Archive for the ‘FICTION’ Category

The Everstarting Story

Sunday, August 4th, 2013

Here at the ALLDERBLOB, we like to think our loyal readers (hi mom!) will awaken from their slumbers and jolt to attention as we post a little “creative writing” [Please. –ed]. This is based on a post on the webpage of the “Amerikan Book Review” [plz czech spelling –ed] entitled “The One Hundred Best Novel Openings” or sommat. What we thunk were if we could paste these strong openings together in a coherent list, we might arrive at a Very Good Story. [UPDATE: there’s a new list in town –over at (famous for its examination of the derring-dos of former Mayor Rob Ford). Does this mean you need to “start again?” –ed]

We call it “The Everstarting Story,” for obvious reasons:

riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs. A story has no beginning or end; arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.

Of all the things that drive men to sea, the most common disaster, I’ve come to learn, is women. The moment one learns English, complications set in. Ages ago, Alex, Allen and Alva arrived at Antibes, and Alva allowing all, allowing anyone, against Alex’s admonition, against Allen’s angry assertion: another African amusement . . . anyhow, as all argued, an awesome African army assembled and arduously advanced against an African anthill, assiduously annihilating ant after ant, and afterward, Alex astonishingly accuses Albert as also accepting Africa’s antipodal ant annexation.

The towers of Zenith aspired above the morning mist; austere towers of steel and cement and limestone, sturdy as cliffs and delicate as silver rods. Time is not a line but a dimension, like the dimensions of space.

I was born in the Year 1632, in the City of York, of a good Family, tho’ not of that Country, my Father being a Foreigner of Bremen, who settled first at Hull; He got a good Estate by Merchandise, and leaving off his Trade, lived afterward at York, from whence he had married my Mother, whose Relations were named Robinson, a very good Family in that Country, and from whom I was called Robinson Kreutznaer; but by the usual Corruption of Words in England, we are now called, nay we call our selves, and write our Name Crusoe, and so my Companions always call’d me.  Granted: I am an inmate of a mental hospital; my keeper is watching me, he never lets me out of his sight; there’s a peephole in the door, and my keeper’s eye is the shade of brown that can never see through a blue-eyed type like me.

She waited, Kate Croy, for her father to come in, but he kept her unconscionably, and there were moments at which she showed herself, in the glass over the mantel, a face positively pale with the irritation that had brought her to the point of going away without sight of him.

I, Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus This-that-and-the-other (for I shall not trouble you yet with all my titles) who was once, and not so long ago either, known to my friends and relatives and associates as “Claudius the Idiot,” or “That Claudius,” or “Claudius the Stammerer,” or “Clau-Clau-Claudius” or at best as “Poor Uncle Claudius,” am now about to write this strange history of my life; starting from my earliest childhood and continuing year by year until I reach the fateful point of change where, some eight years ago, at the age of fifty-one, I suddenly found myself caught in what I may call the “golden predicament” from which I have never since become disentangled. I am an American, Chicago born—Chicago, that somber city—and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent.

Once upon a time two or three weeks ago, a rather stubborn and determined middle-aged man decided to record for posterity, exactly as it happened, word by word and step by step, the story of another man for indeed what is great in man is that he is a bridge and not a goal, a somewhat paranoiac fellow unmarried, unattached, and quite irresponsible, who had decided to lock himself in a room a furnished room with a private bath, cooking facilities, a bed, a table, and at least one chair, in New York City, for a year 365 days to be precise, to write the story of another person—a shy young man about of 19 years old—who, after the war the Second World War, had come to America the land of opportunities from France under the sponsorship of his uncle—a journalist, fluent in five languages—who himself had come to America from Europe Poland it seems, though this was not clearly established sometime during the war after a series of rather gruesome adventures, and who, at the end of the war, wrote to the father his cousin by marriage of the young man whom he considered as a nephew, curious to know if he the father and his family had survived the German occupation, and indeed was deeply saddened to learn, in a letter from the young man—a long and touching letter written in English, not by the young man, however, who did not know a damn word of English, but by a good friend of his who had studied English in school—that his parents both his father and mother and his two sisters one older and the other younger than he had been deported they were Jewish to a German concentration camp Auschwitz probably and never returned, no doubt having been exterminated deliberately X * X * X * X, and that, therefore, the young man who was now an orphan, a displaced person, who, during the war, had managed to escape deportation by working very hard on a farm in Southern France, would be happy and grateful to be given the opportunity to come to America that great country he had heard so much about and yet knew so little about to start a new life, possibly go to school, learn a trade, and become a good, loyal citizen.

The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new. I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me; had they duly considered how much depended upon what they were then doing;—that not only the production of a rational Being was concerned in it, but that possibly the happy formation and temperature of his body, perhaps his genius and the very cast of his mind;—and, for aught they knew to the contrary, even the fortunes of his whole house might take their turn from the humours and dispositions which were then uppermost:—Had they duly weighed and considered all this, and proceeded accordingly,—I am verily persuaded I should have made a quite different figure in the world, from that, in which the reader is likely to see me. Call me Ishmael.

You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter. Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo.

I had the story, bit by bit, from various people, and, as generally happens in such cases, each time it was a different story.

Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.  It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness. One summer afternoon Mrs. Oedipa Maas came home from a Tupperware party whose hostess had put perhaps too much kirsch in the fondue to find that she, Oedipa, had been named executor, or she supposed executrix, of the estate of one Pierce Inverarity, a California real estate mogul who had once lost two million dollars in his spare time but still had assets numerous and tangled enough to make the job of sorting it all out more than honorary. Somewhere in la Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember, a gentleman lived not long ago, one of those who has a lance and ancient shield on a shelf and keeps a skinny nag and a greyhound for racing.  

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.

I will tell you in a few words who I am: lover of the hummingbird that darts to the flower beyond the rotted sill where my feet are propped; lover of bright needlepoint and the bright stitching fingers of humorless old ladies bent to their sweet and infamous designs; lover of parasols made from the same puffy stuff as a young girl’s underdrawers; still lover of that small naval boat which somehow survived the distressing years of my life between her decks or in her pilothouse; and also lover of poor dear black Sonny, my mess boy, fellow victim and confidant, and of my wife and child. But most of all, lover of my harmless and sanguine self. Francis Marion Tarwater’s uncle had been dead for only half a day when the boy got too drunk to finish digging his grave and a Negro named Buford Munson, who had come to get a jug filled, had to finish it and drag the body from the breakfast table where it was still sitting and bury it in a decent and Christian way, with the sign of its Saviour at the head of the grave and enough dirt on top to keep the dogs from digging it up. On my naming day when I come 12 I gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly ben the las wyld pig on the Bundel Downs any how there hadnt ben none for a long time befor him nor I aint looking to see none agen. In the last years of the Seventeenth Century there was to be found among the fops and fools of the London coffee-houses one rangy, gangling flitch called Ebenezer Cooke, more ambitious than talented, and yet more talented than prudent, who, like his friends-in-folly, all of whom were supposed to be educating at Oxford or Cambridge, had found the sound of Mother English more fun to game with than her sense to labor over, and so rather than applying himself to the pains of scholarship, had learned the knack of versifying, and ground out quires of couplets after the fashion of the day, afroth with Joves and Jupiters, aclang with jarring rhymes, and string-taut with similes stretched to the snapping-point. He—for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it—was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters.

Psychics can see the color of time it’s blue. I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974. When Dick Gibson was a little boy he was not Dick Gibson. There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it. This is the saddest story I have ever heard.

Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested. It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not. When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.  He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. He was an inch, perhaps two, under six feet, powerfully built, and he advanced straight at you with a slight stoop of the shoulders, head forward, and a fixed from-under stare which made you think of a charging bull. He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.

Mother died today. Where now? Who now? When now? Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.

Once an angry man dragged his father along the ground through his own orchard. “Stop!” cried the groaning old man at last, “Stop! I did not drag my father beyond this tree.”

Dr. Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature. What if this young woman, who writes such bad poems, in competition with her husband, whose poems are equally bad, should stretch her remarkably long and well-made legs out before you, so that her skirt slips up to the tops of her stockings?

Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person. It was the day my grandmother exploded.  Hiram Clegg, together with his wife Emma and four friends of the faith from Randolph Junction, were summoned by the Spirit and Mrs. Clara Collins, widow of the beloved Nazarene preacher Ely Collins, to West Condon on the weekend of the eighteenth and nineteenth of April, there to await the End of the World.

—Money . . . in a voice that rustled. If I am out of my mind, it’s all right with me, thought Moses Herzog.

The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting. In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. “Take my camel, dear,” said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass. The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.

It was just noon that Sunday morning when the sheriff reached the jail with Lucas Beauchamp though the whole town (the whole county too for that matter) had known since the night before that Lucas had killed a white man. “When your mama was the geek, my dreamlets,” Papa would say, “she made the nipping off of noggins such a crystal mystery that the hens themselves yearned toward her, waltzing around her, hypnotized with longing.”

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. You better not never tell nobody but God. “To be born again,” sang Gibreel Farishta tumbling from the heavens, “first you have to die.” Justice?—You get justice in the next world, in this world you have the law.

The Miss Lonelyhearts of the New York Post-Dispatch (Are you in trouble?—Do-you-need-advice?—Write-to-Miss-Lonelyhearts-and-she-will-help-you) sat at his desk and stared at a piece of white cardboard. You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. I have never begun a novel with more misgiving. It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York. I am an invisible man. Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting. I am a sick man . . . I am a spiteful man. 124 was spiteful. For a long time, I went to bed early. In a sense, I am Jacob Horner.

Having placed in my mouth sufficient bread for three minutes’ chewing, I withdrew my powers of sensual perception and retired into the privacy of my mind, my eyes and face assuming a vacant and preoccupied expression. Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. In the beginning, sometimes I left messages in the street. I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. All this happened, more or less. It was like so, but wasn’t. It was a pleasure to burn. It was love at first sight. It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair. Vaughan died yesterday in his last car-crash. In the town, there were two mutes and they were always together. A screaming comes across the sky. High, high above the North Pole, on the first day of 1969, two professors of English Literature approached each other at a combined velocity of 1200 miles per hour. The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel. They say when trouble comes close ranks, and so the white people did. We started dying before the snow, and like the snow, we continued to fall. Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress. Most really pretty girls have pretty ugly feet, and so does Mindy Metalman, Lenore notices, all of a sudden. It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. They shoot the white girl first. Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. The human race, to which so many of my readers belong, has been playing at children’s games from the beginning, and will probably do it till the end, which is a nuisance for the few people who grow up. Elmer Gantry was drunk. Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Every summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife, Shuyu. I was the shadow of the waxwing slain / By the false azure in the windowpane;


Saturday, October 23rd, 2010

Listing: tipping sideways and slipping beneath the waves. It’s not for everyone. But then, neither is the act of making a list and checking it twice. Listing, like delegating, is the art of assertiveness, attention to detail and steady hands–even as it calls for compromise, trust, and acceptance of our loss of control. Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself.

I’ve gone through life not really minding being told what to do. To be precise, I am a person who aims to please. Erving Goffman identified “other-directed” and “inner-directed” modes of behaviour. I know which one I am. At least, I used to think so.

I spent a lot of time at my grandmother’s house in my late adolescence. Lots of my cousins did too. My grandmother ran a tight ship. I have only fond memories of her yellow legal pad, laid out on the breakfast table every Saturday, filled with the morning’s chores. Here was the list of things that had to be done before one set out for an afternoon’s entertainment. How satisfying it was then to stroke the chores out one-by-one, putting my initials beside the finished job as the day progressed. If only everyone who would tell me what to do could make such an orderly list of instructions. Bosses and mothers and lovers and others: I want to say, “I want to please you, can you just tell me what that would take?”

It’s fun to act. In plays, I mean. A play is no more than a list–a list of actions to be carried out on the stage, a list of lines to be spoken. Directing? Not for me. And as for writing the script, well, I’ve tried. The problem is plot: the actions I list don’t grab people. Acting is fun. Writing is hard. And that’s it in a nutshell: list-makers are a breed apart.

Almost all disciplines call for list-making. Think about it. Architects lay out lists every time they design something. The design is not the thing, it’s only the instructions for the thing to be built. The demands of architecture are myriad. Designing takes dedication and fortitude and assertiveness. Like other kinds of list-making, it also demands compromise and ego-lessness and letting go.

Like architects, poets make lists. Lists are the pith of poetry. They name the events, the stuff of life. Making a list is laying out a path, not describing the path taken. Fiction writing is easier than poetry, although equally hard to do well, because the poem at the heart of every story is fleshed out, generously curved, meandered through at leisure. In prose the list is disguised, but it better be there or there’s no story.

What about teaching? That old saw, “those who can, do…” slags teachers with the notion that teachers are incapable. Many others have rebutted the put-down but there’s a kernel of truth to it. The “doing” of teaching is teaching. I teach design. That’s easy for me. Designing, that’s hard. What do teachers do? The good ones are list-makers. They lay out the day’s work for their students and check off the homework as it’s handed in. Teachers run the classroom. Their act is to direct.

Still, at the end of the day teachers get their marching orders from their directors and deans, and lots of teachers get lazy and teach the same “list” over and over again. Or, if they inherit another teacher’s course outline, teachers become actors in a script written by someone else. I like teaching for the same reason I like acting: it’s a performance, within guidelines: the list is the script. The list is a course outline. As a teacher, I try to rise above the outline–all the more when I am the writer of it.

But most of us listen to others rather than our own hearts. Is it that we are not “disciplined?” We may call it listening to our heads, but our heads are so stuffed with what we read in the paper, or what someone we respect says to us, or what we think will impress someone else, or what we “ought” to do (because it’s the right thing, or because it’s “common sense”) that the list we listen to is often someone else’s, not our own. Our head is our super-ego, it’s not who we really are. Our heart is who we really are. Most of us really need to try hard to hear what our hearts are saying.

Most of us go through life not heeding our hearts. And that’s okay, too, most of the time. Most of the time, as Bob Dylan famously said, “I never think of her at all.” Most of the time, we can motor along on auto-pilot, meeting someone else’s requirements. Following someone else’s orders. Eating the food someone thinks we’ll like, rather than the stuff we really want for ourselves. If only we could be bothered to think about it.

But I’m beginning to think a time must come when I make my own list. It’s scary because I’ve done it so rarely. I’m afraid to get it wrong. Getting it wrong is going to hurt. There’s no delete button on the kind of list I’m talking about. The list predicts your future.

But I’m going to try, because making a list is really about writing your own story. I’m actually the only one who can do that. My heart (I hear it even above the roar in my brain) tells me so.

The Angry Ones

Monday, October 18th, 2010

It’s not you who’s angry. Oh, no, you’re the mild-mannered sort. But you see them, the angry ones, out there. You see them, and you know they know who they are, because if they catch you looking at them they stare back, or they gesture rudely, or they lunge at you. You don’t want to aggravate them further, so you keep your eyes down. You look past them, at a distant bird, or a tree branch waving. You wait until they look the other way, then you watch them. The angry ones. You look at them and try to understand what drives them.

And they are drivers, usually. Most of them are in cars, at least part of the day. If they live in cities, they spend hours looking for parking spots near home. If they live in the country, their trucks kick up clouds of dirt on back roads they rush along to reach town for supplies or to get to work. They drive above the speed limit on residential roads, and they sit bumper-to-bumper on high-speed freeways. Either way, they’re damn angry about it. People on bikes, they better stay out of the way. People on foot, you’ve had fair warning.

But you don’t own a car. You chose your home well–a short walk for groceries, a cafe nearby. You ride a bike here and there, or if you have a long way to go, you take a combination of streetcar, subway and bus. Your commute to work is an hour and a half each way, but you use the time wisely. You study for the exams you have to take, or you read a novel, something you can hold tight to your chest in a crowded vehicle. If there’s a seat free, you study your exam material, or you sharpen your brain against a cryptic crossword or the sudoku puzzle.

If you drove, you’d be there sooner, it’s true. You’d have an extra hour every day to decompress and spend time with your family, or maybe that hour would be set aside to study for your important exams. But you’ve done the drive. You’ve sat beside a friend in a carpool for the hour it takes to get home from work. You’ve put your foot on the imaginary brake on your side of the car, you’ve clutched the seat-rest on a sharp corner. You’ve dealt with the glare from the setting sun, if not from your friend, or the people in cars around you. You saved a half-hour on your commute that day, it’s true, but all you could think about when you got home was having a drink–more than one. The word “decompress” never felt more apt.

Your friend does the drive every day. She’s used to it. But you, no thanks. You don’t mind the extra half hour in transit, if it means you get home unfrazzled. You’ll put the time to good use. After that one time, you find a reason to stay late when she’s ready to leave. After a while she doesn’t offer any more.

No, it’s not you who’s angry. You’re easy-going. You ride a bike across town. It takes you twenty-two minutes, door-to-door, not breaking a sweat, to get to your class. It’s true, in a car you could do it in 17 minutes. Maybe 16. But then there’s parking to find, and a walk to the door. Eight minutes parking, four minutes walking…meanwhile, your bike’s locked to the fence by the door and you’re inside. Never mind the days when the car-drive takes longer. If a main road is under repair, or if there’s a crash, in a car they grit their teeth and wait in line. Sixteen minutes becomes a half-hour, no sweat (and that’s the day they had an important presentation to make, damn it!). On a bike you’d step onto the sidewalk and walk past the obstruction, carrying the machine that carries you. On a bike your 22 minutes is sometimes off by thirty seconds, but you’ll get there when you planned. And you’re still not sweating.

If the city’s shut down for one of its annual marathons, car-drivers freak out. The city’s daily papers fulminate. One mayoral candidate’s entire transportation platform is based on the plan to put runners and bike-riders in city parks, taking them off the street. Bikelanes and residential street-calming strategies get branded the “War on the Car.” It’s all about the driver, and what might slow him or her down.

Drivers are angry, but you’re not. You’re the one they’re angry about. You walk on a green, but that means the drivers have a red. They gun the engine. You slip past them on your bike, in the gutter, but the driver ahead stops only inches from the curb. No biggie. You just pass on the other side. They gun the engine. You better keep your head down. They seem to think if you weren’t there, their day would go faster. It doesn’t make sense. It’s not fair. Doesn’t that piss you off?

In fact, you should be the angry one. Those car-drivers are using up the world’s resources at an unsustainable rate, and for what? They’re doing the same thing you are, only you’re on foot, or you’ve taken transit, or you’re on your bike. What gives them the right? What about the future? You’re doing your part to reduce climate change. You’re doing your part to preserve non-replaceable resources for future use. You’re doing your part to lower demand, which lowers costs for those other people, the angry ones, the ones in cars. Your small footprint leaves extra room for their super-sized one. What do they have to be angry about?

But maybe it’s not them. Maybe it’s you. Maybe your conservation masks intransigence. Maybe you’re just stubborn. Maybe you really are in the way, pressing the button and holding out your hand at the crosswalk. Maybe you could move a little faster if you were in a car, too, even if it just took you to the next red light a little sooner. Maybe your “thoughtfulness” is a mask for inaction. Maybe it’s not that you believe in a “slow” movement, but that you’ve got your back up at being bullied, even if you daren’t say as much. No, you won’t look at the “angry” ones, but you won’t rush out of their way, either. Maybe you secretly like the thought that you’ve slowed them down, even by a second or two. Maybe it pleases you that the person who’s stupid enough to drive, when they could bike or walk just as easily, gets caught in traffic on the day of the marathon and takes an hour just to cross an intersection. The same intersection you slip across on foot, or sail under on the subway. Are you laughing? Are you enjoying their misery? You’re smug, that’s clear. But are you also angry, and taking it out on those idiots?

Maybe it’s time you got a car of your own, and joined the human race.

The Smorgasbord

Friday, October 1st, 2010

How do you approach a huge table laden with lip-smacking food? The fact is, we have only one stomach. And the restaurant serves its meal for just the hours of 11 a.m. to three p.m., so you have to be focused. I’m guessing you have your system. If I get around to it, I’ll tell you mine. But first, here’s what I’ve noticed people will do.

Some people sample a bit of everything. They want to try things they’ve never had before, as well as things they know pretty well and have even sometimes cooked at home. They heap their plate and go back to their table with a smattering of tidbits from every section of the buffet. They never get to know any one kind of food really well, but they have a delicious variety of experiences, each one pleasurable in its own, brief way.

Some people take the opposite approach. They decide to focus on one kind of food, and they really enjoy it. If it’s the roast beef, they have some of the well-done outer part, they have some that’s runny with blood from the middle, they have some smothered in gravy and they have some seasoned with horse-radish. They eat it with mashed potatoes or with beans, they grind on a little pepper or they shake on some salt, or they eat it just as it comes, from the platter. They chew the fat or they nibble the gristle. They really come away with a full understanding of roast beef. They’re experts in roast beef by the end of the meal.

Some people skip the entrees and go straight to the dessert table. They only want what they never have at home, the rich chocolate, the whipped cream, the fancy oozing yummy part of the meal.

Some folks can’t decide what to do. They walk around the banquet and don’t know where to start. In the extreme cases, they hover from one part to the other, watching others enjoy themselves but never really tasting or trying anything. It’s as if the plenitude of choices overwhelms their ability to make a choice or to begin somewhere. Then the restaurant closes and they are asked to leave, even though they have not eaten anything. It’s sad, really–but no one’s to blame but themselves.

I’ve seen others who come with a friend or loved one, and sit down, and let their friend choose their meal for them. Are they lazy? Incurious? No doubt they enjoy the food they’re served, but why not take a chance? Why relinquish all control like that? It’s strange. Maybe they like the fact that if they have a “bad” meal, they can blame the other person.

There’s another way to approach the burden of choice a smorgasbord presents. Just stay home. Eat the leftover noodles from the fridge. Put some tomato sauce on it for something special. Stay away from the rich variety of food that others are enjoying. Keep it simple, stupid. What you don’t know won’t hurt you. It’s sad, really.

Here’s what I do, and I’m not proud of it. I crave the in-depth knowledge of one kind of food that I described in the first example. I load up on roast beef and all its permutations, and I bring it back to the table. I dig in. But after a few bites, I get curious about what I see my neighbour eating. That lobster looks really delicious! So I leave my plate of roast beef and I go back for lobster. When I come back to my spot, I push my barely-tasted plate of roast beef to one side and get cracking on the crustacean. But you know what? It’s not long before I notice someone else digging in to a falafel sandwich, or another person with a plate of cold salmon, or someone with a really good-looking Greek salad. And I leave aside my lobster and go for one of those other choices. The meal ends with my place surrounded by half-finished entrees, as if I’m going to set up my own little restaurant there at my table. There’s just not enough time to do justice to each kind of food. I end my meal without finishing anything, and a lot gets wasted. It’s not very sustainable, obviously–but worse, I miss both the satisfaction of doing one kind of thing really well, and that which comes from doing a variety of different things at an “amateur” level.

I need to work on this.

The smorgasbord is life, of course. You are what you eat, as they say.

What are you?

In the Time Remaining Before I Quit and Join Up

Sunday, September 19th, 2010

Winner of 3rd prize (shared 2 ways) in the New York Press “Autobiography Contest” Fall, 1988
(Published as “Countdown” by J. Letchworth Allderdice)
This is part of a larger work I once planned (and wrote one other piece of) about the work of an architecture firm in New York City in the late 1980s.

This is all happening about the time that I quit folding out the sofa-bed to sleep at night. For a while I’d been leaving it folded down, but then someone was over, or I wanted to sit up and read, or maybe it was to retrieve something that had fallen behind. In any case up it came, and ever since I’ve not been folding it down to sleep at night. I lie there in its lap and by morning my face has taken the mesh imprint of the cover. I sleep with my nose snug in the crotch of the V, breathing through inches of cotton batting, making imperceptible traces in the gathering dust behind the couch.

I’m still taking care of my plants, remembering to water them, but since Wednesday I haven’t brushed my teeth. When I brushed my teeth on Wednesday the acid in the toothpaste and the bristles rubbed against a sore on my lip, stinging it and making me salivate.

At the moment I’m lying down on the sofa on my back, a ragged blanket that the streetlight’s made more yellow than ever tickling my neck. My toes pad against the naugahyde cover of a suitcase at the other end. I have two timepieces that run fast or slow, and their ticking spirals into the air above me like two ribbons of smoke, like a molecule of DNA, the strands in tension. “Ticky-ticky-ticky,” and “Tick-ah, tick-ah, tick-ah,” round and round, up to the ceiling, an opening and closing of shimmering light that passes from my room into the apartment upstairs. It’s still on its way up, but I’m in sleeping position, collecting cotton dust in my lungs; now I’m asleep.

The alarm clock’s tiny cry licks my ear in a kittenish way, like a swab of disinfectant applied before an injection. There’s a scum on my teeth about an eighth of an inch thick and I can’t open my right eye. I reach over to cut off the pitiful noise but my hand swings wild, numb from its inhuman position all night, and smashes into the steel edge of the bookshelf.

I’m scraping my teeth with a greenish towel that was here when I moved in. the terry-cloth picks up a slime of brown blood and yellow blanket fibers. One fiber remains lodged between two teeth and I tweeze it out with my fingers. It reminds me of when I used to floss. Halfway out it breaks so I’ll be walking around with this plastic thread in my mouth all day.

In the mirror, which is spattered with stuff but clear near the middle, I fumblingly tie a knot around my neck to wear to work. High on my cheek I spot a blackhead with its single hair. Out it comes, sticky as lemon pie filling, the colour of window putty, and I smear it from the back of my fingernail on to the frame of the mirror.

My food crunches wholesomely as I chew it: dry shredded wheat. There’s milk in the fridge but I forgot to fetch it out when I sat down and now my watch, which gains around seven minutes an hour so is about forty minutes off, definitely says go: “Go, ticky ticky go!”

I calibrate my life morning and night on Blimpie time, at the corner. From the sidewalk I peer through the plate glass window into the dark interior, and find the clock on the wall amidst reflections of gingko leaves, shrilly autumnal, yellow, vivid, horrible. I make out the minute hand, I’m squinting and somebody at the table just in front of me dumbly looks back. He opens his mouth in what could be a small burp; his mouth closes and then he’s sinking his teeth into what—it looks like it has a lot of mayo, anyway. He turns his back on me. He’s got on a camouflage jacket and a wool cap with a fairly large splash of white paint on it.

The “tock” of a woman’s heels comes closer from my left and I stand still adjusting my watch for a moment longer than it really takes. “Tock-tock, tock-tock,” and my watch, probably, “Ticky, ticky, ticky,” as a faint shred of perfume reaches me on a breeze. I frown, sunshine glinting off the bezel, the tocking growing louder, louder, shouting, then passing behind me. The second hand drips towards its nadir and I turn to look and to follow, if she’s going the right way.

Down the street past a couple stores until she, in a red knit suit, enters a fruit stand. I’m not going to wait for that. I realize I saw her two weeks ago and she did the same thing. This relationship is not going to work out. I guess I want a woman who eats breakfast at home in the morning.

I come to the corner where the school-kids hang out, waiting for the last possible call to class, showing off their clothes and their cigarettes, concretizing the cliques. The same clump of five girls always sits on the four-step entryway to an apartment there; the space has an ineffective iron railing and a gate that swings open if you lean on it. And just ahead of me a girl with long dirty-blond hair hanging in dreadlocks, wearing fishnet stockings under a jean skirt, the stockings with big gaps where one got away, stumbles backwards from where a guy’s trying to pour coffee onto her by the pay phone, just clowning around I guess but I stop short and she realizes she’s almost banged into me, gives a sheepish look and hollers at him; I shake my head and roll my eyes to nobody in particular. Like, whatever happened to dress codes? The light’s green and I continue walking.

The sun shines spottily through the start-up smoke of a hundred dirty chimneys along the street. A mote tickles the back of my nose, making me sneeze. A guy in a camouflage jacket blesses me from where he stands in a coffeeshop doorway. I mutter a bleary “thanks” and walk on.

There’s a line of people waiting for the bank doors to open at 9:00 and I think about that as I pass them. The poor fools, if they only knew what I know they’d break that line, they’d sell their stocks and open a pig farm in the South Bronx, they’d—whup!—I dodge around some old lady with a six-pointed cane who’s trying to negotiate the curb just as the light turns and a mail truck honks at her. A guy in a camouflage jacket solicitously reaches to help her out, and I’m at the next corner, just two blocks from work.

It’s a wide street with two-way traffic and subway entrances, newsstands, trucks from over the river and dented and rusting Japanese cars from the seventies competing for places at the starting line, all of them outclassed by the manoeuvers of the yellow cabs. At this moment a city bus, greenish light reflecting off its tinted windows, its horn in a Doppler effect now high now low, coasts to the stop in front of me, its wheels passing less than a foot from the bonnet of a baby carriage at the edge of the curb. The side door ejects a skinny guy in a loose-fitting camouflage jackets and two school kids who are gonna be late if they don’t watch out. The bus groans and ticks; a fart of brown diesel air erupts from its innards and anaesthetizes some litter in the gutter. The bus wrenches back into traffic and I walk.

The people in line at the corner are rustling their overcoats around them and looking expectantly in through the glass doors, to where some clerk bends to fiddle with a lock at ankle-height. These steps are the nightly home of a rag-tag band of beer drinkers and stoop piddlers. The whole thing is swabbed each morning with disinfectant; milky-white traces of it glimmer on the flagstones now.

In front of the lumber shop two guys in camouflage jackets off-load gypsum board from a flatbed truck, arguing about which end should go up. The one in front sets his end down to tie his shoe, leaving two feet of sidewalk to the pedestrians and causing his partner, who didn’t see it coming, to hit his chin on his end and drop the whole thing. The back one is rubbing his chin and looking at the little puddle of plaster dust on the sidewalk, while the one in front, who sees the boss storming out from inside the store, grabs his end and drags the whole board forward. I squeeze past just as the boss arrives to scream at the two loafers.

The clock at the reception desk shows four minutes past as I tick the in-box by my name; I’m a little bit late but the workstations near mine are all empty still. I sit down and pick up a leadholder and begin another day.