Saturday, August 21, 2010

Aimless Reading: The J's, Part 2.9 (Henry James)

James, Henry
Complete Stories 1892-1898


Purchased at the Niagara Falls Outlet Mall Discount Book Store.

I left my drug-dealing roommates and Northern Virginia behind in January of 1989. I should note that I did briefly participate in these illicit activities, but the anxiety and paranoia they produced far outweighed any pleasure derived from the monetary gain. These activities were also further evidence that I had completely lost control of myself. Just before I left I got fired from my job at the restaurant for missing work. I'd been out on a major binge the night before and somehow was incapable of getting to work by 4 in the afternoon.

I remember we had a big New Year's blowout at the townhouse, to which the aforementioned ex-girlfriend made the mistake of showing up. I spent most of the evening swilling champagne and accusing her of having another boyfriend.

Meanwhile, my father set out to help me move to the Bronx. The university housing people told him there were no dorm rooms available on campus, so I'd have to live off-campus. The school had recently started buying up properties in Little Italy, the mostly Italian neighborhood that formed much of the souther border of the campus. They gave me a shared room in a two-bedroom apartment on Arthur Ave.

My father, a native Brooklynite of Irish extraction who used to talk with great sentimentality about his youth in the city and with great animosity about racial, ethnic and religious groups that were not Irish Catholic, returned from apartment-hunting to tell me that Little Italy was "as close as you'll ever get to knowing what the neighborhood I grew up in was like." He then added, "Except they're all goddamn dagos." At least he was consistent -- he had it in for everyone.

1989: My apartment was on the first floor in a building next door to an Italian Bakery that made fresh bread every morning around six. It was a kind of heaven to wake up there. I had three apartment mates, one of whom share a room with me. I can't even remember his name. I only remember he had a Macintosh computer and that he let me use it. I mostly used it to play solitaire over and over. I still play repetitive games on the computer. Call it a compulsion.

More importantly, however, the use of his computer marked the beginning of my interest in writing. I had been told ever since I left high school that I was a good writer. My first paper from every one of my professors had elicited high marks of praise for the naturalness and ease of the writing, if not for the careless grammatical errors and failure to proofread and re-write after the first draft.

It was really the only thing I think I was ever naturally good at. But there was one problem. I hated to write. I am left handed and I have always found writing with a pen in a notebook awkward. My handwriting is childlike, if relatively legible (I print). My hand begins to hurt after a few paragraphs. And I was lazy by nature and hated to re-copy after revising, not so much the making corrections part, but the part about re-writing what I'd written to make it look neat.

The Macintosh changed all that. I discovered that writing on a computer allowed me to revise each mistake on the spot, without having to re-write the whole paper. Everything pretty much changed at that point. The idea of writing a five or ten or even a twenty page paper and later a poem or an essay or, on occasion, a story seemed downright pleasurable on that little machine.

Anyhow, I think I got along with the roommate. My two other apartment mates were football players. They were nice enough. I didn't see much of them and I never got to know them. I remember one night coming home to discover they had left the toaster oven on before passing out in their beds after a night of drinking. Had I come home and hour later the place would have burned to the ground. Two years later, one of them, Matt, died in a boating accident. I guess it capsized and he tired himself out swimming around to get everyone back to the turned over boat. By the time he got himself back, he had no strength to hold on and drowned. I remember reading about it in the school newspaper.

The apartment itself had a decent sized living room/kitchenette just inside the front door. All the walls were stark white and the ceilings must have been 11-12 feet high. It had zero character. I think we each had our own bathroom for two, but I could be wrong about that. All the furniture was made out of a heavy, blocky, seemingly indestructible wood. A long narrow corridor led to the two bedrooms. The one on the left belonged to the jocks, the one on the end to me and my roommate, whose name I can't remember. He was a transfer student who wanted immediately to transfer back to his old school (Boston College, I think) to be with his girlfriend. I think he did, too.

I don't recall anything else about the place itself. About a month or so after I arrived, things started to get crazy again. A thursday night concert in Manhattan at some place whose name I can't remember -- I think it had been Studio 54 in a previous life -- began a four or five day binge of which I remember very little, except waking up one afternoon at the dorm of a friend, whose first words upon waking were, "I really need to stop drinking and taking drugs."

I turned to him and said that I did too and was he serious. He said he was serious. I said if he was serious I knew how to get in touch with AA and we could go to a meeting that night (I had once previously tried to get sober as a teen, and my father, also an alcoholic, had been sober for 15 years at that point). He said he was serious. We called. We went to a meeting at a big old church on Park Avenue in Manhattan. We met a guy named J. He introduced us both to different men to sponsor us and, somewhat miraculously, that was that. Neither of us ever touched a drink or a drug again.

We started going to meetings everyday, some on campus with other students, some on Park Avenue, some in the Bronx. Our friend J. would meet up with us for meeting Marathons on Friday nights. We'd start at a meeting on Park Avenue at 8, then head to another in the West Village, across the street from Film Forum, at 10, then to another at midnight at Times Square. At 2 AM, we'd ride the 6 train back up to Bronx and wander, quietly amazed with ourselves, down Fordham Rd. We drank a lot of coffee and smoked a lot of cigarettes.

At the end of the semester I moved back home with my parents for the summer, determined to figure out how to be writer.

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