A MURDERER was living around the corner—on Smith Street. I saw them filming America’s Most Wanted in front of his building,” said the old woman in the Key Food on Atlantic Avenue yesterday, talking to the manager in his booth. “You don’t know who is a killer today and who isn’t. Have a nice day.” And off she shuffled. How could I not scribble down her words?
Joan Didion once claimed that she kept a notebook to remind herself of who she once was—the girl with the falling-down hem in a silk Peck & Peck dress. She proposed that her entries are “bits of the mind’s string too short to use.” In fact, her journal portrays rather completely a young glamour-besotted magpie hoping to build a safe nest out of snippets—hatcheck tickets and the tinsel from swizzle sticks, swatches of chinchilla stoles and recipes for oysters Rockefeller and orchid blossoms. Her journal, that is, captures her pretty comprehensively, via telling fragments.
There are other, more crucial, uses of the notebook. One has to do with those too-short bits of the mind’s string. Halley’s Comet, when I saw it in an Iowa field, was not bright enough to dim the moon, let alone illuminate the countryside in a wild blaze as it had in medieval times, when it terrified the populace. On the Bayeux Tapestry it’s a spike-geared wheel rolling across the heavens while a gathering of people point up, gaping at the omen, and King Harold, soon to be toppled by the invading William, cowers on his throne. When I saw it, it was the size of a thread of lint. “There it is!” “Where?” “There! There!” and I followed the astronomer’s jabbing finger to a smudge no bigger than a strawberry’s beard bristle. That was my Halley’s Comet. Still, I tweezed it out of the sky and set it in my book, its significance not to be revealed to me until many years later.
Similarly, the Button King, who Johnny Carson had on twenty-five years ago and who spent every night, all night long, gluing buttons to his car, to his pants and shirt, to the walls of his house—is still alive to me because he entered my book, and he, too, now seems like a camouflaged herald, a kind of annunciation angel spangled by a spotted strobe. Likewise the business card someone had dropped on Joralemon Street that revealed itself, on second glance, to be a mouse thinner than a dime, a rodent trod by so many oblivious feet that it had attained a certain city-buffed purity—exists for me today only because I placed the notation of its miraculously squashed form onto a page beside the thick-tongued middle-aged man three steps away shouting into the payphone to his mother: “It’s unfair! Unfair!” As if his geriatric mother might at even this late hour make everything right.
In those days when I first moved to New York I was devoted to my notebook. And although it’s been years since I cracked open that volume, I remember these things vibrantly. The act of writing inscribed them into me. There, the recorded figures purged themselves of the dross of the world; they acquired their own gravitas, emblems whose meaning took years to become clear—as if we must each gather our alphabet before we can speak; we must attract our materials before we can see what they promise. I would never have collected them if I hadn’t simply happened to be keeping a notebook.
The vessel precedes significance. In a way, it is the significance: the commitment to register life. And beyond that—the conviction that perception itself salvages, saves. And beyond even that—the eerie experience of finally finding in myriad ragtag phenomena an underlying psychic connection, as if I’ve at last flipped over the fabric that made them appear separate and discovered long strands of embroidery thread linking one design with the next.
Three or four more crucial data points: the elongated boots worn by the women in the elevator in the Condé Nast tower the first winter I worked for Glamour—the pointed snouts narrowing like blades, reminiscent of the footwear of Venetian courtiers—which I hauled into my journal along with the Incan-looking woman on the Borough Hall subway platform who plucked up her skirts, sank slightly, then—could it be? oh dear, yes—started to pee just before the train arrived. The man who materialized just two stops later—Wall Street—clad in an expensively cut wool suit and gold cufflinks, as if sent specifically to illustrate some principle about Fortune’s wheel. The man drowsing in a wheelchair on Forty-third Street fifteen minutes later with a cardboard sign around his neck, Insult me for $5.00 (apparently Fortune’s wheel was bigger and swung lower than I’d imagined). The guy in a T-shirt printed with the words Masturbation Isn’t Illegal, shoving a paper into my hand, which proved to be a leaflet protesting the use of scab workers by a construction company. All these moments of glinting significance exist for me only because I glued them down into my book.
Because, after all, what to do with life’s fantastic drama? I was so excited to have arrived back in the city—having grown up in the Bronx but then spent my adult life away—that now I felt almost ill with joy. New York was a spectacle that demanded contemplation. Its simultaneity, its sheer wheels-within-wheels life made me feel privileged with a kind of sacred vision. “Thank you, thank you,” some part of me was constantly saying. And because I didn’t know what else to do with the extraordinary flickering scenes—because they filled me with a kind of burdening excitement—I transcribed them.
Besides, stupidity subsumes me unless I lodge my experience in words. Each dawn titrates into me a dollop of amnesia, of anesthesia, so that I become increasingly insensate. Instead of skin, I’m increasingly composed of Naugahyde. A friend of mine bought a book of gold leaf. Each page was the size of a Bazooka Joe comic. She was going to use it to gild a cake because in fact the stuff’s edible. “Bring your finger close to it,” she said, as I stared at the luminous surface shining like a chunk of halo. I pointed my finger ever closer. Suddenly the substance leapt, the gold coruscating and surging. My finger still trembled about an eighth of an inch away. “You don’t actually paint with it. You sort of insinuate it onto the canvas,” my friend explained. Many of us, when we were children, were composed of a substance just as sensitive. But adulthood immures. It seems I, for one, become more inanimate day by day.
So I write to make things real. Otherwise oblivion devours my days. One’s whole life can pass in peripheral vision. We sense something is there but don’t know how to turn. Or we turn and the thing turns just as fast. The notebook coaxes from the rim of consciousness some of the figures that lurk in the curtains, that linger behind the milk-glazed night sky which, in the city, admits no stars. A wall of light hides the ancient shapes. We below are as entrapped as the jumping beans in the shop next door to my apartment building—a heap of sealed-shut pods ticking night and day.
How does the manager put up with the clatter? Under the fluorescent light, the pods twitch. They flip like sleepers trying to get comfortable. They sound like a dozen people locked next door and tapping with their fingernails. Each pod is walnut-brown and resembles a cherry pit; they’re packed three to a Lucite cell. How does the storekeeper endure it, the banging of all those confined spirits?
“I am a tiny caterpillar. I live inside a seedpod,” says the orange paper laminated to the bin. One day, to confront what it is that horrifies me, I buy a box of the beans. The manager reaches under the counter and produces a pamphlet. “I jump because I am eating a seed and spinning a cocoon,” it says. “Hold me in your hand, give me a little sunshine, and I will jump like crazy.”
Well, aren’t we humans also like that, tapping out a song whose meaning we only occasionally understand, I ask myself, standing back on the pavement. The heart thuds and ten years later, hearing the echo, we understand why. (Oh! I was lonely!) Our pulse flutters, and we shift, tracking someone with our eyes. In the night we wake to the radiator’s clank as the heat comes on, and we hear our partner’s breath, and a car siren suddenly rends the night—and for a moment we are confused as to what woke us. “I will turn into a tiny, harmless moth. Then I will bore a teeny hole in the pod and fly away.” Oh, so it’s all about metamorphosis, I suddenly realize, as one of the beans throbs in my palm. One wasn’t varnished shut after all! Out emerges the soul, the psyche, which means butterfly in Greek—emerges unless, of course, it doesn’t because instead of transformation, as the pamphlet specifies, shouting the possibility: “the caterpillar has dried out, most likely because you haven’t watered it.” Note to self: you have to water it. And to think, all this instruction in transfiguration was available for just two dollars and eight cents, tax included, right next door.
If only everything in the world came with a pamphlet, like the jumping beans. Since it doesn’t, we with notebooks try to decipher the code, track the beats, the screech of the bus brakes, the clatter of a child’s pencil racing over the fence-post bars. It’s almost sufficient just to record what life is like this very instant—the powder-gold light clinging to the plane tree branches, the brittle leaves starting to curl. That momentary brush with a pencil makes the thing written about dawdle, stagger, allowing you to draw it into deeper focus. It sticks to you an instant and never really lets go.
Days with no writing are bad days. I become more obscure. I become the incomprehensible-feeling person I was when it seemed I wanted “too much” from my mother, who was harried and in a sort of despair, standing at the hall closet unable to swiftly sort out her four children’s coats and hats and scarves (it all became a tangle)—and when I believed that my excessive, inalienable needs (I kept trying to slice them off like yellow rind off the bottom of one’s foot, only to find they came back, pulsing) were horrifying, the clogged butt of a cat that follows you everywhere.
If only I could have been happy, I thought back then! If only I could be one of those girls as gleaming as a plastic Barbie-doll case, and within which everything is neatly organized, the tiny dresses on their miniscule hangers, the even tinier shoes in their tiny drawer. Others’ internal lives, I was sure, were like that. You could tell from their clean and pressed trousers, their hands folded calmly on their desks—whereas my cream-white tights instantly got grimy at the knee, and my palms sweated, and the sky-blue Barbie case that I found on Mount Freedom Road commanded me to use it, in defiance of convention, to store a bounty of acorns. Because how astonishingly well crafted each acorn seemed, as if turned by a master of the lathe. Why abandon them to rot back into the earth?
Besides, I loved the important way the acorns rumbled as I carried them about—reminding me of my two big brothers’ attaché cases, evidence of the valuable minds they possessed. Yet when autumn came around again and I sprang the locks—what a stink flew out! I stared, amazed by the pulpy, pungent mess inside. I scrubbed the case, but the thing was ruined. My mother agreed, and we threw it out. But how had the smear in me become the smear in it? Would everything I touched continue to reveal my secret?
In those childhood days I believed that the very least I could do for my mother was to be happy. It seemed an awful secret I carried that despite all my mother’s gifts to me, my unhappiness remained. She so urgently wanted me to be happy, and I couldn’t manage it, and I felt sorry for my mother because of this, because of the acorns and clothing tangle. If only I could be happy, then it seemed that time itself would stagger, it would slow, bells of joy would toll their caramel circles, and the problem of life itself would be fixed. I assumed happiness was the cure to time.
But the golden currency of happiness was beyond me. Tears sprang to my eyes at the sight of a friend’s baby brother in his playpen. There he stood silently in the winter living room whose gray spaces looked wrapped in gauze, in dust. Why bring children into the world, I wondered at the age of seven. Life was cold, with vast distances separating each of us. All this clumped up inside me—sadness, shame, need—a stuck-together heap, something untranslatable, craving expression but defying it. I become that untranslatable girl again when I cease writing even a notebook. I am a neighbor to myself, tapping behind the wall, shifting, trying not to panic. Without the notebook, who knows what anything means?
I ask my writing students to keep journals. For the first two weeks I stipulate a page of observation a day. Think of your notebook less as a diary, I tell them, than as a verbal sketchbook. Capture as best you can the scenes you witness: the quality of light when you enter the bar or the church, the scent in the air, the exact color of that woman’s dress.
“It’s hard for me. I’m so in my head,” sighs one student.
“That’s why you should do it,” I say. Because we are all so very much in our heads, sitting up there cross-legged and gazing out the eyeholes.
My antidote, keeping a notebook, is so potent that just knowing my students are doing it lets me see more—the limbs of the tree lit sea-green and acid-yellow in the October rain, and which, I begin to notice, look pared, as if someone has scraped down their length with a blade.
“What’s wrong with the trees?” my nephew’s girlfriend asked. She was visiting Brooklyn from Milwaukee.
“Nothing. That’s how they look. They’re plane trees,” I explained. She’d never seen such scabby branches, such camouflage-patterned trunks. If I write in my notebook I become my nephew’s girlfriend, surprised by what’s ordinary to me.
In goes Insult me for $5.00 and boots like knives, and the glittering carnival of Fortune’s wheel which once, for a brief while, flung me along in a yellow cab while I savored the midnight trip. In those days I wore a tight gray Lycra skirt drizzled with rhinestones and a sweater of thin black cashmere. The scent of cigarettes permeated. Snow funneled down out of the gauzy sky. I was happier than I’d ever been, and terrified of discovery, and at the same time I didn’t believe that my secret life could be discovered because it was so fantastical and so at odds with my known, sane, cherished life that it verged on imaginary—a perfect secret.
But, as is the way with these things, it was mostly a secret from me; I discounted its significance. This is mere pleasure, I thought. Mere! The cab trundled down the FDR Drive at ten miles an hour on blacktop muffled thick with snow. The moon floated along behind the scrim of its atomized self. In that way it was reminiscent of the resinous substance that the evening and the city and I myself became when my foot swung over the threshold of the man I was involved with and I was suddenly intoxicated and pulverized into a sort of Cray-Pas dust in which everything interpenetrated—the distant ambulance sirens wailing, the scent of coffee drifting, the gauzy ambient glow in his apartment with all the electric bulbs dark, and my own skin twitching like gold leaf. In those days I was so urgently thrilled I couldn’t write; I couldn’t think. My pulse banged in my wrists and I could not catch my breath. I didn’t eat, it seemed, for three weeks.
Hallelujah, I sang up to God. The awareness that I could have lived my whole life without this particular illumination ever washing through me made me both frightened and sharply grateful. Thank you, I muttered to my maker. And when that time was over, I was relieved to return to sanity, to cease being terrified of discovery, and to find my apparently undestroyed, dear life waiting for me. In I crept. I did not want to live that other adventure any more. I was glad I’d had it, and glad it was done, although it had left me altered.
All this goes into the notebook. I am the Button King, gluing buttons madly down on the pages, one mandala after the next, and the man shouting “it’s unfair, it’s unfair”—the way time wrenches everything away. I record the gingko tree opening its yellow fans. The reek of the Korean nail polish place downstairs. The old woman at the Key Food talking about the local murderer. For of course there is always a murderer living around the corner. You don’t know who is a killer today—the bus turning onto Livingston Street, the man with the knapsack—and yet here comes this old lady concluding: “Have a nice day.” I smile. For an instant life tells me exactly what to do, and I hear it because I keep a notebook. A nice day—it’s what my mother always wants for me. At ninety-two, she’s keenly aware of how little time each of us has. How clear the message is today! Soon, however, the focus will shift, the message smudge, and I’ll be back with the nonsensical ticks and beeps, and will have to begin writing again, to wrench some meaning from the machinery of life.
The notebook is a vessel for transformation. Jewish mystics used to believe that the world presents innumerable smashed pieces of vessels with divine light clinging to them. It is each individual’s responsibility to rescue the captive sparks. Notebook-keepers have their own particular method of collecting the shards, trying to uncage the shimmer.
And we assume, as well—a central tenet of the notebook tribe—that what’s locked in silence begins to turn, to fizz and rot. I hoarded that wealth of rumbling acorns because I craved the riches that my brothers possessed. Their minds, their being, were important to my parents because they were boys. The attaché case with its jabbing angles, the locks that shot open with pistol bangs, the graph-paper notebooks stacked inside—all spoke of my parents’ esteem. How I hoped my female ooze could be transfigured somehow by imitating the cerebral piousness of my brothers, their toting of important objects through the streets of the Bronx.
And yet, despite the reassuring rattle of those acorns, what madness to tote one’s feral cargo from one year to the next! In my own case, the hidden aspect was the female side of me, which I had estranged as unimportant, demeaning, mad, a leaky, degrading although apparently inalienable part. Then, for a brief while out she sprang. She owned the city. And after, I retained a certain strength, the conviction of a kind of beauty where before I’d been ashamed.
Still, of course, awareness of one’s nature isn’t easy. There’s always another aspect to admit. Dare we open up? We hear the soft tick, then the loud knock. “It’s a murderer!” our soul cries. “Don’t unlock the door!” And our soul is right: the neighbor, the hidden self, is here to carry us from the old life to the new. We thought we knew what love was, what lust was, what children were, what parents were, but now we see more, gazing through the eyes of our neighbor, the murderer of our old way in the world.
The discipline of the notebook teaches attention to life, which itself is a doorway. What your own eye is drawn to, the emblems that haunt your pages, the dreams that won’t let you forget them, the gold that your finger attracts—no need to know in advance what these omens signify. There are no bits of the mind’s string too small to carry meaning. Unknown neighbors step near, tapping on paper walls, trying to show you unexpected passageways out of the sealed-shut vessel of the self.
Looking back I see a dozen harbingers of change. They were all apparently disappointing and even ugly aspects of the world made lovely—made holy—simply by being looked at, by being chosen, by being marveled over. For an endless instant their meaning is clear. Hallelujah, my soul cries out at a gleam from a rushing comet, at the rhinestones’ flash, at the whole wheel of life, glimmering, spinning, rolling one incarnation into the next.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.