big eye

By Luc Sante.

8:03 AM, bedroom. I awake in a muffled panic from the kind of explicit anxiety dream I rarely seem to have anymore–not because I’m less anxious but because I’m less explicit. In the dream I’m in my last semester of school (unspecified) and it dawns on me that I now have to take, simultaneously, all the classes I’ve avoided: physics, chemistry, calculus, etc. That is in fact more or less what happened to me in college, a dilemma I resolved simply by dropping out. The dream’s pertinence to the present is obvious. All the writing I failed to do during January and February, while I was huddling neurotically, is now due on Monday. I’ve used up all the excuses, the two or three or four layers of fake deadlines are well past, and the real deadline looms, a glowering red wall I can’t see over. I feel doomed. Then again, this is something that happens again and again. Procrastination is my life. I’m well past even the most extended notion of adolescence and yet I can’t ever seem to get writing done without a gun to my head. Anyway, for better or worse, I’m now fully awake.

8:32 AM, kitchen. I’m the first one up, as usual. What’s unusual, these days, is that we have a full house. M., my partner, who’s been teaching in Boston and mostly kept there by snows and the five-hour drive and assorted other factors, has rolled over and buried her head under the duvet. My son, R., 15, who mostly lives with his mother a few towns to the west, has presumably been up until all hours shooting Nazis. While I’m washing last night’s pots and pans, though, he comes down in his underwear and silently fixes himself a bagel. I always intend to watch him do it to see how he manages to smear cream cheese all over the bread knife, the butter knife, and the cutting board, but as usual I’m not quick enough.

9:06 AM, dining room. It’s 6oF here in this sad little town on the Hudson. Our snows have been nothing compared to Boston’s, but still. One of these days I’ll have to make another expedition through miles of tundra to dump the compost bucket in the compost heap. I can dimly remember former days, when the planet was warm, the bucket was kept on the back porch rather than the vestibule, and the round trip to the heap took maybe five seconds. The cold has also relocated my work station to the dining-room table from my office in the basement. I love my office, which is huge and holds all my books, but cold enough normally that I rely on a space heater running full-blast for at least ten months of the year. The dining room is much warmer, although now I regret leaving my sweater in the bedroom. The preternaturally frugal M. made me turn down the thermostat last night, and my thermal shirt is not quite cutting it. I marvel when I see R. galivanting around hatless and scarfless, his coat unbuttoned, in single-digit weather, while in the house he wears a thin cotton shirt, sleeves rolled up. I look at the monthly forecast. Daytime highs will soon rise above freezing, but nighttime lows will be in the 20s well into April. When I was R.’s age I’d laugh scornfully when my mother would intone her usual rhyme: En avril, n’enlève pas un fil; en mai, fait ce qu’il te plaît (in April, don’t remove a single layer of clothing; in May, do what you want). In another decade or so I’ll presumably be sporting an overcoat well past Memorial Day.

10:31 AM, hallway. I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror and am momentarily startled. I shaved off my whiskers a couple of days ago. I’d grown a woodshedding beard just before New Year’s, 2014, during the last big push on my book, and kept it after I was done for the novelty factor. But at length I realized it was making me feel old, not to mention that its daily maintenance was more time-consuming than a simple shave. When I got rid of it, though, I barely recognized myself–it looked as if my face had been reduced by a third, and my mouth had somehow been replaced by my grandmother’s mouth. When M. sees me she confirms that I don’t quite look as I did before I grew it. When I pick up R. from the school bus he bursts out laughing, and all through the ride home he keeps looking over at me and grinning. “So that was your second beard?” he asks. No, in fact it was like my fifth or sixth. I grew my first one when I was seventeen. I wanted to look older–youth was not as highly prized by the culture then–and indeed I was invariably given the job of buying the liquor for parties. I shaved it off two years later, the morning after the first time I saw Patti Smith perform. That was in 1973, when long hair and whiskers were still endemic. I have no idea quite how Patti communicated the idea that the hippie style was over, but I received the message clearly and unambiguously. This time I had intended to keep the beard long enough to have the author picture taken for my book, then shave it off immediately after, but my resolve failed me. I won’t be able to escape looking like the guy who wrote the book.

11:40 AM, bathroom. I’m always reading four or five books at once, each one specific to a room in the house. My bathroom book these days is Chloé Griffin’s Edgewise, her extraordinary oral history of Cookie Mueller. Cookie is a particularly good subject for an oral history, because her writing and film appearances fail to convey so much of her aura and appeal. The cliché, for once, applies absolutely: she was larger than life. I knew her, although not very well, and reading the book–as rounded a portrait as any biography I’ve ever read–is a somewhat disquieting experience. For one thing, the New York sections, in which I know or knew two-thirds of the interviewees, sound like an inventory of all the parties I didn’t get invited to when I was young and tended to recede into the wallpaper. For another, I’m reminded somewhat guiltily that I have an original manuscript of Cookie’s up in the attic. Did she ever publish the story anywhere else? I was always starting magazines in my youth, some of which actually happened but most of which didn’t. In my last attempt, in the middle ’80s, I intended to put together writers and visual artists of my acquaintance. Everybody agreed to give me work, but only a few delivered, and eventually the project trailed off into ellipses. I was going to pair Cookie with Nan G., but Nan never got around to it (and she is conspicuously missing from Griffin’s roster). Cookie, though, immediately sent me a manuscript, neatly typed, name and address at top left. I was amazed by this at the time–a studied indifference to protocol, usage, timing, and other people’s feelings was a hallmark of the era. But Griffin’s book puts it into perspective. Not only was Cookie ambitious as a writer, she was also exceptionally considerate. She was nice. I was so intimidated by her movie-star presence that I somehow missed what by all accounts was perhaps the central feature of her personality. I feel intensely sorry for Cookie, taken way before her time (along with so many others, by AIDS), and for myself, too. I flunked youth and wish I could have a do-over. On the other hand, I got an extension, didn’t I.

1:18 PM, kitchen. I consume two celery sticks with spicy hummus and a can of sardines. This has been my lunch, with little variation, for the last several years, just as breakfast is fruit (from October to June: a pear) cut up and mixed with two spoonfuls of plain yogurt. Dinner is more open-ended, chiefly because it’s the one meal I eat with others. Don’t get me wrong: I like food, truly. But I don’t like thinking about food, don’t like having to decide what to eat. This is in part a result of realizing that I can never again eat starch if I’m not to become obese–and starch was the official foodstuff of my childhood–and in part a result of the pervasiveness of food culture. I take food culture as a personal affront. I’m not entirely sure why. Maybe it’s a lingering working-class reflex–connoisseurship as bloody handprint of bourgeois decadence–or maybe it’s a weird sort of prudishness. Either way, I feel the same revulsion whether hearing neurotic friends unafflicted by celiac disease ask the waiter if the mushroom pâté is truly gluten-free or hearing epicurean friends go on about minute differences among differently sourced coffee beans. Every once in a while I decide I’d really prefer to take a food pill three times a day, but that usually doesn’t last long. Anyway, I’m going to have to make a trip to Belgium pretty soon because I’ve run out of instant chervil soup. I’ve never seen it for sale here, and I’ve come to associate it with emotional-disaster relief. And there have been a lot of emotional disasters lately.

2:16 PM, living room. I’ve moved my laptop to the sectional sofa, probably because I feel a nap coming on. I’m a napper, while M. isn’t. She doesn’t understand how I can nap; I don’t understand how she can fail to. I naturally incline toward l’heure espagnole, down to eating dinner after 9 PM–and it’s a sorry sign of the decline of that once-proud nation that businesses are increasingly refusing to allow for their employees’ siesta, which may have been the bane of tourists who needed a shoelace or an aspirin at 2 PM, but too bad for tourists. I’ve migrated to the living room also because I await the mailman sometime around now. This is hard-wired in me, even though there is no more mail, really. My life revolved around mail for so long I can’t let go. When I was a child, I had a book entitled 1001 Things You Can Get for Free. You could get pamphlets on sugarbeet cultivation, catalogs from scientific-research supply houses, “101 Things You Can Do With Chalk,” the words to the anthem of the Volunteer Lepidopterists of Eastern Tennessee, signed photographs of the world’s tallest jockey and shortest tree surgeon, sample-size containers of Bondo, trim-ends of mustache wax, etc.–and I sent away for all of them. I was awed by my power. I could make the world come to me. Nowadays even people who know and honor my predilections are often unable to find postcards to send me from their travels. The world grows dark.

5:37 PM, dining room. The mailman does not deliver so much as an oil-change coupon today. By now I have napped, and I have made the long round trip to deliver R. to his rock school for practice. I was appalled when I first heard of the school. R. was already taking guitar lessons with an excellent teacher, and anyway, who needed to perpetuate the rock clichés of my youth? Weren’t kids supposed to fall together in somebody’s garage or basement, full of contempt for what had gone before, and make up their own sounds? It didn’t help that the first unit R. was in was devoted to the music of the Doors. I have almost all their records–borrowed in high school from my now-deceased friend Robert and never returned–but I haven’t played them in at least forty years. I dug the fact that Jimbo was the first rock & roll singer to have a voice as deep as mine, but that’s about it. His poetistic pretensions started making me gag as soon as I started reading real poetry. One time in the ’80s I emerged from my building on East 12th Street to see dwarves and jugglers massed in front of the church across the way–and there was Ray Manzarek, directing an especially literal-minded latter-day Doors video. But I’ve come to admit that the rock school has proved a boon for R., musically and socially. He and his buddies were unlikely to fall together in somebody’s garage except by prearrangement. One of the many, many things I hate about living up here is that kids have zero autonomy of movement. Everybody and everything is so far apart that parents have to chauffeur them to every possible errand and engagement. They are utterly cloistered everywhere but online. I had the full run of every town I lived in as a child, and by the time I was R.’s age I was commuting to New York City every day, nominally for high school but eventually more for the city itself. Those things made me who I am, in the best sense. It wasn’t my idea to move up here! But I’ll spare you my rant.

6:44 PM, living room. As soon as R. is in college, in two and a half years, I intend to move away from here and never come back. Which means moving to a city, which in turn probably means New York City, if only by default. It’s no longer the place I knew and loved, but it’s the closest thing I have to a home town, it’s still where most of my friends live, and it’s one of the very few places in this godforsaken land where I could be a full-time pedestrian, which is my natural state. I always kept, somewhere in the back of my mind, the notion that when I reached this approximate age I’d move back to Europe–I still hold an E. U. passport, after all. But Europe has become just as ugly as the USA, and in some ways uglier. The socialist-lite safety net I grew up with is increasingly a memory, the comprehensive rail network that made it possible to go just about anywhere without owning a car has been largely dismantled, and when you hear of a European nation electing a brown-skinned head of state, please let me know. But sometimes I feel as if my homeland has shrunk down to this house. I do love my house. I’ve never lived in a better one. I wish I could buy a plot of land in the city, load the house on a flatbed truck, and cart it down there. My house was built in 1929, the high- water mark for middle-class housing in America, and it’s neither too small nor too big. All the rooms fulfill their intended functions perfectly (although I’m not sure the builders ever imagined the basement stuffed to the gunwales with books). There is a pantry, a coat closet, a broom closet, a linen closet, a tool closet, enormous closets in the bedrooms, a cedar closet in the attic, and a closet in the kitchen that opens to reveal a fold-down ironing board. Also in the kitchen is an alcove with a built-in diner booth– the breakfast nook. There is a front porch deep enough for a dinner party and screened from the street by tall hedges. There is a little garage that M. insulated and sometimes uses as an art studio. And yet in two and a half years I propose to move to a space perhaps an eighth or a tenth this size, which will cost me three times the mortgage on this place. But at least I’ll be living in a place where I have friends. M. and I do have friends in the general area, but we don’t know a soul in this town if you except the two neighbors we know by name if not much else. And we’ve been here for more than seven years. We’ve tried, but I guess not hard enough.

8:56, Japanese restaurant. We’ve picked up R. at the rock school and are dining at the good-enough Japanese restaurant. There aren’t a lot of dining options around here: one yuppie joint tolerable in the warm months when the back deck is open, a couple of venerable red-sauce Italians, and one decent Chinese across the river. There is a substantial Mexican community here, but their restaurants play to local common- denominator gringo tastes, and not very well. There is a Chinese institution where we like to take visitors for drinks: a midcentury time capsule in its décor, down to the vast array of pigeon-racing trophies in the corner, although the food is undifferentiated brown glop redolent of Alpo. The only takeout around is pizza, and since I can no longer eat it that has the merit of fostering self-reliance. R. has decided he wants to become a military historian. In fact he’s been interested in the subject since long before he could articulate that thought. At six he was drawing catalogs of swords, at seven he was drawing vast tableaux of stick-figure warfare on sheets of newsprint. Last year when I offered to drive him and his best friend B. anywhere we could get to and return from within three days, they elected to go to the Springfield Armory. But R. is no Rambo. His interest is aesthetic or intellectual or both. Right now he’s onto the Spanish Civil War, in some measure because there’s a new Call of Duty mod to that effect. We talk about the Lincoln Brigades and the P.O.U.M. and George Orwell, and I tell him he has to read the best book on the subject, Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s life of Buenaventura Durruti, but then I remember it’s never been translated into English. (I don’t read German–somebody please get on the case.) Anyway I realize that this is the first bookish conversation I’ve ever had with my son. I used to have just that sort of conversation with my dad, although I’d eventually get bored because he kept bringing the talk back to his big subject: war.

11:45, living room. M. and I are pecking on laptops in front of a roaring fire, while R. is upstairs shooting Falangists and Skyping with B., who lives in Toronto. We don’t make fires often enough. The wood we’re burning I bought at least three years ago. As usual, when there’s a fire going, I can’t keep my mind on anything else. Tom Clark once wrote a poem that went, in its entirety: “Fire was the first television.” And it’s true! A fire is a collection of plotlines. The remaining kindling–trimmed bits of hardwood boards–is collapsing into cakes of ash as the smaller logs are starting to be consumed at three or four main points of impact. These are not communicating, and it may be that they will fail to merge, instead becoming unrelated flares that will ultimately burn themselves out. But you can unify the threads by throwing a large log across them, concentrating all the oxygen upward and causing the dark places to come to life. And so on. I’m down to my T-shirt. I feel as if I’m getting a suntan. I could do this all night. Except I couldn’t, really, because fire is also a great soporific, and our eyelids are beginning to droop. Are we going to collapse right here on the rug? Will we have the energy to close the grate and close the glass doors of the hearth and crawl up the stairs? Or will dawn find us shivering and stiff in front of a heap of ashes?

I’ve written eight books, of which the famous one is Low Life and the new one is The Other Paris, which will be published in October. I teach at Bard, although that’s not why I live upstate. I’ve never actually kept a diary for more than two consecutive days.