I’ve been binge reading Gay Talese for weeks now, and tonight I reached new lows, or highs, depending on how you look at it. My commute this week has been filled with his 2006 memoir, A Writer’s Life, but tonight, I cracked open “TimesMachine,” the New York Times archive, which stretches all the way back to 1851. Fortunately for me, my storytelling hero of the moment wrote what looks from the search results like over 1,000 articles in his decade-plus tenure at the Times. For those without an all-access pass to the archives, here’s an excerpt from an article whose headline screamed clickbait long before clicks were even a thing.
What I love about Talese is how he notices things. He is so specific, and in his precision an “eight-inch extension onto the brake” is something you know, have always known, even though of course no one has paid the slightest attention to it before. It is a craft, this ability to get it right, to sift through all the possible images to paint the one that has meaning. I have been honing this ability at work over the last 18 months, and my whetsone is my colleague and friend Roy, who never lets (me let) go of the craft. Even when something feels finished, he finds the places it isn’t and whittles them away. I find myself quoting Proverbs when I think of how his noticing things echoes how I feel reading Gay Talese: it makes me better at what I do.
“Iron sharpeneth iron; so a man sharpeneth the countenance of his friend.” Proverbs 27:17
On top of the gear shift between Reggie and I was a styrofoam take-out box, and inside it was a piece of cake.
“Have some cake,” Reggie said. “It’s good.”
“No, thank you,” I said.
“It’s cake,” somebody said from the back seat. “Have some.”
I know it was after two because the place we’d gone to with the go-go dancers up above us in cages had already closed down. It might have been after three because we’d spent a real long time getting from coat check out the door and over to the bar with the jazz band that started packing up just as we sat down for a plate of wings. That must be where Reggie got the cake.
“Fine,” I said. I reached over and slid my thumb up under the lip of the box. It popped, slid, squeaked, and the lid sprang open. There was the cake.
Reggie was still parked, I think, when I pinched off the top layer and the caramel that stuck to either side. Only a few crumbs dropped past my knee onto the floorboard of his car when I licked the frosting off my fingers.
Reggie was right. It was good cake.
Note: This post was written four years ago and for some reason I can’t recall I never published it. Enjoy.
“Can I get you something?” the text read when I pulled my phone out of my jacket pocket looked at it. I was walking down the sidewalk, already 20 minutes late.
The text didn’t identify the sender, but my phone told me it was from Adam. I’d saved his number in my phone, but his last name wasn’t included in the contact because I didn’t actually know it. While we’d talked to each other on the phone several times – from setting up this meeting to leaving urgent voicemails back and forth to ensure that a project was delivered correctly and on time – we’d never met.
I was less than half a block away from the other Blue State Coffee – who knew there were two within walking distance of each other? – so I didn’t respond. I just walked in and saw the guy at the counter in a blue striped shirt and, based on his earlier description of himself, assumed it was him.
“Adam?” I asked, reaching out my hand.
“Hi, Angie,” he said, looking first at me and then glancing over at the barista who was pouring steamed milk into the cup that already held two shots of espresso.
I lifted up my half-full coffee cup from the Blue State on York by way of answer to his texted question. “You’re all set, then,” he said. He reached for his cappuccino. We walked over to the table where he’d been waiting for me, and I folded my jacket over the back of the chair and put down my laptop on the table next to his bag.
The coffee shop was crowded. In fact, our table was just inches away from another one. I could see the silver-haired woman in the chair next to me straining to concentrate on her book over our clumsy introductions and Adam’s much smoother sales pitch aided by his iPad. Eventually she left, and we both relaxed our elbows a little, widening the cocoon of conversation that we’d built around our table.
There this a presumption of privacy in coffee shops that is part of the social contract, I suppose. We agree to ignore the negotiations going on right next to us in exchange for the semblance of company that drives us out of our lonely home offices in search of free wi-fi and comfy chairs. Inside one of these coffee-shop conversations, there is a kind of intimacy that can be enjoyed among near-strangers. It can’t be replicated in conference rooms or offices, where the quiet creates broad spaces that much be reached across to find agreement. In bars or restaurants the opening of menus and the din of activity around you provide refuge and distraction from the long pauses of awkward silences. In the busy mid-morning coffee shop, though, you and the person you are meeting with occupy the space you have carved out together, and you are drawn toward a common purpose in a sort of conspiracy.
It is not unlike an illicit text message pecked out under a conference room table or read with sneaking glances and a half-smile while the presenter is looking away. Just like coffee-shop rendezvous, text exchanges are first bred by convenience or limitations. Soon they continue due to preference. It is not unlike that private space that we whittle out in a busy coffee shop. Two people have a conversation that gets things done, and, for a moment, whatever is going on around them ceases to be real.
There are two places in our house which together serve as it’s center: a small love seat we bought from IKEA and our dining room table. At one, some of us sit while others of us make food or put the dishes away after we’ve eaten. At the other we eat, together, with the discipline not to begin until all of us are seated.
We eat and we speak, talking about the mundane things we do at work, at school. We tell stories of travels and childhoods. We get up before everybody has finished and we linger long after the leftovers have gone cold.
We are of a time and generation, my husband and I, that disperses. We disperse each morning leaving him at home to work on his laptop alone with the cats, sometimes on that same love seat. We’ve dispersed, he and I, from the families that raised us. And they’ve dispersed too, retiring to where they were born in his parents’ case and dividing to different homes in mine.
But we come together again at dinner, even when it means dragging out the rickety folding chairs from the frigid sunroom. We come together too in the making of the things we eat: all-day stews, iron-skillet cornbread, dumplings, arepas, red beans, soup.
This Christmas the Henderson/Dodsons and Moncadas spent together in a log cabin on a lake in the wilds of Virginia. We chopped and stirred together in unexpected combinations and then sat down together at a table for twelve, exactly big enough to seat us all.
“Look. A plane,” my son whispered. There’s a skylight over his bed, and since the trees are bare for winter we could see the lights on an airplane that must have taken off from Newark Airport a few minutes before.
His room was dark except for the corner where he’d switched on the nightlight. He and I were nearly nose to nose on pillows, nestled under a blue blanket featuring a llama that his Abuelos brought us from Ecuador and a green and brown afghan crocheted by my Nana when I was a kid. Under his pillow was a stain from a nosebleed he had two nights before. I had meant to change the sheet, but I forgot.
“Oh, cool,” I said, catching the tail lights of the plane and hearing its afterwhoosh overhead. I listened to the sounds of the frozen branches creaking against the siding and the radiator gurgling in the walls. A train rolled by a few blocks away and its whistle blared. Night noises. Soon I figured I’d hear him breathing when he finally fell asleep.
“I’m probably going to London in a couple of weeks,” I’d said at dinner.
“Lucky,” he’d said.
“Why did you say I was lucky because I’m going to London?” I asked him when the plane had passed.
“Because,” he said, “they have a lot of fancy hotels there. And cool museums. They have Big Ben.”
“I saw Big Ben last time I was there,” I said. “But from kind of far away. I didn’t go to any museums though. Would you like to go to London some time?” I asked.
“Maybe,” he said. “Well, no. It depends. Would I go in a plane?”
“Yes,” I said. A boat would take too long.
“I only want to go in a plane if I can sit in the fancy part,” he said.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“You know, the part where they bring you dinner and take good care of you,” he said. He rolled over for a minute, flipped his pillow to the cool side, waited for me to respond.
I didn’t know how to, because I was wondering if he was getting his notion of flying from stories I’d told at the table, or from watching Home Alone.
I didn’t say anything, so he asked, “Do you fly in the fancy part of the plane?”
“It depends,” I said.
“On what?” he asked.
“Where I’m going. If I’m flying for work or with our family. How long the trip is. If I’m flying overnight and sleeping on the plane,” I said.
“What’s the longest plane trip you’ve ever taken?” he asked.
“Eighteen hours,” I said.
“Eighteen hours! That’s six hours more than half a day!” he said.
“It is,” I said, never having calculated it quite like that.
“Where were you going?” he asked.
“Asia,” I said. “Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong. Do you remember that trip, not last summer but the one before?”
“Oh, yeah,” he said. “That was a long trip. I don’t like when you go on long trips. Two or three days is okay, I guess, but when you go for a long time, it’s not good.”
“Well, if it takes almost a whole day to get there,” I started to say, but he interrupted.
“Did you fly clockwise or counterclockwise?” he asked.
I held up my left hand in a fist, blocking the skylight and the swaying trees. My right hand became the plane flying around the tiny fisted Earth. “Do you mean did I go this way?” I moved west across the expanse of North America and an imaginary Pacific. “Or this way?” I flew the tiny business class passengers in their lie-flat seats with their hot lavender towels and complimentary champagne and orange juice over Africa and the Indian Ocean instead.
“Yeah,” he said. “Clockwise or counterclockwise?”
“Well, a clock is a circle,” I said, joining the two mirrored Cs of my thumbs and index fingers together above us. “So you can go this way” and I indicated going one way with the tip of my nose. “Or that way” and went the other way. “But the Earth is a sphere,” I said, and I reformed my tiny planet. “So really you can go around it to the other side almost any way you want to,” and I made a dozen rapid orbit paths over Russia, over Greenland, over Chile, more.
“But which one is safest?” he asked, turning to look at me again. There was the little boy this summer who overheard too much NPR in the backseat and told me I can’t go to Nigeria because of Ebola.
“They’re the same,” I said, brushing his hair across his forehead. “Once you’re up above the clouds it doesn’t make a difference.”
“Oh,” he said, and I saw the even littler version of him that my sister always remembers, the one who said “Why?” again and again until some reason you gave suited him and he just said “Oh” and then left his lips in the shape of a clock long after the sound had gone.
I had loved that small boy so much I’d thought it was all the love I had. But the capacity for love is as endless as the paths I could take to get around the world, or the ones he could choose to who he will become. He is still a boy who wonders. I wonder, too: at him, at being his mother, at having the sort of job that puts me on planes that fly to the other side of the Earth, at how to love all of it without missing any of it.
“Why did the boy throw the clock out the window?” he asked me, trying on a joke he’d heard at school.
“Why? I asked, even though I know.
“To see if time flies.”
Lately I feel a little bit like The Joe Biden Random Compliment Generator: real and not real, slightly disturbing but possibly a little bit brilliant all at the same time. This holiday season, several people I care about have said in all seriousness, in one form or another, “Angie, I need you to cheer me up.” And, one way or another, I have.
There’s something about the request that feels both vulnerable and bold, false and transparent, needy and giving. Asking to be cheered up requires confession. You confess to me you are lacking; I admit to you I am willing and able to play at, and with, happiness in the hopes of creating the real thing in you. You reveal your hurt, your dispiritedness; I conceal my doubt that I can make it, or you, better.
You need me. I enjoy being needed, and then I do the best I can to meet that need – both in the hopes you’ll no longer need me and also, if I’m truthful, in the hopes it will be me you need the next time you feel this way again.
Whether I’m across a desk or the dining room table or somewhere on the other side of the country, we are both getting something out of this arrangement. You know that don’t you? I hope so. Then again, maybe I don’t.
What is cheer, then, holiday or otherwise, but the most generous and most selfish gift we give?
Happy New Year to those whose spirits I’ve somehow managed to lift. You’ve lifted mine, too.
Small talk at all the end of year parties has centered on one question: what are you doing for the holidays?
Me? I’m headed to a cabin in the woods. Headed there at this moment as a matter of fact. Me and my boy are in the third row of seats of our Rav4 and he’s asleep on my shoulder. Like this:
In the row in front of me Abuela, my mother-in-law, is nodding off next to my daughter, who is fighting sleep by soaring her stuffed pig Fanny through the air and singing “Jingle Bell Rock” with the radio. The Moncada men are in front, talking with great animation about something I can’t quite hear.
According to the GPS we will be at the cabin in three hours and 32 minutes. We actually bought one of those luggage things that straps on to the roof of the car and it’s stuffed with present so. It’s foggy outside and the windows are fogged up, too. My parents, sister and niece just hit the road from Atlanta. Christmas starts soon.
The reactions to my cabin in the woods plan are fairly split. The consensus seems to be that it will be awesome, or awful. If last year is any indication, it should be great. And if my daughter’s enthusiasm is any indication, it will be the best time of our lives.