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 And I wanted to scream that this is not me, that I am really the author of one and a half unpublished novels, and I am leading this little group who has decided we would start a magazine that picked up from where The New Yorker had once been.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."