It is the great illusion of our culture that what we confess to is who we are.
Every night when I turn the lights out in my sixteenth-floor living room before I go to bed, I experience a shock of pleasure as I see the banks of lighted windows rising to the sky, crowding round me, and feel myself embraced by the anonymous ingathering of city dwellers. This swarm of human hives, also hanging anchored in space, is the New York design offering generic connection. The pleasure it gives soothes beyond all explanation.
The phone rings. It’s Leonard.
“What are you doing?” he asks.
“Reading Krista K.,” I reply.
“Who’s she?” he asks.
“Who’s she!” I say. “She’s one of the most famous writers in Eastern Europe.”
“Oh,” he says matter-of-factly. “What’s the book like?”
“A bit claustrophobic,” I sigh. “You don’t really know where you are most of the time, or who’s speaking. Then every twenty pages or so she says, ‘Ran into G this morning. Asked him how long he thought we could go on like this. He shrugged. Yes, I said.’ ”
“Oh,” Leonard says. “One of those. Bor-ring.”
“Tell me,” I say, “don’t you ever mind sounding like a Philistine?”
“The Philistines were a much maligned people,” he says. “Have you seen Lorenzo lately?”
“He’s drinking again.”
“For God’s sake! What’s wrong now?”
“What’s wrong now? What’s right now? What’s ever right for Lorenzo?”
“Can’t you talk to him? You know him so well.”
“I do talk to him. He nods along with me as I speak. I know, I know, he says, you’re right, I’ve got to pull it together, thanks so much for saying this, I’m so grateful, I don’t know why I fuck up, I just don’t know.”
“Why does he fuck up?”
“Why? Because if he’s not fucking up, he doesn’t know who he is.”
Leonard’s voice has become charged.
“It’s unbelievable,” he swears on, “the muddle in his mind. I say to him, What do you want, what is it you want?”
“Tell me,” I cut in, “what do you want?”
“Touché,” Leonard laughs drily.
There follows a few long seconds of vital silence.
“In my life,” he says, “I have known only what I don’t want. I’ve always had a thorn in my side, and I’ve always thought, When this thorn is removed I’ll think about what I want. But then that particular thorn would be removed, and I’d be left feeling emptied out. In a short time another thorn would be inserted into my side. Then, once again, all I had to think about was being free of the thorn in my side. I’ve never had time to think about what I want.”
“Maybe somewhere in there is a clue to why Lorenzo drinks.”
“It’s disgusting,” Leonard says softly, “to be this old and have so little information. Now, there’s something Krista K. could write about that would interest me. The only problem is she thinks information is what the KGB was after.”
In the drugstore I run into ninety-year-old Vera, a Trotskyist from way back who lives in a fourth-floor walk-up in my neighborhood, and whose voice is always pitched at the level of soapbox urgency. She is waiting for a prescription to be filled, and, as I haven’t seen her in a long while, on impulse I offer to wait with her. We sit down in two of the three chairs lined up near the prescription counter, me in the middle, Vera on my left, and on my right a pleasant-looking man reading a book.
“Still living in the same place?” I ask.
“Where’m I gonna go?” she says, loudly enough for a man on the pick-up line to turn in our direction. “But y’know, dolling? The stairs keep me strong.”
“And your husband? How’s he taking the stairs?”
“Oh, him,” she says. “He died.”
“I’m so sorry,” I murmur.
Her hand pushes away the air.
“It wasn’t a good marriage,” she announces. Three people on the line turn around. “But, y’know? In the end it doesn’t really matter.”
I nod my head. I understand. The apartment is empty.
“One thing I gotta say,” she goes on, “he was a no-good husband, but he was a great lover.”
I can feel a slight jolt in the body of the man sitting beside me.
“Well, that’s certainly important,” I say.
“Boy, was it ever! I met him in Detroit during the Second World War. We were organizing. In those days, everybody slept with everybody, so I did, too. But you wouldn’t believe it”—and here she lowered her voice dramatically, as though she had a secret of some importance to relate—“most of the guys I slept with? They were no good in bed. I mean, they were bad, really bad.”
Now I feel the man on my right stifling a laugh.
“So when you found a good one,” Vera shrugs, “you held onto him.”
“I know just what you mean,” I say.
“Do you, dolling?”
“Of course I do.”
“You mean they’re still bad?”
“Listen to us,” I say. “Two old women talking about lousy lovers.”
This time the man beside me laughs out loud. I turn and look at him.
“We’re sleeping with the same guys, right?” I say.
Yes, he nods. “And with the same ratio of satisfaction.”
For a split second the three of us look at one another, and then, all at once, we begin to howl. When the howling stops, we are all beaming. Together we have performed, and separately we have been received.