Powell's Books has invited me to write five blogs in the next five days in connection with my new book, Writing Places
, which is a memoir about all the places where I've done my writing and my teaching, many of them highly peculiar. Like the office in mid-Manhattan that had a firepole. I rented it from the legendary publisher Bernard Geis, who made pop icons of Jacqueline Susann
and Helen Gurley Brown
, with Valley of the Dolls
and Sex and the Single Girl
. Geis had the pole installed and went down it whenever he left the office, though he was then in his late 70s. The office being offered to me was ideal, but when Geis interviewed me as a possible tenant, I got the uneasy feeling that he wouldn't rent to me unless I went down the pole myself; it seemed to be some sort of test of renter suitability. "What you do is use your knees — that slows you down," Geis told me. I had never thought of myself as a man with strong knees, and I still don't. I landed with a thump that rattled my muscular-skeletal system and every organ it enclosed. "Wasn't that great?" Geis called down the hole. "Great!" I called back. "I'll be right up to sign the lease." I never went down the firepole again.
In 1991, Geis's lease expired and I moved to the nearby building where I've done my writing ever since, at 135 East 55th Street. I rent an office on the fourth floor from a marketing agency whose employees buzz around me at feverish speed performing arcane tasks to promote scents and other products of feminine allure. My window looks down on Lexington Avenue, with its rumble of buses and cars and taxis, and its frequent howl of sirens as police cars and ambulances and fire engines go about their errands of justice and mercy. I think pityingly of the folks at Powell's Books, stuck with nothing to look at except the scenic vistas of Oregon. I'm a fourth-generation New Yorker, my roots deep in the cement, my lungs long adjusted to its air.
The building on 55th Street is a massive Beaux Arts edifice, nine stories high, made of rusticated limestone and institutional red brick, with decorative balconies outside the windows. It looks like a power plant mated with an administration building at a state college, perhaps the economics department. It was built in 1902 as Babies Hospital — and built to last; it has a marble lobby. When the hospital moved uptown in the 1920s, its interior was carved into commercial offices, their handsome windows reaching to the floor. My window looks out at another of New York's architectural surprises — Central Synagogue, the oldest synagogue building in continuous use in New York, a Moorish-style creature of brown polychrome stone, its two octagonal towers and green-and-gold domes an unexpected whiff of the Levant. The synagogue is my anchoring landmark. It gladdens my Protestant heart.
Our building is a vertical family of small businesses and self-employed hustlers, all of us somehow meeting our deadlines and meeting the rent, year after year. The nameplates on the doors only vaguely suggest what the businesses actually do. There's only one small elevator, where we briefly enter each other's lives. Several small dogs get brought to work every day. I see their noses poking out of a ladies' handbag, their commute almost over. Food is also a frequent passenger — takeout sandwiches and yogurt and pizzas ordered by phone from nearby delis and rushed by small Mexican delivery men to the building's famished inmates.
I love the building's makeshift bravado. I walk there every morning from my apartment around 10:30, turn on my computer, and get down to the craft I've practiced all my life, not unlike the plumber or the TV repairman, going to work with his tools. My tools are words. It may seem odd to compare my work to plumbing, but both crafts are equally honorable. All crafts are. The fact that water can be made to flow out of a faucet on the 10th floor strikes me as an achievement no less miraculous than the construction of a clear declarative sentence. I like the daily discipline of fitting pipes together to make the water flow as smoothly as possible. I've never thought that I'm perpetrating "art."
Outside, in my village, all my survival needs are met just by walking downstairs. Our building is on a block of Lexington Avenue that only a born New Yorker could love — small stores jammed side by side, most of them with signs in the window offering bargains (ALL SHOES 80% OFF!) that would seem to preclude any possibility of a profit. Across the avenue, a two-story building of dubious structural integrity contains a 24-hour Korean grocery, an infinitely obliging copy shop, and a fitness center, where my trainer, Ed Irace, labors with machines and weights to unravel my writer's kinks. A few doors beyond it is a store that sells 5,000 magazines — my salvation if a former student calls to tell me about his or her piece in the new Mountain Bike or Spin. I'm one block from a bank, a post office, a FedEx, a Staples, and a Dunkin' Donuts. I haven't yet needed the eyebrow threading and waxing offered by Belleza's nail and beauty salon.
The building and its block are a perfect writer's habitat, as close to heaven as I'm likely to get, the best and I hope the last of all my writing spaces.