WRITER WANNABE SEEKS BRUSH WITH DEAT H : Introduction

Jenna Orkin


In the profile of William Hickey, one of the pieces in this book, Hickey says, "Art is the opposite of life. In life we never know the end. In art we know the end but never the beginning."
I'd like that not to be true here. So whenever I've thought it might enhance the reader's understanding of a story or memoir, I've added an explanation of how the piece came about - the incidents motivating it or thoughts surrounding it. Although many names and identifying details have been changed, I believe in full disclosure in writing, at least in theory. Life is mysterious enough.
About those people whose names have been changed and all that: There's still a lingering sense of guilt in writing about them. One is always describing their most unattractive traits, highlighting their most insensitive moments. Writing isn't a nice profession. You end up biting the hand that feeds you. The English teacher described in the memoir below, for instance, comes off as humorless and uncaring. She was the opposite but I, as an adolescent, managed to make myself into a victim whenever the opportunity presented itself. It's partly because of her that I write at all.

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WRITER WANNABE SEEKS BRUSH WITH DEATH

When I was five, I folded over a piece of paper, got an eyebrow pencil from my mother's make-up table and wrote a children's book. It began (and ended): "Once upon a time, there was a long, long Queen." Soon after, school started and with it, the drama of friendship. Writing went into hibernation.
The summer before I turned ten, we moved to England. Looking back, homesick, I wrote a movie based on a book about a gang of children in the Village. The book was called The Bells of Bleecker Street. I'd only been to the Village once, for an avant-garde production of Rumpelstiltskin but I missed my gang of friends.
Writing a script was satisfying because it didn't take long to finish a page. I'd covered eleven pages when once more school took over; writing went underground.
We moved back to New York four years later. For the first time, I went to a private school. This school meant business. And its business, as far as I could see, was writing. Math was hard, but required only mathematical understanding. French and Latin were hard but required only memory. English was where we would prove the mettle of our soul.
The English teacher who was the artistic mastermind of the school cultivated lonely, poetic types. Consciously or not, she instilled in us these commandments: Good work is dark, heavy, dredged up from the soggy depths of suffering. The artist offers her happiness as a sacrifice to the gods of Art. Go, thou and do likewise. Suffer and it'll all come out in the work.
I set out to suffer. This wasn't hard at a school where friendship was seen as an obstacle to academic success. But writers were supposed to be unhappy. Surely I was on the right track for writing heavy, poetic stories, just what the English teacher ordered.
It didn't work out that way. For while she admired suffering as a source of inspiration, the English teacher recoiled if it bared itself too brazenly. "Sometimes we have to rise above our own lives," she told a girl who'd written about a love-hate relationship with food. It seemed there were other commandments: Draw not on thy own experience: too easy, self-absorbed. No one else will be interested. Thou shalt disguise thy loneliness as something else. Let us see only its shy form in the distance. Do not show it to us close up with its folds of flesh, its crying, craving craw.
I froze over, numbed. Draw not on thy own experience; it's too lowly to be of interest to anyone else.... What could I write that was high-falutin'?
We'd been reading Paradise Lost. In homage to Milton and the English teacher who revered him, I wrote a monologue by God. In it, God was angry at the state of the world. I wasn't angry at the state of the world but I knew there were things I should be angry about so I wrote about them. The assignment got a B. I wasn't angry enough. .
Later we were assigned to write a satire. (We'd been reading Swift). I decided to satirize religion. Real writers were always satirizing it: Didn't Swift or Pope or somebody satirize the holiness professed by some congregants who wore lace and finery? Religion was a juicy yet lofty subject. I would get points just for thinking of it.
My family had never been to a religious service within my lifetime although my mother had a Catholic girlhood and my father probably had a Bar Mitzvah. To research the satire I went to St. Thomas' on 53rd and 5th one Sunday morning and observed the congregation.
They didn't do anything offensive. They didn't come out of church and insult the homeless man leaning against the wall. Their clothes were probably fine but I'm not one of those people who can size up clothes, telling at a glance whether the seams will hold, or the wool refrain from balling up or whatever it is that makes clothes "good." But if their clothes were fine, they weren't outrageously fine. I didn't see expensive jewelry flash but then, I'm no good at sizing up jewelry either. And I had the feeling expensive jewelry didn't flash.
This project was also doomed to mediocrity, of course. With a sigh for lack of a better idea, I invented finery for the congregation and haughty remarks for them to make to the homeless man. What else was there to do - satirize the English teacher? The school? I took both seriously.
I read widely, reading being an honorable way to avoid homework and essential to my writer's apprenticeship. One evening as I emerged, groggy, from a weekend with Hemingway, I decided that in order to have something to write about, a writer had to live dangerously. What I needed was an encounter with death. I was too cowardly to do anything about this realization but a few years later, life came through on its own.

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I'd been out of college two years waiting tables by day, writing by night. I'd majored in Music and wanted my day job to be teaching Music Theory but that had turned out to be as quixotic a notion as writing. You needed a Ph. D. and I'd had it with school.
One empty day in August, Tanya called. Tanya was a family friend who'd woven in an out of our lives for the last twenty years; maybe more, I couldn't remember her that far back. She saw her role towards me as that of surrogate aunt. At my age she'd been a struggling actress and she knew I was a struggling music teacher and writer. She wanted to help and an opportunity had come up.
An actor friend of hers, Robert Crane, needed someone to clean his house for the next three weekends. His regular housekeeper ("A bit of a dictator," Tanya said, "but tip-top at cleaning,") had gone home to Germany for the month. Robert was eccentric - Tanya described a few of the ways but they didn't sound alarming and the pay was eight dollars an hour, two dollars above the going rate as befitted a tip-top housekeeper.
Saturday morning at ten I rang the bell. No one answered. I tried again and waited. Then I knocked. As in a fairy-tale, the door to the apartment opened by itself at the touch. Cautiously, I went in. Propped against the hall mirror was a note: Genevieve: Start in living-room. 2) Kitchen. Vacuum cleaner in hall closet.
I had my work cut out for me. As Tanya had described, the housekeeper hadn't been there in a week and the dog, Celine, hadn't been walked in four years. No one knew why. But Celine's shaky command of paper-training ensured that my salary, which had seemed a windfall on the phone, would be well-earned.
After picking up Celine's messes, I parted the shoes in the closet and pulled the vacuum cleaner from behind an overgrowth of coats. As the vacuum bumped over a sneaker, the bag fell out, spilling its most recent contents: a mass of dust packed into a cylindrical shape, fragments of tissue paper, a nickel, two amyl nitrate capsules and an amyl nitrate wrapper.
I soon learned why. Vacuuming the living-room, I lifted the skirt of the couch to expose three more wrappers lying in a line as though left by the tide. The vacuuming done, I fluffed the couch cushions; more capsules lay beneath. Amyl nitrates appeared everywhere, like locusts. When I put away paper clips in the desk, amyl nitrates rolled in the drawers. Amyl nitrates fell out of scripts, a volume of Auden and Robert's Rolodex. Amyl nitrates were in the cupboards, among the teabags and under the kitchen sink next to the Brillo. In a set of china containers labelled Coffee, Sugar, Spices, they were Sugar.
At eleven, Robert shuffled into the living-room.
"Morning," he mumbled. It might have been a greeting or a curse.
Meeting Robert taught me that acting is like the lottery. The actors I knew back then went to class, worked out, hoped for a break and got nothing. Robert did as little as possible and got everything.
Not given to working out, he was bloated as Humpty Dumpty with wet lips that hung open, quivering, and sparse hair that sprouted like a pineapple's tuft. This didn't matter, however, because Robert did voice-overs. Even if Tanya hadn't told me, I would have instantly identified his voice as that of the Tastee catfood commercials.
He stumbled to the bar and poured himself a shot. I remembered that Tanya had also said he was an alcoholic. This, apparently, didn't matter either. For although he didn't show up at the studio til noon, he had what amounted to tenure; his voice which could purr silkily, was unmistakably identified with Tastee. So each year he made two hundred thousand dollars for a few days' work.
The kitchen sink was filled with dishes placed at perilous angles with what looked like a considered effort at randomness. The surplus lay on the counter and the drying rack. I couldn't figure out where the food had come from because the fridge was empty. Or rather, it had the trademark contents of the bachelor - a jar of olives, half a jar of mustard crusting at the rim, an opened bottle of wine.
I got to work on the dishes, a chore I avoided at home. But at Robert's I scrubbed industriously. Not only was there the pleasure of transforming a mess. But also, as cleaning gigs go, the job was turning out to be fun. All morning, Robert's friends and neighbors came and went performing chores which he'd concocted to keep them around: Morton took his shirts to the cleaner's; Alekande picked them up. Blair fed the fish. Blair had been in a car accident a few years before and couldn't bend his knees. In order to feed the fish, whose tank was near the ground, he got on the floor, did a pushup with one hand and shook the food in. The mystery of the humans' food was solved when, at one, Alekande announced, "Who's hungry? I'm calling Beijing Palace."
On the other side of the wall from the tundra of the fridge was the oasis of the bar. This was the province of Vladimir who arrived with a brown paper bag containing a fresh supply of vodka. Ralph, the delivery boy from the liquor store, also showed up several times that day.
As the only woman, I felt like Snow White with the seven dwarves. In the middle of the bustle Robert sat, Grumpy, I suppose, roaring, "Who's seen my yellow shirt? Alekande, have you got my yellow shirt? I told you not to take my yellow shirt."
"Why does Alekande put up with this?" I asked Morton.
"Why do any of us put up with it? Who do you think is paying off his college tuition loan? And mine? And Blair's physical therapy bills? At times, the quality of the food makes up for any drawbacks of the ambience. But basically, we're all Nevada whores, doing what we have to do to improve our lot in life. Has he asked you out to dinner yet?"
"No."
"He will."
I worked for two weekends wondering what these people, who constituted a family of sorts and who seemed bent on a career of hanging out, were doing with their lives. But I felt that I belonged here, at least for now. For I was not doing anything with my life that made sense to other people. I wrote but hadn't published anything. I was looking for a job teaching Music Theory but hadn't found one.
At six o'clock on Sunday of the second weekend I got my dinner invitation. I wanted to go home - I was still waiting on tables and hadn't had a day off in two weeks - but I also hadn't been paid for the weekend yet. Robert saw my hesitation.
"Oh, come on," he said, "I've already made the reservation."
I realized that, as with his friends and neighbors, accompanying him to dinner was part of the contract.
He called a limo which took us to a restaurant - in the east eighties, I think - that was so exclusive I never learned its name. There was no sign outside. If you were walking by, you would just think it was another brownstone.
"The last time I was here," Robert said as we descended the steps, "was with Jackie O." I could almost believe this. Probably she'd been there having dinner with somebody else.
There was a pink rose on each table and the meal, which I don't remember except that it was exquisite, came to 200$. This was vast, in those days. Robert, who'd been drinking since eleven and had ordered wine for both of us which he alone drank, didn't touch his food. I stared at it as though to absorb it by osmosis. I longed to take it home in a paper bag but didn't ask. After dinner we got back into the limo which was waiting outside.
"Take us back to 87 Central Park West, please," Robert said to the driver. I wanted to be paid and as Robert was too drunk to do anything to me I didn't protest the instruction. At Seventy-Ninth street, his appetite returned so we stopped at Macdonald's where he had a hamburger.
As we entered Robert's building, his steps waxed and waned over the marble floor.
"Malcolm, you sonofa whoreson, I told you to send Emilio up yesterday. What happened?" he roared at the doorman, as though performing a combination of Lear and Falstaff.
"Hello, sweetness and light," returned the doorman. "Malcolm will be in in the morning. I'll tell him you asked for him."
I gathered this was a typical scene.
"I have to go," I said when we got upstairs. "I've got to get up for work tomorrow."
"I suppose that means you want your check," Robert returned.
I didn't say anything.
"Don't you have any manners?
'You can have your 'check,'" he continued, putting the word in scornful quotation marks as though to hold it at arm's length. "I'll give you a 'check' that's so large you'll be too embarrassed to cash it.
'But first, tell me about music." He elongated the "mu" with a musical lilt. It was eleven thirty and I saw myself turning into Scheherazade for the long night ahead. I told him some stories from the backs of record jackets - the sort of stories that interest people who feel more secure with human anecdote than with the abstraction of music: Albeniz was fat and never practised; Rachmaninov died when a bookshelf fell on him.
"I thought composers all died of syphilis," Robert said, gearing up for an intellectually invigorating conversation. Getting out of there wasn't going to be easy.
"That was a hundred years ago."
"Who was the one who wrote dirty poems?"
"Mozart wrote dirty letters," I said wildly, hoping that would satisfy his yearning for dirt.
"Thank you," replied Robert with a dignity which, it seemed to me, the circumstances didn't merit.
He scrawled a check, dropping it at my feet as he passed me on his way to the bedroom. Not too proud to pick it up, I looked at the amount: A hundred and forty dollars for the week-end. I was not embarrassed; on the contrary, I wondered if Robert was secretly sober. Except that the next day when I deposited the check, the bank officer had to call him to confirm the illegible signature.
The following Saturday after work Robert took everyone out to dinner: Blair the fish-feeder, Blair's roommate, Josh; me, Tanya and Tanya's ex-husband, Jake. Jake was an ex-alcoholic and as we walked back to Robert's apartment he lectured Robert about A.A.
"Fuck off," Robert replied in what was to prove one of the more civilized exchanges of the remainder of the evening.
But Jake didn't fuck off. By the time we got upstairs (Blair and Josh having discreetly gone home) the two were shouting at each other, advancing and retreating in what might have appeared, to an onlooker in the building across the street, like a fencing match around the living-room.
"Help me with the leash," Tanya whispered harshly, taking advantage of the brouhaha to take Celine out before Robert noticed.
I fumbled with the clasp and Tanya coaxed the uncertain dog out the door for her first walk in four years.
I hovered in the shadowy hallway, waiting for a chance to sneak out after them. Then from somewhere - a desk drawer, probably, Robert produced a gun. What I know for sure is that he stood waving it in the air, his body weaving over a coffee-table in the corner that had been hand-painted by an actress friend.
It was hard to take him seriously. But although Robert was full of hot air, it was possible the gun wasn't. As I closed the front door softly behind me, there was a crash. Robert had thrown the gun down onto the coffee-table, shattering it.
Jake fled after me, panting, sweating, wide-eyed.
"Let's take the stairs," I said, knowing that in a moment Robert would follow.
We disappeared through the service exit, Robert's voice at the door of his apartment growing fainter as we ran down a flight and rang for the elevator. I hugged Jake, a way of hiding behind him, I think. His heart pounded like Robert's footsteps which I imagined pursuing us. (The following month Jake would die of emphysema, diabetes and hypertension.)
Outside the building, we ran into Tanya who, with the satisfied look of one who's achieved a long-awaited goal, was about to return the dog upstairs.
"I don't think that's such a great idea," I said and explained why.
The three of us took the dog to Tanya's house where Tanya and I slept in her doublebed and Jake slept on a convertible in the living-room.
All night the phone rang and with imperturbable patience, the machine took messages. The next morning we listened to them.
They were, of course, from Robert: "[Unintelligible growling]... lowest bunch of prissy, do-gooder ne'er-do-wellers I've ever had the misfortune to break bread with. [Unintelligible.] I should perhaps tell you that I called the police and you've been charged with kidnapping the dog."
Soon after, the police arrived and took down our version of the events of the night before. But they didn't seem interested and there was no follow-up. They did mention, however, that the gun had been loaded.
I'd stared down the barrel of that wildly waving gun into the tunnel of nothingness. I didn't need to see it again. In September I enrolled in a Ph.D. program that entailed a teaching fellowship in Music History. In the evenings I wrote, in the belief that having confronted nothingness was something.