There But For the Grace

I can’t help wondering how different my writing would be if this room had no window, or if I were working somewhere else entirely, say inside an old warehouse or cathedral, or in the basement of a mortuary, or in a room above a Cuban cigar factory, or in a bamboo hut nestled on the warm white sand of a remote beach, or in a cubicle on the forty-second floor of a shimmering office building, or in a snowed-in cabin in the woods, or in a dressing room in a department store, or in a metropolitan sewer, or in a museum full of skulls and old farming implements.

For that matter, I wonder how different I would be. Isn’t that the real question? I also wonder how different I am now, to be asking such things in the first place. When I was fifteen, or eighteen, what would I have thought if I had been given a glimpse of the way I am today? Would I have even recognized myself?

And why, while we’re at it, would a person write in a sewer? Still, I’m sure it’s been done, or at least tried. Writers have to survive somehow. We have to make due. I would even say it’s possible to write an entire novel on bar napkins while sitting in a tavern on a squeaky vinyl stool.

“You’re gonna have to pay for those, you know. Those napkins cost money.”

“Sorry. I thought they came with the beer.”

“Only one per glass. You’ve had thirty-seven glasses, but so far today, you’ve used eighty-three napkins.”

“Well, it was a long chapter. I’ll try to be more concise.”

“Have you thought about writing poetry?”

“Yes, but I must remind you, not all poetry is short. Homer’s Odyssey is a poem.”

“Homer’s which? Who’s Homer?”

“Never mind. A plumber I know. He writes in the sewer.”

Well. It seems I’m talking to myself again. If I had to choose, though, I think I’d try the cigar factory. Imagine a small table in a hot room with no fan, upon it a dented typewriter, a brimming ashtray, a grimy bottle of hooch, and an old transistor radio mysteriously tuned to a 1962 Giants-Dodgers game, an open screenless window with no curtain, the aromas of tobacco leaves and sweating bodies rising — how could I not succeed in such a glorious atmosphere?

“Mr. Michaelian, the 1957 Cadillac you ordered is here. What shall I do with it?”

“Bring it in, my friend. Bring it in. I need a place to keep my chickens.”

Such simplicity. Such tranquility. Such inspiration.

There was a Castro family in Dinuba, as I recall, but I don’t think they were related to Fidel, the founder of Fidelity Insurance. Or did he invent High Fidelity? Hmm. I wonder. Castro Bistro. Castro Motor Oil. Castro Van Lines. These are all possibilities.

Why am I not Cuban? Why is Castro not French? Why a million things? Why the girls in their summer dresses and the boys with their guitars? Chagall, Renoir, Van Gogh, Sibelius, Beethoven, the Marx Brothers, Joan Fontaine, Pontius Pilate, Andrew Carnegie, the Golden Spike, Ferdinand Magellan, Zero Mostel, Lawrence of Arabia, Mae West, Sugar Ray Robinson — down in front, please — the Emperor of Japan, botulism, cannibalism, howdydoodyism, jocularity, down the center aisle the descent into madness, narcissism, Bombay, Calcutta, Old Spice, meningitis, you realize there is no end to thisism, isthmus, it happened quite by occident, occidentally, oxen, camels, and corn.

Very well. I’ll close the window. What strange music on the night wind.

“Will that be all, sir?”

“Yes, Manuel. Unless you’d care to pour yourself a drink. Sit down. How would you like to hear my life story?”

“Please, sir. Not again. I’ve a wife and children.”

“Of course, my friend. And you must be going home. Give them all my best. Is it true they are Irish?”

“Upon my honor, sir, as I have told you many times before, they are not. I am Cuban, and I married a Cuban girl.”

“I see. Then nothing has changed. Good. Kiss them for me. Tell them I miss them dearly. Ah, Manuel, life has been so cruel. Just remember how lucky you are not to have been born a writer.”

“I understand, sir. May I go now?”

“Go. I don’t mind being alone. After all, I have my work.”

Exit Manuel. From the street, he looks up at the tiny window of the great writer, then smiles broadly when he hears the defiant sound of a car horn.

April 22, 2006

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