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Plug in the Crucifix

My first paying gig in New York started this semester: I was awarded a fellowship through school to act as a research assistant to a local writer, who’s working on a biography of the Southern writer Flannery O’Connor, she of the lupus and peacocks. The biographer himself was recently named by a local magazine one of New York’s “Fifty Most Beautiful People.” Rough, right? Yeah, keep feeling sorry for me.

I had one of those rare opportunities, the kind of errand that I suppose only a certain segment of the population would find thrilling. He asked me to go down to the Rare Manuscripts and Archives room at the main library, on 42nd Street, to check out some files on Flannery, and to write up a description of a certain document that he would like to discuss in a speech he’ll be giving soon at a conference on FOC (as I now call her. I’m like, all down with the biographer shorthand lingo. Yeah, step back.)

Access to this manuscript room is restricted; I had to bring two forms of identification down to the library, and then apply for two further forms of ID. Then I walked down the long middle aisle of the beautiful main reading room, to a little door at the end of the corridor, where I flashed my ID to get buzzed through the door. I had already followed the rules, and checked my coat, bag, and ink pens downstairs (only pencils allowed in the room.) Inside, I had to sign in, and check out, one at a time, boxes of files that I had paged and reserved in advance through email. The dim room was quiet, lined with two floors of glass-enclosed bookshelves, and a few dusty scholarly types bent over long desks bathed in lamp light, poring over brittle pages of manuscripts, handbills, and letters.

I chose a desk and settled in. Part of my research took me through some files from the offices of The New Yorker: mainly correspondence between editors and various authors about publication. Each box contained several folders, each folder labeled with a different author’s name, all arranged alphabetically.

Just before O’Connor was “Nabokov.” Uh, yeah, as in Vladimir Nabokov, as in Lolita, one of the greatest books ever written. As if I could resist poking through THAT folder. And inside was personal typewritten correspondence, from the fifties, between Nabokov and his editor, Katherine White, who was E.B. White’s wife. Along with various business correspondence, (”enclosed please find a check for your last story”) were actual rejection letters. Yes, my friends, Vladimir Nabokov was rejected from The New Yorker. Several times. In fact every folder I glanced through contained piles of rejection letters addressed to various authors, some more famous than others. Flannery herself had all four of the stories she sent to the magazine rejected. This is the kind of information I want to share with my fellow writers, as a twisted kind of encouragement.

Alright, maybe this isn’t such a turn-on to some of you. But then again, you don’t come here for pictures of shirtless twinks. Or at least I hope you don’t, because it would be a continual disappointment for you if you did. But the afternoon made me a bit euphoric, holding these pages in my hot little hands. Most thrilling to me were Nabokov’s little handwritten signatures: a single flourished “V”, with a small sketch of a butterfly (he had a thing about butterflies.) I think I was bitten with the biographer’s bug there. It was, for me, a quintessential New York moment, sitting in a remote corner of the main library, a room steeped in history and tradition, poring over documents that were decades old from authors whose books were on my own shelves back home. It was one of those moments that makes me a little wistful when I think about moving away, though lord knows there are manuscript collections at every university in the country.

Later, poking through some files in the collection of Yaddo, an artist colony where Flannery stayed while working on her first book, I came across some of her correspondence with Yaddo’s director. Many of the letters were written years after Flannery’s stay, as they became closer friends. In one letter Flannery describes current events in her small Georgia town: “Lately we have been treated to some parades by the Ku Klux Klan. They are all excited now about electing themselves a governor for the state. It’s too hot to burn a fiery cross, so they bring a portable one made with red electric light bulbs.”

Later, shortly before her death at the age of 39, she writes in a fragment of a letter about her declining health, and her need to keep writing: “Something in me dies when I can’t work.”

I scratched this down on a piece of paper with the pencil they’d loaned me, thinking, girl, I know what you mean.

Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens
David Copperfield, Dickens
Great Expectations, Dickens
Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain
The Catcher in the Rye, JD Salinger
Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison
(The Annotated) Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
Portnoy’s Complaint, Philip Roth
My Father and Myself, J.R. Ackerly
Go Tell it On the Mountain, James Baldwin
Notes of a Native Son, Baldwin
Complete Prose, Elizabeth Bishop
Collected Poems, Bishop
The Lover, Marguerite Duras
Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy, Carlos Eire
Blue Hour, Carolyn Forché
Overlord, Jorie Graham
Dreams of My Russian Summer, Andrei Makine
So Long, See You Tomorrow, William Maxwell
Swann’s Way, Marcel Proust
Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson
The Emigrants, WG Sebald
To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf
Aristotle’s Poetics
Selections from Hegel
Oedipus the King, Sophocles
Antigone, Sophocles
Agamemnon, Aeschylus
Agaememnon, Seneca
Hippolytus, Euripedes
Phaedra, Racine
Medieval Mystery Plays, Anonymous
Everyman, Anonymous
Henry VI, parts 1, 2, and 3, Shakespeare
Richard III, Shakespeare
The Tempest, Shakespeare
The Duchess of Malfi, Webster
The Robbers, Schiller
The Prince of Homburg, Kleist
A Scrap of Paper, Sardou
A Doll’s House, Ibsen

All to be read in the next three and a half months. Thanks for your friendship and emails. I’ll talk to you, like, this summer.

Cunning literary detective tracks down the origin of hot cowboy love, to Oedipus the King:

I’m sure he recalls old times we had
on the slopes of Mount Cithaeron;
he and I, grazing our flocks, he with two
and I with one – we both struck up together,
three whole seasons, six months at a stretch
from spring to the rising of Arcturus in the fall,
then with winter coming on I’d drive my herds
to my own pens, and back he’d go with his
to Laius’ fold.

In the end, it all goes back to the Greeks.

Dear Oprah

No doubt you are troubled today by the recent news that James Frey, author of the memoir “A Million Little Pieces” is alleged to have made up significant parts of his book, which you had recently chosen for your book club. Frey is hardly the first memoirist to face such charges. Augusten Burroughs, author of “Running with Scissors,” was recently sued by the crazy family he lived with when he was younger, the family at the heart of his book, who now argue that the book should be shelved in the “fiction” section at Barnes and Noble.

I’m reminded, Oprah, of something Lucy Grealy, the author of the memoir “Autobiography of a Face,” supposedly said at a reading she gave at a bookstore in New York City.

“It’s amazing how you remember everything so clearly,” a woman in the audience said. “All those conversations, those details. Were you ever worried that you might get something wrong?”

“I didn’t remember it,” Lucy said. “I wrote it. I’m a writer.”

Her comment didn’t go over so well, as you can imagine. After all, when a reader buys a book of nonfiction, she establishes a contract with the writer, in which it’s expected that the writer will tell the truth, and not make things up. A broken contract leads to feelings of betrayal and, as you are witnessing, occasional media scrutiny.

Of course Lucy wasn’t really at fault. She merely pulled back the curtain on the memoirist’s process, and revealed certain details that many of her peers would rather remain hidden. The dirty little secret of memoirs is that nearly all of them contain inventions. Honestly, can any of us remember, word-for-word, conversations we had yesterday, much less when we were sixteen? The day we lost our virginity in the woods near our house (hypothetically speaking, of course), was that a crushed can of Budweiser or Schlitz just off the hiking path? And the sky: cloudy, blue, white? Did our special friend smoke a Marlboro or a Kool afterwards, as we caught our breath against a tree, underwear bunched down around our ankles? And were they Calvins, or Fruit of the Looms?

You get my point. By name alone, a memoir is an act of memory, and memory is always fallible. The best most memoirists can do is to try and keep to the spirit of past events, past conversations, past conquests, and choose the details that best honor that spirit. How closely they keep to that spirit is a matter of personal preference on the part of the writer. Recently a certain author opened her memoir with a scene in which her tyrannical father burst into her bedroom, snatched her typewriter from her desk, and threw it out the window. Later the tyrannical father disputed this incident, and after much careful reflection, the author admitted that the father had actually just unplugged the damn thing.

I believe, Oprah, that in the right hands, the truth of that scene could be rendered such that the act of unplugging could be just as dramatic as the old heave-ho out the window.

Which brings us to Frey, the author of your recent book club selection, who may have embellished certain details of his arrest, burn-out, and recovery from drug addiction for the sake of heightened dramatic intensity. Oprah, beware writers who talk about heightened dramatic intensity. It usually means they’re making things up. And now you and your lawyers have a mess on your hands.

I’m troubled, Oprah. Troubled that these recent allegations will influence you to steer clear of memoirs for future book club selections, thereby depriving millions of readers many heart-felt, moving, triumphant true-life stories. I’m troubled that you’ll play it a little safe, and pick novels from now on, and between you and me, girl, fiction ain’t selling so hot these days.

Surely you must be tossing and turning at night, anxious that you will never again find such a memoir, written by someone who has rock-solid integrity, someone who would never use the phrase heightened dramatic intensity when describing their work.

Good news. Oprah, I am that writer.

And I am fully prepared to step into the role of honest author, for the sake of your book club. Not only does my memoir contain drug addiction and recovery, but I have not needed to embellish the tale for dramatic effect. It’s that good, that moving, that triumphant. And there’s more. Would you believe, Oprah, that my memoir also includes poignant coming-of-age recollections of a young homosexual who was raised by not one, but TWO homosexual parents?!? Think about it, Oprah. Think how hot gay marriage is right now. Think of the millions of readers who could be moved by such a story. Drug addiction AND gays. It’s simply breathtaking.

Furthermore, Oprah, should you decide to have me appear on your show, (for the sake of your readers, of course), I promise to floss, and to buy a new suit with the gazillions of dollars modest profit I’d make from sales of my book. And I promise not to jump up and down on your couch.

No, I am not yet finished with my amazing memoir. But with your support and encouragement, I would devote myself fully to the task of pleasing you and your worthy fans, and I’d kick it out in a few months, provided there was a big fat modest advance from my publisher, just to put food on my table, a table at which I would be working night and day, Oprah, night and day.

Do yourself and your fans a tremendous, life-changing favor. Call me.

Thanksgiving in Palm Springs, again: dinner at my father’s friends’ house on the edge of town. Outside, a rented table and chairs near the pool which was lit with colored lights. Over the fence, the mountains in the distance. Twenty, twenty-five people, family and friends. After dinner the straight people went inside to watch the game on the big flat screen hung over the fireplace. Seven gay men, myself included, stuck it out by the pool. The sun slipped behind the mountains, and Terry found fleece jackets for us as the desert air turned cool. Three couples, all in their forties and fifties and sixties, and me. Someone told a story of a road trip that two of the couples had taken together last year, on which they played a card game fashioned after Truth or Dare: how many sexual partners have you had?

“Um, twenty,” Steve had said.

“Fifty?” said Craig, thinking back.

Allen cleared his throat. “A thousand.”

All heads turned. Peter, Allen’s partner, was driving, and the car drifted towards the shoulder. “Excuse me?”

By the pool, in Palm Springs, everyone began offering, again, their own sexual mathematics. I looked over at my father, who hadn’t been on the road trip. He looked back, and at the same moment we said, “I don’t want to know.”

Over those three days I interviewed him and his partner on tape, five hours total. Later, after dinner, we headed to the movie theater for Capote, which I had just seen in New York. Half-way through, around the time that Capote decides to sell his interview subjects down river for the sake of art, for the sake of his book, I glanced over at my father and his partner and thought, “Why the fuck, of all the movies open, did I bring them here?”

As we’re leaving the theater his partner turned to us and said, of Truman, “What a piece of shit.”


Christmas in Indiana. The hotel room was about twice the size of my apartment.

My grandmother is now 88 and weighs 82 pounds. Sitting together in the living room, I ask her what kind of kid my father was. She thinks for a moment. “You know how he has a bit of wander-lust?” I nod. “Well it started early. He wandered away so many times that we finally put a harness on him, and tied him to the clothesline in the backyard.” Later, going through some photo albums, we find one of him, three years old, sitting on the grass in the backyard of their home in Gas City, Indiana. Over his t-shirt he wears a harness, and a leash trails off behind him. “That didn’t last long,” she said. “He took his clothes off, came around to the front door, and asked me if I had any cookies.”

Among the photo albums is a stack of papers: someone had done our family tree; it went back into the 1800’s. This is how I come to find that I am related, distantly, to homesteaders, and to people named Jimmy and Beulah Lee Turnipseed.


The last six weeks of the semester I became obsessed with San Francisco. Images interrupted my day, certain views I knew well: the Marin headlands across the Golden Gate Bridge, the houses on the hills from my bedroom window, the Castro Theater marquee from the museum parking lot at the end of my street. I daydreamed about my old car, my foot on the accelerator, driving somewhere, anywhere on my own volition, somewhere out of the city, surrounded by the colors green and blue, mist, air smelling of sea. Walking down sidewalks that I shared with a couple dozen people, rather than a couple of thousand. And light: through my bedroom window, through the skylights of Gold’s Gym. I dreamed about space, and light, and the sight of green things blooming all year. I pulled on my parka and slipped into the crowds on Broadway, and remembered the sound of fog dripping from the eucalyptus trees on my old block.

I began to feel like an animal in a zoo, and spent most of my time in my apartment, just recovering from the onslaught of New York. Everyone knows this is a hard city. And people who live here strike that bargain because they get something back from the things the city offers. I began to realize that I didn’t really care so much about those things. I didn’t want to go out to bars and clubs and cool restaurants all the time. I like the museums and plays, and the readings. I saw Joan Didion read twice here. But neither meant as much to me as the book she had written. And what did it matter where I read it? What if, at heart, I’m one of those people who say it’s a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there…

I’ve been struggling here since day one. Struggling to stay on top of everything, struggling with my depression, struggling to find some kind of balance. I know that grad school is part of the problem, and most of my friends here have said that if I just waited till after school ended, and maybe moved downtown someplace, then I would really come to love New York.

I try to imagine an ideal New York life, with an amazing apartment in a great part of town, with enough money to take part in everything, but it still doesn’t solve the essential problems for me of living here: having to share the sidewalks and the subways with millions and millions of people, all of us in each other’s way. Weather (gross summers, cold winters) that drives you inside for much of the year. The difficulty of getting out of town without some major planning.

After Christmas Bearbait picked me up from the airport in San Francisco, and dropped me off on my little dead-end street on the hill. And when I stood on the sidewalk outside my old apartment, all I could hear was the wind through the trees, and I breathed in the smell of damp eucalyptus leaves, and that moment mattered more to me than just about anything I’d done in New York.

I can have that apartment back. My ex, who took over my room, isn’t getting along so well with my old roommate, and told me he’s ready to move on. The roommate misses me. And I saw that I had a one-of-a-kind deal there: a great big apartment on the side of a hill, on a quiet street that always has parking, surrounded by trees, with views from all three floors of the houses on the hills above the Castro, for only five hundred bucks a month, far far less than what I am paying for my dark little studio here in Manhattan.

And though it stormed the entire week I was home, I didn’t care. I sat in the living room looking out at that view, the rain falling across the hills. It took me moving to New York to understand how important a certain balance of city and nature was to me. I never would have thought of myself as a nature boy, but so be it. I loved living in a city where I could hop in my car, and within an hour be at Mount Tam, the Marin headlands, Stinson Beach.

Even with men, I realized that I was becoming more attracted to guys who had some ability to survive out in the wilderness, rather than men who knew the hottest drag queens on the Lower East Side. I don’t really care where you bought your couch, but if you can read a compass, you’re a hottie.

There are less than 800,000 people in the city of San Francisco, a small fraction of New York’s population. And for the first time I saw this as a tremendous asset. I had breathing room, empty spaces, quiet sidewalks, sleepy, foggy streets to drive home with the windshield wipers on low.

I’ve had friends argue that one can live in New York and vacation in these quieter places to recover. I’d rather do the opposite: live in a quieter place, and visit the more rambunctious places.

I would sacrifice some things by leaving New York: some valuable friendships; a greater, truer diversity; an incredible cultural vibrancy. Most of all I could lose out on some professional contacts. But I’ve made a few already, the internet has come a long ways in helping writers stay connected, and though there may be more opportunities for writers, there are also a hell of a lot more writers here competing for them. I’m not convinced that I need to live here to make it as a writer. Most writers, after all, don’t live in New York. I’m going to have to work a little harder to make those connections from San Francisco. But at least I’d have the energy to do so, rather than spending my days recovering.

Most important is the sense of family I have with my friends in SF. One night, Bearbait and Joe the Barber and I were walking down Polk Street when we came across an intersection blocked off, fire engines surrounding an old fish and chips restaurant on fire. Thick black clouds of smoke billowed out into the night. Flames licked up through the windows. We stood with the crowds on the sidewalk, watching the firemen work. Joe bought a slice of pizza and the three of us leaned against a building and watched another burn.

One afternoon Jeff and I took the ferry over to Tiburon and found a coffee shop. I sipped my hot chocolate and pointed out the window behind him at Angel Island, which was wreathed with a low cloud of fog. “I know this is cheesy,” I said, “but that image right there is feeding my soul, dude.” Of course what I neglected to say was that his company was doing the same. Even later that week, after he’d had his accident, I had the same feeling sitting in his hospital room. Good conversation, comfort, none of us having to rush off on neurotic errands. Of course he couldn’t rush off, since he had a couple of cracked ribs and was tied to a few pieces of medical equipment, and I didn’t need to rush off because I was on vacation, and maybe everything I’m saying here is an elaborate justification of a decision I’ve already made. But that’s how I work. I have to justify it to myself first.

Even the Ex and I had fun. Nearly five years apart, we’ve reached a point where we still know exactly how to make each other laugh, but without having to put up with each other’s ugly boyfriend characteristics.

And Louie. If I moved back to SF, the Dogpoet could have his dog again.

Naturally I’ve been mulling this decision over and over and over, and burdening my friends with long monologues about the advantages and disadvantages of each city. A guy who reads my blog, in a stunningly generous move, sent me an email that contained a few dozen quotes pulled directly from my blog, all concerning New York and San Francisco, and my feelings about both. There, in black and white, was the writing on the wall. “Notice here,” the reader pointed out, “that you say you love New York on the days you don’t hate it. I’m wondering if you’ve ever said that you hated San Francisco. I couldn’t find anything on your blog.” He couldn’t find it, because I never wrote it.

I have no regrets. I wanted to come to Columbia to become a better writer, and I wanted to move to New York to see if I could live here, and I’ve succeeded on both counts. I’m a better writer, and I’ve seen first hand that New York is not for me. It’s such a relief to finally realize that I don’t have to somehow “live up” to New York, that I am happier in a smaller, backwater kind of city, and that this preference is something I like about myself. And isn’t it rough, to have to make this kind of decision? Yeah, I know you really feel sorry for me.

“You can’t go back again,” someone told me. But I’m not trying to recapture something I once had so much as putting myself in the place from which I want to go forward. I can move back this summer, and finish my thesis in my apartment on the hill, the view through the window, Louie curled at my feet. And maybe, with a little bit of balance, and a little more humor, I could stop writing such amazingly self-absorbed posts like this one, and actually engage with the world a little more.

New York hasn’t been an entirely negative experience. In San Francisco I got my hair cut by Joe at his barbershop. Joe lived in New York for quite a few years, and he works with a certain hunky barber who grew up in Brooklyn. This hunky barber has a hot, tough exterior, but I’ve always suspected that there’s something else underneath. I asked him how he was doing, and if he was dating anybody. “Nope,” he said.

“If I moved back to San Francisco, would you let me take you out on a date?” I asked.

He paused for a second or two, then launched into this long speech about the different kinds of dates in the gay world: the coffee date, which could be just between friends, the sex date (self-explanatory), and the date-date, which would be dinner and a movie with the possibility but not the guarantee of sex. There were a few other types as well, but I interrupted him.

“Dude, just tell me what the fuck I should ask you when I move back.”

I’d never seen him speechless before. He may have actually blushed. “A date-date,” he said, quietly.

“Alright,” I said. “But just so you know, I don’t put out on the first date-date.”

He nodded. “That’s fine.”

Joe caught my eye in the mirror and patted my shoulder. “New York’s been good for you,” he said.

Winter vacation: time on my hands. I’ve recently discovered a feature on Netflix that allows you to see which movies a certain city is renting far more than other cities. Let’s look at Manhattan:

1. Grey Gardens
2. L’Eclisse
3. Un Homme et Une Mujer
4. Hiroshima Mon Amour
5. James’ Journey to Jerusalem
(um, can anybody say pretentious)

How about Staten Island (in honor of Adam):

1. WWE: The Self-Destruction of the Ultimate Fighter
2. Carlito’s Way: Rise to Power
7. House of 1000 Corpses

And tough ol’ Brooklyn:

1. Downtown 81 (huh?)
2. A Life Apart: Hasidism in America
5. The Muppets Take Manhattan


1. Azucar Amarga
2. Balseros
3. Pantaleon Y Las Visitadoras

Salt Lake City:

1. American Mormon
2. The Work and the Glory
5. SpongeBob SquarePants: Where’s Gary?