I came to New York to find myself and get a fresh start. I was also, to be honest, running away from some messy business that occurred at the Pretty Brook Country Day School in Princeton, New Jersey. I had been a respected English teacher there for four years, ever since graduating from college. My downfall was a brassiere.
I came upon it in the deserted teacher's lounge after school one day late in the spring of 1992. Its white strap was hanging out of the large gym bag of one of my colleagues, a Ms. Jefferies, whom I found attractive, though that's more or less incidental to the case. She was the assistant tennis coach, and I imagined that she must have changed into a sports bra of some type and that she was out practicing with the girls.
So I saw that strap dangling out of the bag like a snake and I was alarmed. I decided to be virtuous and ignore the strap. To show my strength, I sat at my little desk to grade some essays, which had been my original intention. We all had our own little desks in the lounge for doing work and after laboring over three or four poor samples of seventh-grade grammar, I forgot entirely about the brassiere. I did become thirsty though, and I walked over to the watercooler to get a drink. Without realizing it, my path took me right alongside Ms. Jefferies' gym bag and there, miraculously, the strap of that bra hooked itself into the cuff of my khaki pants and the bra was yanked out like a magician's handkerchief.
I felt only a slight tug, like a bite, saw a flash of white out of the corner of my eye, realized it was the bra, and my first impulse was to look to the door. No one was coming! Then I stared down at the bra. I saw the barely visible etchings of flowers in the white material. I saw the sturdily lined, ample cups, whose very shape implied so much. I saw the white loops for lovely shoulders. "Oh, God, it's beautiful," I thought. I wanted to steal it and take it home. Again, like a sinner, I looked to the door. I became rational. I was in Pretty Brook! I kicked my leg out and the bra dislodged. I then kicked at the bra like a soccer player, aiming to get it back in the bag, but it only skidded a few inches and stopped. It just lay there, still, on the low-cut brown carpeting.
My weakness prevailed. I bent down quickly and scooped the bra up. The touch of it aroused me immediately. I felt the stitched-in wire supports of the cups. The weight they held! Why couldn't I have such weight? Then I pressed a cup to my nose and I smelled perfume. It was intoxicating. Then I did something mad. I put the bra on over my spring-weight tweed coat and gazed at myself in the mirror above the watercooler. I looked absurd, I was wearing a tie, but I had a wonderful, fleeting sensation of femininity, and then at that very moment the head of the Lower School, kindergarten through fifth grade, came in. A Mrs. Marsh, who was married to Mr. Marsh, the principal of Pretty Brook. I faced my executioner with her brown skirt, yellow blouse, and bullet-gray hair, and she said, baffled, yet accusingly, "Mr. Ives?"
"It was in Ms. Jefferies' bag!" I blurted out, which was of course an incriminating and ridiculous thing to say. I could have escaped by passing it off as a joke, a silly gag. I could have kicked out my leg this time like a Rockette, but she had heard my guilty exclamation, she saw my guilty eyes, and then she looked down -- how could she fail to notice -- and saw my protuberance pressing up and to the left (pointing north to New York? to my heart?) which proclaimed the guilt of my action even more profoundly than the wild look of sex that must have been in my eyes.
To Mrs. Marsh's credit she discreetly left the room without saying another word. I took the bra off and I wondered if it was sturdy enough to act as a noose. I could take it to the men's room and hang myself. I knew my career at Pretty Brook was over. The publicity of my erection had sealed my fate.
I bravely stayed on for the remainder of the spring term, but I wasn't asked back for the fall. I was let go supposedly because of budget cuts and declining enrollment, but I knew the real reason why the budget could no longer sustain me.
I spent most of the summer depressed and ashamed. I had liked teaching. I had enjoyed pretending that I was a professor and dressing like one, even though I only taught the seventh grade. But I was afraid to apply for other teaching jobs. I feared that Pretty Brook would give me a terrible reference: "He's very good with the children, but we suspect that he's a transvestite."
I had a little money saved up, but it wasn't going to last me long as I had my college loans to pay. I was eligible for unemployment, but that wasn't going to start until the fall, nor was it a solution. In my nervousness about my future, I took to walking the beautiful and elegant tree-lined streets of Princeton. I often marched up and down Nassau Street, the main drag, though I made sure to avoid the window of Edith's Lingerie Shop.
I frequently saw former students during my walks and their happy greetings would initially cheer me up and then further depress me. But overall, walking in Princeton was a very good thing -- it's quite a civilized and genteel community. There's nothing else like it in New Jersey, or even perhaps the rest of the United States. It has both an English feeling to it and a Southern feeling. There are grand colonial mansions; middle-class houses with wraparound porches; a poor black neighborhood with clotheslines waving like international flags; and then, of course, Princeton University, peering down upon everything from its eerie Gothic towers, and resting regally behind its gates like Buckingham Palace.
In the center of town, off Nassau Street, there's a charming grassy lawn with old trees and flowers and many benches. It's called Palmer Square and it rests between the attractive art deco post office and the century-old hotel, the Nassau Inn. The benches of Palmer Square were often my destination when I would exhaust myself from my daily marches.
Because of my act of spontaneous, self-destructive bra-wearing, which had cost me a beloved position, I thought of myself as unwell and imbalanced. Also I had started reading Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain and I overidentified with the main character, a profoundly confused young man, Hans Castorp, who takes a seven-year tubercular cure in the Swiss Alps even though he's perfectly healthy. So I began to think of my walks as a form of cure and I took to wearing a light coat because Hans always wore a coat. And I started to view all of Princeton as a gigantic sanitarium and considered the other Palmer Square bench-sitters to be fellow patients, which in fact was true. For some reason, Princeton has attracted a number of halfway houses that cater to various mental disorders, and many of the residents gravitate towards Palmer Square.
So we all sat on the benches, holding on, in differing states of desperation. Two of the regulars on the benches were old professors who had lost their minds, but I admired how elegantly they still managed to dress. And along with those of us who were having mental problems there were quite a few pensioners, men and women, and they weren't crazy, but they were mad with loneliness. A few of them were dangerous to speak with: the only way to disengage was to suddenly stand up, say good-bye politely, and then walk away while they were in mid-sentence.
As a result, I only had passing acquaintances with these bench colleagues -- I had no close friends. The only person who could have fallen into that category was a student at the Princeton Theological Seminary, Paul, who had left town a few months before to take up a Presbyterian ministry in Adelaide, Australia. So my only solace, besides walking, was drinking iced coffee and reading as much as possible.
Then one day in late August I was sitting on my favorite bench in front of the post office and I was stupefied by the central Jersey heat and atmosphere, whose degree of moisture in summertime can be Amazonian in content. I had made matters worse by parading around like a vain fool in my graystriped seersucker jacket, which you can wear in summer in most climates, like in the Swiss Alps or even the South of France, but not in Mercer County. I had sadly finished The Magic Mountain and I was now carrying around Henry James's Washington Square but I was too devastated to do any reading. My copy was an old paperback and on the cover was a watercolor painting of the Washington Arch viewed from Fifth Avenue. And I was simply staring at the cover in a state of depression and dehydration, when I suddenly had an inspiration as to what I should do: Move to New York City and live!
A simple plan unfolded: Find a cheap room and gain employment. Since I had been an English major at Rutgers, in the honors program, I thought I'd look into the magazine and publishing worlds for a job. But the first step was to find a room, a base of operations.
I thought that the romantic thing to do was to live in a hotel. I liked to imagine that I was a young gentleman, and so the idea of having a friendly hotel clerk who took messages for me, and said goodbye to me every morning as I headed out in my jacket and tie, appealed to me.
The next day I took the train into New York. I used The Village Voice classified section as my guide and I sought out the hotels that advertised under the heading "Furnished Rooms for Rent." It was easy for me to find the hotels, as I was quite capable of making my way around Manhattan. I grew up in northern New Jersey, just fifty miles from the George Washington Bridge, and I had been coming to the city for museums and plays and odd quests my whole life. But until that moment when I looked at the Henry James cover, I had never really thought of living in New York.
My earliest memories of the city are of how it appeared from the top of the Ramapo Mountains, at whose base my hometown, Ramapo, is located. The Ramapos aren't a very impressive mountain range -- in other states they would be considered large hills -- but as a child I thought they were beautiful, and from them you could see New York. During the day, only the tops of the buildings were visible: they rose out of gray mist and pollution. And at night, my father sometimes took my mother and me to a peak of one of the Ramapos, on a road called Skyline Drive, and he exclaimed every time, "Look! There's the city!"
He was proud that he had moved from Brooklyn to a place with such a view, almost as if he himself had discovered it. And it was spectacular. You could see the buildings as they were defined by the light around them. They looked like rocket ships to me, and the whole city shone like a crown, like a faraway Oz.
So in some ways I had never let go of my initial awe and fear of New York, this feeling that it wasn't a real place where a person, where I, could live. But having lost my job at Pretty Brook, and armed with a pleasant fantasy about being a young-gentleman-about-town, I put my old fear away and I went to hotels all over Manhattan.
I unfortunately discovered that a young-gentleman-of-limited-means no longer stays in hotels. Even the least expensive places cost five hundred dollars a month and the rooms they offered were squalid and depressing. The beds were collapsing and stained, all the windows looked on to air shafts, and you had to share a bathroom with everyone else on your hall. And the other residents, whom I caught glimpses of, looked like crack or heroin addicts.
I spoke to only one person, a young woman. She was leaving the Riverview Hotel on Jane Street in the Village just as I was climbing the stairs. She was carrying a guitar case, and I thought to myself, "Maybe this is where artists live. This could be good." I decided to be gregarious and I said to her, with a smile, "Excuse me, I'm from out of town, and I was wondering, is this an all right place?" She gave me the most frightened look and upon closer inspection I saw that her hair was filthy and clotted and that there were violet pools beneath her eyes. She fled past me down the stairs and I imagined, in that brief moment, that she was a folksinger who had fallen upon hard times. I watched her walk quickly up the sidewalk and I realized that her guitar case was burst open on its side and that it carried no instrument.
I hadn't expected beautiful accommodations, but the environments in these hotels were much worse than what I had imagined, and the clerks were not at all what I had hoped for. There was no chance that they would take an interest in my life and wish me well in the mornings when I left for work. They all dealt with me from behind bulletproof sheets of glass, and even with the speaking holes I found it difficult to understand what they were saying.
At the finish of this first day of starting a new life, I ended up in a Greek diner. I had a cup of coffee and I felt the despair return that had been with me all summer. My life was obviously a mess and I thought myself a fool for having pursued a clearly outdated notion of how one might live in New York. I wanted to give up, but I didn't have many options left in Princeton, so I reopened my crumpled Village Voice. I looked in the "Apartments for Rent" section, but everything seemed far too expensive. And then under "Roommates Wanted" there was an ad that caught my eye. It read as follows: "Writer looking for responsible male to share apartment. Don't call before noon. Can call after midnight. $210/month. 555-3264."
It was odd, it gave an old-fashioned phone exchange, but it was also the cheapest listing in the whole Village Voice, and the idea of a writer was romantic to me. I was enthused again and immediately called the number from a pay phone in the diner.
"H. Harrison," answered an older man's voice.
"I'm calling about the room -- "
"Can you pay the rent?"
"Yes, I think so."
"What type of work do you do?"
"I teach -- "
"Can you come right now? I don't want to talk on the phone. I can't stand all these calls."
His phone manner was abrupt, but that was understandable considering how many people must have been inquiring about the room. I told him I'd come see him immediately. He gave me the address and I jotted it on a napkin. It seemed like incredibly good luck that I should have caught him in. He lived on the Upper East Side and his full name was Henry Harrison. I told him that I was Louis Ives. We said goodbye, I paid for my coffee, and I rushed out of the diner with a feeling of great expectation. This Henry Harrison had sounded very promising.
THERE'S TO BE NO FORNICATION
I took a Number 6 uptown and I looked at myself in the train's darkened window. My hair, which had begun to thin, looked thick in the window's black reflection, and this buoyed my confidence and added to my good feeling.
I got off at the Ninety-sixth Street station and I walked down the hill from Lexington to Second Avenue. It was early evening, still light out, and the air was pleasant. The city felt calm.
Mr. Harrison's building was on Ninety-third, between Second and First avenues. It was an old five-story brick walk-up -- there were about a dozen walk-ups on the street -- and in the little vestibule I buzzed the appropriate buzzer. Out of the intercom came his voice; he was obviously shouting: "YOU'RE THE TEACHER?" I shouted back into the speaker, "Yes, it's me!" He then buzzed the door open and even as I climbed the first set of stairs the sound of the lock clicking followed me. He was making sure that I was able to get in.
The apartment was on the fourth floor and despite all my walking in Princeton I was a little winded. But I was also energized. I was nervous and my heart was pounding. I felt like an actor going on an audition. I wanted that room! It had to be the cheapest in New York. I knocked at the door. I heard some shuffling.
Then the door opened and with a small breeze of air coming from inside, I smelled Henry Harrison before I saw him. It was a strong, mixed odor: unwashed shirts and sweet cologne; a smell of salt and a smell of sugar.
Then I saw him. There was the immediate impression of both beauty and decay, like an elegant room whose high ceiling is yellowed and chipping off. He was old, somewhere in his late sixties was my immediate guess, but his face was still strikingly handsome. He had a good-looking nose. It was straight and appealing and the tip was in fine shape -- no mottling or holes. His hair was dark brown, too dark it seemed, but it was thick, thicker than mine, and it was swept straight back like a 1930s movie star. He had a confident chin and he was clean-shaven, but he had missed an obvious portion of grayish moustache directly under the nose. And there was something about the deep lines around his mouth and the wild, curious look in his dark eyes that was reminiscent of an old street bum lit up with drink, though I smelled no alcohol.
"Come in, come in," he said, and he closed the door behind me. He offered me his hand and we shook and we reintroduced ourselves to get through those first awkward moments. "Harrison, Henry. Henry Harrison," he said.
"Louis. Louis Ives," I answered and our hands let go.
He wasn't a tall man. He stood around five feet nine inches, and he was wearing a frayed blue blazer, a pair of stained tan pants, and a button-down red shirt. The collar of the shirt, on the lefthand side, had escaped the lapel of the blazer and was pointing out like a red dart.
I was in practically the same outfit, blazer and khaki pants, except all my clothing was in much better shape. But I didn't judge him for the rattiness of his attire: I immediately deferred to his age, and I was more concerted and pleased, that he see that I was dressed in a similar proper way.
"This is it," he said, waving his hand before us. "It's horrible, but it has a certain ambience and mad gaiety."
We were standing in the apartment's small kitchen. It was cluttered and dusty and poorly lit by a flower-shaped ceiling fixture. The kitchen table was actually a door resting on two filing cabinets. To my right, protruding from the wall, was a very large dish cabinet. On top of the cabinet was an old steamer trunk, and on top of that were several valises piled to the ceiling. I liked the trunk; it made me think of ocean crossings. And in the corner of the kitchen was a silver New Year's Eve balloon. It was wrinkled like an old fruit, but it was still floating and must have been considered the source of the mad gaiety.
The kitchen's left wall had a large picture window and through this window the apartment's living room was visible.
"Let me show you the room," he said. "And if you can't stand it, then we don't have to bother with the interview."
There was a serpentine little path that one could walk along amidst the clutter of the kitchen (wine bottles, kitchen chairs held together by wire, a stationary bicycle, a metal golf-bag carrier, books, and newspapers), and Mr. Harrison took this path and led me to a doorway on the right.
The path was made from strips of stained orange carpet of at least two different shades. The floor underneath was an old dark wood, which I thought was attractive for a New York apartment, though the wood did appear to be rotting. As I followed Mr. Harrison, I picked up his salty, sweet odor -- it pervaded the whole apartment actually -- and I liked it. It smelled alive.
In about four paces we crossed the kitchen and entered the next room.
"These would be your chambers," he said. "I'm afraid it's not very beautiful." His voice lowered, he seemed momentarily embarrassed by the shabbiness of it all, but then he regained his confidence, and said, "But it's difficult to find good staff to keep things in shape."
"I think it's perfectly fine," I said, which wasn't the truth, but was the polite thing to say. It was a tiny, narrow room and the bed was a gray mattress on a metal frame with wheels. One of the back wheels was missing and so the shortened leg was propped up on the indented cover of in old book. The bed took up almost the whole length of the room; there was just enough space for the orange path which I could see led to the bathroom. Beside the bed was a little night table with a reading lamp and next to that was a standing closet whose plywood sides were split open.
"You can keep your clothes in that armoire," he said. "And anything else can go into the file cabinets in the kitchen."
There was a window in the room, but it looked onto an air shaft. The moaning of pigeons was quite loud.
"You can really hear the pigeons," I said.
"Yes," he said, "It's nice to have access to nature."
We followed the orange path and went into the narrow bathroom. It was filthy and off-putting. There was a patch of worn blue carpet on the floor, and a set of shelves painted blue to match the carpet. On the shelves were dozens of ointments and toiletries. Most of them were squeezed out and ancient. On the top shelf there was an artistic arrangement, like the seating of a Greek theater, of tiny, dust-covered shampoo bottles bearing the crests and imprints of various hotels.
The bathroom was lacking a sink; there was only a shower and a toilet. Above the toilet was a framed ink drawing of a Victorian woman holding a fan in front of her face.
"Do you brush your teeth in the kitchen sink?" I asked.
"Yes," he said. "When I remember to."
He gave the toilet a quick flush to demonstrate that it functioned and it made a great enginelike noise. He apologized for it by saying, "It works, but I think there is an outboard motor in there. It likes to pretend that it is a yacht heading out to sea. The plumber may have stolen it from a boat in Long Island -- that's where he lives."
He then led me out of the bathroom through the bedroom, across the kitchen, and into the living room, all in about ten paces. It was the largest room in the apartment and it was here that the orange path came to a glorious end -- the floor was covered with two layers of light orange and brown-orange carpet. This was the ocean of orange which the path, like a river, bled into, and above this ocean were two big windows facing north with thick, dirty curtains. The view was a look into the back windows of the buildings on Ninety-Fourth Street, and above the rooftops was the darkening blue of the early evening sky.
"This is where I sleep," said Mr. Harrison, indicating a narrow couch underneath the wall with the interior window. "But this is also the communal area for communal relaxation. It is barracks-style living here, but it can be done."
Next to his couch-bed was a coffee table that was like a microcosm of the whole apartment -- it was layered with hundreds of pennies, unopened bills, loose aspirin, a glass wine goblet, and a bowl filled with Christmas balls which managed to gleam through their dust.
There were two matching wooden chairs with cushioned seats. He sat on the one in the right-hand corner and I sat on the chair near his bed.
"Now we're supposed to talk," he said. "See if we're compatible...What's your name again? It was something with a V. Eaves?"
"Ives," I said. "Louis Ives."
"Sounds English. But you look German. Are you German?"
"No...well my father's side is Austrian," I said, and it wasn't a lie, but it was sort of a lie. It is one of the peculiarities of my life that while I am one hundred percent Jewish and feel very Jewish on the inside, my outer appearance is very Aryan. I have blond hair, blue eyes, I am almost six feet tall, and my build is slender, but reasonably athletic. My nose comes close to giving me away, but most people look at my hair and naturally assume that my nose is aquiline or Roman, when really it's Jewish.
I was afraid that Mr. Harrison might not like Jews and so that's why I misled him about Austria. The truth is my father's side did come from the pre-World War I Austrian-Hungarian empire, though that doesn't account for my blondness. My father's family, and my father, were extremely dark. My lightness comes from my mother and my mother's side, which was Russian-Jewish, specifically from a shtetl near Odessa where light-eyed Jews must not have been uncommon. I didn't mention Russia to Mr. Harrison, because claiming Austrian heritage was a better cover, I thought, and I felt more desirable as a roommate if I were viewed as an Aryan. It is a weakness of my character that I always think to hide my Jewish identity.
"They must have changed the names to Ives at Ellis Island," he said.
"The usual immigrant story," I said, though I didn't tell him that the original name had been Ivetsky.
"Austrian," he mused, and then he smiled at me and said, "You may be a lost Hapsburg prince."
"I don't think so," I said, though I took his remark as a compliment.
"One can always hope," he said. "You may have royal blood and a vast fortune you are not even aware of," and then he slipped out of his usual accent, which sounded almost English but was actually a well-enunciated, clipped American, a Mid-Atlantic accent, and from that he went into a peasant's Irish, and said, "But until then you are forced to look for shelter with the likes of me."
I smiled at him shyly. He was a great eccentric and I felt cowed in his presence. I wanted to amuse and impress him, but I could only think of polite and pleasant things to say.
"Where are you living now?" he asked.
"New Jersey," I said.
"Why are you coming to New York?"
"I was teaching for several years, but I'm hoping to do something new...I'm sort of looking for myself." I thought he might appreciate such a sentiment since his ad said he was a writer.
"You won't find yourself in New York. New Jersey much better for things like that. Much less depraved."
I wasn't sure how to respond to this remark about depravity, and then I noticed that above Mr. Harrison's head there was a painting of the Virgin Mary on a piece of wood. I mumbled, "I was only joking, I'm not really looking for myself I just want a new career."
"Why don't you want to teach anymore?" he asked.
"There were budget problems at my school and I was junior faculty and so they let me go." I was lying as honestly as I could. "I see it as a chance to try something new."
"Where were you teaching?"
"Not at the university, at a private school called Pretty Brook. I only taught seventh grade. Though I did go for walks at the university and I used the library."
"How is Princeton these days? My uncle went there. It was great once. But then they let women in. That's destroyed it, I'm sure, turned it into a Midwestern U."
"It's still all excellent university," I argued. "There's no reason why women shouldn't go."
"I'm against the education of women!" he proclaimed. "It numbs their senses, their instinctual drives. It affects their performance in the boudoir and hampers their cooking ability."
"Do you really believe that?" He was too eccentric, I thought, too crazy. How could I live with him? But despite myself, I found him charming and I wanted him to like me.
"Yes," he answered. "Women shouldn't be educated. They're becoming a nuisance. Taking jobs, thinking they're equal. They are clearly inferior in all respects...They do make good mothers and good cooks. The women I like best are the ones in Williamsburg. The Hasidic women. They seem to have the right touch. They wear gingham gowns like Mary Pickford. But I don't like the men's costumes at all. It's not very attractive to wear your hair in pigtails, and the black hats aren't very good. They should get rid of the hats."
I was relieved that he had said something positive about Jews. It didn't seem likely that he could be an anti-Semite and like Hasidic women. It made me feel that I perhaps could move in after all. I wouldn't have to hide my identity and that would make things a lot easier. Still, the place was a filthy mess, even at its low price, and I had been raised in an overly hygienic way by my mother. I kept our conversation going, but I steered it back to more neutral territory, away front the Hasids, should he suddenly say something disparaging and anti-Semitic and make me feel uncomfortable. I said, "Well, the Princeton University campus is still very beautiful."
"I remember my uncle took me there during one of his reunions," he said. "he was in Fitzgerald's class. He said he could have written This Side of Paradise just because he was there at the same time. My uncle was an idiot."
"Do you like Fitzgerald?" I asked. Fitzgerald had always been one of my favorite writers, and it was because of his short stories that I thought a young gentleman should live in a hotel.
"Of course," he said. "His prose is like cocktail music. But there won't be any more Fitzgeralds. You need an all-male environment...the Muslims might produce a Fitzgerald. They're good at separating the sexes."
I imagined for a moment a new type of The Great Gatsby, written in Arabic, and being translated, and making a great sensation over here. I said to Mr. Harrison, "I love Fitzgerald's writing. In fact, what caught my eye about your ad was that it said you're a writer. What type of writing do you do?"
"I'm a playwright."
"Are you working on anything now?"
"I am trying to finish my chef-d'oeuvre. It is a sexual comedy about the Shakers. Do you know who the Shakers are?"
"I'm familiar with the Quakers. And I think I've heard of the Shakers."
"They died out because they didn't believe in sex. They believed in shaking. Though every now and then they are revived, only to die out again. They're like a play. They die out and then they come back. It will be a comic Hamlet. A play within a play."
Since sex was brought up I thought I should ask an obvious question. I had the hope that if I moved to New York that I might fall in love, another Fitzgerald notion, and that could mean sleeping with a woman. I said somewhat bashfully, and as discreetly as possible, "If I did move in here, could I have guests?"
"You mean overnight guests?"
"No! Absolutely not. The place is too small. There's to be no fornication! I wouldn't even conceive of having sex in here," and then his voice trailed off, and his eyes looked down, away from mine, "I'm retired from all that anyways."
"I'm sorry," I said. "I didn't mean to be rude." I was ashamed and I glanced at the Virgin above his head. Also hanging on the walls were antique picture frames. They held no paintings; they only framed the off-pink color of the walls.
"The Church, you know, is trying very hard to stop people from having sex," he said. "If they gave up all hell would break loose. Some resistance is needed. People need to be told not to have sex. If you make it difficult most people quit and develop other interests. Like mah-jongg. You'll find I'm to the right of the pope on most of these issues."
I kept thinking that he was perhaps of a state of mind beyond eccentric, but there was also this constant underpinning of irony to everything he said which seemed to clearly indicate intelligence and sanity. He was conscious that he was outrageous, but he was also stating his honest beliefs.
I wanted to make up for my remark about guests and win back his favor, so after he mentioned the pope, I said, "I like that painting of the Virgin Mary very much."
"Oh, yes, I found it in a garage sale in New Jersey. The people of New Jersey are virtuous. All the good people went there and all the lost ones went to Long Island. The government of New Jersey is a mess, but the people are good. You used to be able to go over there and register a car without having insurance. New Jersey was a godsend. You could do anything. We need a state like that again."
"I've been in New Jersey almost all my life. I was raised there," I said.
"That's the best reference you could possibly give."
Two of my usual insecurities were soothed: he was attracted to Hasidic women and he was fond of New Jersey. I'm always afraid people won't like me because I'm Jewish, especially people like Mr. Harrison, who despite the poor condition of his clothes and strange apartment, had the air of the upper class and of England. And regarding my New Jersey heritage, my fear of state bias is almost worse than my fear of anti-Semitism. People of all social classes tend to look down upon you when you mention that you are from the Garden State. But on both these fronts I felt very good about how our interview was going. I decided to repay Mr. Harrison for his liberal feelings about Jews and New Jersey with another compliment. "I like your empty picture frames," I said. "It's very interesting."
"Most frames are more beautiful than their pictures," he said. "And less expensive."
After that we briefly discussed money. As advertised, he was renting the room for two hundred and ten dollars a month, plus an additional forty for electricity, the basic phone charge, and for cable television. It was perfectly reasonable and was actually one hundred dollars less than what I was paying in Princeton. I had enough money saved for a month or two of frugal living and for making loan payments, while I looked for a job. So the money was perfect, but I didn't know if I could really live in such close, dirty quarters. My feeling was that I probably couldn't. We ended our interview with both of us playing our cards close to the chest. He said, "Let's both think about it and talk tomorrow."
"Yes, that sounds good," I said, and I gave him my number. While he wrote it down I asked, "Have you seen many other people?"
"Dozens. But you are the only one from New Jersey, and you speak English."
We both stood up. My eye, for a moment, caught hold of the Christmas balls on the coffee table and I remarked, making my final compliment "I like your Christmas balls."
"I love them," he said. "Don't you think they're beautiful? I love the colors, the way they catch the light. If you ever want to give me something you can give me Christmas balls. Of course what I'd really like is a bowl of jewels. The Queen has jewels."
He showed me to the door; we walked along the orange path. He opened the door and I stepped into the hall.
"Good-bye," I said, and I reached out my hand to shake his. I wasn't sure if I'd ever see him again.
His eyes suddenly grew more intense and alive. He had been tiring a little by the end of our talk, or was getting bored, but now he seemed almost passionate. He took my forearm in both his hands, squeezed it, and said in German, "Auf Wiedersehen!" It startled me and he smiled and closed the door.
THE YOUNG GENTLEMAN
I left Mr. Harrison and went to Penn Station. His embrace of my arm was how I imagined German soldiers might have bid farewell to each other at the front. I was a little worried that I had overconvinced him of my Aryan status.
I took the train back to Princeton and as usual I enjoyed the trip. I love train travel of any kind. Sitting on those vinyl seats with my fellow Jerseyans, I imagined that I was in Europe, leaving Paris late in the evening for an overnight journey to Rome. I transformed my fluorescently lit New Jersey Transit car into a small French berth. The ruined land between New York and Newark became the farms outside of Paris. It wasn't 1992, it was 1922. I stared out the window. I was a reflective young gentleman traveling alone; my emotions were still damaged by the War. I was a romantic figure.
Then the conductor came along in his dark blue uniform and his standard-issue black shoes, and my fantasy changed. He had a nice, blushing Irish face and it wasn't Europe anymore, it was New York in the 1930s. He asked me for my ticket and as I handed it to him I said, "Thank you." And then I asked, with great civility, "What time will we be arriving in Princeton?" He smiled and said, "Nine-fifty," and moved on to the next passenger. I imagined and hoped that he was thinking, "There's a young gentleman headed back to Princeton after a long day in New York. He probably had dinner at his club."
I did in fact have a long day and I fell asleep with my head leaning against the plastic window. My last vision was of a brilliant orange flame emanating from the tip of an Edison refinery that looked like the Eiffel Tower, even though I hadn't switched back my fantasy.
I awoke with a start, afraid that I had missed my stop and would land in Trenton. But some interior alarm had gone off and I had come to just outside of Princeton Junction.
I then took the Dinky, the small train that connects Princeton Junction to Princeton Borough. It's only a five-minute passage and has the feeling of a ferry ride, as if Princeton was an island separate from the mainland of New Jersey.
The Dinky lets you off at the base of the Princeton University campus, which is situated on the top of a long, sloping hill. One has to walk up through the campus to get to Nassau Street and the center of town. As I stepped off the Dinky I was struck by the beautiful quiet of Princeton. In New York there is a constant throb and grinding that you don't fully hear until you remember it when you are somewhere silent.
I started across the campus and I appreciated anew the cultivated order of the university: the sloping lawns, the rows of dark old trees, the ruled, slate paths, the sculptures of tigers, and the Gothic dormitories made from Italian granite. It had a cold beauty.
I stopped and sat on a bench. There was a tiny bit of moon casting a diffused silver light. It was late August and there was no one around; I had the whole school to myself. There was a slight breeze of warm air and the campus seemed to breathe shallow breaths. It was preserving itself, sleeping, until it woke up for the arrival of the students. I felt a great, peaceful remove.
I thought of Mr. Harrison and our discussion of Fitzgerald. This is paradise, I thought. And was it like paradise, I wondered, because when you are expelled you always want to return? I thought of how Fitzgerald died in Los Angeles reading the Princeton football scores. It made me think I shouldn't leave Princeton. I wondered if I should get a job in the library. I could pretend I was an undergraduate for the rest of my life.
I left the bench and climbed the stairs of Blair arch and I saw a gargoyle in the stones, which I had never noticed before, though I had tried to be very observant of all the hundreds of Princeton gargoyles. But gargoyles are like that, you see them when they have meaning for you, and this one's face was contorted with lust. Sex. It was always my problem. It was driving me out of Princeton. I thought of my erection at Pretty Brook. I thought of the brassiere. I still wanted to wear it. I wished I had stolen it and taken it home with me.
I reached my little studio apartment on my quiet street, Park Place, and I washed my hands and face to comfort myself. I looked around my neat little room. I wasn't the most disciplined housekeeper, but the surfaces were clean. "This is my home," I thought, "this is where I belong."
It struck me as almost perverse that I had been let into a stranger's dirty apartment that day, that I had looked at a gray mattress and had even considered for a moment making that bed my new home. Mr. Harrison was certainly eccentric and interesting, but the thought of living with him was crazy, irrational.
I then thought of all the dirty hotels I had looked at, the people standing in the shadows of the hallways like wraiths. I thought of the subways I had taken, the crowds which had mangled me. The whole day felt like a hallucination.
I sat in my favorite chair. New York was receding from my mind as a possibility for my new life. It was too dirty, too difficult. I was too soft; Princeton had spoiled me with its quiet streets. I was at the starting point all over again. I thought of the train conductor who had so nicely taken my ticket -- should I try and join New Jersey Transit? The post office? The police department? I liked jobs with costumes, but I knew that I was unfit for any of those trades. My thoughts were ridiculous and desperate. I was a young man without much hope. Then the phone rang.
"Hello," I answered with a defeated voice.
"Hello. Hello. H. Harrison." It was him. I couldn't believe he was calling. He and New York had already started feeling like a dream.
"Oh, hello," I managed to say.
"I was thinking," he said, "I think we should do it. I didn't want to bother waiting until tomorrow. We should settle it now. We can take it a week at a time. Sixty-two dollars a week. And then if you don't like it you won't have lost a whole month's rent." There was a rush to his voice, a desperation.
"I'm not sure," I said. I was caught off-guard. But I didn't want to say no immediately and hurt him, reject him.
"I think we'd get along fine, and you only have to try it for a week," he said. "We can even make it per diem. Nine. No, eight dollars a day -- "
"I'll do it," I blurted out suddenly. "I'll give it a try." What moments before had been out of the question was now the path I had leaped upon. I changed my life without a moment's consideration. It was lunacy. And mostly it was because he wanted me. I was responding to that. I was flattered. I wanted to be wanted.
"This will be very good for you," he said, and he sounded happy. "There's much I can teach you about New York, you know. I can advance you socially." His voice was confident again, regal.
"That would be very nice of you," I said. My heart was pounding. I think we both felt giddy. His wanting me and my accepting of his wanting had both of us rejoicing. I gushed to him, perhaps revealing too much, "It's really very strange that I'll be moving to New York. It's all because I was looking at the cover of Henry James's Washington Square and I thought I should be in New York."
"I can't stand James!" he proclaimed. "He's unreadable."
"I know what you mean." I was worried that I had said the wrong thing, but then I stood up for myself and James a little bit by saying, "But the earlier books are quite good, like Daisy Miller, or Washington Square."
"Yes, that's true, his style did change. I wonder why. He burned himself, you know. Sat on a stove and shriveled his testicles. That may account for the change in style."
He laughed and I laughed with him. But it was hard to know what to expect from him. The issue of sex was unclear. I wasn't sure if he was heterosexual, homosexual, or if he was some kind of bawdy puritan. But this uncertainty didn't bother me. I found it intriguing and familiar.
I told him that I would need a little time to tie things up in Princeton and that I'd move in as close to the first of September as possible. This was suitable to him and we rang off.
I didn't give my Park Place landlord sufficient notice, but he returned to me my security deposit. I was doing things hastily, but I felt drawn to New York and to Henry Harrison. It was my perception that Mr. Harrison was a gentleman and that I was a fledgling gentleman, and so we would be well-suited for one another. I had been acting like a novice gentleman for almost six years. It started in my sophomore year at Rutgers when I began to address myself in my thoughts as the "young gentleman." And I think its precise beginning was after I read W. Somerset Maugham's The Razor's Edge and Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited in too close a succession.
Then there followed Fitzgerald and Wodehouse and Wilde and Mann, and I came to only want to read books about young gentlemen. For me they were like Don Quixote's books of chivalry. I tried to live as the young gentlemen lived. I wrote thank you notes and I enjoyed train travel. I shaved daily, ate solitary meals, and dressed neatly.
I used the authors themselves as models: I attempted to dress like them after studying photographs in their biographies. I never wore sneakers, favored pants with texture -- linen, wool, or corduroy -- and went to Italian barbers for short haircuts.
So I developed a style, a manner of living. It was a fantasy that I wore like armor to get me through the day and to enjoy the day. It made loneliness feel like a movie.
A typical Saturday in Princeton sounded like this in my mind: "The young gentleman strolls up Nassau Street. He wears his blue blazer. He goes to his favorite restaurant, the Annex, for his luncheon. He sits at his bachelor table and reads the paper while he eats. He is kindly to the ancient waitresses. For his digestion the young gentleman strolls some more.
He stops at Micawber's Bookstore, greets the hardworking proprietor, and browses. He is one of the legions who browse and rarely buy, but the proprietorappreciates the young gentleman -- his dignified manner, his wearing of a tie.
The young gentleman walks to Palmer Square and sits on a bench. The other bench-sitters wink at him and desire his company. The young gentleman smiles, but remains aloof.
He watches the packs of young girls get ice cream at Thomas Sweet's. He sniffs the air as they walk past him, hoping to catch a hint of young perspiration. Helooks at their sugary mouths, their thin legs and arms, their ice-cream cones. He wants to run home and hide in bed....He's nothing but an onanist!"
Unfortunately, I was always dissolving into overly lonesome thoughts, which turned sexual out of desperation, but that sample day illustrates very well the young gentleman's life. The idea was to establish a routine; routines were romantic. Young and old gentlemen had them. You went about your routines quietly, but people took notice and admired you. I wanted them to be able to count on me appearing at the Annex on Saturdays. It was like being a force of nature: a robin redbreast who returns to the same tree every spring; a young gentleman in a blue blazer at the same restaurant every Saturday.
I felt that I had done a good tour of duty in Princeton: people didn't know me, but they would miss me. And now I wanted to go live with Henry Harrison. He was a fellow gentleman. He wanted to advance me socially. I didn't really think he could advance me, but the fact that he said such a thing inspired me. I had been living as a gentleman all by myself, but now I could do it in the company of someone who understood. As I packed up my life in Princeton, I began to think of him as some future vision of myself and I wasn't repelled by the future -- I wanted to know more.
Copyright © 1998 by Jonathan Ames