My belated reading of his shortened life

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Author: Douglas Curran '00MFA

A friend of mine, whom I’ll call S.C., committed suicide on a Wednesday in February. On the following day, the New York Post reported that his age had been 37; I thought he was 35, tops. I had known him for two years, and in that time, for me, I guess, he hadn’t aged a day. The paper was unsure if he had landed in the water and then been washed ashore or if he had not touched the water at all. He had leapt from the George Washington Bridge somewhere just past noon on a day when the sun was bright and the sky blue.

When I read this on Thursday morning in the paper’s “Daily Police Blotter,” the fact that it truly had happened came home like a nail driven soundly into wood. I had heard the news from a colleague in the late afternoon on the prior day but hadn’t acknowledged it in the way that I did on reading those words. Somehow the dispassionate text, about a person unknown to the writer of the piece, meant more to me than anything I had been confronted with the day before.

The paper said S.C. was a resident of Sunset Park, Brooklyn. This is wrong. He had lived with his wife, paying a rent he could not afford, in Windsor Terrace. Even if one is not a devoted and true Brooklynite, as was he, it is difficult to mistake the two neighborhoods. The vast, hilly necropolis that is Greenwood Cemetery undulates dramatically between them—as distinct a boundary as any—with its multitude of dead; its ancient trees; its mausoleums; its hawks and crows and worms; its hushed tombstones and well-swept paths.

In the Post account, his act was compared to that of a previous, recent suicide—a man who had posed as a custodial worker in order to gain access to a window on one of the higher floors of the Empire State Building. I was untouched by the other man’s story; it remained for me unreal, though I knew that it was real. Nevertheless, it read like fiction.

But my experience of reading was just the opposite in the case of S.C. One might argue that the newspaper article wasn’t really the important thing, that I had needed time to process this horrible event, perhaps even that I had been in shock, and that by the time I had read the article I was ready to accept the reality of the event—but I don’t think that’s it. Somehow it was the written word itself that transformed the experience for me into something real, something vivid, something perhaps not the equivalent of but analogous to, in a much lesser way, my having witnessed the act itself. Something objective and hard.

The day before

On Tuesday, one day before that fateful, treacherous Wednesday, S.C. came into my cubicle, as on occasion was his wont, to shoot the breeze or to use my garbage pail (an eccentric, but endearing gesture that was indefinably mischievous) or to share with me a piece of cake or fruit that he was just then carrying, and he sat on the stool I keep in the corner. The stool was not particularly comfortable and was piled with papers, but he didn’t seem to notice. His mind was on other things.

At first, he only sat nearby, quietly. Then he was reading— he had brought with him an academic journal with a powder-blue cover. He read for a short time, not saying a word, silently expressing the intent to sit there indefinitely. No more than four minutes had passed, though, when he asked me to take a look.

“What do you think of this article? Would you say that the author sounds pretentious?” he asked. As an afterthought, he added: “She was a friend in college.”

I read several paragraphs of the article, which was about architecture criticism as a discipline and how critics were not getting the fair shake they deserved (that is, the attention they desired from practicing architects and the greater world). The article seemed to say in three pages what it could have said in one, and defensively. I thought then of the comical Napoleon portrayed in the movie _Time Bandits _—the insecure, 4-foot-tall general who kept his hand beneath his tunic because he had a deep-seated, neurotically based itch that demanded constant scratching. I could easily see S.C.’s critic scratching like a madwoman, hopping up and down, shouting bramble- and thorn-encircled sentences like “Enter [with me] into discourse on the subliminal reach of foreground and background in psycho-social volume!”

“Well, sure, a bit—she’s really trying, isn’t she?” I said.

“Definitely. The world has seen enough of this bull. Who cares that no one listens to critics? Come on! And who’s she talking to? Critics! What’s the point? This is such a great big fat joke.”

He was tired of it, that’s certain. All of it. Self-importance. Hypocrisy. Posturing. Putting a face on for the world.

Because of chronic back problems and a nagging pain that grew larger the longer he sat still, he couldn’t stay in one position for long. He soon stood up, stretched and raised his arms above his head. For an almost absurdly extended moment he held this pose. Then he relaxed, settling back into himself. He looked at me and nodded with a smile, then ambled off.

We left work together that evening, and he was his regular self: up and down, briefly angry, then faintly sad, but mostly even-tempered with the occasional laugh—just like all the rest of us. I walked with him from our office on Park Avenue South toward the corner of 23rd Street and Sixth Avenue—there we’d go our separate ways. He was aiming to catch the F train to Brooklyn, and I the PATH train to Jersey City, where I would meet my girlfriend at her place for dinner. We talked of many things.

About halfway to our destination, having come to the Flatiron Building, we stood at its foot in a strong, conflicted wind, which blew at us first this way then that, as we waited for the light to change.

“Twenty-three skidoo—. Whaa-hoo!” he said, without merriment. He was repeating what our boss would sometimes say when the three of us passed here together.

This was the point of conjunction of two great streams of air —one that aligns itself to the forthright, straight-shooting Fifth Avenue, and its sister stream, the one in correspondence with the shifty, now-westside, now-eastside Broadway. Here, at 23rd Street, the winds became as one for but a moment and then were split again in two by the straight edge of the Flatiron. This conflict had for years caused innumerable loose skirts and dresses to fly up, one thousand thousand coifs of well-kempt hair to stand on end and the debris of the ages—newspapers, gum wrappers, plastic bags—to rise up to the heavens in wide, determined spirals, as if on the very fiery chariot of the prophet Elijah himself, borne to the land of angels for some special, unfathomable purpose. The fallout from this conflict had been felt for decades.

But no longer did the phrase “Twenty-three skidoo” mean much —it now suggested change, age and dying. Nostalgia and impotence. The phrase was obsolete. When the Flatiron Building was finished in 1902, respectable people were scandalized at how the rushing air around it might force the revelation of the white flesh of an ankle or a calf or even God-forbid! a thigh. In those days, policemen were posted to discourage loitering and to shoo away lascivious hangers-on. But now, a century later, the notion of such modesty was for the most part forgotten—at least in New York—and the words that harkened back to those earlier days inspired only feelings of regret and a longing for more reasonable times. S.C.’s face was filled with these sentiments then, or so I now imagine, in remembering.

“One of the things that annoys me most,” he said as we stood there in the wind, “is that this back prevents me from reading for very long. I can’t sit still for more than five or 10 minutes, then I need to stand.”

I asked him if he’d tried reading while lying down. He said he had, but it was obvious that this solution was inadequate, that he wasn’t happy at all about how his angry back prevented his full enjoyment of one of the great pleasures of his life. But he quickly turned a bright eye on things.

“I read The New Yorker every morning on the subway coming to work and every evening on the way home. That’s a good solid two hours reading, or thereabouts. I don’t need to read more than that. Two hours of reading a day are plenty! Who needs more than that?”

I didn’t argue. He said it with a smile, and for a little while I believed he meant it. But I guess he didn’t. How could he? I am now certain that he hated the fact that this pleasure had been relegated to those suffocating moments on packed subways when he stood (because the condition of his back demanded it) the whole way in from Brooklyn and then later the whole way back.

For one who loves to read, such reading, subway reading, is only a temporary measure. One who reads, any lover of the written word in its myriad forms, will naturally read when an idle moment presents itself, when a good book or magazine or newspaper or even pamphlet is, along with time, at hand. It was natural that S.C. would do so on the subway—as do I, and many others. However, any true bibliophile, and he was one beyond a doubt, will have his true, perfect reading states—whether it be propped up in a soft bed; in an armchair with a good light and a cup of coffee at one’s right hand; in a rocker beside a window with a view out at the tree-lined streets of Brooklyn; or some such combination.

I know that S.C. used to enjoy going on a summer’s day to Prospect Park, to lie out in the grass, his elbows planted firmly in the earth, to then read with the sun shining down from above, with the soothing sound of insects and birds and animals rustling in the lively world around him. Usually such individuals can read among clamor and chaos, but the highest pleasure of reading, and I know he knew this, comes only during times of quiet and ease, when one can lose oneself in the written word, when one is transported to another universe or when one is made marvelously aware of this world here just beyond the pages.

Certainly, such a man can think amidst confusion and noise—but that’s not the point. The same man loves truly to indulge in this great pleasure without distraction. He wants to feel, in all fullness, the many glories potentially to be conveyed through the contemplative perusal of letters, words, sentences, text; he will linger over the tactile and olfactory stimuli to be discovered in ink and paper and binding. With joy near to quivering he will sniff at new books and old ones, for he has long known that books have distinctive aromas, that one fine, moldy or sugar-corn scent will bring him back to his childhood, when he read mysteries and fantasy novels, which stood like doorways and windows to similar sweet transcendence. He will sometimes even, without shame, palpate the very flesh of the textual manifestation at hand as he might, at other times, the flesh of a lover—with care, desire, longing, pensiveness, playfulness, even anger and frustration—but, ultimately and always, with deep adoration and reverence, the very love of life itself.

That morning

On Wednesday morning, we spoke briefly. We joked about something, I can’t remember what. He told me he’d been reading on the train earlier that morning and had thought of me. From his black nylon bag, he pulled out the latest issue of The New Yorker. He began to tear out from its pages an essay he thought I’d enjoy, but I stopped him and walked off to make a copy. When I came to him to return the magazine, he was reading again from that same academic architecture journal we’d discussed. I was vaguely surprised to see this, thinking he had put the journal down for good the day before (he’d said, “No wonder I never read this rag!”). I thought there was something in his former classmate’s article, something about the existence of the article itself, that had gotten to him. When he saw me, he put the journal aside, and, though I may have imagined it, he seemed pale with shame.

I returned to my cubicle, ready to settle in to that day’s work. Not more than 10 minutes had passed, though, when S.C. came over. The expression on his face, and I can still see it, was one of frustration, illness and distracted uncertainty—I know that I am trying even now to “read” his face. I have trouble going beyond his eyes, which were blank then, like mirrors that reflected nothing; I cannot see much more than the gesture of his left hand rubbing his back and the bit of skin revealed by the action. He told me that he was going home, that he felt terrible. I asked him if it was his back; he said that it was. His manner, however, hinted that there was more here, that it was his back and his anger and disgust and melancholy and so much else that made him sick, but he didn’t put this into words.

Just before he turned to go, he told me he might make an appointment with a doctor, but he made it clear that Brooklyn, home, was the only immediate destination he had in mind. (As I discovered later, he had had an appointment with a doctor already scheduled for that afternoon, which he had at some point canceled; a fact I cannot rightly understand. Why did he bother to cancel an appointment that wasn’t going to matter? Was it one last act of consideration? Was he not yet set upon his course and so planning for a future in which there might be financial consequences for missing and not canceling a doctor’s appointment? Why did he tell me he “might make an appointment,” if he already had one? These questions now mystify me.) I asked him if I’d see him on the following day, and he said that I would. But I never saw him again.

He took an uptown train, probably, bound not for Brooklyn but for the far north reaches of Manhattan. Some of his favorite neighborhoods were to be found on the island’s green head—Washington Heights, Hudson Heights, Fort Tyron Park. I can imagine that, on arriving, he climbed to the top of one of the hills that overlooks the Hudson. There were no leaves then on the trees. He would have been able to see clear across the river to the impassive Palisades, to the lonely monastery that straddled the cliff and stood as a reminder, for any who would see, of the tenuous nature of existence, of the delicate line upon which we all walk. Then perhaps he made his way to the bridge, his purpose still not sure—pulled at by compulsion, by a dark desire or need or sadness or lure to unholy and unknown excitement. One longs to find consolation in the notion that he saw beauty in the end, from that vantage on the bridge: the great Hudson River below him, with its history, its majesty; and before him, as far as he could see, the splendor of Manhattan, with its spires of stone and steel, its sparkling glass, its hint of promise and possibility. But this consolation would be, at best, uncertain—it is possible he saw instead a nightmare and only one means to deliverance.

A subway ride from 23rd Street to the neighborhoods near the bridge takes at least 30 minutes. I wonder if he brought reading material along. I suspect, if only out of habit, that he had. The academic journal, however, had been left behind. It sits, even now, dumbly on his desk.

In the days soon after, I would sometimes pick up the New Yorker essay he’d given me to read. But I could not get much beyond the first page. Part of me had hoped I’d find in the essay some answers, some clues as to why he had done what he did; a second, equal part of me had feared that the essay would answer none of my questions. Four days passed.

Finally, I read the piece. It was about a nondescript road that ran through New Jersey to the Lincoln Tunnel, a road on which the writer had deliberately walked, for miles, in order to know something more about it. It was a wonderful essay about perambulation, quiet thought, roadside garbage, duels in the days of early New York, tunnels, buses to Port Authority in Manhattan and curiosity itself. But as far as I could tell, it offered no clues. It did not address suicide or anything in particular that I might connect with S.C.’s living condition or ultimate end. I could only suppose that he simply thought I would find it interesting, and nothing more.

I had told him on that now portentous Tuesday night, when we had walked together toward our trains, that I couldn’t stand the PATH, that that was one thing I’d never like about commuting to and from New Jersey. Perhaps he thought this essay would help me see that even the most mundane passages to, from and through New Jersey could be filled with revelation, or, if not that, at least, that I might find in such periods of transit points of interest, stimuli to curiosity, or even just a reminder of the potential for finding that which is meaningful in the humdrum, in the dirty or frustrating corners of everyday life. And I think that this is so. However, I now struggle to understand how he could have so generously extended to me this bit of hope and yet have gone off with nothing of it left over for himself.

I seek a place of peace and quiet, free from distraction, from which I might turn again to that vision of his face, to the text that must be there, clearly inscribed. I want to see life as letters, words and sentences that I might read, and S.C.’s own essay, with its beginning and its end, as one that I might examine exegetically, find connections in and determine to be ultimately meaningful.

I have settled into my soft pine rocker by the window, overlooking a tree-lined Brooklyn street; a cup of coffee is beside me, just the way I like it. I glance out the window at the sky—it is so blue, so beautiful, as it must have looked to him that final, final day. And then I try to read. But I cannot. I cannot make out the words.

  • * *

    Douglas Stephen Curran is an editor at Rizzoli International Publications in New York.

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