April 2017 . . . .

“Reading Allowed”

I must admit: I’m lucky. This is a pretty sweet gig. All the stories and books I can read, and sometimes coffee goes on sale and I get a couple of pouches of the good stuff to brew at home. There are few things nicer than a morning of sipping coffee while reading with nothing else out on the horizon, no appointments or parties or deadlines or due-dates. Stay-at-home dad? The girls are — have been for a while — self-starting. They could make their own lunches, but I still like knowing that they can sit in the cafeteria and be the envy of their pals. “What is that? Homemade banana bread? My mom doesn’t make that. Can I have a bite?”

I could go back to work, or as it’s called in my house “real work.” (No, I cannot explain that sentence.) Perhaps I should go. It will not be easy. Among other things, in recent years they’ve sort of changed the way one applies for a job. You have to fill out online applications and then forget that you did, so you don’t get anxious about them, while your CV descends into job-search purgatory and is only seen by Human Resources goblins, who laugh at it. And let’s get this out of the way: I’m older — not so ancient that I don’t know what’s going on, but mature enough to probably scare any co-workers. “God, I can’t believe he doesn’t know how to use jobcraparama-dot-whatevs! I’m so not helping him this time.” And I don’t do well under new management. I like to tell the truth, call it like I see it. No employer really wants that. Also, I enjoy working from home, getting things done that need doing, and leaving those tasks that aren’t obviously on fire until . . . tomorrow. And reading. I love reading. Trust me, reading is very good.

So, for the time being, here I am. I sit on the front porch in the morning, where the sun shines down on my pages, and then I move to the back porch in the afternoon. In between, I do the morning dishes, run a load or two of laundry, sweep the floor and take out the trash. I type (I’m polishing a novel for submission, ever hopeful) and I ride the stationary bike while watching the weather channel, or take a walk around the neighborhood and say hello to neighbors I know.

What am I reading? Oh, this and that. Many very good things. I recently finished a collection of short stories sent to me by a friend, N. West Moss. She wanted me to take a look at them, see what I thought. Her book is called “The Subway Stops at Bryant Park,” and it’ll be released late this spring by Leapfrog Press. Pop quiz: did you ever read something aloud, a poem or a story or part of a novel, because you couldn’t help yourself? Chase down someone else in your family and say “Hey, got a minute? Check this out.” Maybe we don’t do this as much anymore, not like we used to. There are so many memes and vines and tiny snippets of emotion that can be passed from one of us to another without actually impacting our time that this is what we imagine counts as communicating nowadays. It’s desperately insufficient, but all we know. We think we’re busy, impatient and full, but we’re actually looking for that ineffable device to make us feel satisfied again. Well, you’re not going to find it on snipchat or snapchit or inga-natz or any other desperate-to-be-meaningful blip on the technical horizon. Sorry, folks. You have to look at the painting or the sculpture. You have to look in a book, read all the words. Like this one. Try reading it aloud. Share it.

When I was little, we kids had no control over the music in our house. There were no CDs or downloads or music streaming services. Dad and Mom turned on the hi-fi in the morning before school, and it was either tuned to WNCN or WQXR, the two classical stations broadcasting out of New York City all the way to the bedroom community of my youth. Same again when we returned home. Mellifluous male voices introduced J S Bach’s Motet Jesu, Meine Freude or Le Tombeau de Couperin by Ravel or, or, or. In spite of ourselves and the Beatles (or perhaps because of them) my sisters and I became . . . competent in our knowledge of orchestral music. Sure, sure, we preferred Saint-Saens’s Carnival of the Animals or however you pronounce the name of the guy who composed Peter and the Wolf, but we knew Faure’s Requiem when we heard it and we also knew Also Sprach Zarathustra and Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. They stuck with us. And so my longwinded point is that I was stunned and pleased to have this visceral connection with West Moss. Her dad, you see, was one of those voices on our classical radio. It was her dad introducing me to Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Or even better, to the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra’s version of his Festival Overture, or, as we like to call it in our house, the “fireworks song.” As the son of a teacher, I love “I remember your dad” moments.

Some of Moss’s stories find strong purchase in the bedrock of her own childhood, which feels like it was in a place much like my own, only a city instead of a ’burb. Funny how you can think that the height of buildings or the mode of travel make the difference in your lifestyle. It’s actually about time, and the neighborhood, and who are your people, and what did you do together? Moss sees things we’re supposed to see, I think, and she has the gift (of course a gift well-honed, as sharp as a teenager’s tongue) of being able to gently and softly describe to you what she’s witnessing without making you feel foolish that you didn’t see it yourself. Even though we might, if we were together in the same room eating bowls of chili and drinking port wine out of jelly glasses get loud about that very thing. Remember when it was like this? Remember? God, that was crazy . . . . But it’s not all pastel-shaded memory about candy flavors you can’t find anymore, even with all the powers inherent in the smart phones of our lives. There are also the moments where we shiver just a little to see ourselves in a future not as comfortable as we’ve planned. But I guess we all know that, don’t we? Of course, we’ve all grown up now, the world we loved as children (and hated, but the hate is a cloud that steadily dissipates if we’re lucky, while the love is a polished bauble on our mantel) is no longer there. That in itself can be sad, might precariously sink into maudlin. But, somehow, Moss avoids those pitfalls. She can tell us about growing old without pushing us into that rut we reserve for despair. Or she can reveal the sting of youth that we’ve (lucky, lucky) forgotten.

I find that many New York yarns get caught up in the New Yorkiness of their existence. It’s hard not to — I mean, it’s a helluva town, the Bronx is up and so on. How do you avoid that? Like if I hadn’t worked and lived in the City I wouldn’t be able to tell you what I think. You have to understand how the traffic runs and how the subways smell, and what about those rats? and the frankly incredible height of buildings and how mean everyone is. Oh, crap on that. People are mostly the same, everywhere, and New Yorkers no more or less. (Except the New York firemen. They’re pretty incredible. Just saying.) What I mean is I don’t know the answer to this one. I guess you keep your stories about people, not so much the places or events. True people.

But is it factual? Actual non-fiction? Oh, for god’s sake, give me a break. Whether you like it or not — whether you believe it or not — truth is that thing that, when you see it, it sees you right back. So my answer is I don’t know and I don’t care. The people in Moss’s stories have one thing in common: they have her as their observer, with her penchant for finding the almost whispery goodness in the weaving of the yarn. There is no unsolicited fanfare, no parade with a brass band, no narcissism of narrative. Just competent word-choice, her eyes looking in the right direction at the correct moment. It doesn’t hurt to have acute peripheral vision as Moss does, for the image, the detail we would miss without her there as our guide. But mostly it’s about folks. Just people. Could be anywhere, but happens to be about downtown, the stop just after this one.

Here’s what I know: I like to daydream that I am that man who wakes up every day to go and sweep up the loose sycamore leaves from the walkways in a New York park, to watch over the shoulders of the speed-chess aficionados, to eat a leftover half of a Reuben and drink a Dr. Brown’s Cream Soda and listen to a pretty good string quartet playing Mozart’s night music. Such longing feels the same way to me that “working” a salt water farm in Maine did (oh, hell, was that thirty-five years ago?) when I read about E. B. White’s life after penning at The New Yorker and Harper’s magazines. How do you get that gig? I ask myself, not quite realizing that sitting here right now and typing to you is, sort of, that gig. Is West Moss sitting at her desk thinking that very thing? I don’t know. But her stories smack of the calm review of a life, a satisfied fondness for everything in her memory — even for the vaguely painful, the cracked-but-not-shattered. We all wish we could look back like that.

By the by, my oldest has stolen my ARC of West’s book, and is reading it herself. This on top of all her schoolwork, her AP Lit reading, her daily descending into the morass of news for her Government class. That’s got to be a good sign, right?