I never chose to be a writer: it chose me. I’ve even tried to rid myself of it for good reasons, financial and protectively egoistic, and then discovered myself confronted with a being like a crime boss in a stifling, airless room. It booms, You Must, and I agree against my will, only to find that the floor vanishes and I am falling through the most enticingly seductive, beautiful world in which I have a second life that can be anything I imagine. The crime boss is in truth a cosmic entrepreneur, dealing in the most subtle and exquisite things that can be stolen from the world, words that glitter and brim with truth. Reality does not readily divulge its truth or its beauty; it must be seduced and then a small treasure of it stolen to create art. I wink at the crime boss now, for I know from our many years of acquaintance that we are crime partners in this act of seduction and theft.
It is a dangerous life, to which peace of mind is often anathema, but I am armed with the words of my spiritual mothers and fathers, the great writers, and so I know from one that I will be the person upon whom nothing is lost, and from another that I must eat at the “cat’s table,” the fare and company most humble and yet revealing in ways not found at tables of the wealthy and powerful. The cat’s eyes gleam and move as it sups, and it can leap into the air if it chooses. Its view, from slightly above the table and as all-seeing as humanly possible, has always appealed to me, and I have deliberately sought it.
So, through inevitably ill-paid writing and medical bills above ten thousand dollars per month, I found myself slightly north of middle age with the noisy privilege of living in what is kindly called public housing, an odd but touching experience of the many ways of being that make up our patchwork world. My first impression was of relief from financial distress coupled with less space between myself and others. Not content to pass me by, the world would throw a big arm around me; laughing, grumbling, eating Doritos, sometimes shrieking, it would irritate, bemuse or bore me; and there I knew, as my spiritual parents had known, the poverty of human lives seen through the cat’s sharp, multi-faceted eyes.
My lover of 31 years and I moved into adjoining apartments shortly before the great media event of 2010, the rescue of the Chilean miners; who, as we all agreed to agree, were brave, stalwart and perhaps bound for glory in a narrative that displayed the universality and magnanimity of our rare united humanity – against the inevitable background of our dismal, careless, vain and thoughtless lives. By this I mean all lives except the cat’s; it was carefully recording it all, down to the twitching of its whiskers and tail, as bewitched as ever a writer must be. It happened here, in public housing; it happened everywhere. The whole world watched for the fate of these few beneath the earth, ignoring all other struggles for life and death, like the single turkey pardoned by the President on Thanksgiving. It happened in Beacon, New York, where the city took pride in the maintenance and loveliness of its stretch of public housing that looked much like a college campus, an irony marked by the cat’s slanting eye as it also saw a campus for the dying, a last redoubt, rather than a testing ground for the young.
The apartment house in which we lived is the area’s sole building higher than three stories and, at nine stories, is always called “the high rise” by Beaconites. Big, solid, square and originally conceived with surprising ingenuity and sensitivity in the idealistic 1960s, each apartment had a living room wall of powerful storm windows from which the charm and beauty of the Hudson River, progenitor of painting schools and poets, is in magnificent full view as well as the rolling hills around it that are always called mountains and played a significant role in the American Revolution. Everyone knew that such views, just an hour and a half south by train to Manhattan, would there command a monthly rent appropriate for multi-millionaires. Yet, the founders were merely practical: the storm windows were little more expensive than concrete, and one to two story houses would be the most sought after living situation for the foreseeable future, well into the next century. There would be no other tall buildings to block the view, thus city planners can bestow a dream without cost, a leap well known to the cat.
My lover had the view of the Hudson River and all that traveled over it, painted gorgeously in all the different colors and shapes wrought by seasons and the perpetual play of daylight eliding into night, though always resplendent in the dark, when electric cities and islands glittered beside it and seemed to celebrate some unknown holiday, then become flowing phantoms of themselves in the oily, powerful currents of blackest water. In the apartment beside her, my view was of Mount Beacon, highest of rolling hills with the tallest trees below; where Victorian houses, covered by rampant, windy foliage, were barely visible and seemed to flutter and perch like birds. It was the sight I saw each time I looked up from my writing and, with its revolutionary history and telecommunications towers covering the city beyond, the mountain quickly came to represent my aspirations as a novelist.
I landed softly in this relative paradise because my life had the illness and resulting financial hardship to qualify for it. I had to take, presumably for the rest of my life, an anti-leukemia drug that cost nine thousand dollars per month and had made the planning and maneuvering of my life as swift and cagey as the cat’s. After the drug’s introduction in June 2001, whenever I was offered full-time employment, the company’s insurance policy was immediately canceled and thus my job. Without employment in the traditional sense, all of my savings and assets had dribbled away to pay for hugely expensive private insurance until, after nearly a decade, I found myself eligible for the apartment with the amazing view. When my medical bills went up, my rent went down, and thus I began another of my nine lives. Suddenly, it seemed my luck had changed, my leukemia dead in its costly tracks, my love but a wall away, and my time opened up like the cosmic lotus for nothing but writing.
Here I was. So were the least educated, most bigoted and ignorant people I had ever willingly rubbed shoulders with, though they were rarely lacking in courage, energy, or good will; and here, too, were the Chilean miners, also fortunate and unfortunate, like us. All residents here were offered the relative salvation of dying with a beautiful window on the world. As the original planners had intuited, they might no longer be able to sail on the Hudson or climb Mountain Beacon; yet here they were before us, nearly breathing in their fluidly changing surfaces.
“Did they find anymore of them?” asked an old woman in a wheelchair I met as I went down for my mail. Everyone in the world knew who “they” were – the Chilean miners.
“All of them are alive and accounted for,” I said, “but miles below the surface, of course.” A week ago, I had seen this woman sitting in her wheelchair, her hair a wild white bush, face red and crumpling like wet clay, her mouth a toothless but ferocious gape like a hawk’s, somehow having a fistfight with another old woman in a wheelchair. The building is a large beehive of strangely passionate gossips that make me think of Wagnerian divas crying out apocalyptic tales. The events of the lives of anyone and anything are constantly communicated in this way, at least to those willing to hear them, which includes everyone but my lover and me. I listen only as a captive audience in the elevator or waiting for a bus. The simple presence of any resident was reason enough for an explosion of tales – some imagined, some truly mythic, most hilarious and a very few, actually true. I had unavoidably heard that of these two women, one was sweet and kind and the other, vicious. One picked the fights, the other defended herself and hence they fought, side-by-side and wheelchair-to-wheelchair, which clearly indicated to me that they were far along in their progress toward terminal dementia, as were many other residents. The cat, always more probing, wondered which would live longer, the aggressor or the victim. Its tail twitching back and forth in the rhythm of the human comedy, the cat picked the aggressor to win and two months later, its suspicions were confirmed. It was indeed the kind one who died first, leaving the aggressor alone, confused, disconsolate and subject, at last, to justice.
The door to my apartment is of a curiously heavy weight and thickness that I now find reassuring. Behind it, I have my work and my love, the formula for happiness to another of my spiritual parents. As I think of the Chilean miners, I remember my own traumatic encounter with death. Initially, I was given a standard leukemia death sentence – five years to live – now twenty-five years in the past and the leukemia undetected for twenty-three. The cat, of course, did not accept its end and did research that showed one hopeful means of treatment. It pounced and I became a survivor who would live a normal life span but take the outrageously expensive drug and neither be cured nor financially stable. Given what was originally proposed, it was enough, even a cause for celebration. I was left with fury at the drug and health insurance industries as well as my politically conservative government for enabling my physical but not financial health and then the greater disturbances – all the living fragments of my trauma, memories of those who had died and bits of information I never wanted to know. I can tell you, for example, what group of people scream their me-me’s the loudest when given the death sentence – men with a lot of money who have been pampered for many years by women attracted to them for their wealth. When He realizes that She will live on with all that money, you hear a mind-altering shriek the likes of which you have never known. In dying, there is no male stoicism, no heroes, no cowboys. Altogether, it is like a gray echo chamber in which most sounds of living are strangely muffled and death hovers in the background making an occasional piercing high note of a violin.
I know, too, what it is like to be in the claustrophobic space of a doctor’s office when a group of people – perhaps six or so – have all been given a death sentence. Waiting, they can only stare into one another’s eyes. This is probably what it was like in a gulag or a holocaust camp. It is impossible to read or surf through a gadget: we only look at the others similarly condemned. Gradually, a pattern of behavior emerges: some are terrified and others brave. They begin to talk to one another with all the animation left. The weak appeal to the strong and the strong give them a part of their strength and its source. These roles will reverse as others appear in the office and others leave forever: all have been weak before the strong only to become strong for others of the weak. It is only human, an inevitable part of living and dying. But the survivors, we who come out of the small room and back into the full light of the living are changed: fearless though haunted; prone to seeing the sacred beneath the ordinary; prone to insist on love, to risk all for a better world. For we know we will return to the room or a hospital or some half-random act of violence or destruction on a bleak, urban thoroughfare. We must all die, after all, and when we do we will remember the strongest person we have ever seen face death. I will remember my father, who died at 49.
That is who some of us are, those who stare out of the windows at a world made more intense and full of peril, yet no less worthy or desired. But, I am the one who writes it down, as my spiritual parents did, honoring them and a life even more worth fighting for, its stories even more worth telling.
“Hey, I heard they’re drilling down to them now. Something hard about the angle. These really great engineers will do it in a way never tried before. Engineers from a bunch of different countries. Of course, America is there. So, it’s started. It’s begun.” I hear this drifting over my shoulder. I’ve gone to get my mail and tarried in the computer room, gawking passively at the Internet in a moment of weakness. The man who utters these words is one who obsessively haunts the premises of the building – laundry room, computer room, hallway sofa – a garrulous ghost hunting for women willing to face the tedium of talking to him. He has virtually no other interests or pursuits. A man in his seventies, he is quite healthy-looking but for a stroke or problem with his lower teeth. When he is interested in anything, his tongue – of truly impressive length – comes flopping out of his mouth. I am now trapped in his endless conversation, generally the most limited and unrealistic of all the tenants. He talks of yetis he has seen disappearing into the forests along highways, believes they are everywhere just beyond our sight. He speaks glowingly of the Rapture that will raise him into Heaven sometime soon in the same breath as sightings of alien airships. He describes his capacity to heal others even by telephone due to his great spiritual development and then talks about some huge, unknown beast he is convinced is wandering around on Mountain Beacon. He is sufficiently fit to climb it but carries a beebee gun, a bowie knife and a staff with him for protection. Of course, he describes himself as the most spiritually advanced tenant in the building, though the cat knows that he is advanced only in his impressive progress toward terminal dementia.
I am momentarily trapped beside him but will escape when another woman comes into the room, which is certain when the mailman arrives. Once I was trapped in a malfunctioning elevator with him and actually wept tears from sheer boredom, which he interpreted happily as my softer womanly side and behaved like my savior, which then drove me to pound on the walls. There is, I think a woman in the hallway, enough for me to duck away and I’m back in my apartment with the choice of writing, reading, love or the Chilean miners who are covered throughout the day on Cable. I deserve the best after my escape: a huge book of Balzac novelettes as thick as the Bible, to be followed by writing and then a walk for air and exercise with my lover.
In a few weeks, another section of the novel is finished. Writing slows time down to accommodate its completion. This is a great mystery to me, something I would never have expected, but I welcome it as a genuine extension of my life. How long will I live, ultimately, in writing-years? I will be a centenarian, after all. I am full of a boundless supply of stories that can expand themselves into this strangely pliable dimension of time. But, I drop back into human time to answer my doorbell.
“You can see them on TV now,” I hear. “Stop whatever you’re doing! You’ll see them all smiling. Food and wine and cameras are down there with them and everyone’s happy.” Of course, who but the Chilean miners? “You do too much. You should just stop and look at their happy faces. The whole building’s watching them.”
My neighbor, a woman of prodigious age, smiles in front of me. Exactly one brave hair rises up on the top of her head, the rest a white mealy scruff around her immense ears. Her bald pate is covered with skin so dry, speckled and covered with faint blue veins that her head seems to be a cauliflower of dying vegetable matter that will soon crumble away. She has a very slender body with a colonoscopy bag and a strangely black, heavy beard that she shaves but not often enough. There is an oddly fierce look in her eyes that rightly predicts religious fanaticism. She has only two pursuits in life: gossip and the perception that all of her appliances are malfunctioning. She needs vast amounts of assistance from all those around her. I made a great error in fixing her Cable box. In fact, I demonstrated how to pirate free Cable by attaching the main line to her VHS, an old technology that the Cable companies assume to be defunct. When the DVD player and TV that suppresses the old data are then connected, she gets the Cable package of the former tenant for free with no one the wiser.
Now I am truly lost forever. I am the one she grabs to fix all of her appliances and solve any other puzzles presented by the world. With no technical knowledge, I have somehow fixed several of her light bulbs, her stove, her bathroom faucet; opened cans and bottles that resist her and even found the name, address and phone number of the doctor she saw the day before but remembered nothing but the hospital she went to. She is famous for never thanking anyone. Is this the secret, the cat proposes as its tail twitches back and forth in the comic rhythm, of her long life?
Lately, the social worker in the building expresses a desire for me to attend one of the building’s resident committees. I therefore appear at a meeting of the Nightwatch, a group of seniors who envision themselves as preventing evildoers from entering the building, apparently with knowledge they have acquired from reading mystery novels. Their leader, a tall, slender bald man of vast age and skin falling into so many wrinkles of wrinkles that it is difficult to discern his features. He had a career in the military, followed by an unsuccessful business as a private investigator. His speech is mushy with long vowels from many years of alcohol abuse, and he loves speculation, the more twisted and extended the better. He has never come to a conclusion for action other than to place signs on inner glass doors and windows that say “protected by Nightwatch.”
When I walk in, they are already involved in what is obviously a favorite endless speculation that a mysterious man sneaks into the building repeatedly for no discernable reason. One relatively vibrant old woman with raised, self-righteous eyebrows and a loud voice has already observed that he has gotten into the building dressed as policeman.
“That’s what he does, that’s what he does,” says another woman of prodigious age who speaks rapidly with repetition at all times and whose blue hair wig rises and falls with each pronouncement. “He’s come in dressed as a maintenance man, too. Oh yes, he does, he does,” she adds. All but I nod their heads up and down furiously.
A bushy haired skeletally senior man in the rear who might be alive or dead suddenly smiles with teeth that roll around in his mouth. With a knowing grin and the voice of a gossipy whisperer, he says, “You know what? I’ve seen him come in dressed as a woman.” He grins proudly to have made a saucy observation.
“Is she a looker?” I ask, hoping to turn the discussion in a more fruitful direction. To this, the man laughs so hard that he holds a fist to his mouth to keep his dentures in while the group titters. Apparently, they have never considered the fact that no one could possibly benefit from sneaking into our building: it is full of low-income seniors who could only disappoint a burglar. I decide to press my advantage, since there was, apparently, some reason the social worker sent me to this group. ”Has it occurred to anyone,” I ask, “that this man does not exist? That all of these appearances are not staged since after all, why would anyone be doing this? In other words, you saw a real policeman in the building. You did see your nephew. You saw a real woman.”
My question sits uncomfortably in the air as a hostile silence follows. They clearly enjoy their speculation too much. It becomes more elaborate with each meeting and they can’t bear its loss. They stare at me with such silent hatred that I am clearly being asked to leave if I believe such nonsense. Actually, I would love to exit, but I don’t want to leave them angry, all their purpose and fun called into question. “Of course, you could be right,” I assure them. “The question is, what do you want to do about him?” I am convinced that this man is a fantasy, but I think moving them toward a solution might improve their group cognition and then I am free to leave.
Not this group, however. Complete silence follows. “Well, if he comes as a policeman…well, what can you do, anyway?” says the leader.
“If he looks like my nephew, then what can I say?” says the man whose flesh is so cumbersome that he appears to have no eyes. My approach has clearly failed, and I am now dying to get out of this meeting. I explain that I must receive an important phone call and rise to leave. They still stare at me, clearly expecting some gift that will return them to their harmony.
I do want to satisfy them since I will never again attend Nightwatch. “If he ever sneaks in disguised as a samoyed, call the police, the fire department and the National Guard immediately,” I say, ducking out of the room but not so quickly that I miss the look of satisfaction on their faces. They have now come to a conclusion and perhaps a new house rule has been born.
Back in my apartment, I close my door with relief and satisfaction. The cat, too, has created a new rule: no more senior committees.
The Chilean miners are eventually rescued from their prison, every link of which was thoroughly discussed in our building, as in all other parts of the world. They come out of the ground with special wraparound sunglasses necessary for readjustment to the sunlight. Huge advances from a publisher and a film production company for their story is rumored, a figure that will make them all very wealthy. Rapidly, they become celebrities and begin to appear all over the world. One is seen in Paris, wandering along the Seine. The fans that spot him insist that he put his sunglasses on and be photographed with them, as though they were with him when he emerged from the earth.
Another of the miners runs in the New York Marathon and once again is pressed to put his sunglasses on and be photographed with the crowds. Another appears on a TV talk show. Slowly they pass into myth and far away from us. They could be anywhere (and are) doing everything (and do). Back at the building, everyone including me has fallen in love with the story of the Chilean miners, for it reflects the most flattering aspect of humanity. We want to believe that human life is so precious to all; that so much money, time and ingenuity will always be expended to preserve it; that a third-world nation can rise to civilization’s center stage in a demonstration of human excellence in spite of a dark past; that technology will always be used to preserve human life and its most beneficent values. Even here, at the end of the world where I now live, we want to believe it and then We Believe.
Yet, the cat is never so easy to please. Its purpose is to question, explore and then utter the undiluted truth. It tells me, every hair standing out on its raised back like a Halloween cat, that as for the responsibility and compassion of the Chilean nation, in 2010 a fire broke out in a Chilean prison where 1,654 men were squeezed into space for 892, making a catastrophe virtually inevitable. Eighty-one prisoners burned to death before help arrived.
In 2010, in China, six mining accidents buried 259 miners. All were left to die in the earth since rescue attempts would entail too much cost and lost profit.
Neither news story made it past the 24-hour news cycle, the cat notes, and no one else in my building knows of it.
On Thanksgiving Day, 2010, the President pardoned another turkey.
Image: By Hugo Infante/Government of Chile, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26312922