Whenever I find myself in a waiting period in my writing
career, I think of a passage from the memoir Poets in Their Youth . In it, John Berryman is killing a couple of
weeks before he hears if he’s gotten a teaching job that he thinks will allow
him to properly begin his vocation. It’s a muggy New York
summer; he and his girlfriend are going to air-conditioned movies every
afternoon. I imagine the two of them-young, unknown-wasting whole days sitting
on park benches, walking the streets, smoking cigarettes on fire escapes. No
doubt enjoying the city and each other in a way they never would again.
That’s what this summer has felt like. I spent the last year
and a half writing my fourth novel. I worked on it diligently, Monday through
Friday, 9 to 5. I obsessed over it,
spent sleepless nights with it, lost a girlfriend for
it. But now it’s finished and with my agent. All that’s left to do is wait. Now
it’s my turn to go to the movies.
Which is exactly what I’ve been doing.
Originally I had planned to leave the city. I thought about going to Europe
(the dollar is strong) or maybe back home to Oregon,
where I have some old friends and could get a little time in the woods.
But I didn’t leave. Instead, on my first day post-novel, I
ran an errand in midtown and then found myself in Times Square
at 2 in the afternoon with absolutely nothing to do. Times Square,
if you actually stop and look at it and feel it and
let it work on you, is still quite a formidable experience. I walked around its
circumference, then continued to lovely Bryant Park,
where I had an iced coffee and sat in one of those toy chairs. I’d only
intended to sit for a minute, but there were interesting people to look at and
that big, lulling lawn, and the buildings, and the sky. I was there for two
hours. It was not unlike spending an afternoon in the Luxembourg
Gardens. I didn’t need to go to Europe;
I just needed to get out of the house.
And so I became a tourist again. Except this time, I knew
where to go. I spent a Wednesday among the Chelsea
art galleries. The art seemed to have more to say when not obscured by the
noisy, social weekend crowd-as did the women working there. The dignity and
intelligence of the city seemed more on display during off-hours.
Such little excursions, though, have a way of expanding into
daylong affairs. The next afternoon, I stopped at Canal Jean to buy some socks,
and there went my Thursday. There’s a lot of stuff to look at and mull over at
Canal Jean: the latest asymmetrical messenger bags, just how puffy, furry and
zipper-laden they can make next year’s winter coats, whether or not Carhartt
will overtake Dickies as the brand that bohemian college kids co-opt from the
working class. As someone who writes about suburban cool, I felt justified
wasting hours comparing last year’s discounted Vans with those plastic Puma
flip-flops that never quite caught on.
On Friday, I saw Planet
of the Apes on 42nd Street.
Afterward, I went to the Coffee Pot, an odd midtown “singles” coffee shop I
visited on a date and always meant to go back to. On that first visit, the
place was dark, cozy and full of lithe actresses, smart-looking professional
women, gangs of cute college girls. Today, the place was empty, except for a
too-skinny 40-ish woman drinking what looked like a spinach smoothie. But I
stayed anyway. I got an iced coffee, read the new Village Voice and looked at the people outside. Then I enjoyed a
slow walk down Broadway into a welcome breeze, stopping for another coffee at 71
Irving Place, where I watched two girlfriends
sitting next to each other as they had separate cell-phone conversations. I
made my way over to the Virgin Megastore, where I caught up on the current
music trends. The big news is a New York
band called the Strokes. They’re young, handsome, trust-funded
and determined to stay true to … something or other, according to the endless
interview in NME .
Like many New Yorkers who suddenly have the time, I’ve tried
to take better care of myself-no more potato chips and grilled-cheese
sandwiches at the keyboard. Now I can go to the health-food store that’s
farther from my apartment. I can double up my swimming days. I can actually
think about therapy after I leave, going for thoughtful walks instead of
hurrying home to work. At the pool and everywhere else, I find the expected
armies of unemployed actors, laid-off dot-commers and other victims of the
economic fates. These gym rats and perpetual body-toners are a philosophical
lot, full of wisdom regarding the cycles of fortune, offering advice for the
job-seeking and support for those too young to understand that downtime is good
for the soul. But underneath the unhurried façade is still that drive. In this
city, no one really wants to be signing up for another yoga class when they
could be working themselves to death.
My night life hasn’t changed as radically as my day life. I
go out a little more. There’s certainly plenty to do (though I wish I had my old girlfriend back). But I’ve found that
while I have more time to socialize, my heart isn’t really in it. Some part of
me stays with that manuscript as it makes the rounds. It’s a cliché, but it’s
true: Your novel is your child. Once it’s out in the world, you can’t protect
or help it. All you can do is worry and hope. Even when I’m able to forget
about it, my social life has a surreal quality. With so much free time and no
sense of the work week, my nights out have no arc to them, no climax. Saturday
night is not the blowout it once was. It’s just more time to be passed, but
with drunker people.
In a way, when I’m in waiting
mode, every night is a Sunday night-open, available, potentially interesting,
but ultimately subdued.
In fact, that’s how everything seems. A
whole week of Sundays. A whole week of waiting for my
working life to begin again. Because that’s what will happen eventually:
My new book will get killed in a marketing meeting or will be published to
great acclaim. Either way, I’ll eventually come up with a new idea and will
start again, excited and hopeful, and the city will fade out of view as I sit
in my room, cranking away, working like the good New
Yorker I’ve become.
In the meantime, it’s August in the city and I’ll be playing
volleyball at Battery Park, or watching a friend garden, or just drinking iced
tea and listening to my Walkman on a park bench somewhere, the ghost of John
Berryman lurking in the cool shade behind me, reminding me that it’s good to be
young and unknown and free to roam the big city.