“Joe Gould’s Secret” is Mitchell’s masterpiece. It was also, of course, his last piece.
He never published again. For the next thirty-one years and six months, Mitchell came to work almost every day and submitted not even a story for The Talk of the Town.
No one was more esteemed by the staff than this courtly, soft-spoken genius, and no one but a fool would ask about his silence. There were theories about what might have hindered him: some great personal sadness, the weight of reputation, the radical changes in New York.
“I can’t seem to get anything finished anymore”, he admitted when he was in his eighties. “The hideous state the world is in just defeats the kind of writing I used to do.”
It is a coffee maker with a bolt action, like a rifle.
I pictured myself behind enemy lines, pulling frothy cups of coffee, drawing the bolt back in a smooth action to eject the spent grounds. […]
I am not a coffee snob, I don’t think.
But this machine, or at any rate the coffee cartridge you lock the chamber on, it sins against coffee. It sins against tongues, it verifies the existence of evil.
Robert Folger himself could not have devised a taste more foul, even with the use of a laboratory and an electronic supertongue which could taste in the ultraviolet spectrum.
It came with a “mild” roast and a “medium” roast, which present a wild inversion of expectations.
Imagine that mild and medium are points in a continuum of hideous mouth crimes. The Mild is actually the only potable version, precisely because it tastes less like their product’s theoretical maximum!
Medium tastes like the mud in which dead men lie.
I haven’t even bothered with the Dark roast, whose flavor I imagine is somewhere between devil piss and liquid gonorrhea.
I think it was probably in college that I realized that there was a difference between Japanese and Japanese American. That’s important to realize. It’s not the same thing.
I’ve been there now I think four times. I remember the first time I went, how familiar it seemed, just getting out of the plane, it smelled like my aunt’s house, in the airport, it smelled like Japan. I don’t know if anybody else even noticed it but I walked out of the plane and thought this is definitely familiar to me, didn’t even see anything yet.
You just recognize things about the way people act, the small things that people do such as how you’ll grab a piece of paper. There are things that are more obvious like taking somebody’s business card with two hands. You don’t do that in the States. When I saw somebody do that I went, “Oh yeah, my uncle always does that,” you know.
There are little things that culturally come from Japan but they also exist in Japanese American culture and it made me feel like the connection was there and I kind of hadn’t realized how much of it was there.
These internships are by their very nature discriminatory. Only a certain kind of young person can afford to spend a summer working for no pay.
Unpaid internships typically provide people who already have a leg up a way to get the other leg up.
He was from Guatemala City. “What’s Guatemala City like?” I asked him one day.
“The days are very long in Guatemala City,” he said.
That was all he said about his life there. And that would probably be the best description of life as a homeless person. The days are very long.
In my past life, I spent a typical autumn Saturday reading the paper and drinking several pots of coffee while working two or three crossword puzzles. Around 11 a.m., Marina and I would drive one or two or six of the kids to the farmers’ market in the parking lot at Pasadena High School. Then we would return home and I would come up with an interesting set of reasons for not working in the yard while settling down on the couch to watch college football. Several hours later, I’d pour a glass or two of wine as the day turned into night, watch a movie, and settle into bed. Not much of a day, really. But when I think of those days now, they seem like some kind of lost paradise.
A few weeks ago, I attended a conference at Stanford University. We finished in the late afternoon, and as I walked out into the sunlight I noticed groups of people, young and old, all streaming in the same direction. I decided to follow them. We came to a large courtyard where several thousand people were gathered in front of a stage. It was the university’s 123rd freshman convocation.
Richard Shaw, dean of admission and financial aid, was at the podium, dressed in academic regalia, telling a story about an American Indian student who had gone from the reservation to Stanford and become a NASA scientist. Dean Shaw announced that the freshman class included students from 49 states—”We miss you, Arkansas”—and 66 countries.
Then he looked out across the crowd of students and parents and said, “We have made no mistakes about your admission.” And, in a rising voice, “You all deserve to be here!”
The crowd burst into applause.
I wish he had said something else. Something like this
The wonderful, fantastic flight crew attempted to normalize our blood sugar by bringing us some odd, microwaved hoagie type things, but it was to no avail. The plane took on a weird smell, like hot processed cheese and fear. Finally, an Australian journalist named Tim stripped totally naked and ran up and down the aisles. In London, someone apparently passed out in customs around 5 or 6AM, and following a bizarrely long bus ride from the airport, we swayed blearily in line for hotel rooms, sleepless since Paris or longer.
If you place an order at the Chick-fil-A drive-through off Highway 46 in New Braunfels, Tex., it’s not unusual for the driver of the car in front of you to pay for your meal in the time it took you to holler into the intercom and pull around for pickup.
“The people ahead of you paid it forward,” the cashier will chirp as she passes your food through the window.
Confused, you look ahead at the car — it could be a mud-splashed monster truck, Mercedes or minivan — which at this point is turning onto the highway. The cashier giggles, you take your food and unless your heart is irreparably rotted from cynicism and snark, you feel touched.
Not getting paid for things in your 20s is glumly expected, even sort of cool; not getting paid in your 40s, when your back is starting to hurt and you are still sleeping on a futon, considerably less so. Let’s call the first 20 years of my career a gift. Now I am 46, and would like a bed.
Practicalities aside, money is also how our culture defines value, and being told that what you do is of no ($0.00) value to the society you live in is, frankly, demoralizing. Even sort of insulting. And of course when you live in a culture that treats your work as frivolous you can’t help but internalize some of that devaluation and think of yourself as something less than a bona fide grown-up.
Video games in suburban basements and breakfast at Denny’s at three in the morning. Saturday tailgating and all-nighters in undergrad libraries. Sardine commutes and noisy bars and standing in line for ramen; museums on weekends and brunch and rooftops and waiting in your office clothes for the train at the end of a too-long day.
More recently, the inverted metropolis: Writing from home, going on walks when everyone’s at work, operating on the schedule of au pairs and stay-at-home parents and NYU students and broke artists and those for whom money is of no concern.
There are so many more modes of living and I want to live them all. Why? I’m not sure, exactly. Reconnaissance, I suppose, but for what? I have a hunch but I need a few secrets, too.
I received a letter from a reader the other day. It was handwritten in crabbed penmanship so that it was very difficult to read. Nevertheless, I tried to make it out just in case it might prove to be important.
In the first sentence, he told me he was majoring in English Literature, but felt he needed to teach me science. (I sighed a bit, for I knew very few English Lit majors who are equipped to teach me science, but I am very aware of the vast state of my ignorance and I am prepared to learn as much as I can from anyone, however low on the social scale, so I read on.)
It seemed that in one of my innumerable essays, here and elsewhere, I had expressed a certain gladness at living in a century in which we finally got the basis of the Universe straight.
I didn’t go into detail in the matter, but what I meant was that we now know the basic rules governing the Universe, together with the gravitational interrelationships of its gross components, as shown in the theory of relativity worked out between 1905 and 1916. We also know the basic rules governing the subatomic particles and their interrelationships, since these are very neatly described by the quantum theory worked out between 1900 and 1930. What’s more, we have found that the galaxies and clusters of galaxies are the basic units of the physical Universe, as discovered between 1920 and 1930.
These are all twentieth-century discoveries, you see.
The young specialist in English Lit, having quoted me, went on to lecture me severely on the fact that in every century people have thought they understood the Universe at last, and in every century they were proven to be wrong. It follows that the one thing we can say about out modern “knowledge” is that it is wrong.
The young man then quoted with approval what Socrates had said on learning that the Delphic oracle had proclaimed him the wisest man in Greece. “If I am the wisest man,” said Socrates, “it is because I alone know that I know nothing.” The implication was that I was very foolish because I knew a great deal.
Alas, none of this was new to me. (There is very little that is new to me; I wish my corresponders would realize this.) This particular thesis was addressed to me a quarter of a century ago by John Campbell, who specialized in irritating me.