How one of New York’s most infamous editors got his mojo back
“Your shit is so tired!” That’s what a friend of mine yelled at me from out of the blue about a year ago outside the doors of his local bar. The friend – the owner of this neighborhood watering hole in the city of New Orleans, under duress and yes, under the influence, too – had overheard me lamenting the loss of my “friend” Anthony Bourdain, a terrific literary writer best known for hosting the foodie-adventure TV show Parts Unknown.
Tony had just hanged himself in France. I think it was the “Tony” that raised my pal’s ire. The “personal friend of mine”-ness of it; the celebrity intimacy of it. “Tony”. Gag order.
While Bourdain was indeed a pal of 20 years or more, the barkeep had heard so many now-”tired” anecdotes from my journalistic exploits – clearly best put down on paper and put to rest instead of rehashed ad infinitum in bars – he’d reached his breaking point. You’re only as good as your next byline.
My shit. Instinctive reaction was to go to his bar’s back bathroom and thieve toilet paper, rolled up in my Filson bag. Frankly, I’d run out… and I was running out. After years of success as a Vanity Fair reporter and editor of glossy magazines, earning at the cap of my career about $200,000 annually, I was going broke, and everything in my life had Gone South, the name of my memoir of the rise-fall-maybe-rise-again- chronicling I was trying desperately to get down on paper – the real kind, not the one made by Scott.
I am, if nothing else, the worst “starving artist” living. No dough. Can’t make the words rise like yeast. Flatbread.
But not anymore. The coronavirus broke my writer’s block. It could be, as a book editor friend exulted, “Your HAPPY ENDING!” Publishable, with something GOOD happening: Kah-ching! That was the sound of money and also a typewriter return lever.
Let’s put the bad before the good – a lot of bad had been happening. Besides that, my writer’s block had not accumulated into a promising Monster in a Box – the name of the memoir that the author and monologist Spalding Gray had written about with feverish verve in order to break his own writing anemia and to get his dick, and pen, back on – there were bigger shortcomings in 50 years of life, 30 as a journalist. (Note: Spalding Gray killed himself too. Deleted himself at the peak of his own return.)
After tiring of overpriced, gentrified Manhattan – 25 years of striving and then reaping its rewards can do that to a man – my wife and I decided to gamble on a new port to do new things, challenge ourselves. Maddy wanted to start her own line; me, an East Coast Seaboard lobster roll shack, finish a novel. Smell the camellias and crepe myrtles, swim, tennis, fish, repeat. Have high ceilings, a “space”.
Maddy was a concept designer of a decade at Ralph Lauren; I had
just helped kick in a new weekend lifestyles section of The Wall Street Journal, “Off Duty”, both editing and reporting in the newsroom for three years. Feeling cocksure after two raises, I felt they’d keep me on, even from afar. No dice. New top editor, changing of the guard, budget cuts. “Who does this guy think he is?” I was an easy cut.
We moved to New Orleans, a magical and horrible place from my past, coming up as a journalist in my 20s You could open shops there, live well there. It was “exotic” still, had possibilities blossoming alongside the gardenias and magnolias. I’d failed there before – more on that later – yearned for a second shot, or coming, there. Icarus burned from flying too high, and boy, did I ever – in New York City – but wings can be waxed back on. No?
No pity party, but sure, let’s raise a toast to burnt ends. There’s this – in the course of 800 days in The City That Care Forgot I lost: my wife (of a decade), two editing jobs (laid off at The Wall Street Journal and shortly thereafter, Vanity Fair), my health insurance, a recently purchased pick-up truck (I had to sell it to pay rent), my health (a heart attack at age 50, which yes, likely caused me to lose entirely my so-called “Joie de Steve” (it will do that)). I was also evicted from the shotgun-style house that my wife and I had set up – for the first time, a bona fide home. Pull that trigger to rest.
Worst of all, though, I lost my dignity from borrowing money left and right to keep afloat.
In time-honored tradition I fled, moving across town to the fringes of the French Quarter, above a notorious dive bar, a tiny place with a tin roof out back. Having inherited our two cats, and romancing the whole new setup – the writing living above a neon-sign-lit bar (très Bukowski) – the cats on a hot tin roof (you know who)… well, both cats had mishaps, falling off the roof, nearly died. A surly landlord began to tire of me being two weeks late on rent. He had a waiting list of others who wanted the apartment. I was forced to move to new digs, in a crime- heavy corridor of Tremé. Floors were caving in, purses were strewn by my door stoop, emptied by muggers. Electrical outlets, one at a time, burned out. Symbolic, that. Fade to black.
Superficially, I was once a pretty decent dresser, had a signature style. Paul Smith suits, Agnès B. shirts. Nice shoes. Many of the items of clothing I had acquired over 30 years – things like vintage Lilly Pulitzer patchwork pants, double-breasted blazers, Double RL boatneck sweaters – I had given to a favored homeless man. My logic: I liked him, for one, but I could always afford to replace them. As days – and Mardi Gras parades – passed by, he became my doppleganger; I’d try to style him, tell him he can’t wear a Brooks Brothers sports coat with terry-cloth “prison slides”. A year later, I was selling my most cherished “finds” at a Buffalo Exchange for one-tenth of their value.
My jeans lost their crotches, my shirts, their buttons. I looked, well, homeless, a threadbare existence at the seams. I stopped shaving, cutting my hair, brushing my teeth – all those little things that keep us “civilized”.
I borrowed, because I couldn’t do the job I’m best at, or get my head around working manual labor efforts – those endeavors I did in my teens growing up at an East Coast beach, where all had an eau de Coppertone-and-boardwalk whiff – and just saying no to writing. Writing had dried up. Pre-coronavirus I was Mojave.
The “found”, over the course of excessive “losses” in two years’ time, had beaten me into submission. No submissions, actually. I couldn’t come up with a creative story idea to pitch to magazines to save my life.
I was the guy in that Nick Lowe song, “Drive Thru Man”, telling myself each morning, “Get out of bed and put some weight on the ground… it wouldn’t kill you to lift that blind… exposed and uncovered like a bluebell in the wood.”
I was ashamed – a guy who got married in the suite where Howard Hughes lived, and often found that my money was no good in the most insider-y of New York City establishments – but even more ashamed that I remained resourceful enough to ask for loans, sometimes wasting the $25 I had procured through Venmo to buy cigarettes and $3 drinks at a bar called The Golden Lantern. Some vestige of my reputation intact, I could keep tabs at places like Port of Call and The Kingpin. They ultimately would run their course, as I became known as that guy who “used to be a reputed writer… I don’t know what he does now.”
Cut to: My wife left New Orleans. Still married now, but in a kind of Limbo, a party trick, that stick I no longer could get under, conquest.
I should have read my own writing on the bathroom wall. My very first article for The Wall Street Journal was entitled: “Welcome to New Orleans: A Confederacy of Drunkards”, a first-person piece with get-lit history on all those writers who came there to write the “great novel” or play, and ended up having to flee and do it somewhere with less local color. Real estate does not write a book. You have to have it inside of yourself, not discover it perched on the perfect balcony for writing.
The opening lines were: “New Orleans is no place for a writer. It’ll kill you if you don’t get out fast. At best, if you stick around, you’ll become ‘one of them’… a character in your own re-write.”
One-time resident Charles Bukowski romanticized the drinking life, cheap as doggone, and 24-7 bars – “I could piss away my life there.” Faulkner said of its shortcomings, “Old, getting more so.” And favorite son Tennessee Williams (you know? “Tom”) wrote: “Washed up? No!” He fled to his mom’s house. She folded his laundry, sang him songs.
I was more Capote, of course, another native son, “yawning and scratching and talking to myself.” Like Truman in Jackson Square, trying to conceptualize a short story idea, I chose less picaresque spots, such as a collapsing picnic table outside the Rock Bottom Lounge, staring out at a Public Storage sprawl, blocking the Mississippi River view, watching the comings and goings of lives’ inventory, good and bad.
A clichéd character in a Raymond Carver story. “What We Talk About When We Talk About Homelessness.”
Somehow, I remained attractive to women; most of them, though, 25 years younger than me: gorgeous, talented, high hopes about life, stylish, smarter than their age. Most blew me off after our initial honeymoons of two months or so. One left a note – this girl, a cellist, in law school, sang beautifully, throaty voice not of her age – on my scooter: “You KNOW you’re the WORST? You do, don’t you? FUCK YOU!”
Then, maybe six months before the pandemic became a pandemic, I said fuck-all, and I took a job as a dishwasher at a place called The Country Club. I loved it, sort of. Back-breaking, finger-infecting work. But it was work. Small check. Nice people. There was a swimming pool.
In March, when news of the pandemic spread like it spread, and more and more, businesses shut down, friends all around me were furloughed, or terminated, and unemployment became the unthinkable alternative to keeping it all going, I saw a splinter of light.
Selfishly, I often thought about (on my collapsing picnic table, facing empty pages in my marbleized composition books) how pleasant it would be if the world would stop revolving, if everyone had to come to a halt, let me catch up with you all!
I’d covered 9/11 (landing at JFK as the second plane hit the Twin Towers), Katrina (20 days later), the BP Gulf Oil Spill (through it all), New York’s Hurricane Sandy (30 days of no heat, water, or electricity) – and walked through the remnants, all four.
But back then, I was solvent. Mere survival was a given.
And they were, all, regional, not universal. The world stopped for me. Spring, here in New Orleans, sprung, and with less of the humidity so common to this petri dish, this below-sea-level soup bowl.
Streets emptied. Boarded-up favorite spots put a smile on my face. I literally got goosebumps over the emptiness. “Ghost town” enlivened me, stirred my creative juices. So did the people. Everyone was giving their best to keep on going. I saw smiles in eyes, not in grins. Much to my guilty chagrin, millions dead or suffering, and broke, all, not just me, had “Gone South”.
I could work when nobody was.
A pal gave me her vintage manual typewriter as she was leaving the city to become a monk in Nepal. A handsome contraption, right out of Naked Lunch. Its handicap: a missing “A” key. I could find one, I reasoned. As “F”.
Another gal pal sold me her extra Apple laptop, a feathery-light Air. I liked them both. Inspiring. The plan was to write “the novel”, a cautionary tale called Big House, on the manual. I fancied it a kind of “careless people” tale, Fitzgerald-nod; as well as the memoir Gone South, which would be written on laptop, fast.
That damned “A”. I thought of Stephen King’s great novel Misery, in which the main character has to reanimate the corpse of a character in print form under threat of hobbling or death, sans, first, an “N”; then the “T” stops working, then the “E”, the latter the most used letter in the alphabet. “NET”, it spelled. I got it, I got it.
This not being evident perhaps here, I write tight. Though my life has been a run-on sentence, I’d prefer Hemingway-simple, and I was writing all out of Kerouac, or all out of Ker-o-whack. Sloppy. But something was building: order.
Now, writing again, for estimable national publications, and working doing what I only really know how to do – write – Jack of No Trades – I’m thriving. Parks are empty. Everything is blossoming, a storm is brewing, I can smell, take in all of the senses, even the Seventh one. Ghosts rule. The birds, so many, are returning to that park where John James Audubon illustrated them oh-so-many years ago.
My wings are missing some feathers but growing back, fortified by a euphoria, a love of life, and a sense of inclusion, I am not alone, so long lost. Perhaps, that blossoming of possibilities, perhaps one happy ending on these shores that carry no blame.
Thank you, pandemic. Payback time, dear patient pals, duly noted.
END OF STORY