At first, I regretted that the crowd was shouting louder, wasn’t giving out the sort of orgasmic screams you hear at the opera after an aria, because I wanted Ben Miles – the entire cast of Wolf Hall, but more than any of the others, Ben Miles, to know that we loved him. Later, on my way home, I reflected that perhaps a greater tribute than screaming applause (although we the audience did scream and applaud) was our silence. When Henry VIII signs five death warrants, he sits in a shaft of fog-shrouded light, at a table. Cromwell hands him a warrant. The king pauses, then signs. Rafe Sadler (who is played in the PBS series by Thomas Brodie Sangster, who I admire to excess, but that’s another story) who is played by Joshua Silver, steps forward, sprinkles powder to dry the fresh ink of the signature, removes the document and steps back into his position of relative shadow.
This happened five times, without dialogue, without music. I could hear the air whooshing from the cooling vents in the Winter Garden Theater (my father was in HVAC, so I notice these things). From the audience, there was no coughing, no rustling. There was not a throat clearing. I was aware of the spot on my spine that these days aches when I’ve been sitting too long and we were now entering the sixth hour of theater, but I compared my mild suffering–much like the many fervent clergy who had been part of the five hours of drama preceeding this moment, who flamboyantly proclaimed their willingness to suffer to achieve salvation–to that of what Ben Miles must be experiencing. For two and half hours that afternoon, and two and a half hours that evening, he had been onstage the entire time. He would start to exit a scene, then pivot to face a new set of players, like a knight on a chessboard. He rarely (and I do mean rarely) even sat down. When he wasn’t standing or moving, he was kneeling to a king or a bishop, a former queen, a queen to be.
Wolf Hall is being presented on Broadway by the RSC in two discrete plays: Wolf Hall, and Bring Up the Bodies, each based upon the book of the same title. They are the first two books (each won the Booker prize, a rarity for a series) of a trilogy by Hilary Mantel about Thomas Cromwell, and his role during part of the reign of King Henry VIII. Tudor England has always interested me, since Anne of a Thousand Days, which I didn’t get to see when it was first released but read the book, which was most likely a novelization of a screenplay based on a play, but I was a child at the time, so I read anything I could get my hands on. I’m a bit more discriminating now, and perhaps I’m fairly arrogant about my own writing, but it is rare that I read a novel by a contemporary author and think, maybe I should just hang this up and open a wine bar, because I will never be that. But that is how I felt when I read Wolf Hall, and I proceeded, while waiting for Bring Up the Bodies, to read her other writings, and to generally worship Hilary Mantel (see my earlier post, “History Dames”). For me, the Broadway production of Wolf Hall was among the best theater I have ever seen.
The dialogue is witty and contemporary without seeming anachronistic. Much of it is taken directly from the books, so much so that the Tony nominating committee has decided that Hilary Mantel should be credited as a co-playwright. The production values are of the latest trend for the RSC — large, high sets with minimal props (tables, chairs) brought on and removed by the actors, with the interesting (and well-used in this case) innovation of strips of fire to indicate the fire of a fireplace and also the mayhem of vandalizing fire. This firestrip was also put to use in the recent and uneasy Romeo and Juliet with Orlando Bloom. That production suffered, as Wolf Hall does not, with a number of “look at me! I’m acting!” performances. You don’t look at the acting in Wolf Hall because you are watching the characters–easily manipulated Henry, overplaying-her-hand Anne, boasting George Boleyn, and always the crafty, patient, loyal and vengeful Cromwell. Thanks to the skill of the writing and acting, they are swiftly familiar and often exasperating, like more clever and less clumsy versions of people you already know.
All that said, this might not be the play for you. This was a self-selecting audience: one with enough money for the tickets (if you buy tickets to both you get a break, but it’s still $220 for a day’s entertainment) and enough education and interest in this specific area of history. A man turned around during intermission of the first play to ask if I was a teacher (I’ve learned that if, while sitting in the audience at a play, you mention more than two other plays, people think you are a teacher.) He told me that he had taught high school English for 38 years, which made him, in my eyes, a far greater martyr than Sir Thomas More on stage there. The woman in the next seat for the second play spoke at length to me about the novels, reminding me of bits of dialogue I’d forgotten.
We audience were primarily women. I’d say 85%. We were all ardent fans already. From the conversations I had with seatmates, ladies-in-waiting for the restroom, and people at the next table at dinner (during the dinner break, which comes relatively early, so it was easy to spot fellow “Wolf Hall-ers”) the audience had read the books and/or but mainly and were watching the PBS series. If you don’t know what you are going to see, you would be lost. There are a few grounding bits of dialogue (“It’s been 18 years!” and “this is 1503!”) but no long expository exchanges of dialogue. The scenes are swift and cinematic, but there is a lot of ground to cover.
Theater is spectacle, and Wolf Hall is spectacular. The stagecraft alone — the lighting and the costumes — are breathtaking. Characters scurry about, becapped, in black, dark grey or foreshadowing blood-red, scurrying across the stage, scheming, betraying, blundering, while Cromwell, who unveils new hard-won skills only when they are needed (“I was a solider.” “I was in the silk trade.” “I was a banker in Florence.”) keeps a ledger of grudges and insults, scores he will settle.
On occasion the busyness stops and we are caught in a tableau, as when Henry signs the death warrants, when Cromwell, spends a last quiet moment with his wife, when meek Jane Seymour, in virginial white, penetrates Cromwell’s many masks with her sincere offering of sympathy for the loss of his wife and daughters. These scenes are lit like a Vermeer painting, except that in Vermeer, women in isolated rooms sit in the illumination of a window, sewing a hem, writing a letter, awaiting their fate, which will be decided in a far different painting, say, a Rembrandt, where sallow men bicker over points of theology and law, or an impromptu militia charges into heedless action.
Henry wanted a son so that upon his death England would not descend into the civil war from which it had only recently emerged. Protestant stirrings were creeping in from the low countries, after the invention of the printing press increased the availability of books, leading to an increase of literacy, leading to the idea that people might want to read Scripture themselves in their native tongue, rather than have it presented to them by a priest. “Is there a Pope in the Bible?” asks Cromwell. “Are there monks, nuns?” Wolf Hall balances these and a dozen other ideas — how harshly grief haunts, the harsh demands of loyalty, the fleeting nature of power — and in doing so creates a world I never wanted to leave, even after five and a half hours.
Yesterday was my birthday and when I looked in the mirror, I realized I had Lady Hair. It’s not quite “the helmet.” I don’t set it in rollers or cover it in hairspray (does anyone do that anymore?) but it’s definitely short in the “this is all the hair you get” way rather than the “this flatters my face” way. Last fall I walked into the salon and told my stylist, “Let’s just end this.” “This” being the ends that would never re-ravel and grow healthy, but would always remain split, and broken, until I cut them off.
This is a metaphor, you see.
This week the weather began to flirt with spring and one morning I decided that I could resume the ritual of my morning walk. My morning walk means I forego the subway and walk about a mile and a half to catch a bus which will take me over the Queensboro Bridge and drop me off a mere block from my office. While walking through Astoria’s still (but threatened) pleasantly residential streets, I listen to podcasts. Monday, I started with This American Life (“TAL”).
And it was devastating.
This week’s episode explored some happy-clappy initiative a decade back where extremely poor high school students in the South Bronx were paired up with pen pals at an elite ($43,000 a year in tuition. For high school.) Westchester private school. One day there was a field trip. The Bronx students piled into a bus and were released three miles later (the episode is called “Three Miles”) onto a verdant, hilly campus with a pool, a dance studio, and a freestanding library.
And one Bronx student, Melanie, had a meltdown.
She realized at that moment, she told the TAL reporter who tracked her down with no little difficulty ten years later, that the game was rigged. Potential was a lie. The elite students would be doctors, lawyers, professionals, while she and her classmates would grow up to mop their floors and hold their doors. Melanie was bright and driven. She had been outraged at her surroundings on her first day of high school, a day she had happily anticipated all her life. She knew she deserved better. Her high school had no library, no gym, no cafeteria, no playground, and she appears to have achieved her education mostly on her own. She earned a spot to complete for one of the scholarship granted by The Posse Foundation (the process, however well-intended, comes off as a bit callous and dismissive). She made it to the final round for a full ride to Middlebury College. And then she was rejected.
“Devastated” is an overused word, but here are the actions taken by the 17 year old Melanie after she was rejected by the Posse Foundation. She didn’t apply to any other college. She didn’t apply to a state college, where she might have thrived among more similar students. She didn’t apply to a city college, or one of the borough community colleges. She was a loser, in her own eyes. Worthless. She hated herself for not getting into Middlebury. Her sense of failure and shame became her Scarlet Letter. She took her GED exam, left high school before her classmates graduated, and vanished from the lives of everyone who cared about her. It took the TAL reporter serious legwork to track Melanie down. Melanie now works in a grocery store on Sixth Avenue. She has a boyfriend, she takes the occasional college course, but she has words for the guidance counselors and careworn teachers of her high school, who had been startled out of their besiegement by her “potential”: “Be fuckin’ realistic. Don’t tell me I can ‘achieve anything.’ Don’t tell me I can go to Harvard. Be fuckin’ realistic.”
Having been held up as a beacon of what is possible was too much of a burden, particularly when there was no one to share that burden, no role models, no educated parents, no community support. (TAL went on to explore Posse Foundation students who did make it to college, only to flounder there as strangers in a strange land, too ashamed of their poverty, their lack of resources, and their “otherness” to even ask for help.)
Which brings me back to me. What is possible, with what is left? I started library school with the idea that it would open up for me a whole new world. And now I believe it can only enhance the world I have. Not a small thing, but a different thing. I’m not going to switch careers, most likely, in the late innings of my working life. Unless my circumstances change by a choice not made by me, I’m staying put, and getting better at what I do where I do it. My classmates, mainly debt-soaked, idealistic, magical-thinking twenty-somethings (“Oh, I know I’ll never pay off my loans!”), chatter happily about “user experience” and “information architecture,” and while I grumpily acknowledge that while these are good things to learn, I know that given the choice between a newly-minted MLIS graduate who grew up coding and whose work experience consists of unpaid internships, and a newly-minted MLIS graduate with twenty-five years of experience (and who remembers DOS) in the well-compensated corporate world, who wouldn’t choose the newer, cheaper model?
This degree is a walking stick, not a stepping stone.
Be fuckin’ realistic.
I have been struggling this semester because I have been trying to secure representation for a novel while writing another novel. I am also enrolled in two classes, one of them with an aloof hipster tech-snob professor (who has little interest in teaching, let alone teaching middle-aged students who ask questions), all while working more than 40 hours a week at a major international law firm, where I perform work I take pleasure in doing well.
Work, school, writing. In order of importance according to passion: writing, work, school. In order of importance according to being fuckin’ realistic: writing, work, school.
Soooooo . . . not so good at school as I’d have liked to be. Not so much a literary genius in the marketplace at writing as I had hoped when I set out. Strangely contented in my work life, which is down I suppose to my being fuckin’ realistic. This is all the hair I get.
Last night I went to the 92nd St. Y to see Hilary Mantel with Jeremy Herrin, who is the director of the upcoming Broadway production of Wolf Hall, in a conversation moderated by Candice Bergen, who wore bright red laces in her high-top sneakers. I was invited by my friend Leslie, who has invited me to at least a dozen things this quarter (she is quite the culture vulture) but due to my schedule of day job as a researcher, writing and grad school, I have always said no. Hilary Mantel was too good to pass up, however. And she did not disappoint.
I hadn’t planned to take notes, but she kept saying such interesting things. As a historical novelist myself (and yes, I realize what that sounds like, putting myself in the same paragraph with Dame Mantel), I have had a recent problem with two of my characters, Nick and Daisy, frisking around in the attic of my brain when I am meant to be doing homework. Where were they during winter break? (To be fair, during winter break, I was polishing the novel I am now trying to sell, Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me, and the characters barging into grad school studying are the fresher (in the sense that I haven’t been writing them for SEVEN YEARS), fiestier characters from Untitled Berlin Love Story.
“I had wanted to write about Thomas Cromwell for more than thirty years,” Dame Mantel said, which made me feel slightly better about my seven, and also prompted me to reach into my bag for a notebook and pen. We must remember when writing historical fiction, she said, that we are writing “characters who are ignorant of their own fate . . . [unaware that their choices] have cascades of consequences that go down through generations. They’re not people in history. They’re people in their lives.”
As a researcher, I was gratified to hear Dame Mantel state that the does her own research and has no assistants. “How do you know what you need to know until you come across it?” she asked, adding that research is “a devious process. I don’t see how you can delegate it. The research is just as creative as the writing itself.”
As for how she does what she does: “A novel is an inherently unpredictable thing.” and “I write in scenes and I put it together like a collage.” (She is currently writing the third volume in the Cromwell trilogy, The Mirror and the Light.) When questioned about her “routine,” she said “I don’t really understand writing routines. I am writing 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Nobody gives you a holiday. You take your sensibility with you everywhere.”
This was gratifying as well, since I remain bruised from an interrogation a couple of years back by a leader of a short-term workshop I was in, who demanded that I explain my “practice.” What room did I write in, did I write first thing in the morning, did I set aside a time every day? This same woman was initially delighted that I was going to start graduate school, but then horrified to learn that I did not intend to quit my job to do so. “When will you have time to write? You’re a WRITER!” How, um, I asked her, did she think I was going to pay for grad school without a job? “Can’t you get a grant? You’re a WRITER!”
She is a child of the 60’s but even so. In the 60’s, was there an abundance of grants which provided housing, food, medical insurance to women of an age more likely to have children in grad school than to be in grad school? But then, we were obviously of different mindsets. For one thing, the workshop was in “flash fiction,” which I don’t read, don’t understand and, as it became apparent, can’t write. For another, I don’t “practice” writing, as it is not law, medicine, or religion. I write novels. I take my sensibility with me everywhere.
And a novel is an inherently unpredictable thing.
A homework assignment I thought I’d share.
In a fascinating article in the September 29, 2014 issue of The New Yorker, called “The Solace of Oblivion,” legal reporter Jeffrey Toobin examines the discrepancy between the United States and the European Union regarding privacy on the Internet. He quotes the director of civil liberties from the Stanford Center for Internet and Society as saying “Europeans think of the right to privacy as a fundamental human right in the way we [Americans] think of freedom of expression or the right to counsel.” Toobin traces the grisly story of the fight of Christos Catsouras, a bereaved father trying to force Google to remove photos of his daughter’s decapitated corpse, which morgue attendants had taken and then e-mailed to several friends as a “Halloween prank.” The images soon went viral and now appear whenever the young woman’s name is googled. The father cannot compel Google to remove the photos. (He eventually sued for emotional damages.)
By contrast, an irritated Spanish property owner sued to have removed information regarding certain of his debts which were settled but still popped up whenever his name was Googled. The Spanish Data Protection Agency granted the claim against Google. In May 2013, the affirmation was upheld by the European Court of Justice, a kind of Supreme Court for members of the EU, which wrote that all individuals in EU countries had the right to prohibit Google from linking to items that were “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant, or excessive in relation to the purposes for which they were processed.”
This quickly became known as the “right to be forgotten.”
Google is annoyed. Its general counsel states “we like to think of ourselves as a card catalogue.” The president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in D.C. argues “Google is no longer the card catalogue. It is the library – and it’s the bookstore and the newsstand.”
Is Google a card catalogue or a library? A recent article in Law Technology News (LTN) asserts that it is a crime scene:
Even though the Internet has been, is, and always will be a crime scene, there are, at last count, 634 million websites and 2.4 billion users. The Internet is here to stay and nobody is going to uninvent it. Because the online world mirrors the real world, the millions of people who go to New York or London or Paris or Delhi, knowing there’s a chance they’ll get robbed or ripped off, go because they feel they’re taking an acceptable risk. They go online feeling the same.
(“Grey Questions,” 8/27/14 — hyperlink not available as it is a subscription service)
In September, a European Commission began to offer guidelines for how European courts should handle “right to be forgotten” complaints and plans to issue a full set of guidelines in November. An article in The Asian Lawyer states, “Google revealed in July that it had already received “right to be forgotten” requests from 91,000 individuals in Europe.” (“European Commission to Offer Guidelines on `Right to Be Forgotten,’” 9/22/14 – hyperlink not available as it is a subscription service).
Toobin relates Google’s elaborate system for complying with such requests, but this New York Times article
lays it out more clearly.
• Do not retaliate against someone online
• Take a screen shot and record the evidence
• Use this online form to report the violation to Facebook.
• Use this online form to report a copyright infringement on YouTube.
(In the quoted New York Times article, a mother writes of having posted a video of her four-year-old daughter discussing racism to her private youtube channel to share her daughter’s views with friends. Someone else downloaded it, altered it, stripped it of identifying details, changed the title, and reuploaded it to general youtube. The video was shared 80,000 times and was aired on the television show “The View.”)
The Internet is a crime scene, as the LTN article asserts, yet I disagree that it “mirrors the real world.” It would mirror the real world if in the real world we all went around in masks, costumes, and pseudonyms. It’s the power of anonymity and the lack of repercussions that makes Internet behavior so appalling, and the ease of access to potentially harmful or inaccurate information that makes it so fraught with danger. Also, LTN’s assertion that users log onto the internet feeling they’re taking an “acceptable risk,” as they would when traveling to a big city is not quite apt. What the Internet did to the Catsouras family was more akin to sending all the criminals from New York City crashing into their home to take up residence forever. This article points out that health care records could be compromised by hackers who could then upload them to the internet. “Internet regulation must recognize the power of certain dominant firms to shape impressions of individuals.” Impressions lead to reputation which lead to destiny. In the real world, we are quite resistant to other people shaping our destiny. Why should we allow it to happen online?
The information service profession is about information storage, retrieval, access, and user experience. We don’t allow malicious patrons, or even benevolent ones, to wander through our archives or our databases altering records, stealing them, or sharing them without authorization or consequences. Ultimately, I think, “the right to be forgotten” is not so much about privacy or free speech. It’s about control.
It isn’t that I never learn, it’s that I do the same thing over and over again sometimes, expecting a different result, until I finally realize there will be no different result. So, the Slice Literary Conference? I’m sure it was fine for most of the attendees; I’m sure the ones slavishly transcribing the comments of agents and editors in their notebooks (“Good work is what matters most!”) got what they came for.
As for me, no. These panels make me anxious and accusatory. If I raise my hand to ask a question, my voice shakes. I don’t believe good work is what matters most to these people. I believe that these people understand that they have to say this kind of thing at a literary conference. So I stayed home today, rather than attend the conference’s second day of panels. Did my laundry and discovered in the laundry room (it appears that many of my neighbors work in publishing) a galley of Joanna Rakoff’s “My Year with Salinger.” Which I read, in one gulp, instead of doing my library school homework.
Rakoff joined a literary agency in her early 20’s, fresh from dropping out of grad school. She’s a decade younger, but I’ve been there: the low-paying publishing job, the shock of the price of a sandwich in midtown, the slightly-but-not-quite compensatory educated gossip of co-workers, the condescending, competitive boyfriend. (I never had an apartment as terrible as hers, however.) Now I am behind on my homework.
Back from hiatus, back from Vermont College of Fine Arts Post Graduate Writers’ Conference.
Moved over from my former host and server — thank you, Christine Frank!
Started second semester of library school at Pratt. In the midst of the first draft of “Lit Again in Our Lifetime,” a novel of espionage and a love affair set during the Berlin Olympics of 1936, and awaiting an editor’s revision of “Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me,” a novel set in Bermuda in 1941, when some but not yet all of the world was at war.
So, how did you spend your summer vacation?
I have to admit, I used to like to watch the Winter Olympics, but now I can barely glance at a television screen without wincing. Speed skating, which was being broadcast in a restaurant where I had dinner Saturday night strikes me, as I remarked to my companion, as “a lot of fun to do, but dull as hell to watch.” Even before the awful luge death, I had planned to avoid the endless coverage, all the slipping and sliding and spills, never mind those overwrought, overproduced mini-documentaries on the gold contender, “Svetlana was born with the blood … of a champion.”
I never wanted to be a figure skater. I have weak ankles and no athletic traits. Also, I hate the cold and hate getting up early, and in those mini-documentaries, stories are always told about the mother of the figure skater getting up at 3:00 to drive Brianna to the skating rink four hours away. It is always the mother of the American women skaters who do this, by the way, partly because Europe is presumably more compact (that is, the rinks are closer and perhaps accessible by train?) but also because Brianna, as an American, has an indefatigable work ethic, while Svetlana was just born that way. (Someone needs to tell the sneering partisans in the broadcast booth that it’s okay to stop hating the Russians now.)
I’m enough of a fogey to state that I liked it better when it was figure skating, before it became a skate-jumping tournament. Also, I can no longer stand to watch some poor kid sacrifice a lifetime of training to the momentary slip in a triple triple lutz thirty seconds into the program. Every time I see them fall, I change the channel.
Originally published Wednesday, February 17, 2010
Queens Gazette which, in case you have mislaid your copy, details the destruction of a piano which was placed in Athens Square Park by the nonprofit group Sing for Hope. As a summertime public art project which has become a kind of New York tradition (the cows, the Gates, the waterfalls), Sing for Hope has placed sixty pianos in public places around the five boroughs. “Play Me, I’m Yours!” the pianos invite.
One piano was placed in Athens Square Park in Astoria, home of the Steinway piano factory, the last active piano factory in New York City, which in the 19th century numbered 171. The last factory to close was the Sohmer factory, on Vernon Boulevard in Astoria, which closed in 1982, spent some time as an office furniture warehouse, and was declared an historic landmark in March, 2007, and has been in the process of being converted into condos for the past couple of years delayed, I can only surmise, by the credit crunch of the recession. If you have visited Socrates Sculpture Park, you have seen the former Sohmer factory with its landmark mansard-roofed clock tower. Sohmers are not Steinways, but they are nothing to sneeze at. When Irving Berlin wrote, “I Love a Piano,” he write it on a Sohmer.
Here is a photo and an excerpt from the fascinating (especially if you are a geek about the history of neighborhoods) report from the Landmarks Preservation Commission.
Why do I know all this? A few weeks before that factory was declared an historic landmark, I found a Sohmer piano put out on the street for Saturday large trash pickup. I have written about it hereand am also developing it into a larger piece because, how can I put this, I just love pianos. I still have the Sohmer I rescued from the street, even though the soundboard is ruined and several of the keys don’t work at all. I have not come up with the $8,000 I need to have it fully restored to its former glory. But I can’t let go.
“The badly vandalized piano at Athens Square Park, 30th Street and 30th Avenue,” reads the article in the Western Queens Gazette, “had all of its keys and part of its inner gears removed.”
Indeed. The vandalism is quite specific and specialized. The piano was not smashed, axed, beat up, beat in, set on fire or otherwise generally molested. But its keys and part of its inner gears were removed. This particular neighborhood is full of retired tuners and technicians. The violated piano was a Kimball, a Chicago-based manufacturer. The vandal carefully removed the keys from their supporting nails and left the frame. But why, as Keith Morrison on Dateline NBC would ask, why would anyone do that?
Originally published Wednesday, June 30, 2010
I just finished our last workshop in Dinty Moore’s Literary Nonfiction class at the Kenyon Summer Writers Conference. An exceptionally kind and talented group of us. My new friend Nina and I walked over to get sandwiches from the deli to take on the plane with us and already the vibe in beautiful downtown Gambier and across the campus had modulated from that of a literary conference to that of an Episcopalian retreat. The Episcopalians are everywhere. Specifically, they are down the hall from the computer lab where I am writing this blog post, singing hymns, as good Protestant folk ought.
But where are the mimes? There ought to be mimes. Actually, they are here, but nobody has seen them yet. Or heard them. (OK, that was a cheap shot.) We had heard that a teenage troupe was in the week before, and mourned not seeing them. Then a few days later, we saw a sign “Mime Parking.” Photo op! I suspect they are being kept busy in one of the three theaters on the Kenyon campus. That’s right. 1600 students. Three theaters.
So, an end to my glorious week without blackberry, cell phone (my choice), television (except for the occasional updates on the World Cup and the marathon tennis match, courtesy of the bar at the Village Inn), newspaper (except again glances at the headlines of the New York Times online)or anything but sitting in workshop, reading work, being sent forth to do new work, and listening to readings. I predict re-entry will be saddening.
Originally published Saturday, June 26, 2010
The holiday party held annually in the lobby of my building took place yesterday and provided an excellent opportunity to observe the changing demographic of the building. More young people are moving in, particularly young people starting families. There are two Jennifers, each with a newborn baby and a shy, kind-eyed husband. This is all good, in a bittersweet way. It is desirable to have young people about, and it is best if a co-op is occupied one hundred percent by owners but as I wrote last year, the disappearance of the old people makes me one of the old people.
I went down to the lobby with my neighbor Michael who knows more of the neighbors than I ever will. “That’s ‘cause you work,” he told me, which was, until recently, true. “I’m around all the time.” It is also because Michael, as the saying goes, could charm a dog off a meat truck.
For example, I introduced myself to a neighbor I thought was new to the building and learned she has lived here for two years, that she has a cool job in the music industry, and that she bathes her cat every day with some allergen-killing shampoo. She is a cute, chipper young woman with the sturdy, compact build of a gymnast because, as I later learned, she spent two decades performing gymnastics.
She had vaulted over to the hors d’oeuvres when Michael and I were approached by someone who was new to the building. He told us his apartment number. Michael, who goes to every open house the building holds and has the blueprints of the whole place locked in his memory, informed me, “That’s the old Melman place.”
“Ooooooh.” I turned and tried to get an impression of the new guy: dark hair, dark eyes, dark shirt, black jeans, an unplaceable accent. “Mr. and Mrs. Melman. They died within a day of each other. She died and then he died the next day.”
My new neighbor looked distressed.
“No, it’s romantic,” I assured him. “They were married for like 70 years. They were like Cathy and Heathcliff.”
“If Cathy and Heathcliff were two short old Jewish people,” Michael added. “So, what do you do for a living?”
This was unusually blunt: for the party, for Michael, for the stage of the conversation we were in. But yet, there was something about the new guy that solicited a demand for an explanation. Who was he?
“I’m a social worker,” he said.
“In a clinic. In New Jersey.”
“I have a car.”
Oh, do you? Michael and I nodded and withheld the unasked questions. Among them: How can a social worker afford a car andthe old Melman place, a two-bedroom on the top floor? And Do you live there alone? And God, the place must be pristine! The same tenants for 50 years and then newly renovated! And What is your accent? And Why are you pretending to be a social worker?And “in New Jersey”? Could you possibly be less specific? AndWhy is the aura of intrigue about you as palpable as fog? And Can we go see your apartment? Now?
We are all dying to get into one another’s apartments. The units named after the first dozen letters of the alphabets all have unique layouts: the studios, the compact one-bedrooms, the wastefully large one-bedrooms and the highly coveted two-bedrooms. The units named after the next dozen letters of the alphabet, on the other side of the lobby, follow the same patterns, only flipped. Even if your apartment is exactly the same as that of your neighbor, even, if, oh, say you were to lock yourself out of your apartment when the door slams shut behind you on your way to take out the recycling and you have to cajole the woman downstairs into letting you cross through her apartment and climb out her window onto the fire escape so you can break into your own apartment through the living room window, you would still pause and marvel at what she had done with the space, how she had met the challenges of the literal nooks and crannies that all the apartments have. It is a pre-war building filled with the quirks and perks of the time: built-in bookcases, high archways, deep closets, meandering hallways, foyers, occasionally, a raised dining area just off the kitchen.
The Gymnast bounded back and we introduced her to the Social Worker. I added, after some preliminary chatting, “He bought the old Melman place.”
“Oh! They died within a day of each other!” she told him pertly.
“Did they die in the apartment?” he asked, understandably apprehensive at the party line on his new place.
“No.” I then realized I had no idea. Mrs. Melman had been in the hospital, but who knew about Mr.? Ambulances are a routine sight outside the building. When we ask “Who is it?” of a neighbor watching the EMS workers unload the gurney onto the sidewalk, the answer is usually given by apartment number, as in “Who is it?” “5N.” “At least, I . . . don’t think so.”
“Um, I um . . . cheese . . . right back . . .”
The Social Worker headed toward the refreshment table.
“That guy is not a social worker,” I said.
“I was thinking the same thing,” said the Gymnast. “There’s something just, like — ”
“He’s a spy, obviously.” I’ve been reading a lot of Alan Furst’s novels recently. “But not a very good one. Because spies should try to blend in more. Like those Russians in New Jersey.” (New Jersey!) “There’s nothing about him that says ‘social worker.’ What everything about him says is ‘international man of mystery.’”
As it happened, when I left the party, the international man of mystery joined me in the elevator and carefully asked me to repeat my apartment number.
“I’ve been thinking about having a gathering,” he said. “In my apartment.”
“Oh!” I was pleased that one of the young people would consider inviting me to a gathering, that I was not yet manifestly one of the old people; pleased, also, that I would get to see the old Melman place. “That would be nice.”
Only later did I realize – he never said what kind of “gathering.”
First published Monday, December 20, 2010