Essays, Interviews & More
The Place I Really Live
by Robert Goolrick
I wake up in the dark. Au bout de la nuit. 4:06 on the LED. Take a leak. Cigarette. I know I shouldn’t; I mean, in general, generally speaking, nobody should, not after everything we know, not after we’ve watched loved ones die, not to mention movie stars, but I do. I’m an addict. But I especially shouldn’t smoke at 4:06 when I have a hope of getting back to sleep. It makes my heart race.
It makes the heavy covers feel like prison garb. It makes you feel like you live in a cheap bungalow in Los Angeles California in a noir decade.
If I did live in Los Angeles, I would never call it LA. But if I lived in Las Vegas, I would always call it Vegas. These are the games your mind plays when it’s 4:07 and your heart is racing from the nicotine intake.
Sometimes, I turn on the radio and listen to alternative rock from the University of Pennsylvania for a while. My Morning Jacket. Placebo. Ray La Montaigne, the new wunderkind, who used to work in a shoe factory. Pink Martini, a twelve-member West Coast band that sold 650,00 copies of their self-made CD from their basement.
I keep the volume low, and I feel completely free of anxiety, even though my heart is racing and I’m excited about tomorrow.
Tomorrow, or today, actually, is the first Tuesday of December. On the first Tuesday of every month, I go look at apartments.
I work in a bookstore, one of those enormous chains, and I have Monday and Tuesday off, since I work on Saturdays, and I work the late shift on Sundays, after I go to church. I go to church every week, and put money in the plate, even though I have long ago lost my faith. I guess it’s a kind of hope I feel, a hope that faith and a sense of the miraculousness of life will return to me. It hasn’t, and the priests’ voices drone on in that way that is supposed to be comforting but is actually kind of irritating, but I still go. Than I go to work, still in my suit.
I am the only clerk in the store who wears hard-soled shoes. Even though it makes my feet hurt, and even though nobody ever looks at my feet, I wear leather soled shoes every day I work there. It makes me feel more like a member of the professional class, and less like somebody who just swipes your card. I’m very fastidious, and the kids in their Barnes and Noble T-shirts think it’s weird, but I banter with them, banter is the word, and I know everything they know about alternative rock, and I’m good at helping them out with the inevitable glitches in their computer cash registers, and so we get along fine.
Let’s not talk about what I do with my other days off, the other three weeks of the month. Let’s not even get into that. I turn the phone off, for one thing, even though hardly anybody ever calls me, my sister from upstate once in a while, but let’s not go into that.
I go to the grocery store and buy a whole week’s worth of groceries, even though I mostly eat in the diner around the corner. I just like the way a full refrigerator looks, the endless possibilities. I pay for the groceries with my debit card. At the end of the week, I throw out stuff that’s gone bad and go get other stuff.
But it’s all just normal. You probably do the same things, on your day off. Take your shirts to the laundry. Run an errand. Take a nap. Work in your woodworking shop, whatever your hobby is.
My hobby is looking at apartments I will never move into.
On Monday, I go in and make the appointment. I always dress well, not too well, not a suit or anything, but a nice blazer and a pair of trousers with double pleats, fresh from the dry cleaners so the pleats are razor-sharp.
They make you fill out an application; how much you make, what you’re looking for, how much you’re willing to spend. I always lie.
I give them a fake name. Billy Champagne, a name I heard once in a locker room at a gym I used to belong to. This guy, Billy Champagne, was saying to a friend of his that the only reason he worked out so hard was he needed something to do with all his energy since he stopped drinking. He said that he used to drink a quart of Scotch every day before lunch, down there on Wall Street and everybody, I swear everybody in the locker room said “Jesus” under his breath at the same time, with a kind of hushed awe. Billy Champagne was this guy’s name, he was built like a linebacker, he had a beautiful, powerful body, and the irony of it never left me, so I use his name. I like the name. I’d gladly be Billy Champagne, drunk or sober.
I tell them I make $350,000 a year. I tell them I’m willing to spend $4500 a month on a one or two bedroom apartment. I say this knowing they’ll show me much more expensive apartments anyway. Or I say I’ll also consider looking at lofts, live in a more open, abstract kind of way. I’d like to see as many apartments as possible on Tuesday, starting at ten a.m.
I don’t go to the same realtor more than once every six months. Not that they care. Talk about hope. They live on hope. Hope and greed, those guys.
I lie awake in the dark for a long time. I smoke another Marlboro red. You should see me smoke a cigarette. I do it with a voluptuous finesse. Then I put it out in my mother’s silver ashtray and turn off the radio right after the U of P goes off the air when The Blue Nile has finished their incredibly moving “Because Of Toledo,” In the song, which pierces my heart every time, people talk about how lonely and misplaced they are. Like a girl, just a girl, that’s all we know about her, in this diner, I guess, who’s leaning on a jukebox in some old blue jeans she wears. Saying wherever it is she lives she doesn’t really live anywhere.
I could weep for that girl, a fictional desolation living her one spark of life in a diner in a city I’ve never been to. Then I hear the line from Shakespeare: And girl I could sing/ Would weeping do me good/ And never borrow any tear from thee.
At five thirty on the morning, the minds caroms around like a squash ball, hitting just above the line and then careening off in some totally unpredictable direction. You go from certain brilliance to absolute drudgery in a second. And, of course, it’s Advent now, and after that comes Christmas, so there’s that, too. I’d lean on that jukebox with that girl and tell her to cheer the hell up. She has no special claim to desolation, in my view.
I go back to sleep until seven-thirty. I’ve been awake for an hour and a half.
When I wake up, I’m groggy and I’m still tired, but I’m also excited, the way I always am. It’s a new day. This is the day that the Lord hath made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it. I say that as I get into the shower.
I shave carefully. My hair looks brisk. I dress in clothes that are nice but not too nice, an investment banker or a lawyer on his day off, just a blazer and loafers, and then I have coffee. I make a whole pot, even though I just have a cup and a half. It just looks better. Cozier. Then I wash the cup and the pot and pretty much pace the apartment until ten o’clock. I like to be just a hair late.
The real estate office is a new one, very fancy. They have branches all over the city, but they’ve just opened a branch here because the neighborhood has gotten hot all over again. It’s just gone wild, rents shooting through the roof.
When I fill out the application, I say that I’m a fashion retail executive. If they ask, I’ll say I work at Saks. I put down that I make $375,000 a year. I put down an address where I do not live, and a phone number that is one digit off my real phone number. It’s not like you have to show proof or anything. You could be anybody. Everybody does it, so you don’t get the followup calls.
I wait, and then the shower comes out. That’s what they call them, the people who show apartments. His name is Chris Mallone. He wears a name plate on his shirt pocket. I almost slip, then tell him my name is Billy Champagne.
He’s maybe twenty-nine, not good-looking, just a pasty-faced Irish boy, already going soft around the middle. It’s sad, to see a person that age look so uncertain in his body. He looks like maybe he drinks too much on a regular basis. He looks like he maybe drank too much just the night before, and stayed out too late, he was probably still out when I woke up to smoke, but he’s all smiles, and he’s got a good firm handshake, even if his palms are a little sweaty.
Six months from now, Chris Mallone won’t be working here any more. He’ll be selling sporting goods at Paragon. Six months after that, he’ll be bartending in the East Village, selling double shots at happy hour. He’ll move down the food chain so fast and so low he’ll be sucking mud off the bottom of the river. And he’ll stay there bottom feeding forever.
It’s a shame. He should find his youth a pleasure. He should work out and see a dermatologist. He shouldn’t drink so much. There’s plenty of time for that later. And if he hates his job, and obviously he hates his job, who wouldn’t, he should find something he likes better before the inevitable something worse finds him. It’s not too late.
When I was his age, I had a job I loved. It made me feel rich and powerful and I dated girls who lived on the Upper East Side with roommates, and we did cocaine and drank Martinis and I bought my suits at Bergdorf’s and Paul Stuart, suits I still wear because quality lasts, and we went out dancing at two o’clock in the morning.
I just got eaten alive. It was bad at the time, but it’s not so bad now.
If you go swimming in a river, and you know there are piranhas in the river, and you get your leg chewed off or something, you can get mad, but you can’t get mad at the piranhas. That’s what they do.
So, it all changed. I work in a bookshop now. I wear a name plate, like Chris Mallone. But I’m an American and I have health benefits and a 401K and every two years I save up money and go on a vacation to a country where I don’t know anybody and don’t speak the language. And I go first class. The best of everything, cocktails on the veranda at sunset, a view of the local monument. It reminds me of how it all used to be before it got all fucked up. Without the girls or the drugs or the phone calls.
The apartment I had then was beautiful. This wasn’t so long ago, either. It had chic low furniture and the telephone rang all the time and friends dropped over to drink Heineken and leaf through copies of Details and Wallpaper and talk about whatever it was that was just about to catch the attention of everybody else. Girls with silken skin and sloe eyes spent the night there, and wore my shirts when they made espresso in the morning, in little cups they would bring to me where I lay naked in bed. I had the kind of body you see on the cover of Men’s Health. My stomach was faceted. The girls, who all had great educations and foreign language skills and mostly trust funds, had the kind of bodies you see in Vogue.
Then the clock stopped ticking. The spring just wound down one day, and the getting stopped and the surprising and fascinating process of losing began. Not that I have nothing now. I do. I have a lot. You can learn to live with anything. You can do without so much. It’s just irredeemably different and I go out looking for some vestige of my old life on the first Tuesday of every month, although I’ve learned to get along without it, like an amputee who is a marvel because he’s adjusted so well.
As Chris goes through the various checkpoints on the form I fill out, I notice that the cuffs of my white shirt are unbuttoned. My mother once said you could always tell a crazy person because they didn’t button their cuffs, but I disagree. I think it makes me look like a rock star from the Sixties. Like David Bowie in the Thin White Duke days. I’ve seen pictures.
I think you can tell a crazy person because they always wear too many clothes in the summer and not enough clothes in the winter.
Chris looks eager to help, like he smells blood, although I’m betting he wishes he had a shot of vodka and an Altoid to get him through the next couple of hours.
I tell him exactly what I want. I want a pre-war building. I don’t need a doorman. I need rooms with architectural details. I’d love a fireplace. I want to move because I’ve gotten bored with my apartment, it’s too bland, although it’s nice for what it is. Chris takes notes, then opens a book and begins to shuffle through the listings.
He says he’s not sure I can get what I’m looking for at that price. I tell him I’m flexible, that the space is more important than the price, within reason. I’ll go to 4500, if that’s what it takes. I tell him I want a place where I can live for a long time.
The thing is, when I’m telling him all these lies, I don’t feel fraudulent. I got over that a long time ago.
I feel an almost erotic thrill, deep in my body. I’m wearing hard-soled shoes and a Chesterfield coat with a green velvet collar from Turnbull and Asser that still looks almost as immaculate as it did the day I bought it, before the clock stopped. To Chris, there’s no reason to believe I’m not all the things I say I am. This is America, and you can be whoever you want.
The streets are full, the Christmas tree people are already out, have been since Thanksgiving, but mostly they’re just standing around in those gloves that don’t have any fingers on them, drinking coffee and talking with the Korean flower people. Nobody in town is going to buy a tree the first week of December, but hope is just bleeding through everybody’s pores, it would seem.
Chris has a fine mist of sweat at his hairline even though the day is brisk despite the bright white sunlight, and he talks on and on about the Knicks and about his girl friend and about how fast the neighborhood is changing. Meaning getting more expensive, filled with fathers in Barbour coats and horn-rimmed glasses leading their children around to private schools.
The sound of his voice is comforting, and I feel cheerful and ask all the right questions.
I take care to step lightly on the sidewalk. Another thing my mother used to teach us was that a light footfall was a sign of good breeding. I’ve learned it pretty well, pacing much of the time around my apartment, so the downstairs neighbors won’t feel they’re living in an Edgar Allen Poe story. The Telltale Heart, or something. I expend a great deal of energy trying not to look or seem peculiar.
I’ve been to Puket, I want to tell sweating Chris, and China. I’ve been to Cuba. Stayed at La Nacional. I’ve had more money in my pocket than you have in your bank account most days.
His girlfriend works at the Chanel counter at Saks. She’s a makeup artist. I tell him we’ve never met.
Chris keeps walking toward the first apartment. He’s done this yesterday. He did it the day before. As far as Chris is concerned, he’s been doing it forever.
We look at seven apartments, except that three are in the same building and two of those are identical, just on different floors. A long time ago, I went to a party in one of these apartments, or one in the same line, as they say.
There is something fatally wrong with every one of them. Well, naturally, there has to be. Like, for instance, one has this peculiar Fifties miniature stove, so small you could barely fit a chicken into it. Chris asks me if I cook a lot. Oh yes, I say, I entertain pretty often.
The technique is to make some generally favorable remark when you first walk into at least some of the apartments, so that Chris doesn’t get too discouraged. And, of course, with the first or second apartment, you have to say, Chris, this is exactly the apartment I don’t want. Just so he knows.
Seeing apartments is essentially a sordid business. Looking at an apartment that the tenant hasn’t moved out of yet makes me really squeamish.
One time, I looked at this nice apartment, pre-war, doorman, nice, and the tenant hadn’t moved out and when I opened the bedroom closets there were all his clothes hanging there and I realized the tenant was a midget. Boy, that was weird, and I imagined myself living this kind of miniature life, never forgetting the deformed little suits, the tiny shoes, always feeling like Alice after she’s gotten really big.
I couldn’t get out of there fast enough, and it was rent stabilized and had a working fireplace.
You spend about ten minutes in each apartment, each redolent with lives lived totally unaware of your own, each filled with the promise of an imaginary life you might live there, where your clothes would go in the closets, where you would put the sofa and the television, and how loud it would be from the street.
I always imagine, right off, where I would put the Christmas tree. I know it’s trivial; it’s two weeks of the year and, besides, I haven’t had a tree for years, not a full sized one, just a little table-topper as tacky people say but I don’t know what else you call it when it sits on a table and isn’t even a tree, really.
But I try to find a spot and picture a majestic eight-footer, covered with all the extravagant ornaments I’ve saved from my old life, the days when everything glittered too brightly.
Somewhere in these lonely rooms there is the ghost of the life I might have there, of the life I really live. Somewhere there is room for a wife and two or three children and a Sussex spaniel and Barbour jackets and travel tickets lying on the kitchen table.
I know that that’s what I’m really looking for. I know it has nothing to do with the apartments themselves or sweaty Chris or my own disdain. It has to do with the natural maturation of the life I fucked up beyond recognition.
I see her. Her hair is colored once a month by the best colorist in the city, tawny blonde with highlights. Shes a partner at Plimpton Debevoise and she never cooks so we eat out all the time, or order in, and the three children are in private school, the youngest girl at Grace, the boy at Collegiate, the elder girl at Foxcroft where we let her go because of her equestrian passions, and, face it, she’s not ever going to be a Rhodes scholar. Every morning I kiss them and go off to McCann Ericcson where I am a global creative director, working on some of their biggest accounts. I am pivotal. I am rewarded beyond the common imagination.
I see her. She looks sort of like Barbra Streisand at the end of the Way We Were and she works as head of one of the departments at the Library and I work at a small publishing house and we are very leftist and the children go to the Little Red Schoolhouse and then on to Horace Mann when they get older. We only have two children. Our hearts would hold a dozen, but that’s all we could afford. We use our Metro Cards all the time, and we take a subscription in the Family Circle at the Met and the children will grow up to lead lives intense with intelligent ideas and passionate views and commitments.
Every apartment grows other rooms, grows organically into a place where a family lives for years and years.
The girls with the silken skin are happily gone and fondly remembered, along with the nights drinking hard liquor and doing lines off the bar at neon lounges. I do not miss these things. That was another time, like summer camp. Like a very long spring break in Jamaica. I am happy with what I have. Proud even.
And there is always a Christmas tree. It’s all covered with beautiful ornaments, Bavarian glass, that we have collected over the years and put away with care and never broken any of, excpt that one time the tree fell over, all mixed in with funny kids’ stuff and a tree topper made out of rhinestones and popsicle sticks that Kate made when she was six and which now fills her with both uncertain pride and mortification every time we take it out and put it right at the very tippy-top.
In one life, the Plimpton McCann life, we give each other extravagant fur and remote controlled things and bijoux and bibelots, and we leave Christmas afternoon to go skiing in Europe for a week, because the airports are empty on Christmas Day.
In the Library life, we share mitten and scarves and the Letters of Leonard Woolf and baskets made in Third World countries and then we eat a big dinner in the middle of the afternoon and then we go for a walk in the snowy, almost deserted streets.
In one life, we are giddy but anxious. In the other, we are happy. Just a happy family.
I live with a woman. She is tall, taller than I am, with the long, lean body of a swimmer. She is ten years younger than I am, and she wears designer clothes and shoes that cost a month’s salary for most people. She is a graphic designer and the apartment is a monument to good taste. We are wholly happy in ourselves, and we have no children. I am a writer. I write novels that make people feel better about themselves, and they sell quite well. You’d know me if you saw me, from the dust jackets.
We entertain a lot, actresses, publishers, people from the arts and we discuss Tristan Tsara and the Dadaists and Le Desert du Retz around coq au vin and Muscadet.
She once wrote to me from Paris, “You are to me as water to a man dying of thirst in the desert.”
In any case, every case, we are a tribe, a law unto ourselves, filled with quirks that have come to seem perfectly natural to us. We have the pride of knowing that there is no other group of people in the world with our unique qualities of beauty and intelligence, or kindness or grace or strength. We are only wholly ourselves when we are together. Each completes a part of the whole.
The apartments I look at couldn’t hold any of this. They could hold me, and I feel bereft each time a door closes behind us.
On West 12th Street, we meet another broker with her client at a double brownstone. The apartment is composed of the back half of the ground floor and the first floor, what used to be called the parlor floor.
The other client is English, in his early thirties, and we all go in together and look at this peculiar apartment. He is eating a green apple.
We go in to the space, as city dwellers say these days, the space. The ground floor is peculiarly divided into two small rooms, one a kind of office, I guess, and the other the dining room, which looks out into a large, wintry garden filled with Italian terra cotta urns. Then there is a handsome galley kitchen with its own washer/dryer combination. The ceilings are low and the rooms are dark.
There is a treacherous cantilevered staircase jerryrigged to get up to the second floor, which is perfectly wonderful.
There is a ballroom-sized sitting room with fourteen foot ceilings. You could have a twelve-footer in here, easy. There is simple but elegant plaster molding. The windows look out onto the garden, and would be just at leaf level in the spring and summer.
Behind this there is a large bedroom, which is closed off from the living room by elegant sliding etched-glass doors, and an art deco bathroom with a real deep cast iron tub. It is all magnificent.
I am trembling with excitement. You can feel the weight of the lives lived in these rooms. It has an upstairs and a downstairs, like a real house. Once the whole brownstone was home to a single family, now it is carved up into separate spaces, disparate lives. You can almost hear the rustle of their skirts as the other agent slides the glass doors back and forth.
She turns to her young English client. ‘But where would you put the baby?” She asks, and he says exactly and they leave right away.
I want to stay there, listening to the sounds of my wife and children, watching the tree glisten in the early winter afternoon, but my ten minutes are almost up, and I don’t want Chris to get overstimulated or he’ll never leave me alone.
But I can see them. I can smell them. I can lie down in the bedroom and sink into the comfort of twenty years of marriage to a woman I love. I can see the posters of the rock stars and the sports heroes on the walls of my children’s bedrooms.
I’m not a fantasist. I know the place where I really live. The one room is comfortable to me, and it isn’t so bad. It is dark and it is small but it’s also pretty much free from memory. There’s a lot you can do with a one-room apartment if you use your imagination.
I know what I do and where I am in the world, which is pretty far down the People magazine Most Beautiful People ladder.
But I want things. I miss what I never had. I’m sorry I threw it all away. I feel terrible about fucking it all up, all the time. I want to tell Chris all this, I always do, but I don’t say anything. I just take another tour through the rooms, remarking mostly on how they cut these brownstones up in such peculiar ways, and then we leave.
I look again at the twinkling tree, so brief, so fragile. I look through the tall windows into the garden where I might barbecue for friends on a summer night, white wine and chevre. Diana Krall. The New York Review of Books.
I kiss my wife goodbye. I kiss my loving children on their foreheads and we go back out into the fading sunlight. It’s really cold now.
This apartment costs $5500 a month, more than three times what I’m paying now.
On the way back to the office, I tell Chris that his job must be very frustrating, showing all these apartments to people who are so hard to satisfy. He says that it’s OK, he likes people. He says he has one client who’s been looking for an apartment for five months. He says he just takes it one day at a time.
That’s the way you ought to take it, pal, I think. One day at a time.
I shake his hand, promise I’ll call him tomorrow. I walk home through the chill afternoon, passing the tree stand again. Maybe this year, I think. Maybe next week.
The windows we look through to glimpse the happiness of families.
All the rooms we might have lived in. All the lives we might have led.