“ALLOW ME TO INTRODUCE MYSELF…”
Suddenly I’m tongue-tied. Instead of an essay, I’ll offer you a timeline, with pictures. This should answer the questions you didn’t know you had.
The Chronology, Backwards
1994 to present
Living in Montclair, NJ, with wife Jennifer and growing children Helen and Alex. All of my published books were written here (with a pen, if you’re curious), mainly while sitting in the blue Salvation Army chair in my home office. Hidden Away (the story of a teen who disappears just as he’s about to take the SAT) grew out of the dual experiences of parenthood and life in suburban New Jersey.
We moved from NYC to New Jersey because our soon-to-be-born child wouldn’t fit in our tiny apartment. For about seven years, I felt like an exile from my true home, Manhattan. As a stay-at-home father, I learned how much of a man’s stature comes from his work and his earnings (see “The Education of a Stay-at-Home Father,” in Room to Grow, a collection of essays).
For three years, I worked at The Fortune Society in Manhattan, a nonprofit that helps (and employs) people after they’re released from prison. Among my co-workers were some amazing, admirable people, who changed my attitudes forever. (See Edmund’s evolving attitude toward Careese in my novel Dark & Light.)
Our wedding: a very happy day. (See the last page of my novel Old Buddy Old Pal.)
I spent this month in Nicaragua, helping to build a school in a barrio outside Managua. Our visit coincided with the height of Reagan-vs.-Sandinista tensions. Much of this experience appears, slightly altered, in The Watermelon.
Temp word processing to pay the rent, while writing fiction in my free time. Alienated labor? Yes, but I actually liked most of the people I worked with and for.
Part-time secretary at the Department of Philosophy, Columbia University. The grad students here impressed me tremendously: super-smart, very funny, very appealing. During this period, I lived on $100/week in Manhattan. Fortunately, the rent on my studio apartment was $225 a month.
Real estate paralegal for Stroock & Stroock & Lavan, a law firm in downtown Manhattan. How did I fall into this line of work? Simple: someone said, “Being a paralegal is a pretty decent way to earn a living,” and my college friend Roger Kalin worked at S&S&L. Why didn’t I look for a job at a publishing house? Because I worried that my work would be influenced by the manuscripts I’d have to read all day—or, that I’d be so sick of fiction by the time 5 o’clock rolled around, I wouldn’t want to write any of my own.
Single in Manhattan (see Old Buddy Old Pal), living at 350 West 85th Street. Here I wrote most of my published short stories, and my first (unpublished) novel, The Memoirs of Marian Moon.
The Writing Seminars at the Johns Hopkins University, Master’s Program. Studying with John Barth, my college idol, I thought again and again, at that seminar table, I can’t believe I’m here. Classmates included Frederick Barthelme and Mary Robison. In October, 1976, I wrote “Nobody Asks,” the first story I would ever get published, for John Barth’s class. (Tom Wolfe included an anecdote from this class in his essay, “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast.” When novelist Leslie Epstein took over for John Barth in the spring semester, and cited Tolstoy as a master of the novel, he “was looked upon by his young charges as rather touchingly old-fashioned.”)
January to June, 1976
Writing ads for a small radio station in Endicott, NY. I also served as the night watchman and weather announcer. Alone each night from 9 pm to 5 am, I biked home at dawn and discovered that every sunrise is different. I can still recite some of those old radio ads. (For a photo finishing shop offering one-day service: an old man receives his long-forgotten snapshots in the mail. “It’s the wedding pictures! Look, there’s me in my stovepipe hat!”)
While staying at my aunt’s home in the San Fernando Valley, I revised a screenplay I’d written during my senior year at college, for agent-turned-producer Martin Baum. He never managed to find backers… but I’ve always wondered whether Porky’s and all of the horny-teen comedies that followed were rip-offs of my script, which was awful but similar.
College at SUNY Binghamton: remembered with infinite nostalgia. (These are the names I google in the night.) See Old Buddy Old Pal for an autobiographical picture of a guy looking back at college from seven years’ distance. The stories have been altered, but the feelings come from life.
Summers, 1971, 1972, 1973
Working at Mays and Alexander’s, department stores in Queens, as a cashier, camera salesman and record salesman. Glamor!
Graduation from Martin Van Buren H.S. in Queens.
Bar mitzvah. The party was held at our garden apartment. My friends and I ran around outside on the lawns.
Graduation from P.S. 186. My sixth grade teacher, Mr. Catania, who passed away in 2012, was proud to have served as the model for Mr. Vigoritti in 6-321.
When I was one year old, my family moved to 73-69 260th Street, in Glen Oaks, Queens. (See 6-321 for a description of the neighborhood and its residents.) My father worked at the main branch of the post office in downtown Brooklyn at night, and also worked part-time at Muller’s Religious Articles in Manhattan, making rosaries (despite our religion: it’s a long story). My mother worked at various part-time jobs, including a stint as a window clerk at the neighborhood OTB, but she was very unhappy there because she hated cigarette smoke.
Born, in Brooklyn. Our family’s home at the time was an apartment on Navy Walk, in Fort Greene. My mother wanted to name me Paris (her name was Helen), but my sisters intervened, for which I owe them more than I can ever repay.