Friday, October 30, 2009


Soon in my bright apartment a lampshade was ringed by those little metal lapel pins, a different color for each day, that proved in the Met that you were legal because you had paid at least a tiny donation, if not the asking price.

I was also in the Frick and the Guggenheim and the Drawing Center and the Brooklyn and the Whitney and Met over and again, and soon the galleries on the Upper East Side and along 57th Street and in Soho and in the East Village.

And in my new range I almost immediately had paintings that I was visiting several times a week. Some brought up fearful darkness. In the Met and the Whitney, Gorky’s sexual organs that grew razor sharp blade edges and fish hook thorns. In the Met, the bullying gray woman looking down on the boy in Matisse’s mostly harsh Piano Lesson. And then the northern Renaissance paintings in the Met that created horror in me with their aqua skies splashed with blood red.

These paintings that face horror, and others that are the reverse. At the Frick, Claude Lorraine’s mount and Bellini’s St. Francis. In the Met and the Guggenheim, Pissaro’s generous world view. At the Met, Bellini’s very alive madonnas and Courbet’s equally glorious and not unrelated undressed women of flesh. Diebenkorn’s great squares of color in the Brooklyn. Hopper’s sunlight at the Whitney. Bonnard's ghostly dining table scenes in the Me. And in the Met Matisse’s bronze girls. Everything by Monet and Manet, though maybe Renoir was merely a memory of what I had once hoped would be easy. As in the Rembrandt self portraits and depictions of his two women he loved. And then in Constable at the Frick trees and rivers, a white horse, the smell of mud in springtime. And in Daubigny, whom I had never heard of until I saw his work in the Brooklyn, my memory of green river banks on slowly flowing rivers, causing me to get at something I knew once and had nearly forgotten.

And that same feeling about the 17th century landscapes of Hobbema, which seemed far more evocative of nature, more Constable like, than the cooler ones by the critics' favorite, van Ruisdale. But this part of my adventure in art came to what felt like a violent end.

In the Met I was standing in front of Hobbema woods – a clearing, a thatch house, a pathway disappearing among thick, tall trees in the middle distance, in the near distance the trees so clear that you'd think he'd painted each leaf separately. Or you would think that way if you believed the words of a guide that I overheard speaking about this perfect summer day. Woods on a summer day.

I stood there feeling, to my surprise, quite blank. A death-like lack of feeling. I knew the Hobbema well by how. Why today could I not connect with this summer day that had been evoked here?

So like death, it kept seeming, this inability to place myself in this version of sunshiny nature.

That night I entered a feverish series of dreams in which I was caught in dark and dangerous woods – caught in Hobbema’s woods – a place now of infinite danger. And as the night wore on these Hobbema woods were also the deep woods of the White Mountains of New Hampshire, the family place of huge cold formal houses and avalanche streaked mountains, which until recently I had thought of as being as warm and beautiful as, frequently more warm and beautiful than, anything else I had seen in my years of traveling.

I went back to the Met. If before this I would not admit to the darkness of the Hobbema scene, this time I could see nothing nice or even summery in it. But I went back like a soldier who knows he had sworn an oath to press one. And like a soldier who has a life away from the battlefield, I also had Constable and Daubigny and Deibenkorn. Not to mention Manet’s Dejeuner sur les Herbs, which I had visited and revisited in Paris at 16 and afterwards kept in my head. This possibility of a life – these artists on a picnic with their nude model.

Thursday, October 29, 2009


A few days later I am back again on the Upper East Side, this part of town that I hardly ever visit, not counting that brief time less than a year back when I was more or less living at Jacqueline’s one room place with its indoor Greek columns up near the Carlyle. Now I am walking uptown from a dentist’s office on 57th Street. The dentist is a friend of a guy I knew from Time-Life days who was a master at getting paid writing jobs and loved to carry them out, whatever the silly slant, whatever the trivial subject.

The dentist, Steve, does some pro bono work at an old clinic just off Sheridan Square that in another life I had passed several times a day. He has a bright and glamorous dental hygienist who, my free lancer friend told me, had been reprimanded for the downer of telling a patient he needed better personal hygiene.

At another time she had told me she met the new cardinal and found him cold. The last time I had been there she told me she was studying hypnotism, and that hypnotists would soon be replacing therapists. She is so pretty I become as shy as a child in her presence. She had sent me articles about hypnotism as the new therapy. She planned to go into it as a business, and wondered if I, as a writer, could help. Nothing here that seems very real, except my awareness of her scent as she leans in close to my open mouth.

While Steve is filling a cavity there is an interruption in a WQXR program being piped through the dental office’s music system. The space shuttle has just exploded – the space shuttle that carried not just dumb jocks but an appealing woman who was really a schoolteacher. In of all places New Hampshire.

Nonetheless I feel serene as I walk uptown in the early evening on Madison. Nearing 75th street I see the Whitney has its own building, and has probably had it since some point in the sixties, though I had last seen it in its much smaller old home, which you entered from the Museum of Modern Art. Now it has this big but layered reddish building that for some reason is new to me though it has already been here a number of years. Had I been asleep in those years?

I go in, walk up a flight, and am suddenly listening to a short, ebullient old man who says he is a retired banker and is here as a volunteer docent. I follow him, though I have spent most of my life traveling and have always managed to avoid tour guides.

He said he had loved art since he was a young man in the city and had gotten to know an artist named Sheeler, who was apparently famous but was new to me. I now saw Charles Sheeler’s surprisingly sleek and respectful treatments of industrial scenes. And then I came upon Hoppers like those I had sought in vain at the Met on my recent trip there with Jenny when I had become horribly aware of how limited my range in art had become.

And after the Sheelers, I am looking at a deKooning, heavy on yellow, which of course reminds me of early days with my artist girlfriend Vannie going from Abstract Expressionist viewing to Abstract Expressionist viewing, with many stops in between at their alcoholic home, the Cedar Street Bar on University Place.

Now I an standing in front of Arshile Gorky’s portrait of himself as a small child with his mother in Armenia shortly before the mother starved to death in the Turk-led genocide. And then I am looking at an abstract Gorky called “Betrothal II," which seems to be knife-edge horror and mainly about betrayal – and is more literal than abstract to me. More literal than the figurative portrayal of Gorky and his mother.

And by god I am connected visually again. And could it be I am back in life again? I am stepping right into these pictures.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009


When I was 2 and 3 and 4 support came from people who lived through a mirror in a wardrobe in a very dark room in a house in New Rochelle with an old barn in back and a trolley line in front. And they were there chattering in my head still after we moved from New Rochelle to Weston. They were real, just as I knew the owl that flew into my New Rochelle room one night was real. This stern, feathery creature landed on top of an open door and looked down on me. Real, though I had no real explanation for it. I just knew that support was there.

And these happy chattering people in this not often unhappy place stayed with me when I traveled. When we went to Atlantic city with Gaga and Nana, I found to my surprise that they were still there in my head at night in the Brighton Hotel.

On this New Year’s Day at the start of 1986 I am thinking about childhood. I am allowing thoughts of childhood for what feels like the first time, certainly the first time in several decades. I sleep late and wake feeling oddly calm though it seems I had gone from alienation to hope in the night following that candlelight meeting on St. Mark’s place. I am calm in the light of day as I stroll about my neighborhood. I then go to an early evening meeting.

New Year’s Day is a Wednesday, so it is the same meeting I went to the first time – the one at the big French order church St. Jean’s on the Upper East Side. The meeting that has come to seem normal, but had caused such terror in me so recently.
But now it is like returning to watch the next episode of a familiar serial. I am following the adventures of people I have heard speak before. The overweight three-piece-suit lawyer talking about his Adlerian analyst again and his newest failures with women. The adventurous young lady, soft but sporty, who usually talked about her trips to Russia now hinting about sexual things in the deep and also recent past, and looking less wholesome and more interesting as she talks. A young buy named Dwight who came form a military family and has written a book about his recovery from family violence. I think of my recent anguish, and I appreciate my current detachment.

When the meeting ends I walk alone to the subway, at 77th street. There is a to me pleasing chill to the air now that last night’s unseasonably warm weather is in retreat. The 77th street station is one stop up from the stop that in the deep past I used for my grandmother’s apartment house, where I occasionally cadged a meal or bed. I did not think she had ever been down in the subway herself.

Just after I take a seat in a fairly crowded subway car, time has become timeless . Suddenly I am not detached, am actually connected – connected with something that reminds me of the till now forgotten people from the wardrobe who supported me when I was 2 and 3 and 4. And though seated now in a subway car on the Lexington Avenue line I am seeing myself in a woodland. I who spend so much time in cities and leave cities only for unsafe adventures. I am clearly in the woodland and there is unaccustomed safety. It is night and there is candlelight and I am in a circle of not just supportive people, all of whom seem to be children, but also of friendly forest animals, deer and rabbits and skunks and raccoons. And right here in this candlelit clearing, right here in this number 6 subway car, I hear a warm voice turning loud and angry with the words, “Who wants to stop this children?”

And anger sweeps through me. And just as it peaks it slides down into such sadness that I am actually crying right here on New Year’s Day night in the subway.

And then the sadness sweeps me into anger again. And anger and sadness seesaw in my being as I leave the subway and go back up to my apartment again.

At some point my head clears, as if I am returning from an unearthly place. I realize I am in my apartment in the small hours of the morning. And I am drinking milk and eating Famous Amos cookies, which I have never had before and have no memory of having picked up on my way home .

Monday, October 26, 2009


I was carrying notebooks with me these days, but I hardly wrote anything in them, though in this darkened place I made sure mine was with me on my lap.

I did not write anything in it for there was nothing here to write. I thought of when years ago I had been traveling around the obscure, virtually unmapped, eastern parts of Anatolia and making all sorts of journal notes about interesting things, from bear baiting in dusty village squares to a knife fight on a speeding bus to a ghettoized red light district where a rare pretty girl among beaten down women sat nude in a window. I described strange fast sex starting the moment I walked in and she drew the blind. And also other strange people I met – like a young Ivy League type American, a sort who would become so familiar to me later in Southeast Asia, this one mysteriously living in a cheap hotel in a dusty nowhere town. He asked me to describe in detail every place I had been and everyone I had met, and so he must have been a low level CIA person. And I had tried to recreate in notebooks the sweeping landscapes,
and the Roman ruins that nobody knew about and the places where there had been whirling dervishes – all these interesting things.

And in the candelight meeting now I thought also of traveling across Africa alone in market trucks. I thought of my time in revolutions or near revolutions – Haiti, Cuba, Angola. And in Laos and Burma, and of course the heart of Borneo darkness. All these things that I thought defined me, all these times in which I had made notes fairly confident that I would write books about what I was seeing – and sometimes I did. But there was nothing to take notes about here in this room.

There were several people sitting on the stage, led by a man with a firm professor’s voice named Ram who was part of the Rajneesh cult that had been in the news, something I would never go near. There was a pleasant young lady with long light brown hair who said she was a fashion designer and said many people came to ACOA and then found they had to stop drinking or drugging and joined AA or NA or some other A. This didn’t apply to me, since I did not drink anymore and only, unlike with my drinking, had occasional cocaine, but it was rare and I never bought it myself. So here right at the start was one of many things that night that did not apply to me.

And then a man with a sloppy grey beard squinted through half glasses and read something he had taken off an inspirational Christmas LP about living in the present, which he seemed to think was original. And then a clean cut guy got up and talked about that harrowing Frost poem I had read in my near terminal depression, about the sick old hired hand from the awful family. And the guy speaking actually quoted that disturbing line about home being where when-you-have-to-go-there-they-have-to-take-you-in as if he thought it was saying something positive about homes – which thank god was something people here in these meetings were rarely positive about, and seemed to me the most stupid misreading of the deadly poem. And Lisa talked and talked about her cat throwing up. And there was a lot more, people telling stories, but this non-story part was the part I focused on.

I focused on my picture of a girl I knew slightly from meetings who was here this night in a low cut satin like dress such as often inaccessible pretty girls used to wear for holiday parties when I was much younger. Like with the girls back then, when she leaned over I could see almost to her nipples. In another meeting she had talked about how she could not understand why she kept trying to please people, including her boyfriend, whom she was so careful not to disturb after sex because he thought it was so important that he have uninterrupted dreams, from which he would wake up from time to time to write the latest one down, and then go straight back to sleep, and she obediently refrained from touching him.

And then the meeting was over. Midnight having come and gone. I drifted to a diner where some people I did not know were going and we all sat around and I felt isolated. It was after midnight now and our table was the only sober one in the diner, but I had no more connection with people at the sober table than with those at the drunk tables.

And when I got back to Chelsea I did start to write in the notebook I was still carrying. I started to write about how hopeless I felt, what a grim night it had been, though it had started out so well at my old friends’ party in the Village, and had seemed so promising as I sort of glided across Manhattan through timeless cinema-like scenes in this Indian summer night. But the candlelight meeting – what was that all about? – and haven’t I been here before? – in places, like the candlelight room, like the diner, with people with whom I have no connection? Like someone lost in a Hopper painting.

And then as I was writing it I skipped back to just before the diner. And It was the end of the candlelight meeting – and Ram asked in his firm, cultivated voice if there was anyone here who had been coming to these meetings for less than ninety days. And I put my hand up along with a few others, and then less than 60 days, and I was the only one with my hand up, and he asked from the stage if now, when everyone would join hands, I would lead the serenity prayer.

I had forgotten this part just after it happened. The moment the people and the place stopped seeming ridiculous. I did not remember it while in the diner, or in the subway home – the E train from its multi-tiered West 4th Street station at 8th street to the northern exit of the more humble 23rd Street stop, which came out right across from my building on 25th Street. I had forgotten that part. My joining. Oh god, nothing was what I thought it to be. I was right there in the middle as we all held hands and I led the prayer
my saying a prayer being as unlikely as my leading one. And it did not matter if no one in my imaginary audience for my writing had any idea of what I was writing about. Nothing like that mattered now.

Friday, October 23, 2009


On that warm humid, New Year's Eve night that felt like a midsummer night, I left Joan’s and started to walk across Manhattan west to east, so as to be on St. Mark’s before midnight. The streets I was traveling were filled with lively pedestrians who did not need overcoats in this out-of-season, out-of-time time. The light, too, was warm. Facades seemed to glow. People moving not fast but with a celebratory purpose, most of them dressed up, many carrying bags with wine bottles, passing each other, crisscrossing, walking as if gliding in the warm, charged evening. Like well-groomed potentially erotic characters in some foreign film. But also, I knew, a scene that went beyond anything I could compare it to.

For it was a walk that that even at the time seemed like the dividing line after which nothing could remain unchanged.

It is a little after 11 when I leave the party at Joan’s. From Seventh I walk through Sheridan Square which, when I had lived on Waverly between Christopher and 10th years back, had seemed like a lobby for my use. Now I hear Irish music from the Lion’s Head – and think of how I listened to radio music surreptitiously on childhood nights in Connecticut.

On Waverly I pass right under the pair of half story high windows on a narrow brown building where, for a little over two years between Greece and Bangkok, in the time I was turning 30, I had lived and sort of loved and thrown well-fueled parties, knowing that whatever the size of a place if you packed it beyond capacity the party would be a good one.

I come to Greenwich Avenue, a sort of main street in my old neighborhood, and walk down diagonally to Eighth Street, past the subway stop on Sixth that I had used in my brief time as a job holder. Again there are people everywhere moving through the warm night. And now I walk east on Eighth, passing two movie theaters where I had first seen Goddard and Truffaut as their films were coming out. And through Astor Place, past the building to which the agent who sold my Philippines book had recently moved, and then past stately Cooper Union, where all artist students are on scholarship, and the seedy upstairs Five Spot, where I often went late at night to drink and struggle to connect with Ornette Coleman and the like.

I continue on now past Third Avenue as Eighth Street becomes St. Mark’s Place, which still has its old hotel and its ominous old baths and its art and trinket and kinky clothes stores that have always been there, just like the sixties still, though already like the sixties before the sixties started. And on to the heavy old building that had been the Polish National Home, then for a time became the a dance place, the Electric Circus. I go up a steep stoop stairway that passes over a semi-basement which is crowded with old men in what must be a marginal people’s AA meeting. Then up two flights to a big dimmed-light meeting room that has candles burning on a stage.

I had been in a smaller meeting room here once this month with Jenny for a strange thing called The Course on Miracles. It was supposed to have been channeled from somewhere and had seemed to me like soft Reader’s Digest spirituality, though it attracted a number of the people who were regulars at the very tough ACOA meetings I was frequenting.

To the left of the front rows is a second floor fire escape landing, the door there open to this warm night air. Standing on an iron platform smoking is Lisa, who I knew from the meetings. She is a fairly successful but often tortured actress who has a current role on a soap opera that seems to be known to almost everyone. And though her talk in meetings sometimes disturbed me, I appreciate that she is putting her troubled life in order, and I also appreciate that she is more beautiful at forty than I had first noticed.

She talks now about how her cat has been throwing up all evening. But what registers most is that she not only looks good she is friendly. A message from somewhere tells me I should not be so friendly as I would like, for Lisa is a friend of my new friend and potential girlfriend Jenny. So I already owe something to Jenny. I am thinking this as I go to take a seat in a middle row halfway back .

And the already dim overhead lights go dimmer till they go out, and there is no light except the candlelight from the stage. Jenny has not come and Lisa has drifted away. Although everyone in the room – is it 60 people, 100 people, more than that? – seems almost familiar, these are clearly not people I know, just people whom I have passed by or who have passed by me. I am here but not here.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

#22 – AT JOAN’S

At the crowded party on Barrow Street I met a good looking youngish woman professor who was writing a book about Pissaro the painter – or was it Pizarro the conquistador? I bluffed it till I knew it was the painter and she was in art history – which in my college days was what the most appealing girls at Vassar studied, that and zoology.

She was at Miami University way down in Florida. We talked about my stepson, with whom I had only tenuous ties but whom I had taken there to check out the place. She said she’d use her influence.

Then came a glad-handing friend of Joan’s from City College days, Hank Stern, who would be up for re-election to the City Council.

And now it was noticed that Bill disappeared with a dark-haired, smiling girl who had been on the periphery . They returned and Joan was screaming at him, just like 30 years back.

Then he was gone again. But one of the women pointed out that “that girl wears thrift shop everything.” Which seemed to allow everyone to be friendly again. Though Bill was not back yet when I departed.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


By New Year’s Eve in ’85, this search for the past well underway, I was spending crucial time at these meetings with women and men of many ages who were probing deep into their lives, right back to infancy often, searching for what had happened. And I was actually one of these people. I was searching too.

There was a big meeting that would last through midnight on St Mark’s place in that stolid building that had been the Polish National Home, had become the Electric Circus, and now was the site of a lot of meetings, most of them Twelve Step, which were allowed there by a rich woman who had purchased the building to set up a school to prepare women for the building trades.

This was an unusually warm evening for the end of December. So warm and mysterious it could have been Spring in the heart of winter. I started out on Barrow Street in the West Village where my friend Joan Snyder was giving a party in her small apartment. She reminded me of the sort of women Barbara Stanwick had played in black and white movies, though she was wittier and often nicer. I had known Joan first that summer of ’59 when we were both working at night in the Newark Bureau of UPI and she was an unusually alive news work colleague. Some nights when we had the place to ourselves we would drop the routines and get on the phone, both of us, entertain ourselves with mocking interviews with Alan Ginsberg’s father, a conventional man who was well known in northern Jersey as the Poet Laureate of Patterson.

When we were on different shifts we would leave notes for each other
such as that one of us had faked the time on the signoff for a story so that the bureau chief would not see how it had been put on the wire late. One day when he left work the bureau chief gave Joan a letter to mail to some superior over in New York. She opened it, saw that it was asking that we all be required to actually live in New Jersey, and so she destroyed it. Her next note to me was signed "deus ex machina." I thought that was great, though I did not know exactly what "deus ex machina" meant.

Now all these years later Joan was still in news work, with CBS now as a producer for the Dan Rather Evening news. Also, she had recently survived breast cancer, with the help of marijuana, suppllied by a pleasant guy named Bob Browder who had also been in Newark that distant summer.

And in town now, she told me on the phone, was Bill Tangney, who had been a great friend at Princeton, an antidote to Princeton, where he took none of their uptight silliness seriously and, unlike the Princeton clubmen, had unlimited energy. We had worked on the student daily there together and he too had wound up right after college at UPI, covering a right-wing legislature in Ohio. He did it with such flair that there was an article about him in Editor & Publisher. Just before he was in Ohio I was covering an even more right-wing legislature in Indiana, and then while I was still with UPIOwe were we had come at the same time in New York, where I introduced him to Joan and they almost immediately set up housekeeping together.

That was when I was living over near Second Avenue. A few years later, after I was back from the Balkans and Africa, I was with Judy rather than Vannie though he was still with Joan, and we were neighbors in the West village. Bill bought a Vespa, I got a 90 cc. Honda and we went all over Manhattan deep into many heavy drinking nights, sometimes each with a girl on the back of the machine, and it was not always the girl it was supposed to be. Amazing that we did not kill ourselves right off. And then he almost did. The Vespa’s small wheels made it perilous to navigate places like below the West Side Highway where there were cobblestones and potholes, and at three one morning he crashed, with the wrong girl on the back, at a high speed. Like me, he rarely wore his helmet. He was taken to St. Vincent’s hospital, which was near both Joan and me. I would call in, as I did doing newspaper work when someone prominent was badly hurt, to get a report on his condition, and for weeks it was critical, the word “critical” being used sometimes as a code word in newspaper writing for “probably fatal,” a code word like the word "attractive" which was applied to a woman in a news story only if she seemed to the writer unattractive.

Bill survived but with a damaged brain and so could not pick up where he had left his life. By the time of the crash he had joined Joan as a writer at CBS, where he now could no longer handle the work. He somehow wound up in a small city in Virginia where he actually started his own weekly paper and was sort of adopted by the town. And now here he was all these years later up from Virginia at Joan’s place – and it was almost as if 30 years of life had not happened.

Saturday, October 17, 2009


It was only two months later but I was feeling better. I was actually happy to be on the hunt. Most days I went to one of these fierce and satisfying meetings, twice a week at the Corlears school, once at St. Jean's, at least twice at places on the Upper West Side near where I had lived several times including four and a half years in my marriage, and often in the East Village near those places where long ago I had started out. Also, each Saturday now I went to a big gathering
over on East 16th, upstairs at the Friends Meeting House where the old windows framed tree branches that told of the seasons. Each Sunday I did a writing meeting at St. Vincent's down on Seventh and 12th in the West Village, and most Sundays I also did a meeting across Seventh in a St. Vincent’s Hospital annex that, when I had lived around the corner, had been the old-time Maritime Union building.

In these early days of ACOA I did not completely leave my world as it has been before this time. I had not yet stopped smoking the pipes I had adopted in order to get off cigarettes. I had become such a connoisseur that I had a collection of fine straight grains and smoked only the finest Virginia tobaccos, and I had written a book about pipe making, and I still stopped in to share cocaine with a pipemaker friend who lived in Richmond Hill next door to mafia people, and another old friend who lived that grimy Canal Street loft that I had borrowed the previous summer. I did not take the feelings cocaine gave me seriously, but it did seem my occasional consumption was something a debonair man should do. I would have smoked marijuana too if it had not so consistently led me into depression.

I still saw my oldest friends, John and Walter and Alex and Al. I went with John to watch a Japanese man and woman dance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, a performance that was was excruciatingly slow and dull, though they were frontally nude. With the holidays coming on, I accepted an invitation to spend Christmas with my Cousin Rob, a family ally, or so I thought. We were different from the others for Rob was in the theater and I had been living a life of adventures and writing. While he had been acting in plays, including occasional brief Broadway runs, I had been being published.

Rob was living, strangely, in a family place – the fake Williamsburg-like town of Princeton adjacent to the fake Gothic university. He was there in a modest blue house with his wife Cynthia, who had danced with Merce Cunningham, and his adopted Korean daughter Kira (named after a friend of his mother, my Aunt Betsy, who was my father’s sister) and he was considering adopting another child. Princeton, where my grandfather had gone, and my father, and, fuck it, me. But he did have an inter-racial family (as indeed I had too not long ago). And besides, he was in Princeton because it was where he was working.

On the edge of the campus there was a very compete old theater, the McCarter, that was independent of the college, where there were sometimes Broadway tryouts and for the past few years a shifting repertory group led by a man Rob had known in the city. Rob was the number two there. I had been down for some of those plays and found them slick but trivial. They did obscure Brecht, Jules Feiffer’s Little Murders fantasy, and, in this fake façade town so proud of early American pseudo-upper class history, a historically altered Shakespeare comedy that Rob set at the time of the American revolution. The rebels of some old Brit ducal faction became George Washington’s people at the nearby Delaware. At one point a replica of the statue of liberty was lowered to the stage floor, to gasps and occasional applause.

After these performances Rob would do a Q and A with earnest aging townswomen who at this time made up the bulk of the McCarter audiences. Rob, one of the few members of the family to actually learn an English accent in England, let the accent get thick with irony as he talked in a supercilious way making fun of each questioner but smiling in his role as a helpful, charming Englishman while he did it – and maybe, I thought, not quite getting away with it. “Oh, so that’s what you think. Ummm. How interesting. Ummm.”

Deirdre, his sister, my favorite, would not be there for Christmas. She had something going on in the Midwest. But it did seem a good move for me to spend a holiday with this particular part of the family. Choosing your own family was something that came up often in the ACOA meetings.

The day I was to go to Princeton I went to a morning meeting where a young woman talked about how she had just gone for a walk and had been looking at the bracelets on her pretty arm and thinking she was really as young again as she still looked now, and how in the middle of the city on this Christmas morning she realized she had never grown up, still had the longings and questions of her youth – almost as if she were not in New York this morning but back walking on a wintry Massachusetts beach listening to the cries of the gulls and wondering when her life would get underway.

So much nostalgia in the air. And I had been buying presents, just as if I still believed. I had gotten a copy of Kay Thompson’s Eloise at the Plaza which everyone had found so charming when it came out. I rememberd receiving it on a long ago Christmas morning. I wrapped it for my Cousin Kira, though I skimmed it first and it seemed now to have warnings about the fate in store for an abused and deserted child. I found a calendar in the stores that year that was about modern art – had everything in from a nude Bonnard woman stretched out, maybe dead, in a bathtub, to a wonderful cartoonish walking bird. I got a copy of the calendar for myself and one as a gift to the Princeton household.

On the subway after the meeting I sat across from an unhappy and lonely looking older man dressed up in sport coat, pressed tan slacks, Christmas red vest and sad, jaunty tweed hat. He was carrying a shopping bag stuffed with gift wrapped presents – clearly on his way to someone else’s Christmas. And just as clearly, it seemed, an outsider, much like a longtime gay pet of my family, a jaunty pianist named Fred Bristol, who would appear at family occasions and make jokes that sometimes held back holiday sadness.

I was relieved to hear that the McCarter Theater was undergoing renovations and so they had canceled Rob’s annual version of A Christmas Carol. Instead there was a catchall Christmas program at Alexander Hall, a strange old round baroque space where in college I had heard Billy Graham and Alan Paton. One part of the program was an outtake from the Little House on the Prairie, a sentimental Christmas story that I drifted away from so thoroughly that it was as if I had had one of those blackouts that had become so common in the last years of my drinking.

Rob played paterfamilias, taking the young people, Kira and Cynthia’s son from an early marriage and Deirdre’s son from her first of several marriages, for checkups with an eye doctor. And he made disparaging remarks about his absent sister. His mother, my aunt Betsy, said she was angry that at nearly 40 Deirdre still looked like the popular and desirable girl she had been before she started getting married. And later out of the blue Rob said “Ah my sister, someone who wants only the frosting on the cake.”

Deirdre, I knew, had always baffled them. My brother Peter once said that the reason he and his wife had never adopted was that they saw how badly families with adoptees (like Deirdre and her late brother Paul) worked out. Nana had seemed to dismiss Deirdre as common, in part, as least, because she did not have the careful hairdos of family women and instead showed off long, straight, silky hair. Deirdre had been something unheard of in this family, a popular cheerleader in an actual high school. Her mother, my Aunt Betsy, now repeated that she was furious that Deirdre was as pretty and loose as the mother had been, and moreover looked so young for her age. And flirted. When Rob spoke of Deidre as being irresponsible, it seemed exactly the way my father had talked of his sister, Aunt Betsy.

Aunt Betsy had moved from the city when Deidre was 11. She had taken her daughter out of the lycée and also ballet school. And then Betsy and her brood had returned to New Hampshire for good when it appeared that Deirdre’s younger brother Paul was about to be sent away to prison on charges of kidnapping and possession of a sawed off shotgun. Thely were denied a vamily house, my aunt deemed irresonsible. So they took the house in the mill town where I had recently been to that awful English party. In New Hampshire a judge given Paul the choice of prison or the army. In the army he had dressed up in a special forces uniform, had his picture taken, and sent it home claiming he was a top undercover killer in Vietnam, though the envelope seemed to have come from Germany. After three years he came back, and was quickly killed in a motorcycle accident. The first in my generation to die.

In Princeton on Christmas Eve we went to a candlelight service at a big stone Episcopal church, where the ersatz medieval décor was in such perfect precious taste it made me cringe. Rob had turned out to be an Episcopalian churchgoer, just like Nana had been. But the Christmas Eve service was better than I had expected, for the minister talked about how this Princeton Episcopal church was a place ready to give sanctuary to illegal aliens who had escaped Reagan era Central American death squads.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009


I had been working for UPI at night over in Newark that first summer that I had my first place in New York city, which followed college, the army, furnished rooms in Atlanta and Indianapolis. I was living first on 13th Street between First and Second, in a two bedroom apartment with my friend from grade school days Jason Bacon. And then I moved to a 5th floor walkup in a tenement on 11th between Second and Third, which was really the Bowery. One of those very old working persons’ railroad flats where you needed to go through each room in order to get to the next and the bathtub was in the kitchen. I could look north from a small back window and see, framed by minor skyscrapers, the Empire State Building. This so long ago the area was not called the East Village yet.

A new New Yorker cartoon set me back. It was guy with beard, down on the floor at a crowded smoky party talking earnestly with an intense liberated bohemian girl. In the caption he is saying “I have a confession to make. I am really a feature writer for the World-Telegram,” which was a square evening paper that was owned by the same people who owned UPI, where I my self was writing a lot of trivial feature stories though simultaneously living like people in that cartoon. And I wanted to scream that this is not me, that I am really the author of one and a half unpublished novels, and I am leading this little group who has decided we would start a magazine that picked up from where The New Yorker had once been.

And oh Vannie, beautiful leotard-clad Abstract Expressionist. I had met her at a party on the Upper East Side given by Peter Cooper’s pretty and correct sister Sue, who was also my roommate Jason Bacon’s half sister. I want there late, just back in Manhattan via the Hudson Tubes from Newark where I was filling in in the UPI bureau there that summer. On those musty, wicker seat, under-the-river trains I had been reading The Myth of Sisyphus and everything else I could find by Camus about heroic absurdity.

Like me, Vannie was 24 and off on her own. She had been raised and educated in the South but you would not know it from her voice. This connection with Vannie would, with varying degrees of intensity here and abroad, last for several years. I thought I loved her, and not least because she had a kind smile, and not least because she had a face of movie loveliness, framed by soft black hair and with bangs, and a body to match, which was as good as naked to me when she was in leotards. Not least because she painted in bright colors. I thought I had never seen anyone who looked quite so perfect – and so different from the people in the family I came from.

When walking alone in that first year, noticing girls, I was getting competitive about it – for no pretty girl I saw struck me as being as being so pretty as this pretty girl who was my girlfriend. Which felt safe. If I passed a cemetery or a street accident I would say a prayer by rote left over from before I had lost such faith, and I would feel a sexual surge, and pictures of Vannie would fill my imagination.

Vannie and my real life, what I really wanted, whereas wire service journalism was something I had to fake. My serious unpublished work, and my plan to unseat The New Yorker. Though overall I felt contempt The New Yorker I still read it, and each new Salinger story was like a major event in my life. We were into the Glass family now. But to my horror I saw in a new issue a full page cartoon that showed a couple, a guy who did not have to deal with neckties and a girl dressed like Vannie dressed, sitting on the floor at a smoky bohemian party not unlike some parities we went to – and he was saying “ I have a confession to make. I am a feature writer for Scripps Howard.”

I was given silly assignments, like one to stand all night outside an apartment house on the chance that Charles Van Doren, at the center of the rigged quiz show scandal, would show up. His building was not far from Vannie's. I abandoned my post, and I woke her up. And we were a couple, though we had our problems actually coupling, and I saw no need for loyalty because I had seen in my family how women bully men. Which seemed to me then not so much an excuse for my going after other women as it was an attempt at accuracy. At getting life right.

And it did often feel like I was in real life now. Vannie and I went to museums and galleries, which were so important to both of us, and also to constant parties, which seemed more my scene than hers. She was constantly in my mind. As was death. Working for a wire service I was always hearing and writing about death, as in plane crashes or murders. And each time I heard about it, just as each time I passed a graveyard, I had this sudden picture of Vannie accompanied with a sexual surge. One of many things I knew I could never completely understand.

One day we were on our way to Washington to see paintings. I had barely made it to Penn Station in time to meet her, for I had been held up at UPI. Boris Pasternak was dying and, though he was not dead yet, I was at work on his obituary.

Vannie has brought a picnic lunch for us. The train was not crowded, so we took over two facing seats. As happened sometimes, I was not thinking of anything or anyone beyond this moment. While we were laughing at something, the conductor handed us a folded note. It was unsigned. It said, "It makes me happy to see two young people who are so happy together."

Saturday, October 10, 2009

#17 - LIVES

I had an official girlfriend, Vannie, But suddenly there were all these other girls. Marcia from UPI. Michelle, graceful student fashion designer, who I took to Chicago on a sentimental trip paid for a by a lowly trade publication. Alma who I knew from college days when she hustled at the Tango Palace on the north end of Times Square. Southern Nancy, born without a hand but so graceful it was not noticed any more in public than it was in bed. And Anne Marie, my second Haitian girlfriend, so striking conversation stopped when we entered a room.

On the way to an ACOA meeting I stand in front of the first of my two places in the East Village. It was on 13th Street between Second and First Avenues, a mostly Puerto Rican block – which was the sort of world I wanted to know – in a ground floor apartment I shared with a childhood friend, Jason Bacon, who was involved with me in a scheme to start a new magazine. But we ran out of money, so Jason became an investment banking trainee and I was working for UPI again, first in a hot summer in Newark and now in Manhattan, world headquarters, going up each night to the Daily News building with its tourist attraction lobby globe of the world to sit at a horseshoe desk and call in stories from everywhere and write or rewrite them – which seemed as good a way as any to bide my time before I became famous. I was 24.

Though the work was trivial. The big story at one point was a guy named Charles van Doren, son of an insufferably correct and strangely beloved Columbia literature professor and safe poet named Mark van Doren. Son Charles had become a star on his own, but had just been exposed in a TV quiz show scandal for making tens of thousands of dollars pretending to know the answers to difficult questions but actually reciting the answers the producers gave him. And the country took it so seriously that now he was on the lam, and I was sent to stand outside the brownstone where he lived in Greenwich village in case he should appear there. But after a glance at the brownstone I headed east, to the part of town I lived in, and at the corner of 4th and Second, just east of the block with all the little theaters where people like Jean genet and Leroy Jones and Edward Albee were causing such a stir in the theater world – just east of there was the solid corner building where my girlfriend Vannie lived, Vannie an action painter, which was the sort of element I wanted in my life here far far from the White Mountains and she had black bangs and wore leotards and we shared friends old and new and the Abstract Expressionists too, and so I spent the night there instead, and if Charles van Doren came home my readers never knew it.

And I was missing even more trivia than Charles van Doren for I was trying to lead several lives at once. One night when Vannie was home in Tennessee I was roaming alone and wound up in a dance place with the Latin name The Corso up on East 86th between German places with ompah bands – and that was where I met the glamorous Irma Hyppolite, which seemed a natural connection for I had recently rented a gallery on Sheridan Square to show Haitian paintings I had brought up to New York from the Foyer des Arts Plastiques outside Port-au-Prince. That’s how many lives I was trying to lead. I saw Irma home to the Upper West Side and she invited me in to her airy apartment for what I thought would be coffee but was actually for a blow job, and so another life was underway.

All this new to me. And so much of it defined by me as not being the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Defined that way even though I hardly ever saw the White Mountains, had by now been through college and Europe and the Army and revolutionary matters in Cuba and wire service journalism in the South and Midwest. Still, on some level I defined all these things that fascinated me as being not things of the White Mountains. Though I still believed in the White

Friday, October 9, 2009


Memories coming from minute to minute. And I decide to hurry up the process, extending my search beyond the parts of town I go to for these meetings.
So I walk along the block on East 66th Street where my grande dame grandmother, who had aristocratic white hair and perfect posture, had had her last apartment. The street’s rich old apartment house facades, like everything else in the smug East 60s, have the air of places that never change – as did the formal summer houses and the regular peoples’ villages up north. Also, the never-ending past is in the present in the clear pictures I still have in my head of what it was like inside Nana’s city place. It had been a miniature version of their quite grand summer houses in the White Mountains.

In her apartment there had been a smaller but equally shiny table for formal dinners. Behind glass in the pantry, the omnipresent finger bowls that gave this family definition. Under the rug at the head of the table something she could press with her foot that set off a buzzer summoning service from the kitchen. In the kitchen the same tall smoky glasses as in the summer places, the same jars, strangely never touched, of macadamia nuts, the same special soup crackers that came only from St. Johnsbury, the same S.S. Pierce canned goods shipped in from Boston.

In college in the fifties, when my grandmother was alive, I would sometimes spend a night in that apartment when I was in town for Broadway shows or debutante parties. I used a day bed in the study she had set up after my grandfather died, a city version of his New Hampshire summer writing places. In this new study a frame held the certificate for his Pulitzer Prize for fiction, which had never been shown in the mountains where everyone knew. Almost everything intact here from the summer places, familiar chairs and desk and some chinoiserie wall hangings. But also there was something new, something disconcerting. In another frame, a close-up black and white photo portrait of Robert Frost looking as sensual as he looked craggy. Had I been thinking of this when I read Frost in my deep depression?

Before my time Frost had been a neighbor up in Franconia and went on walks with my grandfather. But I knew this only from books about Frost, for in our houses he was never mentioned. And yet here he was in this place of honor. What was he to us? Surely he and my grandmother could not have been lovers. But maybe nothing was too far fetched.

In the early sixties in a summer when she was in the mountains and I had just come back again from aboard and again had no home, I had used her apartment for the steamy month of August. Steamy, and air conditioning was not an Anglophile thing. Across from the study there was a guest room, which was used in winter by Nana’s best friend, Frances Perkins, the same one who had been the first woman in the cabinet. While I was there that summer I had brought in the object of my long-time sexual obsession, a syrupy, married Kentucky girl named Laurie. And now here we were in my grandmother’s bed, then the Mrs. Perkins bed, then my grandmother’s, fucking and all the rest in every way we each knew and in ways we had only heard about and had to try out, going from room to room with our latest of many bottles of Scotch. Sweat giving a shine to Laurie’s body. She telling me, who had not been always been sure of his physical self, that she just loved his body’s line. Now together in a bathtub. Now, still too hot for clothes, we could as easily as not gone up against the Steinway, which had been brought down here when White Pines was sold. The Steinway that held a facsimile of the Nefertiti head, which was as perfectly shaped as the head of my grandmother, who wore her white hair in a tight net.

No clothes in this place that cried out for formal wear. Rolling on the living room carpet in this place that, till now, has seemed to exist in an ordered past. Me up, she down, she up, me down. Moving from room to room, hot and dripping. Fucking, but also making love, it seemed. Fucking and making love while getting drunk. My first experience with all three taking place at the same time. And I guess we left traces, for my grandmother turned cold in the fall, and her maid would not speak to me.

And now, in this new time, I am back on 66th Street. Across from where my grandmother had lived there is a big old Catholic church, used by the Upper East Side cooks and maids, apparently as a shelter from Waspdom. I walk now on this street, between her building and that church, in this time of exploration, 1986, 20 years since her death, 30 years since my college time, 25 years since the romp in her apartment, the romp still seeming so out of context as to have no meaning there. As I walk on that street in 1986, I think I should have warm feelings from memories of nights spent here after coming into the city for those debutante parties and Broadway shows, which seemed more real than that out-of-context romp with Laurie.

But 66th Street feels awful now. Stifling. Suffocating – as if I not just walking outdoors in an area of warm memories but rather am being smothered now by old heavily powdered women who have fox furs around their necks.

#16 – MEMORY

So I was chasing a woman again, which might have been a pattern, and I was returning to visual art, a pattern that had been broken since I could not quite remember when. And this woman Jenny loaned me her Walkman and I realized how disconnected from music I had been, and I began to read poetry for the first time since I could not remember when. And all of it was new. T.S. Eliot on how much like birth a death could be, and at last I was getting straight which one was Handel and which Haydn, and I realized in my almost forgotten love for Beethoven I had, way back when very young and also in the years in between, skipped Mozart completely. I needed Mozart’s touch now.

And there were all these stories I as hearing in this time that I was dealing close up with so many of the sorts of people that family I came from dismissed as not-our-kind-of-people, people such as in past years I had sought out but not known what to do with when I found them. I was rising to their stories, these not-our-kind-of-people people who were in these meeting with me. A girl talked of how in her very correct Upper West Side secular Jewish family of academics you were tested at the dinner table to make sure you had been reading the proper books reviewers, and there was nothing there that was a clear-cut straight line to my life and yet it was clear cut enough for it to put me at an early age at the long shiny table for those formal dinners, back years ago at White Pines, and I was seeing things, back there and back in that same age again, that I could not, or dared not see the first time around.

It was like I was Scrooge and a ghost of the past had taken me into that past.

I listened to scarred man with AIDs talk about living very close to death, and I was close to death again, but not in those wars I had sought out in Central America and Africa and Southeast Asia but in the bosom of this family that I liked to think was something I had left behind and had nothing now to do with me. As dead as Cousin Margaret, the second cousin down.

And my twin brother came into it, in the CIA with people who were out to kill me, and I was in a scene I had thought of every day of my life but somehow did not realize I was thinking of it – two years old in a Pullman drawing room on an old steam train following a single track line that since the 19th century had led right up into the White Mountains of New Hampshire, and I was in a top bunk, and knew that if I pressed a button up there it might bring help but I could not press it, though there was non-verbal moaning and screeching in that train compartment with my mother and material grandmother and twin brother, and there was, it soon came back to me, the smell of fresh blood.

A woman talked of how her father always had a special meal for himself that no one in the family could touch, filet mignon, for instance, when the rest were getting leathery liver – and this shot me back not to the exact same thing happening but to the recent time in dreary Florida when my father lay dying in a third rate hospital, his chest an open red and green blood and pus cancer wound, and no one in the family except my then wife and me would go the hospital for they said he would not know if they came or not.
They ignored what my wife and I said, which was that we had seen him respond to names and kindness. We has heard him ask for them.

And in all the stories I heard of posturing members of family, military people, academic people, rich people, poor people I kept landing on what was sacrosanct in the family – one of many things which I had convinced myself could not have any effect on me in any present time. And I was back there at seven not quilte knowing what was happening when my grandfather made up the crucial family story that his son-in-law had gone down in flames in the Battle of Briton when, as I knew now, and they must have known back then, the son-in-law and another RAF guy had climbed a fence onto an airfield and tried to take a fighter plane up while drunk, and both were dead in moments.

And why long before my grandfather’s stroke it was so clear at White Pines that fatal things had happened and were still happening.

Death. Death. Death.

Death kept coming into these reborn memories.


And it was as if I had been granted a chance to go back to where I had started out, in art as well as in the rest of life. A chance now to go beyond my finding the Impressionists in Paris at 16, Rembrandt in Holland at 17, Edward Hopper in Chicago at 22, and in my mid-twenties the Abstract Expressionists as seen while with this endearing girl Vannie who was herself an action painter.

In Chicago, beyond the Art Institute, there had been fully orchestrated music and dance places on the Negro (correct word then) South Side, and casually sensual bars on the Near North Side, and rows of wonderfully raunchy striptease bars, and a pre-Beat Beat place called The College of Complexes where anything could be spoken, and intensely avant guard jazz clubs, and the Second City comedy troupe. I kept returning to the inviting Art Institute, where, oddly, there were plaques honoring donors that had my grandmother’s maiden name on them, yet to me it was place in a universe unknown to family. I had relatives all over upper class Chicago, but I never looked any of them up.

Aside from bars and sex and music and comedy and I fastened onto this painter Hopper who was completely new to me. I turned a marble corner and there was his Night Hawks, which I did not know was famous. I did know that that stark and lonely late night diner scene captured the loneliness, and distant hope, of my life.

Would I forever be a young man walking the streets of new cities and longing to one day be part of stories I was making up about what was beyond the facades of buildings I passed?

And now here I am years later not in Chicago’s Art Institute but in Manhattan’s grand Metropolitan Museum, and I am not alone but rather with a new girlfriend, this tall eager child/woman named Jenny who I know from ACOA meetings. I am wearing a Walkman just like happy ordinary people of the sort who had so often seemed so inaccessible. And it is as if, at just past 50, I am starting out in life.

I am in New York but it is not the same New York I have always known. I am going to these meetings that are not so foreign as I think they are supposed to seem. And many of them are in the East Village, which did not have that name when I lived there, for then it was spoken of as part of the Lower East side, and now in 1986 there is at least talk of gentrification, which had seemed impossible when I first lived there. The old Polish and Ukrainian restaurants are still around. I cannot fine the place down near Houston where I took girls for heavy Hungarian meals with heavy wine and gypsy violinists. The big Phoenix Theater has in the years between become a rock concert place called the Fillmore East. But the off-Broadway theaters down on 4th Street, where I had seen plays by Jean Genet and Samuel Becket and Edward Albee and Leroy Jones, are still intact. There is no more Ukrainian National Home on Second where outside on the sidewalk old ladies spent summer days in steamer chairs. And on St. Mark’s, the name of a crucial stretch of Eighth Street between Third and Second, there had been the old Polish National Home, which had seemed forever in place, but in the late sixties had morphed into the a wild rock place called the Electric Circus. And it was now something else, a place, I had heard of, bought by a rich woman to offer classes to poor women who wanted to be carpenters and plasterers and plumbers. The small theaters were still there on 4th street, and some still on Second, and the cross streets had not changed. The tenements near Second, such as one I lived in, were still there. Also the building down on 4th Street where Vannie had lived.

And now I am in this part to town for these ACOA meetings, which was the last thing I would have predicted when I first came. I am back again, almost as if it is my first time around, back to see what it has become, and what I have become – back, maybe, with a graced second chance to get life right.

Friday, October 2, 2009

#14 – YOUNG

The most surprising thing in those first days of going to these groups in that dark time was that I found there a kind of relief that I would not have thought possible. It felt different but also very similar to how it had been at times I would pack up a few belongings and jettison the rest, then sometimes head off more alone then ever or sometimes say goodbye to someone I would not admit I was betraying by leaving town. Head off in a cab to what when I first started all this was called Idlewild and then became Kennedy to board a plane, which gave me the feeling that maybe life as life should be was starting now. The exhilaration had been especially intense one January day when my cab drove off in a blizzard and I knew I would soon be in Bangkok. That morning I had turned to do some final packing and when I turned back Susi had gone. In note on my coffee table she had said this parting was just too much. It had left me sad and relieved at the same time. The kind of sweet sadness, I told myself, that was so important to know if you were going to be a really fine writer.

One of the meetings I was going to entailed writing our reactions of questions about yourself, which meant scenes and stories. There was a tall, soft woman named Jenny who seemed to me more girl than woman. She was writing beside me at a conference table at St. Vincent’s. We learned the most horrifying things about each other’s families when we read aloud, and so it seemed we had no alternative except to sleep together.

The first night she was in my place above a deserted garden me in Chelsea, I heard my answering machine click on. At this stage we were lying on the floor right next to the machine. The volume was already all the way down but there were high tinny sounds from the tape and I had thought I heard my twin brother speak. I had been trashing him in these meetings, this perennially good little boy twin who had joined cold war government agencies that taught people in third world countries how to more effectively kill more uppity peasants. I could swear I heard his voice telling me I had to drop everything, especially Jenny and anyone like her, and devote the rest of my life to taking care of dying relatives, starting with my mother and moving on to obscure cousins.

It wasn’t my brother at all but at last I knew what other people at these meetings were talking about when they said those people from the past are inside you. They were sure inside me, saying no and no and no – to the point where I thought I had them on tape – which gave a nice illicit touch to what I was doing with Jenny, and also made me wonder for the first time if there was not something more going on than I could admit to.

In the morning we decided to head uptown to the Met. I wanted to show her favorite paintings of mine – I was taking all this that seriously. On the E train she brought out her Walkman – which seemed like the most illicit thing I had every encountered, †he awful, begrudging, our-kind-of-people people I had though I had escaped were not people who listened to music in public. They were certainly not people who would know what a Walkman was. On the sidewalk on Fifth across from the park I was suddenly young and starting out in life as we crossed our arms in an X behind us and she held to my waist and I to hers.

Thursday, October 1, 2009


I looked up AA in the Manhattan directory and I dialed the number. A pleasant sounding man who answered referred me to something called Alanon, which I soon found out could be the enemy of what and where I wanted to be, and also was something that everyone in the world had heard of except me – Alanon, which I was told later had begun as a women’s organization started by men in early AA days to keep the women busy while the men were in their AA meetings. After AA became more co-ed Alanon changed to a rather genteel self-help system to “keep the focus on yourself,” but at the start it was rather like the old-time ladies auxiliaries of fraternal lodges, volunteer fire companies and veteran’s organizations. And then after Alanon had become something of its own, not just a group to support wayward husbands, out of it came this organization called Adult Children of Alcoholics.

I called the Alanon number, and an efficient sounding woman who answered said that yes there was such an organization, ACOA. She said it as if she were holding her words at arms length. It t existed but she wasn’t sure about meetings. I thought I could hear her shuffling papers. “Oh yes, there’s a meeting tonight, St. Jean’s,” she said – a Catholic church on Lexington and 75th, Oh God, right in the heart of the socially stuffy Upper East Side, the one part of town I never wanted to be in. A family part of town. But I went. I was desperate.

It seemed that night that there were hundreds of people in that bare basement in an otherwise ornate church. The church was run by an order of French priests and brothers, which meant St. Jean would be a male name. I liked the idea that this was a French place.

All these people on fold-out chairs in that big basement. I later revised my estimate down to maybe 30. But it was still intimidating, for all these people were talking about themselves.

And it felt like my being here was the most forbidden thing I had ever done in a lifetime of doing forbidden things. And I walked away in a daze, smiling inwardly though not so that anyone on the street could see, I thought. Not that I felt any immediate identification in the church basement.

When I walked in, a slightly disheveled and quite pretty, still youngish woman in a rumpled businesswoman’s office suit, her hair a little rumpled too, was leading the meeting, and was talking about how she would bring her friends home from high school and they would have to step around her father who was passed out in the hallway or on the kitchen floor, and it was as if no one saw him. This is great stuff, I thought, though it has nothing to do with me. Yes, my mother, before leaving Connecticut, did hide pint bottles around, taping them to the undersides of her dining table, and she drove with small vodka bottles in her car, and she did fill up the bottles of cheap blended whisky and gin that she found in the liquor cabinet with water to bring them back to the level at which she found them, and when I went to Connecticut to investigate a woman named Gloria Mansbridge who had been her best friend, and was married to a publishing colleague of my father’s, said you have to realize your mother is the town drunk. And I told her about how they seemed more and more isolated with their problems, including Dad’s advancing Parkinson’s, and Mrs. Mansbridge said we don’t invite them anymore. “You see,” she said, "the Pooles don’t have anything to say.”

And yes there was me and this drinking that sometimes seemed my heritage. Uncle Nick clearly alcoholic, and Great Uncle John too. And I was skimming over things I did when drunk, from angry fights to sentimental marriage proposals, things that had finally so scarred me that by now I had not had a drink in 10 years. And despite all I knew about the alcoholism in my family of birth, not to mention my college and my writing worlds, I could not bring myself to consciously identify with the young woman talking. And I was also thinking that when my father was in a nursing home in Florida because they had mixed up his medication, and because they had been thrown out of the place they were staying after the fire department was called to get my cursing mother out the bathtub, she was that drunk – and my father kept reminding me all day that at the nursing home he was allowed to have two high balls in the evenings. And then in the church basement there was another attractive woman who for some reason was talking about trips she made to Russia, and then a tall older man in a three-piece suit talking about his problems with women he dated – and they all had introduced themselves with words I am so-and-so and I am the child of an alcoholic – though there seemed so many problems besides alcoholism that had brought them together. And I could not believe I could ever say a word in such a place, and I knew immediately that though I had never joined any group except when forced to as a child, or when drafted into the army, this first meeting of ACOA would not be my last.

Although you would never know is from the people who had answered the AA and Alanon numbers, there was a meeting of ACOA every day and night of the week in Manhattan
sometimes at St. Jean’s, often at the private Corlears School, down on West 15th, ten short blocks down from where I lived. And in church basements on the Upper West Side and in midtown, and a midtown luncheon place, and in conference rooms at St. Vincent’s Hospital in the Village, and in a synagogue in the East 80s. I did not say a word in any of these meetings, but I was going to one just about every day.

I was there anonymously and, it seemed, not visible. One night at the end of a meeting in St. Jean's I left for the subway walking fast, looking straight ahead so as not to let anyone catch me with their eyes. On the subway platform there was a pleasant shaggy guy who had been talking in the meeting and had said he was a carpenter, which had always seemed to me a great thing to be though I had not lived that way myself. When he saw me on the platform he waved and said “Hi,” and it was as if I had been exposed in public. My hesitant "Hi" in reply sounded to me like it came from an old man's guttural voice. I smiled and kept on walking and there was something devastating. I had stepped into a new version of reality and it was as if I were being called to connect in some place which would be safe only if no one could see I was there. And, moreover, it was as if I were doing something I had always wanted to do.

I believed no one would understand if I said out loud how I was thinking I had not found anything this risky in Borneo or Angola or Nicaragua or Vietnam. Those places were relatively without risk.

In the meetings I was attending people were still talking about themselves and even their feelings. As I walked alone down the platform at the 77th Street IRT stop I tried to identify the feeling.