She switched our appointment from Thursdays to Tuesdays, my therapist did, to accommodate the new job. In fact, this is our first session since I lost the old one a little more than two months ago, a casualty of the economic collapse and the slow death of print media. A revered (I thought) writer for People Magazine, I’d been riffed after 14 years; Susan, my gloriously beautiful wife, cried for the next 14 days—deep, anguished sobs I’d never heard before. Like all of Time Inc., I knew cuts were coming. But I thought myself invulnerable, protected by a kind of aura. And so when they called me down, it was an utter and devastating shock. Miraculously, though, I have landed on my feet, hired as senior editor for a direct competitor—a much smaller shop with a bright, lively young staff.
Under a cold sun I trudge up the slope of 94th Street to Broadway, past Han’s market, where I’m a regular, and on to Equinox. I am a man of consistent habits, for the most part, and this is one of them, a pre-shrink coffee-to-go at the gym’s café. Good day for it —no stroller gridlock, no power breast feeder in the front window performing for pedestrians, nanny of color by her side. Now down to and the bland, Reagan-era high-rise where Dr. Alexandra McCormick, as I shall call her, rents an office six floors above Food Emporium. Plopped in a lobby chair, holding his own coffee-to-go, is the distinguished playwright Jeffrey Sweet, schmoozing with the doorman. How I know he is Jeffrey Sweet is too dryly complex for this space; in any event, it’s the third time I’ve encountered him in the past week. The first was on the subway, chatting with a friend about a play he’d just seen. A few days later, I’d passed him at 92nd, walking his dog. Now this. It is important to note that he does not know me. Nor does he know that I know he is the distinguished playwright Jeffrey Sweet.
On the sixth floor, I walk to the end of a long, earth-toned corridor that always reminds me of a Ramada Inn. I punch in the three-digit combination on my therapist’s door, and enter the converted apartment. She greets me, tall, fair and black-haired, and I settle into her black leather couch—at which point I proceed to prattle on about an old issue, one we’d covered over and over for years. After about 10 minutes, Dr. McCormick does something rare for her—she interrupts me.
“Richard, you haven’t said a word about losing your job—it’s as if you’re avoiding it. You told me on the phone how traumatic it was, how scary and humiliating...”
She has me.
“Well, gee, yeah, I guess you’re right, yeah—well, I was gonna get right to it, but….Yeah
Taking a breath, I launch into the tale I’d told so many times on this couch, in-between monologues on my vast arsenal of neuroses. That in the halls of People Magazine, I was royalty, a prince, a larger than life figure some called the most elegant writer who’d ever worked there, and if not the finest, then certainly second to none. I was the master of the wrenching human interest story, but could be witty and whimsical when the need arose. My prose, it was said, had a unique cadence; when green writers joined the magazine, editors sent them to me for guidance, used my pieces as ideals to strive for, if never achieve. I was universally beloved, even revered. Staffers delighted in my sardonic, self-deprecating humor, my patience and kindness were legend, my office was a refuge where colleagues shared their gripes, anguish and personal problems, where women knew they could have a good cry. I was the soul and conscience of the magazine, the—
“Then why did they lay you off?” Dr. McCormick breaks in, when she can stand no more.
“Well, um, it was—it was all about salary. I was making too much money. I think I was the highest-paid writer there— Anyway. I, well, I mean, you know, the whole magazine was shocked and outraged. It was a betrayal. There was a jealousy factor. Yes, that’s what it was….”
At this point I'm practically doing Bogart, cracking up on the stand in The Caine Mutiny 'Ah, but the strawberries, that’s where I had them….I knew there was an extra key….They were all against me...'
“You seem determined to play victim. I’m sure some of what you say is true, but don’t you think should acknowledge some responsibility in this? Weren’t there warning signs? Wasn’t there something about your not going to enough meetings, not being engaged…? You’re not even hearing me right now are you?...
It’s not supposed to be this way. I’ve come for solace and support, not the validation of a lifetime’s self-loathing. The night I was conceived—oh, why didn’t my parents use protection?
Numbly, blankly I descend to the lobby. No Jeffrey Sweet in sight—probably can’t stomach to be in the same building with such a loser. Staggering, semicomatose, I make my way to the 86th St. station, past the boarded up former Saigon Grill where scrawled graffiti reads NO MORE BANKS!. Crossing 87th I see coming toward me Gary Null, gaunt nutrition guru of PBS infomercials, now owner of the Whole Foods on 88th. I know him no better than I know Jeffrey Sweet. But as we pass his uncommonly narrow eyes shoot me an icy glare—or so I imagine it—as if to say, ‘Playing victim, eh? Weasel. Have you tried my Gary Null Protein Shake?”
I make it to work. I’ve made a friend of one of the editors, who has served as something as a guardian angel, taking pity on a middle-aged hack, stopping by my cubicle each day to ask how my day’s going, making sure I have a desk calendar, bringing me chocolates, freebies from a PR rep, to take home to my wife.. Now she’s gone for two weeks, in Italy with her husband, and I’m minding her sections, tweaking text and checking proofs. I wear headphones, blasting all memory of my churlish shrink with the thunderous piano of McCoy Tyner.
Then at 1:30 I depart—my Wellbutrin has expired and so I leave work for a visit my psychiatrist, making it a mental health double header. I catch a train downtown, get out at 16th and Sixth, cross past the Hollywood Diner and continue east. I consider stopping into Anthropologie to buy a kitchen towel my wife has eyed for some time, decorated with pastel images of various desserts. But there isn’t time.
My psychiatrist is a Brit, and our visits are always quick and clipped. "How are you? No change? Good. See you in a year." In and out. And so it is again—except his time I’m stalled at the front desk, where a No-Nonsense African-American Lady has supplanted the Doctor's sweet, downtown-funky ex-office manager. They can’t find my insurance information, she says. She needs to call the provider to determine my co-pay. Years I come here and still they don’t have it right. As a patient named Amy—in her 60s, I’d say, with wild, dyed-blonde hair—quotes Dorothy Parker aloud to no one in particular, No-Nonsense grills me—in between taking phone calls. (What follows is a rough approximation):
N-N: Now, Jerome Richard. Dr’s office, please hold.
RJ: Actually, it’s Richard Jerome. I get that a lot, don’t worry—
N-N: Dr’s office—No, I’m sorry, you do that can’t without an appointment….No, you have to come in….No, you can’t…No…I SAID NO! (SLAMS PHONE)….Now, Jerome..
RJ: Richard. It’s Rich—
AMY: Yes and then Dorothy wrote, I think it was, “If wild my breast and sore my pride….,”
N-N: What’s your insurance?
N-N: Dr’s office…it’s $150 a visit if you’re not covered. …No, that’s $150…$150…That’s right. ….WELL, IT’S THE CHEAPEST IN THE CITY. DAMN! (slams phone). What was that you said?
RJ: It’s—it’s the same as its always been. UBH…
AMY: “I bask in…” What was it? “I bask in…
N-N: Dr.’s office. Please hold. Do you have a card?
RJ. No, UBH doesn’t give cards…
AMY: Yes, “I bask in dreams of suicide…”
N-N: Well, if there’s no card, what’s your Social? Dr,’s office—no you’ll have to come in….You haven’t been here in a YEAR?…No, he can’t do it over the phone. Hold on—your Social?
AMY: “If cool my heart and high my head..”
RJ: It’s one—
N-N: I said YOU HAVE TO COME IN!!!. (slams phone)..Your Social?
AMY: “I think 'How lucky are the dead.'"
N-N: Amy will you PLEASE STOP TALKING? Now, Mr. Richard.
RJ: Jerome. Actually, it’s—
N-N: Dr’s office.
After work, I’m back on 16th, heading again toward Anthropologie and the dessert-themed towel for my bride… The street is dark and empty, but for a slight figure approaching—a man, elderly and wizened. I avert my eyes instinctively and as he passes I hear— in a high-pitched lilt rather like the pedophile neighbor on Family Guy—“Loooookinnn goooood.”
Securing the new towel with my debit card and hiding it in my bag, I reverse course to meet my Gloriously Beautful Wife Susan in the café at Bed Bath & Beyond, on Sixth, our usual downtown rendezvous. (At the turn of the 20th century, when this vast, ornate structure was the Siegel-Cooper dry goods store, its famed fountain was also a popular meeting place) I gaze out the picture window at passing human traffic, most of it young women shoppers or else gay men—these neither wizened nor elderly—en route to the gyms on 19th St. Between sips of iced coffee, I pull from my bag a black pen and scrap of paper. And I do what I’ve done since childhood when bored or stressed or both: I invent the lifetime statistics of an imaginary baseball player—this one a solid, though not great, starting pitcher. To me, the Baseball Encyclopedia is like a sprawling epic poem; I see this as a piece of creative writing, a snippet of verse:
12- 8 3.80
And so on.
Across from me and two tables to the right, a young woman chatters on a cell phone—mid-20s, I’d say, with deep red hair and pale eyes; periodically,she glances my way and smiles warmly. It’s flattering in its way, an antidote to the fey old gent on 16th. Then she shuts her phone, turns to me and says,
“Do you mind if I ask you a question?”
A tourist, no doubt. I have the kind of face that inspires strangers to ask directions. She sees me as suave, worldly, the kind of strong, confident older man who makes her feel safe in the urban jungle
“Why are you writing little numbers on that scrap of paper?”
Long pause..... I’m just one of those New York characters, I finally say, forming a wry grin. She smiles back, indulgently. Just then, the Love of My Life appears—yes, Gloriously Beautiful, her huge dark eyes more luminous than ever. Later, at home, I will present her with the towel full of pastel cakes and ice creams.
She will love it as if it were sewn with rubies and emeralds.