City Mouse Versus Country Mouse

upstate_porchI have always been a city mouse. Well, not always, but mostly. I was born on East 57th Street in Manhattan though my parents deserted the city for Queens and then LI when I was a preteen, but I couldn’t wait to get back. And I did. But then, like so many diehard New Yorkers I longed for escape, which I did on occasion and liked that too but always came back. I think mostly it was a quest for quiet, a rarity in NYC, and something I found when I bought a little house in upstate NY about eight years ago. An impulse buy. I swear. It was just after New Years and we were visiting old friends, the realist painter Catherine Murphy and her sculptor husband, Harry Roseman. I’ve known Cathy since we met at the art colony, Skowhegan, when I was 19. (Cathy says I looked like John Sebastian of the Lovin’ Spoonful, but I never looked that good—I think it was just my wire-frame glasses).

John Sebastian, circa 1970. Me, around the same time.
John Sebastian, circa 1970. Me, around the same time.

Cathy and Harry deserted New York for the suburbs of Poughkeepsie long ago and it’s always a treat to visit them, not only because they have a lovely house with lots of land and we get to see the new paintings Cathy is working on and Harry’s new sculpture, but also because Cathy is one of the great cooks of the Western world. But I digress. Friends of theirs had inherited a house previously owned by an artist and writer, who had some sort of stipulation in their will that the house be sold to either an artist or writer, so I sort of scored on both counts. My wife and I had no intention of buying a house but Harry insisted we take a look. It was a mess, truly, though charming in a ramshackle way, and cheap and the next thing I knew we owned it and have been coming up summers ever since and it’s brought out a side of me I hardly new existed.

It’s hard to explain but it always feels like a huge deal to get out of Manhattan, as if the city has some huge hidden magnet that tugs New Yorkers back or keeps them from leaving. If we’re just coming up for a weekend I stall and stall, though I can’t tell you why, but then, when I get up here I feel as if something has been lifted off me (actually I feel it as I’m driving up the picturesque Taconic Highway, as though some heavy part of me is being spewed out of the exhaust and I’m actually getting lighter). That is not to say that I leave my neurosis home. If only. But there’s something about the air and the land and the quiet that calms me. Not that one can actually escape anymore, not with email and cellphones, though I could leave my phone inside or turn it off (which I never do).

loftIn Manhattan, I live on a busy commercial street in the heart of the flower market. My building was originally filled with furriers before it was converted into living spaces, my loft a former fur vault with 4” of fur on the wall (think: Merit Oppenheim’s “Fur-lined Teacup,” which is beautiful as opposed to the furry loft walls, which were disgusting though perhaps we should have kept them as a buffer to the noise.) The flower market starts up around 3 or 4 in the morning when trucks deliver their flowers and plants, something we didn’t realize until we moved in and were startled from sleep, practically levitated from our bed by the racket. Within days we’d bought a white noise machine to be able to sleep and became totally addicted to it. Upstate it’s dead quiet but I still had to get used to the eerie sounds of our 1840 house shifting and settling or the howl of the wind or the birds up at dawn chirping and singing.

studioSo how does this quiet, or lack thereof affect my work? Well, in the city I am always speeding. Even when I’m in my studio painting or writing a part of me is always racing. Then there’s the social life. In the city there is always so much to do, too many people to see, too much work, drinks with so and so, dinners out, a seemingly endless array of commitments that steal one’s time, even when they are things I want to do and people I love to see. Upstate not so much. OK, I’ll be honest, practically nothing. Instead, I fill my days with work. The other day I did two drawings. The first, for K2 Pictures and their cable TV crime show Celebrity Crime Files. I do the CS sketches for them, in stages, which they animate for the show, very cool. Then I did another drawing to illustrate a story of mine that will be in Ellery Queen Magazine in December. Other than a walk to the super-fancy “country” store down the hill to get a donut (which I needed), I hardly took a break except to change the music I was listening to through my computer on Spotify (one of my favorite music innovations). After the drawings I went back to work on a novel I am trying to finish and somehow the day passed and my blood wasn’t pumping and my mind wasn’t spinning (well, it was, but at a slower speed). Maybe it had something to do with the rain (it’s been pouring for days), but I don’t think so. Because when it’s sunny I sit on the porch with my laptop, and write write write.

A few days ago, the director/screenwriter who is developing one of my books for the screen came east and rather than working in the city we decided to drive upstate and spent 3 days on the porch doing rewrites, intense yet bucolic. Our breaks consisted of walks or drives but rarely with a destination and we never argued and he could smoke his stogies without giving me TB and I think we were more successful without all of the city’s distractions.

Just before I started this ‘meditation on country versus city’ I was (still am) sitting on the porch working on part two of what will either be a trilogy of stories or a novella, a rather sexy story, in fact so graphic I have no idea what I’m going to do with it when it’s finished. None of the mystery magazines will publish it (even though it is a mystery), and it’s too short for a book, so I need to figure out where to put it (Playboy?).

After I finish this and do a bit more work on that sexy story I’m going to read more of Andrew Solomon’s amazing book, Far From the Tree (not only the most interesting book about parents and children I have ever read, but possibly one of the most important, a book that makes me reconsider so much of what I have thought to be a disability or disadvantage. I want to say more about this book as I continue reading it, and I will.  (Side note: I was at Yaddo with Andrew while he was writing the book and he would hold the entire dinner table enthrall with stories having to do with his research.)

The other day I drove down to the city. Put the car in a lot and made my rounds. First I dropped off the crime scene sketch I made at K2 Pictures. From there I went to BreakThru Radio where I was interviewed by Kory French, about The Marijuana Chronicles. Kory was a great interviewer, relaxed and easy to talk to (as soon as the interview is aired I’ll post it). From there, to afternoon iced tea with my friend the wonderful crime fiction writer. S.J. Rozan. Together, we went to the Center For Fiction, a launch for Reba Williams new book, Restrike. Afterward, I went to meet my daughter but made the mistake of taking a taxi, a twenty-minute walk or a ten-minute subway ride, which ended up a forty-five minute cab ride—and I won’t even tell you how much it cost! But then my daughter and I had a very pleasant ride back upstate with a pit stop at Appleby’s on the way.

The day before I went back to the city, I was anxious; I didn’t want to go. But while I was there I was happy, excited; I’d forgotten how much I love city and the way it fuels me and my work with the same urgency that makes me race down the streets and keeps me awake at night; I love the diversity of people and restaurants and having just about everything available to me within walking distance. And then, I was happy to leave.

So what’s the answer? Hey, I hardly remember the question. I’m too distracted by a chipmunk who is trying to scare away the birds so he can eat all of the birdseed I accidentally spilled when I was attempting to refill the birdhouse.