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There’s No Place to Sit in Now

It’s a little upsetting to stumble across a friend in a porn movie from the 80’s. Nothing kills an erection like seeing this friend, who has cultivated a rather Daddy-like image, speaking in stilted tones with frosted hair in an office with teal-flocked wallpaper getting his ass plowed on top of a cheap, varnished desk. Not that I ever search the web for streaming video porn or anything.

But even if I did, I would do it to excess, as I do any sort of addictive substance. And since I no longer partake of substances, other activities will sometimes take their place. Like the occasional porn marathon, say, or this recent music-downloading habit I’ve picked up like a bad cold. I never got into the whole Napster thing, but I often come to fads and fashions much later than everyone else, out of a misguided stubbornness against anything popular. And I won’t tell you what site I am using, because now that the Feds are indicting people for music-swapping, it would be just my luck to land in jail and end up as someone’s bitch, just for being a little cheap. I’ve probably said too much already.

So yes, downloading over a hundred songs within a 24-hour period might seem a little compulsive. It was rather short-lived, however, as I have reached a mental block; I can’t think of any other song I want. And it must say something about one’s character development that most of the songs I downloaded were from several years ago, during the 80’s and early 90’s. The songs I fell in love with during those years have attached themselves to my emotional core. They don’t entertain so much as elicit past moods; a form of nostalgia towards which I have always been prone.

So between these songs and my friend’s frosted hair, I have retreated into the softly neon-lit 80’s, where memory smoothes over all rough edges to produce a simpler, more naive era. Memory distorts; it’s not to be trusted, which means that most of my writing is suspect as well. What lies have I conjured, all with the best of intentions? But that’s what happens when you’re always looking over your shoulder at the past.

Then again, that’s not entirely true. I am a red blooded American, I believe in possibility. I tie my happiness to the uncertain future, to events and people and cities I hope will come to me. I count down the days, over and over, till the long-delayed arrival of my handsome space monkey. I pore over catalogues for schools across the country. I imagine myself in better jobs. I mentally shed the two or three pounds that must be obscuring my six-pack abs. I sometimes even let myself imagine a cure for the virus in my bloodstream.

But there’s no harm there. I’m just saying I would make a lousy Buddhist. The Power of Now is lost on me. Between the past and the lurid future I am torn, missing out on the present and all of its simple gifts, if you believe in that sort of thing.

What I Want to Tell You

It is easy to see the beginning of things, and harder to see the ends.
–Joan Didion

There are several formats to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and depending on where you live, certain formats are more common than others. A popular format in San Francisco is the “speaker/discussion” meeting. One member stands before the others and tells his “story”. Later the floor is open for discussion. Anyone who has been to a handful of speaker/discussion meetings knows that they follow a basic formula: The speaker shares “what it was like, what happened, and what it’s like now.”

It only takes a few meetings to see the pattern of loss and redemption. What we give each other is the darkness, and then the light. We give hope to the hopeless, each of us a radiant phoenix rising from the ashes of our own self-destruction. At least, that is the idea. Darkness, then light. Always end with the light.

Despite a general shyness in the company of new strangers, I have always struggled with the time limits of “my story”; trying to compress thirty-two years into twenty minutes. I love the anecdote, the episode, the telling detail. Luckily for the audience, I also believe in leaving them wanting more. So like most others in AA, I pick and choose. Over time, through repetition, led by the audience’s gratifying laughter or hushed silence, I hone my life story. I choose a handful of episodes; familiar signposts leading me through the tale.

When I was newly sober the “what it was like” took much longer to tell. It was very grim, because I was still so close to it all, the mess I’d made of everything. I could not see the dark streak of humor running through my days of desperation. I could not yet laugh at the ridiculous lengths I had gone to get high. In those days I was scared of the world and preferred the immediate escape of chemicals to just about anything else life could offer. I ate more of everything; drugs, drink, love, sex. The more the…well, no, it never got better. I was a rabid hamster scampering within a wheel, never getting anywhere, certainly not better.

But that’s not what I want to talk about, because it’s simply the same story told over and over, with different characters and different outfits, and the lighting is harsh and the scenery quite dull. What I want to tell you is what happened.

One Sunday in October of 1999, deep in the gloom that descended whenever I crashed after a crystal meth binge, I was bickering with David, my boyfriend of the time, who by then was a little sick of my mood swings.

He had been after me all weekend to call my mother. In my current condition I didn’t want to talk to anyone, not him, certainly not my mother. I had a couple of e-mails from her, unread, sitting in my inbox. She had been out to visit only a month before, and her tentative diagnosis of Parkinson’s was a subject that I could not, on that day, begin to handle. I did not have within me the ability to string together a few syllables of hope for her, though my boyfriend would not let up. Finally he pulled a scrap of paper from his pocket and thrust it at me.

“Fine. Here. I didn’t want to tell you. She called. She wanted to tell you herself.” There were a few words scrawled in his hand: “Not Parkinson’s. ALS. Lou Gehrig’s.”

I didn’t know what it meant. “What does this mean?” I asked him. He didn’t know. “She didn’t tell you?” No. I only knew that the name Lou Gehrig meant something bleak.

“Will you call her now?” he asked.

“Just a minute.” I sat down at the computer and logged onto the Internet. I typed “ALS” into the search engine, and followed a link:

ALS is a fatal neuromuscular disease characterized by progressive muscle weakness resulting in paralysis.

And several lines later:

There is no cure for ALS. In general, weakness progresses steadily with no periods of improvement or stability and leads to death, usually within 3 to 6 years.


When I was growing up my mother could be unpredictable. There were the good days; days that register in my memory with the warm timbre of her voice, her laugh that broke up the ice within me. And then there were the other days, of inexplicable rages and hysterical sobbing. Years later, after my own experiences with addiction, I understood that those were the days she had been drinking. Eventually we’d both have AA in common.

Despite these mood swings I had always felt that my mother understood me better than anyone else. One afternoon, when I was ten, she and I were in the backyard of our house in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, painting my bike. I stood off to the side and watched her shake the can of spray paint: ticka ticka ticka. My bike, stripped of its wheels and chain, sat upside down on a patch of dirt beneath the oak tree. The leaves above us were lit up green in the warm summer sun. My mother had acquiesced to my demand for a more masculine color. I was nine when my parents bought me the bright yellow bike, but at ten I was ready for a change. We were painting my bike blue. Or rather, she was painting my bike blue and because she was in a good mood I was keeping her company.

Through the thin gaps between the slats of our tall wooden fence, I saw a shadow crossing our yard. It swept along the fence until it reached the open gate of our backyard, and in walked Mrs. McIntyre.

Mrs. McIntyre was the closest thing our neighborhood had to a busybody. She and her husband lived two doors down, and her son Johnny was my younger brother’s age. They played together all the time, but in my mother’s opinion Johnny was a spoiled brat, and because my mother rarely expressed a negative opinion of anyone, I liked to agree. The McIntyres had bought Johnny every single Star Wars action figure and spaceship and trash compactor available at Target and it made both my brother and I jealous. When the inevitable squabbles erupted between Johnny and my brother, Johnny would sweep all the Stars Wars toys into his lap and tell my brother to go home.

The week before I had stopped at their house, collecting my brother for dinner, when Mrs. McIntyre cornered me in the foyer. “Michael, I heard about your parents,” she said, using a tone of voice that she probably thought sounded concerned. “Why did they get divorced?”

Her bluntness caught me off guard. I had looked away from her, down at my shoes. Nobody on our block had ever been divorced. Nobody on our block had ever come out of the closet, either, but I wasn’t about to tell Mrs. McIntyre that both my parents had done just that. “I don’t know,” I told her.

That afternoon she crossed the yard, a small bundle of determination wrapped in a cardigan. She dispensed with small talk.

“Michael, did you teach Johnny to say ‘asshole’?”

I stood there with my mouth open, looking at her and then at my mother, who stood with the spray paint can frozen in mid-air. My mother looked back at me.

“Uh, no,” I said. “No, I didn’t.”

“Well there’s nobody else around who could have taught him that.”

I looked back at my mother, certain that her fear of confrontation would lead her to choose Mrs. McIntyre’s side, if only to be nice.

“I didn’t teach him that,” I said. “I don’t know who taught him that word, but it wasn’t me.”

“Johnny said you taught him the word,” she said, smiling as though she’d caught me in a trap.

That little lying brat, I thought.

Mrs. McIntyre turned her attention to my mother. “Susan, this makes me very unhappy.”

I looked with dread at my mother, and saw a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth. She shook the spray paint again ticka ticka ticka, looking Mrs. McIntyre straight in the eye. “Michael said he didn’t do it.” My heart leaped.

“Well then, why would Johnny say that?” Mrs. McIntyre snapped.

“Maybe,” my mother said, “Johnny is lying.”

Mrs. McIntyre stood there, glaring at my mother. She opened her mouth but nothing came out. She shook her head in disgust, then turned and stomped across our yard. She slipped through the gate, chin held high.

I looked at my mother with adoration. She smiled back. “That woman,” she said, “is such a bitch.”


I would like to tell you that I sprung into selfless service immediately after her diagnosis. It is true that I could not sleep, there in San Francisco. The compulsion to go to her was overwhelming. Within a month I had quit my job as a bartender and bought a one-way ticket to Minneapolis, imagining myself rushing to her rescue, when the truth was that nobody could protect her. But I couldn’t stay still.

After a few years of addiction, however, my emotional compass was a little off. The only way I knew how to connect with others was to elicit their sympathy. Oh, my life is so awful. Well, now I had the definitive trump card; a new excuse for old problems. My mother is sick, and that’s why I’m such a mess. I couldn’t understand why bill collectors could be so callous. My mother has a terminal illness, as if I was the first person in the world with such trouble.

I do not want to tell you this: that even after her diagnosis, during a time when I can only imagine what she was feeling, I continued to whine about “my struggle with drugs.” She had always been the person I confided in, the first person I’d go to with my problems, the first person I’d tell of my successes. Of course, there had been few of the latter back then. After a few such earnest confessions her partner, Lee, finally wrote me a letter: Michael, please stop. Your mother can no longer handle hearing such things; they make her lose sleep, which she needs so desperately. Please tell anyone else, please tell me, if you must, but don’t tell her.

To say I was ashamed would be an understatement. My face flamed with embarrassment while reading her words. But she was telling me something that I did not want to hear, something that took me a long time to learn: my confessor, my confidante, was already gone.


Two months after her diagnosis, I packed for Minneapolis. I told my boyfriend that I wasn’t sure when I’d be back, but that I couldn’t stay in San Francisco, losing sleep over my mother every night. There wasn’t much he could do but give me his blessing. I think he hoped that a change of cities would sober me up. So did I.

Every Sunday I’d wake early in the little studio apartment I had rented a mile from their house. Sometimes I was hung over. Sometimes, though, I had managed not to drink for several days. I’d make myself a cup of coffee and shower. While I dressed I listened to NPR. I had it on all the time, even when I was sleeping. The murmuring voices made me feel less alone.

My mother and Lee had loaned me their Subaru, since my mother could no longer drive. I’d pull up in front of their house every Sunday at eight. She’d watch from their front window, and when she saw me coming up the street she’d push open the front door, bundled tight in her long winter coat, her canvas bag in her hand. She wore a brace on one foot, and she’d takes forever to navigate her way down the stairs to the sidewalk, which fortunately gave me time to run up and grab her arm. She wouldn’t wait inside. Lee had tried for months to get her to relax and slow down, to stop cleaning the kitchen and vacuuming the rugs and doing the laundry, but since she had to leave her job my mother had refused to sit down. She wouldn’t stop moving.

Our ten-minute drive to church grew more silent over the weeks. Unlike most people with ALS, my mother had a rare type of the disease that included dementia. She did not grow disoriented, like a person with Alzheimer’s. Rather it seemed like the dementia simplified her. She stopped initiating conversations and answered questions with only one or two words.

The eight-thirty service at Plymouth Congregational Church was small; only forty or so regulars. She and I would sit on the right hand side of the chapel, always, four or five rows from the back. We’d smile and nod at the other parishioners, though we rarely talked to anyone. On the mornings when I was hung over I was consumed with guilt, my soul sick and fearful. I was beginning to think that I couldn’t stop.

But other mornings it was easier for me to sit with her, and to believe in myself as I looked people in the eye and said “Good morning.”

Each week a woman who wore turtlenecks and cardigan sweaters and a red pair of glasses with large, round frames sat at the piano beside the altar and began to play. We stood together, clutching hymnals in our hands, our voices barely filling the small chapel. When the music began, my mother would cry. Each and every time. Barely five notes into the hymn and her shoulders would start shaking. The muscles of her face had weakened, and her mouth fell open while the sobs shook her entire body. They were silent sobs: when the muscles that controlled her swallowing began to fail, she had begun choking on her own saliva. The fluids could be dangerous to her already-compromised lungs. The only solution was to block off her airway, and perform a tracheostomy. As part of the surgery her vocal cords were removed.

Her eyes would grow frightened and confused and sometimes she’d look up at me, standing beside her, with a look of such utter pain and bewilderment that I’d vow inwardly to hunt down God and kill Him.

Every Sunday she cried, and every Sunday I’d do the only thing I could. I’d hold her with my right arm, and I’d hold the hymnal in my left hand, though by that point the book was useless, as we were both crying too hard to sing.

When the music stopped we could sit again, and collect ourselves. She’d open her canvas bag and search for the pack of tissues inside. After three weeks I bought a handkerchief and carried it in my pocket on Sunday mornings.

We’d dry our eyes and blow our noses during the sermon. If I hadn’t completely soaked the handkerchief, there was always the Communion. Once a month the small congregation gathered in a circle at the altar, and Communion wafers were passed, followed by a chalice of grape juice. My mother often choked on the wafer; her swallowing muscles had weakened, but she was too determined to call it quits on the body of Christ. Let it dissolve on your tongue, I’d whisper to her, but even that was risky. She tried to wait until we were back in the pew before spitting it out into the handkerchief.

The parishioners were good sports. They noticed the tears and the choking and the spit, but looked away politely. Sometimes after a service one of them would come up to me, hold my hand between theirs and say “You’re a good son.”

I knew they meant well, but on the mornings when I was hung over, I didn’t quite buy it.

One day during the sermon she opened her bag, fished around inside, then pulled out a pen and her pad of paper. She grasped the pen as well as she could, placed the tip against the paper, and scrawled something there. I pretended to pay attention to the sermon, but wondered what she was up to. She finished writing, then turned the pad to me.

I’m afraid I won’t get into heaven, it said.


I finally got sober. After enough demoralizing mornings of remorse I went to AA, and after a few more I asked for help. On October 2, 2000, nearly one year after her diagnosis, I finally stopped. What happened is not that her diagnosis got me sober. What happened is that it heightened the urgency to get here.

The overwhelming fear I had carried during those years, a fear of nearly everything, faded slowly, by degree. I faced up to some responsibilities. I paid some bills, and made amends to people I had hurt. My mother told me to go back to San Francisco, and to live my life. Lee and their tight circle of friends were caring for her better than I ever could, so I did. I went home but was not able to salvage my relationship with David. I was single for the first time in five years. I moved out on my own, and learned through much trial and error how to take care of myself. Then, for the first time in years, I was tested for HIV. I had four vials of blood drawn from the crook of my arm, and two weeks later the test came back positive.

I can say that one of my first moments of maturity came when I decided not to tell my family. I knew, finally, to keep this particular trump card close to my chest. I knew that my mother deserved not to worry, and I knew she deserved the full attention of my family. It may seem like it was the obvious thing to do, and drawing attention to it only shows how long it took me to grow up. But I made many mistakes back then, and it’s a relief to know that I did one thing right.


Sometime during those first few months after her diagnosis, she told me that she hoped I could forgive her for having been such a bad mother. I don’t know if she ever stopped feeling that her illness was punishment for past deeds: between the dementia and the loss of her speaking ability, it was difficult to know what she was thinking. Of course I don’t think she deserved ALS, and I told her that. And maybe she’d tell me the same; that my disease is not my fault. But I’d disagree.

A recent Rolling Stone article caused a minor sensation when it described the existence in the gay community of self-described “bug chasers”: men who knowingly engage in unprotected sex in an attempt to seroconvert. Whatever their motives, these men became lighting rods for moral outrage, from gays and straights alike. As you might imagine, this phenomenon was blown a little out of proportion, but underneath the tabloid-style frenzy was a sliver of truth.

I was not a bug chaser, but neither can I condemn these men. I can’t tell you why exactly I did not always protect myself; whether it was youthful rebellion or drug-clouded perception, whether it was a lack of self-regard, or a desire for sex without barriers. Maybe it was all of these things. What I can tell you is that being an HIV-negative gay man was often like standing on the edge of a cliff, peering over the edge into an abyss; a swirling vortex that grew wider and wider. And because of the new drugs there were fewer men dying. And because HIV can deplete testosterone, and because many HIV-positive men are on testosterone replacement therapy, they have beautifully muscular bodies; what I would call, in my less charitable moments, the Holy Grail of modern gay culture. And it was said that positive men were having guilt-free, unprotected sex with other positive men. And then the abyss seemed more like a big Jacuzzi, a pool with a little leak at the bottom: some got sucked out, but most everyone else was having a pretty good time. And I toed the line and felt the sick pull of vertigo and then, without ever making a real decision, I fell in. When I was negative it seemed as though everyone was positive, and then I seroconverted and found out I was wrong. And then the virus was inside me, and there was no going back.

I am to blame, there is no doubt in my mind. I can’t decide if it’s the same thing as deserving it. Had she known of my diagnosis, my mother would have probably disagreed, just as I tried to convince her that she didn’t deserve ALS.


On February 1st, 2002, I boarded a plane for Minneapolis. Lee had called, Mom again was not doing well. I endured the three and a half hour flight, staring out the window at the dark landscape, at the lights of the cities and the small towns moving slowly below us.

We finally landed, and as we were pulling up to the gate I checked my cell phone and there was a message. It was Dorothy, one of their friends who helped take care of my mother. Her voice was low, she had been crying. “Michael, your mother just passed. Call us when you get in.”

I pressed the “end” button, and slid the phone back in my pocket. I glanced around at the other passengers. All of us standing, waiting in the back of the plane, watching everyone ahead gather their coats and bags and head up the aisle.


In the last two and a half years I have been to over 500 AA meetings. They have an effect. Instinctively now, I want to show you the light. People need these meetings because they need hope; they need the possibility of redemption. Like any culture, AA has its social constraints and customs; expectations of certain behavior. Yes, we admit our faults, we acknowledge our depression and fear, but always we must find the light. And telling you now all of this, I must fight the urge to finish the narrative arc, as if there was such a thing.

There are days when I am asked to stand before the others and tell my story, with the usual implication: give them hope, end with the light. There are days when I want to say that I don’t know what I am doing, that I would rather be at home, sitting vacantly in bed with the television flickering its blue rays across the walls of my room. There are days when I don’t want to give anything to anyone, and that if one more person speaks to me I will just be rubbed away. But my mother was never one to sit home and sulk, and I still try to learn from her example. So I go and tell my story, and at the end I give them the light and the hope, because that’s what they come for. And at the end I feel a little better myself.

But for you I will not finish the arc, because for this story there is no such thing. I can tell you that everything keeps changing. I can tell you that the five or six guideposts of my story are under constant revision, because new ones rise to take their place. I can tell you that I have plans for the future, that I’m very healthy, and that I may be in love. I can tell you that sometimes I’m angry that other people still get their mothers, and that I’m probably too melancholy for my own good.

A friend of mine recently asked what it was like to have HIV, how did it affect my life? Mostly, I told her, it just means I go to the doctor more often than other people. Every three months I have several vials of blood drawn from the crook of my arm. I meet with my doctor, who tells me that I may be one of the lucky ones; I could go years without the medications. It means I have to make a choice; when do I reveal my HIV status to prospective lovers? I prefer to get it out of the way. If it means rejection, then at least we’re not wasting each other’s time.

I have recently begun seeing a man who is HIV-negative. As you may imagine, there are many issues that arise in such a relationship; issues of risk and mortality, attachment and fear. And then there are the smaller issues. One of the side effects of the new HIV medications is facial wasting: the loss of fat beneath the cheekbones, leaving many with sunken cheeks. No one knows why, exactly. Last year I was talking about this with another friend of mine, who is HIV-negative. He told me he’d rather kill himself than suffer such side effects. “I’m vain, I know. I can’t help it,” he said. But I’m inclined to agree; it’s easy to have HIV, when no one can tell. How could my own vanity withstand such a blow? With what disappoint would my boyfriend wrestle?

At the time I told my friend that I’d rather die, too. Which is something I’d never admit to my mother, were she still alive. She gave up so many things in small increments; her running, her voice, good food. I learned some things, watching her. We make adjustments as they come, whether we thought we could handle them or not. Which is to say that I’m vain, but not enough. What I’m trying to tell you is that I’ll take them, the medications, when the time comes.

Trying to Write Literature

Maybe everyone wants a mentor; someone who will take us under their wing, someone who will open for us closed doors, someone who will tend the thin flame of our talent and coax it to burn brighter. One of my main reasons for applying to grad school is the hope that I will find a mentor, someone who will find my writing worthy of encouragement. Someone who, let’s face it, will help me get published.

I want to blame my parents’ failures for my lack of self-confidence, for instilling in me this need for approval and guidance. But I’m thirty-two and at some point I need to grow up, so let’s pretend I’m starting today.

There’s my insecure desire for a warm, parental figure. But there is also a cold, utilitarian need for a mentor. I have chosen a career in which it is notoriously difficult to make a living, one in which contacts and networking are crucial. I want a mentor to guide me through the battleground. If I stop to think about what’s in it for the mentor (which I don’t do very often), I come up with some vague notion that he or she would be personally rewarded by the selfless act of giving.

Fueled with this combination of insecurity and mercenary manipulation, I came to the summer writer’s workshop at Sarah Lawrence College. I pretended to arrive with realistic expectations; I wanted to see the campus and get a feel for the school. I also hoped that I might learn something; that somehow a week’s workshop would contribute to my growth as a writer. I wanted the opportunity to work with one of the leading practitioners of the personal essay, Phillip Lopate.

I didn’t know much about Lopate, and I had only read a couple of his essays. But one of my classes last year through UC-Berkeley extension had as required reading an anthology that he edited, an anthology of personal essays throughout history. This book had introduced me to several writers whose work I have come to admire: Joan Didion, Richard Rodriguez, Mary McCarthy, Michael de Montaigne. Lopate’s anthology, along with his own writings, had helped establish him as a leading authority on the personal essay.

Hiding beneath my realistic expectations, however, was the not-so-small hope of being “discovered”. In my grandiose daydreams, Lopate would seize upon my considerable talents and urge, no, plead with me to further my craft, explaining that I owed it to myself and society to keep writing. He would frantically call editors around New York in order to have a piece of mine published in their hallowed pages. He would introduce me to his personal agent, write breathless letters of recommendation for grad schools and would, upon my return to San Francisco, engage me in lengthy, passionate e-mail exchanges about craft, talent, and How to Make It as a Writer.

The idea that every writer wishes this for himself, that perhaps everyone else in the workshop would arrive with the same glimmering hope, did not dull my dream. I knew there could only be room for one ingénue, and behind my nice-guy façade is a ruthless competitor. If I had done more research I might have realized the near impossibility of this dream, but that realization would come later in the week.


I awoke Sunday morning on the plastic mattress. The sheet beneath me had pulled free of the corners and was bunched around my shoulders. I was curled into a fetal position under the thin blanket, and I lay there listening to the sounds of people walking in the hallway outside my room, dragging suitcases along the floor. I lay there a few minutes, willing myself to gear up for the day and for all the strangers arriving on campus. I’m not naturally a “people person”, so such moments require a certain amount of determination.

I grabbed my towel and shaving kit and headed for the bathroom down the hall, which appeared to serve the four rooms of my wing. I passed a middle-aged man sitting in his room at his desk, and we greeted each other. We were both, as it turned out, named Michael.

“I’m in the poetry class, how about you?” he asked.

“Nonfiction,” I said.

“Oh. Ah.” A blank look crossed his face, an expression I would encounter frequently over the coming week. Fiction and poetry are the stars of every school’s creative writing program. Nonfiction is sort of the ugly stepsister. It’s regarded suspiciously by many writers, especially in light of the recent success of memoirs such as “The Liar’s Club”, and “Angela’s Ashes”, as if these memoirs were taking money away from poets and novelists. Some book critics get all snarky when it comes to memoir, labeling creative nonfiction a passing fad.

“So do you write about politics or something?” he asked me.

“It’s more like memoir or personal essay,” I said.

“Ah, I see. Great. Well, it’s nice to meet you.”

“Nice to meet you,” I said, then went down the hallway to the shower.


Later I went across campus to the music auditorium, where the opening announcements were scheduled. My natural inclination in any situation is to sit in the back. I don’t like people sitting behind me. But I made myself sit up front. My plan for the week was to get my money’s worth, which meant I would have to be a little more assertive than usual. Of course, all the other students sat several rows behind me. The instructors were gathered up front, and I had the feeling, like I often do, that I had missed the memo, the one that told you where to sit. But I stayed put and watched everyone arrive. There was a small jolt of displacement as I recognized Phillip Lopate from his book jacket photo. He was thinner and much taller than I imagined, well over six feet. His appearance was fairly nondescript; his dress shirt and slacks could have come from any major department store. I knew from his bio that he was sixty, and he looked sixty; with his gray hair, academic pallor, and quick, dark eyes. He walked with a certain hesitation, as though he wondered if he had come to the right place. Later that week I’d realize he always walked that way, and I would secretly identify with his apparent social awkwardness.

After a few announcements (“the red dot on your name tag means you paid for the meal plan, please show this at the buffet line”) we gathered around our respective instructors, and were lead by various workshop coordinators to our specific classrooms. Once settled, we gave brief introductions of ourselves. I mumbled something about how I used to write a lot of poetry, but that now I have a website and am thinking about grad school.

There were ten students in Lopate’s workshop. Only three of us were from outside the New York/New Jersey area. One woman was an English Professor at a small college in Illinois. Another girl, slightly younger than me, lived in Boston and had worked with Lopate when she was an undergraduate at Hoffstra University. We were the youngest by several years. Memoir and personal essay writing seems to attract older writers, people who have already lived a few years, and who now have time to reflect. At least half of the other students in my class had already retired.

That week the workshop reinforced a growing suspicion of mine: the memoir genre attracts people with Issues. Myself included. Everyone has a tragedy, everyone has suffered a death or an illness or a horrible injustice, and everyone wants to write a book about it. Hence memoirs of addiction, cancer, abuse, poverty, etc. Fiction writers and poets can hide their issues behind verse or character, if they prefer, but in memoir it really is all about me. And I am just another writer with Issues, and for me that is a bitter realization. Because, as you know by now, I must be special, I must be unique. But in that workshop I was just another guy who’s suffered. Yes, I am gay, I have HIV, I am sober, my mother died of ALS. But in that class there was a woman who had three diseases, including lupus; there was a woman with Multiple Personality Disorder; there was a woman with an alcoholic husband; there was a woman whose grandson had been killed by a car. The genre also seems to attract mostly women, which means that either men don’t have any issues, don’t want to write about them, or don’t think they need help in becoming better writers.

The focus of the week was the morning workshop: a daily class where Lopate and the other students gave feedback on pieces we had submitted. We’d hand out a copy to each student, and that night everyone would read each piece and give feedback the next morning. There is the potential at any workshop for the feedback to tip from constructive criticism into petty cruelty, but for the most part everyone is pretty respectful, if only for karmic purposes.

The purpose of the workshop, as I have always understood it, is not to present a highly polished piece, but one that is in the early stages, one that needs work. So I decided on a piece that I wrote several months ago, a piece that I felt had potential, but that only scratched the surface of its major themes. Not my best writing, but neither was it the worst. I had always felt a special affinity towards the piece, which is why I wanted to flesh it out and improve it.

I sometimes fall prey to the idea that growth experiences are all rooted in a kind of joy, or are the result of an openness towards life. I forget that learning is usually painful, that what we call “learning experiences” are usually horribly uncomfortable events. There is a rip in the skin of what we thought we knew, and what we learn tears through and emerges like a squealing baby, demanding that we turn all our attention his way.

Things began to hurt on the first day of class. Lopate told us that many current writing instructors are doing nonfiction writers a huge disservice by telling them to “show, don’t tell.” Lopate actually touched upon this in the wonderful introduction to his anthology, but somehow I had overlooked it upon first read:

“…the essayist happily violates the number-one rule of short story workshops, ‘Show, don’t tell’: the glory of the essayist is to tell, once and for all, everything that he or she thinks, knows, and understands…All good essayists make use at times of storytelling devices: descriptions of character and place, incident, dialogue, conflict. They needn’t narrate some actual event to produce a narrative. Even a ‘pure’ meditation, the track of one’s thoughts, has to be shaped, given a kind of plot or urgency, if it is to communicate.”

The italics are mine, because it is those words: “at times” that struck me cold. Everything my recent instructors had been telling me was “show, don’t tell”. I can still hear Margo, the woman I’ve taken two classes with in the last year, say “You must let the reader in on the experience, you must show them through all the details exactly what happened, how it felt; they must feel like they are experiencing it at the same time you are.” She was firm and unbending on this idea, and I had been working on that method for the last year, dipping into my past and constructing little narratives, little scenes full of sensory details, often in the present tense so as to heighten the sense of immediacy.

No, Lopate said. You must do more than just describe what happened. There must be the reflective voice, the voice that speaks from the present, with the writer’s full knowledge. You can’t put the blinders on the reader and lead him through the experience so that he has the same awakenings, the same dawning of realization as you did at the time. You can’t expect that he will have the patience to wait for you to wise up. You must be able to reflect on the past, and tell us that even if you didn’t know much back then, even if you didn’t know what the event meant at the time, you do know now. That is why we read the essay or the memoir, for the insight of a unique voice. We owe it to the reader.

I am not doing his words justice, and I certainly did not understand his point on the first day; what I have presented is the argument he made all week, day after day, with all of our writing. And it was hard to hear. Because each of us had been told the same thing; show don’t tell, and now it seemed that Lopate was telling us the opposite. At least, that is how it felt the first day or two. I sat there in class in a blue funk. Everything I had been taught, everything I had written in the last year and a half; it was all wrong.

What I came to understand eventually is that there should be both in the personal essay or memoir, there can be showing as long as there is also telling. I understood eventually that what I had been learning wasn’t wrong, just incomplete.

I had been working so hard on showing, in fact, that I felt like my telling voice, the voice of reflection and insight, was my weakest. I didn’t trust that at thirty-two I had much wisdom or insight to offer, certainly nothing very original to say. Because of this fear, Lopate’s words were that much more discouraging. If I wanted to keep writing in this genre, I would need to use that reflective voice; the voice of insight. I wasn’t sure I was smart enough.

So with more than a little trepidation, I handed out my piece to Lopate and the others on that first day of class; he had picked three of us to share our work first. I didn’t sleep so well that night, tossing and turning on the plastic mattress, wondering what everyone would say.


It did not go well, to say the least. Many words were used. Words like “cliché” and “platitudes” were used to describe my piece. At one point Lopate said “…what we are trying to write here is literature”; his point being that my piece fell far short of that goal. Even the subject matter; testing positive for HIV, was overdone.

I took it well, nodding dutifully, making notes in the margins of my clichéd essay. When class ended I gathered my notes together, slid everything into my backpack, and went out quietly into the sweltering heat of Bronxville in July. The other students streamed past me on their way to lunch, chatting together. I turned the other direction and walked slowly back to my dorm.

The criticism stung. I was more than a little discouraged. My mind conveniently discarded all of the positive comments, and magnified the negative till it was like a chorus of seventh-grade girls in my head, signing together in cruel mockery: “You’re a big loser!” I told myself I should quit writing. I should save the world from the embarrassment of my platitudes. I cursed my decision to share such a weak piece; if I had shown them something stronger, then they’d see that I could write. My vanity writhed in agony. Lopate would not be calling publishers on my behalf. I would not be discovered.

And that is how I handle criticism; I take it as far as I can, to the brink of surrender, to the point at which I will give up the thing I love best for an emptier existence. I will give up the harsh, thankless life of the artist. I will get a normal job and join the human race and not torture myself with the neuroses of the creative life. I become very childish and wounded. And that is what I did; I sulked for a day or two, avoiding the other students, sitting alone at dinner.

But then, true to my pattern, I emerged, ready to fight. What doesn’t kill me may not make me stronger, but it does piss me off. Because inspiration can be hard to find, I take what I can get; I had fuel for the fire.

Lopate wanted each of us to have the opportunity to share two pieces. That week the other students in my class passed out two separate pieces that they had previously written. But I would be different. I would take my first piece, the one that lay tattered on my desk, and I would make it better. I would show Lopate, I would show them all. Picture me in my tiny dorm room, fist raised to the heavens.


Lopate had given us a list of recommended nonfiction books, many of them memoirs or books comprised of linking personal essays. I circled a handful of authors on the list, and it was in their company that I spent much of the remaining week, slunk low in an upholstered chair in the library’s basement. It was not enough for me to hear Lopate’s words on writing; I had to see how authors such as Vladimir Nabakov, Lucy Greely, and Mary McCarthy told their life stories. I had to see it with my own eyes. And he was right; each of them spoke of the past, but with the full wisdom of their present selves. They described the past while reflecting on the meaning of each event.

I spent so many hours in that library, in fact, that I started packing a sweatshirt each morning. It may have been 90 degrees outside, but after an hour of air conditioning I began to shiver. I sat with my laptop and began the first torturous steps of revision. I typed a few sentences to get past the blank page, and soon I was writing. I spent so many hours there that I missed out on some of the ongoing social activities; the evening readings, the volleyball games and the barbeques. I weighed my options, and I chose the writing.


I had come from San Francisco, farther than any of the other students, and that week many of them asked me why. “Because I wanted an adventure”, I’d say. I will admit that at one point, when we were all having lunch together, I said, “You know what I love? Hearing you all talk.” They indulged me, the quaint Midwestern boy, with a few smiles. Several of them, including Lopate himself, were Jews who had grown up in Brooklyn. Others were from New Jersey. I loved their quick-paced conversations, and I had to learn to jump into the classroom dialogue without waiting for someone to indicate it was my turn. The urban music of their voices, so familiar from movies and television, was nonetheless still fascinating to me. Their accents heightened the sense that I was on an adventure, in a foreign place. They also heightened my sense of being a stranger, the fish out of water. Maybe I’ve seen too many Woody Allen movies, but I equate the accent with intelligence and education, and a certain amount of academic rigor lacking in other American accents. There are still some stereotypes I wholeheartedly buy into, if only out of ignorance.

I appreciated their no-bullshit approach to conversation. I didn’t want politeness or sympathy, I didn’t want to be treated with kid gloves. I wanted to succeed on my little trip to the East Coast, where the bar was set highest. I realize that I am buying into a stereotype that perpetuates the marginalization of non-East Coast writers. I’m certainly not the most original of thinkers. If pressed, I wouldn’t actually say that the East Coast is the most important place for writers. But I am a man who learns through experience; I do not want to wake up at fifty and wonder “what if”. And so I do things like attend writers’ workshops across the country, and I make small steps in the directions that tempt me; love and adventure. A new city. Underneath all of my insecurities is a thriving ambition, which in itself is probably just another insecurity; a need to be recognized as someone special, someone talented. I know that if I were to move to New York, after a year or two I would get a glimpse of the man behind the curtain, and I would come to know the fallacies of the East Coast. I would find that New York is still just another place, or as Sandra Bernhardt said: “Ah, New York, New York. If you can make it there, you will fail everywhere else.” But until then, I am intrigued.


My hopes for the whole mentor thing were quickly extinguished. Lopate just wasn’t the mentor type. He was not like the other workshop instructors, who hung out all day, eating lunch and dinner with their students, talking passionately over coffee, joking and laughing and being, from my perspective, very warm and accessible. Lopate left campus as soon as class was over. Even during the ten-minute break we took each day from class, he seemed to go out of his way to avoid us. We would be sitting together on the benches outside the classroom, blinking in the sun, and he’d wander away towards the other buildings, as though his only motivation was to stay away from us.

A couple of days into the workshop I told Lydia, one of the other students, about my disappointment that Lopate wasn’t as sociable as the other instructors. Lydia was about forty, with a lean, Ashtanga build. She wore her black hair slicked back into a ponytail. She was Jewish and lived in Great Neck. She spoke quickly and directly, with pale blue eyes that fastened on you. She was so different from the women I grew up with in Minneapolis; the blonde, polite, hesitant girls. She was the kind of person on whom nothing was lost, the kind of person who would suffer no fools. There wasn’t anything soft about her, and I liked her very much.

“I asked him today if he wanted to have lunch with us,” she said.

“What did he say?”

“He said he didn’t want another community. He has that already at the other schools where he teaches. He said he was basically here for the paycheck.”

What could you say to that? “Well, at least he was honest.” I said.

It was there in the library that I finally cracked open a book by Lopate, one that I had bought from the campus bookstore on my second day of class. It was a compilation of his personal essays, and there in the middle of the book was one titled “Terror of Mentors”:

The word ‘mentor’ has always had an appeal to me, in the abstract. I like its dignified sound, its promised protection, its sense of a craft personally handed down. Only the reality terrifies me. Either because of this fear or a lack of opportunity – the right mentor never came along, as bachelors in the mentor field are wont to rationalize – I had none when I was younger, and now it is too late.

He goes on to describe how he went through years of higher education without anyone taking that personal interest in his work. How he watched as fellow students were taken under the wings of various professors, often for less honorable intentions, and how his skepticism and jealousy of the relationship kept him at arm’s length from any possible connection. He even admits that underneath all of his rational arguments against mentorship is an irrational fear of the implied erotic connection between two men, the younger man presenting himself for the older man’s marking. He goes on:

Now the tables are turned: I am no longer the young man who could not seek out a mentor, but the middle-aged one to whom some young people look for that bond. How do I reconcile my skepticism about mentorship with the fact that I make my living as a creative writing professor? Partly, I think, by denying the degree to which I actually play the role of mentor. I often ‘pretend’ not to see the embarrassing extent to which a student is in my thrall; or I try to defuse the situation with humor and impersonality while continuing to offer concrete assistance. I have had students pursue me with requests for recommendations, blurbs, advice, twenty years or more after they have studied with me: some are shamelessly using me, true, but a few actually think of me as their mentor. Yet I have refused the intimacy of that term in my own mind.

Shall I confess one reason why I don’t think of myself as their mentor? I have never had a student whom I considered my peer. I have had plenty of students who were talented, lively, perceptive, and great fun to read, but not my literary equals. Perhaps I am being unfair, and the mere fact of their taking writing courses with me disqualified them in my eyes from seeming to possess original power and independence. Perhaps I am being overly competitive with my students. In any case, how could I truly mentor someone I did not believe would ever grow as high as myself?

I closed the book. I realized that if I had done some research, if I had opened this book several weeks ago, I would not have signed up for his class. I had to laugh at the irony of me traveling across the country with the dim hope of being Lopate’s discovery. I even had to laugh at his discomfort around the homosexual implications of mentorship. I had to hand it to him. Say what you will about his ego, he was nothing if not honest.


As the week progressed, we critiqued pieces by each student and Lopate, in fact, spared no one. It did not matter if the piece was about something as sensitive as terminal illness; he inspected it for trite phrases or unoriginal thoughts. He held no one’s hand. When that focus had been turned to my piece, it hurt a little. But I could see that his critiques of the other pieces were fair, and when the sting wore off, I began to respect him.

Others would disagree. His criticisms toed the line of harshness and, depending on where you stood, sometimes crossed over. One woman, a top editor at Essence magazine, left the workshop after the third day when Lopate told her that her writing was well suited for a mass market publication, but that it was not literature. Another woman who wrote about the accidental death of her grandson noticeably withdrew from classroom discussion following the critique of her piece. She told me later that she wished she had signed up with the other nonfiction instructor, Noelle Oxenhandler, because she felt a woman might understand her writing better.

I knew what she was saying, and while there was a part of me that also longed for the warmth and diplomacy a woman instructor might bring to her critiques, there was another part of me that did not want to settle, that wanted to impress the skeptics of the world, of which Lopate was clearly a member. He was not particularly moved by spiritual discussions or the use of dreams or fate in our writing. “You have to anticipate that many readers will not buy into the idea of this fate you mention; some of us will only see it as coincidence. It doesn’t mean that you can’t believe it yourself, or that you can’t talk about your dreams in your essays, just that you have to anticipate their argument, you have to address such skeptics, you have to show a little worldliness.”


I worked my ass off that week. I stayed all day in the library, reading and writing until they closed at nine pm. Then I’d trudge back to the dorm and stay up late reading the other student’s essays so that I could give them the feedback they deserved, the kind of feedback I would ask of my own work.

I took apart my original essay and began a new one. I tried a new approach and a new structure, and I attempted to use what I had been learning in class all week, to use that reflective voice, to use my full knowledge of the present to talk about the past. I was conducting an experiment, and I wasn’t sure if it would succeed, or if I would have yet another humiliation ahead. I worked up until the second to the last day, when I made copies and passed it out to the others. In another 24 hours we would meet for the last time, and they would tell me what they thought.


The first student who spoke said “I liked this piece…” and I knew there’d be a “but”. It came, and I sighed a little as I realized that she didn’t get it, that she didn’t see what I was trying to do. Another student joined in, voicing similar concerns. The experiment had failed. All that work, all those hours.

Lopate normally waited until all of the students finished before giving his own feedback, but at that moment he interrupted. “I think you’re missing the point,” he said, and I realized he was addressing the two students. He went on to defend my piece, and to praise it. He got it; he saw what I was trying to do, and he loved it. He talked for a long time, and there were many kind words and compliments that would sound immodest if I listed them here, but I scribbled them into my notebook, so that I would always remember. “It’s a terrific piece,” he said, and that was that.

Later, in our individual conference, he told me that my essay had been the highlight of his week. I felt vindicated, exalted, exhausted. We talked about MFA programs in the city, and he recommended the program at New School, where he taught. “It would be an exciting program for you,” he said. I had him sign the book I had bought that week, the one with the essay on mentoring.

There was something a little awkward about Lopate; a sort of social hesitation that, combined with his skepticism and desire to keep us at arm’s length, made him unapproachable. The girl who had taken undergraduate writing classes with Lopate at Hoffstra University said that he was always like that, that he never really warmed up on a personal level. I knew that if I were to study with him at New School I would not find that warm mentor relationship, at least not with him.

But that is why I felt such elation and vindication; Lopate was not the type to encourage a young writer past his insecurities. He was tough and critical, and as a result his words were that much more meaningful. I knew he liked my essay, and I knew his approval was genuine. If I wanted warmth, well, maybe that’s what boyfriends are for. When it comes to a writing instructor, I’d rather get the truth.

I came to realize many things that week, some of which I had always known, in the way we sometimes know things but don’t realize it until later. I realized that one doesn’t need Issues to write good nonfiction; the subject matters much less than the voice. Joan Didion wrote an excellent essay about migraines. Virginia Woolf wrote one about the death of a moth. The essay I rewrote was full of big Issues, but it was liberating to know that I don’t always have to write like that, that I could write about small events or observations or irritations. Which is fortunate, because each of us only gets a limited number of Issues. Sooner or later I’d run out.

I realized that some pieces need more time and space; they need room and leisure for the ideas to fully form, and that writing for the attention span of the average Internet reader can mean too many sacrifices. One thing’s for certain; if you’ve read this far you are not the average reader, and that’s why I like you.

I knew that the essay I wrote that week required everything from me, required me to be at my best, with all of my questionable intelligence and skills, and that if I were to get anywhere as I writer I would always have to reach that level, and that I would have to get even better.

Looking back over this I can see that I have placed Lopate on a pedestal. He loved my essay, and as a result I left the conference with a tremendous sense of accomplishment and confidence. Had he not liked the same essay, I would have been absolutely discouraged. Lopate is just one person, one man with his own opinions. And those qualities of his I value are the same that would drive another writer to distraction. Lopate is that little voice that has always been in my head, the one that questions everything, the one that bristles when I write something the least bit gooey. He is the voice I had always feared, the skeptic, the elitist, the East Coast intellectual of impossible standards. In Lopate I have a found a symbol; the most demanding of readers, one for whom I will work harder. I will concede that his approval seems to matter more than my own convictions. But the few convictions I have are under constant revision: I am susceptible to the strong beliefs of others; and in my defense I call this learning.

A Taxi to Bronxville

I worry a lot. But there’s a superstitious element to my worries. As though by worrying about something I am purchasing a sort of insurance policy; rarely do my worries about something come true, or if they do the reality is rarely as bad as I anticipated. So when everything comes out better than I expected, well, it’s a pleasant surprise.

I began worrying about how to get to Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, NY several weeks ago. Because I was flying all the way from San Francisco, I would have to arrive the night before the writer’s workshop began, so that I could be there for the opening events. So I’d be flying in on Saturday night around six pm. Bronxville was a half an hour’s train ride north of Manhattan. Since I would be flying into La Guardia, however, I would need to find an alternate source of transportation. The workshop’s brochure had said that there was a special bus shuttle that would take students from La Guardia to campus for only $21. However, the bus stopped running at 5 pm on Saturdays. The workshop coordinator suggested that a cab would be the best bet. A little more expensive, but it would bring me directly to campus, and I could avoid going into Manhattan for the train ride. Obviously the workshop was geared more towards local residents who could make the short trip to campus on Sunday morning. But I had chosen the workshop because I wanted to work with one of the instructors, Phillip Lopate. Also the fact that I had to apply and be admitted appealed to my inner competitor. I thought it might carry more weight when it came time to applying for grad schools. Also, I wanted a bit of an adventure.

I suppose that beneath my worrying was the quiet assumption that all my fears of getting lost or scammed by taxi drivers or left in the rain by the side of the road were exaggerated, and the trip would be rather uneventful and I would smile later at my foolishness.

Boy, was I wrong.

I picked up Bearbait at 6 am on Saturday, June 21st. He would drop me off at the airport and take care of my car while I was away. On the way we pulled into the Safeway lot so he could run into the little Starbucks stand inside. I noticed a stuffed animal lying rather squished right in the middle of the parking spot as we pulled in. “AHH, a skunk!” I said, and we had a good giggle about that.

I think of myself as a planner, but I wasn’t thinking too clearly that day. We arrived at the airport an hour before my flight. I’ve done some traveling since September 11th, so I’m not sure why I didn’t think to get there earlier. I suppose I felt bad enough getting Bearbait up at 6 am on a Saturday. So when we pulled up to the ATA door and saw the huge line of people waiting outside for the sky captain, I felt a surge of panic. I hopped out and rushed Bearbait through some hurried good-byes, and I went inside to see if the line was any better. It wasn’t. It stretched far beyond the maze of stanchions and I took my panic and discouragement and went to the end of the line. At that moment I realized that I had left my cell phone in the car, and Bearbait was gone. My small glimmer of hope that he would notice it and drive back was quickly dashed. I remembered that I had put it inside the glove compartment, to make room for our coffee cups in the holders between the seats.

By the time I finally got up to the ticket agent, it was a half an hour before the flight. “Sir, the flight has been overbooked, and you will have to go to the gate and see if they can assign you a seat.” She wrapped a bright green sticker around the handles of my duffel bag. It read “Standby.”

Of course the line for the metal detectors stretched on as well, and when I got to the front the security officer asked me to take out my laptop and remove my shoes and belt. I felt people waiting impatiently behind me as I struggled with the laces, finally pulling my shoes off in frustration and throwing them into the gray plastic tub and passing (thankfully) without incident through the metal detector. I dressed as quickly as possible and ran on to the gate, where the agent at the desk told me that the flight had been overbooked, and that I would have to have to wait and see if anything was available. Ten minutes before departure he called me to the desk and handed me a ticket. “Thanks,” I told him, and rushed on board. It was a middle seat, of course, something I abhor and will normally do anything in my power to avoid. But the morning was not going my way; the flight was packed and I took my seat between two rather large men, each of whom had their elbow on the middle armrests. I kept my elbows at my side and told myself that the next four hours would just fly by.

I’m not sure why I also forgot that airlines no longer feed you. Clearly my inner planner had taken a little vacation of his own. I hadn’t eaten anything that morning and within a half an hour my stomach was grumbling. I had a cup of coffee and a pack of peanuts and told myself that when we landed in Indianapolis in three and a half hours, I would run off the plane and grab something to eat.

Two rows ahead of me, a toddler began crying. And for the next three and a half hours, the little brat never shut up. The man next to me in the aisle seat was reading a Maxim magazine with Charlie’s Angels on the cover. He took out a tissue, tore it up and plugged his ears. Then he put his magazine away and promptly fell asleep. Of course I had to go the bathroom. I was waiting for the cart to pass by so I wouldn’t get trapped or cause the flight attendants any hassle, because I am nice that way. I am also too nice to wake someone up and ask them to move. I know most people aren’t so timid, but I am still working on issues of self-confidence. Eventually I will believe that it’s okay to take up a few inches of space in the world, but that morning I wasn’t quite there yet. So I waited patiently for him to wake up. The pressure on my bladder grew exponentially. I decided to concentrate my psychic powers and then the man would wake up and realize that he, too, had to use the bathroom.

He slept the whole trip. For three hours I kept thinking, “Okay, just a few more minutes and he’ll wake up” until finally we were descending into Indianapolis and I decided to just wait. Perhaps if the interior noise of the plane hadn’t been so loud, the sounds of my rumbling stomach would have woken him up. The lengths I will go to avoid bothering a stranger are simply astonishing, and quite painful.

So when we finally landed and the flight attendant got on the intercom and said “For those of you continuing on to New York, you may leave the aircraft but please be back on board in ten minutes”, I could have killed her. I waited another ten minutes while everyone ahead of me gathered their belongings, and finally I ran off the plane towards the nearest bathroom, keeping an eye out for a fast food joint. I peed for about nine minutes, then checked out the terminal and realized that the only two food establishments available were actual restaurants, the kind where you sit down with a menu and they serve you fifteen minutes later. I don’t recommend Indianapolis. I boarded the plane again, went back to my middle seat and told myself that I could wait another hour and a half to eat at La Guardia. Of course, we sat at the gate for another forty-five minutes. Other, wiser travelers anticipated this and returned looking very well fed.

When we took off for New York the captain got on the intercom and told us that the weather in New York was currently sunny and beautiful and 72 degrees. Then he said “Just kidding.” I had another pack of peanuts. When we descended into New York, it was about 6 pm and the skies were dark and very wet. I could see the Manhattan skyline through the haze of gray clouds and rain.

As I stepped off the plane, I decided to wait till I got my suitcase before eating. The flight attendant had said that our bags would be available at Carrousel B. However, when we got down to the lower level, the carrousels were marked “B345” or “B233” or “B178”. The entire planeload of passengers wandered between carrousels, responding in kind to erroneous reports from security officers and ATA baggage handlers on which carrousel was ours. Finally, after about ten minutes, one of the carrousels began beeping and we all crowded around it. The conveyer belt began to move. Ten minutes later, it stopped moving. Not one bag had emerged. Then the beeping began again, and again it kicked into gear. Then it stopped. This went on for about a half an hour until finally bags began to appear. Thankfully mine had made it on board, and I picked it up and set off for the “food court”. I knew that the village of Bronxville was a good ten-minute walk from campus, and due to the rain and twilight I thought it best to eat before I arrived. I had a lonely piece of pizza and a Caesar salad in the food court, watching the rain fall outside. When I finished I lugged my bags outside to the taxi stand, and told the dispatcher that I needed to get to Sarah Lawrence in Bronxville. He sort of paused for a second, then scratched it out on his pad, handed me the stub, and called a taxi forward. I got in, closing the door against the rain, and told the driver my destination.

“Where?” he said.

“Sarah Lawrence College. It’s in Bronxville.”

“Bronxville? Do you mean the Bronx?”

“No, BronxVILLE.”

He pulled back over to the curb. Luckily I had printed out the directions on Mapquest. He took the pages and looked them over. “It’s outside the city,” he finally said.

“Yes, I know.”

“Once we get outside the city limits, it will be double fare.”

Of course. “I don’t care, that’s fine.”

“You sure?”


He got on the CB and spoke rapidly in Arabic, the only word I recognized being “Bronxville”. Then we set out. Traffic was slow, of course, and everything was gray and wet, and the sky was darkening and I watched everything pass, the Triborough Bridge, Shea Stadium, strange buildings and empty lots and trees of impossibly green foliage.

“Three months it’s been like this,” the cabbie told me.

“So I’ve heard,” I said. I gave him directions from the backseat, consulting my print-out. Thirty minutes later we exited the highway, and were promptly lost. He pulled into a gas station and handed me an umbrella.

“Go ask for directions, okay?”

I took the umbrella. Inside the gas station a woman saw me approach with the print-out in my hand.

“If you’re asking for directions, I don’t know anything,” she said. I stood there blankly until finally she took pity on me and called her assistant manager over, who pointed out the window.

“Go under that overpass, drive about a mile down the road, you’re like two minutes away.” Thank God.

We pulled onto campus and I looked around at the unfamiliar buildings. The workshop coordinator had explained that my dorm key would be waiting with security at the Westlands building. I saw a sign pointing towards Westlands and told the cabbie to stop. He scratched out a few numbers on a piece of paper; fare, bridge tolls, double fare. I paid him sixty-five dollars. “You want this, too?” I asked, offering him the printed directions.

“Just in case,” he said. He drove off.

It was pouring rain by now as I picked up my bags and set off for Westlands. As I got closer to the sign, however, I saw that there were arrows pointing in different directions, for three different buildings” “Westlands Desk”, “Westlands Gate”, and “Westlands Annex” or something, I don’t know, because by that point I was soaking wet and more than a little discouraged. I set off in the rain. There was nobody at Westlands Gate. I went to the next building. I opened the door and saw a woman sitting at a desk in the lobby and I sort of fell in love with her, for just a second. She laughed a little when I came in, eyeing my wet clothes. “It’s been doing this forever,” she said. “Like three months or something.”

“So I’ve heard,” I said. I gave her my name and she found my key.

“Oh, you’re all the way over at Andrews.” She looked at me as though I had just made her night much more complicated. “I’ll have to call the guy to take you over there, he’s helping someone else right now.”

“Nevermind,” I said, “Just point me in the right direction and I’ll find it.”

She sighed. “Well, let’s see, it’s a little complicated.”

I set off in the rain again, and as I shouldered my duffel bag I accidentally hit the “on” button on my electric shaver, and it began buzzing around inside, against my back. I walked a few steps and realized that if I didn’t turn it off, I would be driven insane. I found partial cover under a tree, opened the bag and dug around inside till I found the shaver, and switched it off.

I shouldered the bag again and continued on, crossing the campus and peering at the dark buildings for clues. None of them seem labeled, which made the journey rather confusing. I tried my key on a building but it didn’t work. I pulled out my map of the campus and realized that there was both an “Andrews Building”, and an “Andrews Court.” The key didn’t work on Andrews Building, so I headed off on the path to Andrews Court. As I neared the cluster of buildings I noticed that ahead of me there was a garbage bag lying next to a trash can on the side of the path. As I got closer, I realized there was something rooting around inside the torn-open bag, and as I got even closer I saw that it was a black creature, about the size of a small dog, and that there was a white stripe running down its back.

“No,” I said to myself. “No. Absolutely not. I am NOT getting sprayed by a skunk tonight.” I could smell him from several feet away. He didn’t seem too frightened by my presence, but I wasn’t going to press my luck. I retreated a few feet and looked for an alternate route, but there was none. I would have to pass the skunk to get to the dorm. By now my jeans were sticking wet to my legs, and rain was running down my back. I made a stomping gesture on the path, and then another, and then finally the skunk grabbed a bit of trash in its mouth and retreated under a nearby tree. I walked very slowly past him, then hurried towards the dorms.

There were twelve buildings that made up Andrews Court. I was in the twelfth building, and it was, naturally, the very last one. They reminded me of quaint little split-level cabins, surrounded by leafy oaks and trails and tennis courts. My key finally worked, and I let myself into the building. It was cold and dark inside, and everything smelled like fresh paint. I walked down the short hallway, and found my room. I stepped inside and threw my bags on the bed. The mattress made a strange squeaky sound, and when I flipped on the light, I saw that it was a plastic twin size mattress.

“No,” I said. “I am not sleeping on a goddamned plastic mattress. I paid good money for this fucking workshop.” I glared at the mattress but it just sat there. I peeled off my wet clothes and dried off with a towel, then threw on my sweats. I walked through the dorm. There were two levels, four rooms each, and there was a plastic mattress in each and every one. I returned to my little room, which seemed closer to something out of a motel than something you’d find in a cabin. It was nine pm. Thee coordinator had said that basic linens would be supplied, and I picked up the thin sheets (35 count, it felt like) and opened them up and realized that I had two flat sheets and no fitted sheet. Once again I searched the entire dorm, and once again I was out of luck. I made my bed and sat down, finally, with a squeak. All I could smell was fresh paint and I had a headache and no aspirin, and I had air conditioning but no heat and I was very cold.

I felt, suddenly, like I was eighteen again, arriving for my first semester of college in Florida, at the very end of the rainy season. I had dragged my bags to my dorm. The architect I. M. Pei had designed the dorms, but to me they just looked like a confusing jumble of dull gray blocks, and each room looked like something out of a cheap motel. Later I heard a rumor that they were designed that way, so that if the college failed, they could be used as lodging for tourists. My room was on the second floor, and it smelled like fresh paint and my roommate hadn’t yet arrived. I had gone out on the balcony and had a cigarette and watched everyone else arrive. They slipped and skidded around on the wet tiles in Palm Court and I didn’t know anybody and I felt like maybe I had made a mistake. And at Sarah Lawrence I felt like maybe I had done the same. I listened to the rain falling outside on the trees but I didn’t have a balcony, and I gave up smoking many years ago, when I was nineteen.