Come Through for Me

Published in: July-August 2015 issue.


WHEN I MOVED to New York after college in the summer of 1980 to find a job in publishing, I took regular breaks from my daily search at a midtown bookstore on Fifth Avenue. The hardcovers and paperbacks that once filled the windows there have long since given way to other displays, including overalls and bandanas draped over golden haystacks when the store became an OshKosh B’gosh, and now a wall of blinking ATMs such as are found on every block of Manhattan. Back then, it seemed, the chief commerce of Fifth Avenue was books.

I went to that bookstore every day because it was air-conditioned and located in Midtown, where my job search was centered, and because I could read select passages from books that provided infusions of inspiration during days of steady rejection. The works I chose included the opening paragraphs of A Lost Lady by Willa Cather, whose characters I kept casting in my imaginary movie version of the novel (Julie Christie was to play the lead) and whose infinitely expansive Nebraska landscapes were a dramatic foil to the discernible boundaries of Manhattan. There was page 47 of Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar, which described the most exhilarating gay sex scene I had yet encountered.

Or I would reread T. S. Eliot’s Ash Wednesday, not because I understood the poem but because I had once bought an LP recording of it at my Illinois hometown library’s sale and associated being in my bedroom on rainy days with the poet’s mannered voice intoning the repetitive stanzas as the needle rose and fell on the rotating disc.

Soon, however, my main motivation for stopping into the store, usually in the late morning and again at four o’clock or so, was to see one of the salespeople. He was tall, red-haired, and in his late twenties, which seemed to me at 21 considerably older. While continuing to perform with a modern dance troupe, Paul worked every day at Brentano’s, where, because he was so personable and handsome, he had befriended many notable writers, some of whom stopped in regularly to monitor the sales of their books and sign a few copies.

Paul became my first friend in New York—or at least the first familiar face I had come to know. Upon moving to the city, I wondered how a person made friends after college where, of course, it was relatively easy. I discovered within days of arrival that making friends was mostly a matter of serendipity. You went to a certain store on a certain day, and there, perhaps, you might meet someone who could be in your life forever. I can still recall the moment Paul and I shook hands in the center aisle of the bookstore that marked the separation between fiction and nonfiction.

Whenever I came into the store, Paul could tell immediately how my job search was going. At the time, I thought it perfectly appropriate to just show up at a magazine or book publisher and announce that I was looking for a job. Today, no young person without an appointment could get past lobby security. But then I was able to whoosh through a revolving door, punch a floor in an elevator up, say, to Lewis Lapham’s office at Harper’s, tell the receptionist I wanted to see him, and be ushered into his office. My only prior affiliation with Lapham was that he handed me an envelope with a fifty-dollar bill in it when I was a freshman at the University of Michigan. I had won a Hopwood Award for an essay about a summer job at the Chicago Board of Trade, and Lapham had been the guest lecturer and judge at the ceremony in Ann Arbor. After his talk—about the lack of a true American literature (with which I still disagree)—he called all the winners to the stage and handed us an envelope. The day’s other guest lecturer was Joyce Carol Oates, who spoke about how she identified herself as a poet first and a novelist second. It was Lapham who helped her out of a full-length mink coat when she appeared onstage, a moment of genuine glamour, though today she’d have been booed off the stage by PETA sympathizers.

At my meeting with Lapham in his Manhattan office, he actually offered me a staff job, with a big caveat: no pay (George Plimpton offered me the very same salary at the Paris Review when I arrived a day later at his East Side townhouse and watched his young staffers playing pool). Other impromptu interviews included one with the editor of Gentlemen’s Quarterly, where I was asked, at my age, to name my favorite brands of brandy and the best sources for Cuban cigars. He also mentioned that “tits and ass” were the mainstay of the editorial well at GQ, which was my signal to resume my search.

But the person who stands out most is Martha Duffy, then a noted senior editor at Time. She had overheard me pleading my case to a lobby receptionist in the Time-Life Building to see someone, anyone upstairs. It was around 2 p.m., and Duffy, who had just come from lunch herself, approached me and invited me up to her office to talk. It was an astonishingly spacious suite, high up in the building, furnished with a sofa and a pair of club chairs, and shelves of a wet bar sparkling with snifters. Minutes into the interview—having asked where I had gone to college, what I hoped to accomplish in New York, and what kinds of poems I liked to write—she pulled the chain on her green banker’s lamp, spun around in her chair, put on her half glasses, and began to type without pause on her IBM Selectric. I watched that whirling typewriter ball spinning out my fate.

“How’s this?” she asked, pulling the letter out of the whining carriage and handing it to me. The few lines, neatly stacked below her embossed title, mentioned that I was “destined to be a fine editor in the industry” and that she could “vouch for that.” I carried that letter to every subsequent interview, sometimes showing it to the personnel officer, other times just fingering it in my breast pocket, as if it were a lucky talisman. I never saw or spoke to the late Martha Duffy again, but she remains a hero to me, and over the years every time I’ve had to hire a young editorial type myself, I think of her patience and belief in me, a total stranger.

Before I realized, too, the kinds of wages paid to editorial assistants, I fantasized about working as an editor at Christopher Street, the best gay literary magazine. I still own a black T-shirt with the magazine’s name stamped on it in rubber letters, which I bought as an undergraduate. Once, while I was backpacking through Europe between sophomore and junior years, some fellow student travelers approached me on the Spanish Steps in Rome, pointed to my T-shirt and said, “We know what that means.” But what writing for the magazine meant, I discovered, was to write and work for free.
PAUL AND I had a routine. Upon seeing me walk into Brentano’s he would tell a coworker to cover for him while he took a break. He and I would go into the back of the store, through a pair of swinging doors, and sit on unopened cartons of books. He would light a cigarette (was there a dancer back then who didn’t smoke?). I would hand him the latest version of my résumé, which I kept altering, with its bulleted accomplishments that included “Studied 20th-century British poetry with renowned University of Michigan professors,” and “Published two poems in Rising Star, the undergraduate literary journal.” I would tell Paul who had interviewed me, which offices I had visited, and the views they afforded, and I asked him to define new terms I kept hearing, such as “subsidiary rights” and “foreign scouts.” Given his regular contacts with authors and editors at the city’s premier bookstore, he might have been the best-informed person in New York publishing. He would tell me which publishing houses to pursue and list the names of the authors they were promoting so that I could reference them in my interviews.

On some of my visits, Paul would hand me a gift-wrapped book that he insisted he had paid for with his employee discount. One of the titles was a new novel by Harry Crews with a personal inscription from the author: “For David—I’ve been hearing about your job search. Good luck! Maybe you’ll be my editor someday.” I remember little about the novel’s plot except that it took place in Florida (or was it Louisiana?) and that there were lots of rattlesnakes and men tossing back shots of whiskey.

I had learned about a job as the assistant to the managing editor of Holt, Rinehart & Winston (now Henry Holt), and when I showed up, again unannounced, the managing editor stomped out to reception, a red pencil cradled behind an ear and a blue one behind the other. She took me into her office, its windows netted with wire through which sifted gray airshaft light. Pigeons cooed and mated on the sills, others flapped up and down against a sooty brick backdrop, a view I learned she had been seeing every day for twenty years. It was my first blunt realization about office life and what a steady job really meant. She had been in this room for nearly as long as I had been alive.

She offered me the job the next day, even though I had never before heard the terms “galleys” or “proofs,” “firsts” or “blues,” and didn’t yet know a single editing symbol, all of which resembled hieroglyphs. When I told Paul the news of my having been offered the job as we sat in the back of the store on our carton furniture, he quickly looked around and suddenly kissed me on the cheek. “Pick out any book—I’m buying it for you,” he said. “And if the author is still alive, I’ll get it inscribed to you.” I chose Theodore Roethke’s The Far Field, which remains on a bookshelf, though alas the author had already died.

While at Holt, I learned that some authors were treated with special attention, even awe, one of them being Joseph Hansen. He was contracted to write a continuing series of novels about a film-noirish insurance detective named Dave Brandstetter. But unlike the stereotypical versions of such a character, he was a gay, middle-aged man. I was determined to meet Hansen but wasn’t at the company long enough for that to happen, though I did write him a fan letter on company letterhead, to which he responded with a phone call at my desk.

As soon as I started my nine-to-five job, which on the first day I learned was really eight-thirty to eight, I could no longer visit Paul at the bookstore. Our lunch hours didn’t coincide, and by the time I got out of the office, either the store was closed or I was too exhausted and hungry to walk the several blocks uptown. That, too, was a reality of office life—the inability to experience any of life outside of working hours.

On my second Friday on the job, Paul called me at my metal desk and asked if I was free for dinner that night—his treat. This would be my first date in New York. He chose a restaurant called The Library. It was a surprisingly elegant spot for its neighborhood—Broadway and 92nd Street—which had yet to gentrify. In the early 1980s, many young gay men lived on the Upper West Side, where there was a string of gay bars along Columbus Avenue—Wildwood, The Works, and Cahoots, which was my favorite, since the unstated dress code was what I knew best: preppy, consisting of loafers, white socks, and Lacoste shirt with turned-up collar. (So popular then was The Preppy Handbook that when I later worked for Simon and Schuster, I was asked to pose as one of the cover “models” for their cranky knockoff, The I Hate Preppies Handbook. While I had been lured to the photo shoot with the promise that I’d be cast as the jock, I was instead dressed up as the nerd and fitted with a pair of taped black eyeglasses.)

Out of our regular setting, a busy Midtown bookstore with the topic of my job search as our agenda, Paul and I were both nervous as we sat in a nook of the restaurant, amid its motif of shelves filled with jacketless books—Reader’s Digest condensed novels and mathematics textbooks dating to Pythagoras, volumes clearly bought by the yard as décor. Every time the conversation lagged, we would each reach to a shelf and pull out a volume as if entranced by its promising title. We read passages to each other about isosceles triangles and Marjorie Morningstar’s observations about married men on the make. I told Paul about my sightings of William Burroughs in the office wearing a fedora adorned with a red cardinal feather in its side as he passed my cubicle en route to the editor-in-chief’s office.

Even though it was near midnight when we finished our dinner, I invited Paul to see where I lived. For months I’d been renting the dining room of a rambling apartment on 91st Street that was owned by a forty-something vocal coach named Ernie whose clients came over on weeknights and weekends. After work at Holt, I would read “slush-pile” manuscripts from the office on my bed by chandelier light and eat my dinners at the kitchen counter with the radio tuned to one of New York’s three classical music stations. Some evenings, after one of his budding tenors or contraltos had left, Ernie would come into the kitchen, pull up a stool, sit just inches away from me, and, with no explanation, reach over my dinner plate to turn off the radio. And we would then eat our meals in silence. Perhaps he’d had his fill of Verdi.

The moment Ernie left any room in the apartment, he would lock the door behind him, using one of many keys hanging from his belt. Every room—every closet, his bedroom, his bathroom, a kitchen pantry—had a separate lock. Pencils and pens were tied to furniture legs with string. At the beginning of each month, when it was time to pay the phone and Con Ed bills, he recorded which of us stamped the envelopes so we could alternate that expense.

As soon as Paul and I came into the apartment and sat in the living room, Ernie suddenly appeared from his bedroom in pajamas and slippers. There was a peephole in his bedroom door, and I had heard him flip open the lens. He double-bolted the door behind him and without saying anything began to neaten the room—dusting his toreador-themed tchotchkes, testing the three-way wattages of his rose-colored bulbs, straightening sheet music. He ran a rag back and forth over the keys of the piano, playing out ascending and descending glissandos.

Paul, years ahead of me in the experience of life in New York, knew that such living situations were not uncommon—so he shrugged and we laughed about the Neil Simonesque scene that had just played out. Perhaps because of Ernie’s disconcerting presence, which had halted our conversation, and my realization after just weeks at Holt what office life entailed, I admitted to Paul—too ardently—my affection for him. I loved him, though I don’t think I used that word. I admired and desired him for his constancy and affection, for his sheer availability in my life. Even then I knew how lucky I’d been to have met him in a place where I felt safe from my job search. That bookstore represented a kind of earthbound limbo between college and adulthood, and it seemed Paul had been cosmically assigned to guide me through the transition.

Paul remained silent after my declaration and looked down at the crewel-work rug, emblazoned with images of bullfighters flicking their scarlet capes. He rose, his feet slightly splayed as dancers do, and thanked me for saying what I had, and then said he was so sorry but that he already had a boyfriend, someone who lived in another state. He noted how late it was and said that he needed to get back to his apartment at the Ansonia, which he shared with roommates. I knew he lived in that Art Nouveau building, site of the former Continental Baths where Bette Midler had performed, and I used to guess which scrolling wrought-iron railing was his when I looked up at the ornate façade from Broadway on the walk home from work.

As Paul and I stood at the front door of the apartment, I heard Ernie flip open the lens again of his bedroom door peephole, though we were out of his view. Paul pulled me against him and hugged me hard and kissed the back of my neck and top of my head—gestures simultaneously romantic and fraternal.

Although I didn’t tell him at the time, because I didn’t realize it at the time, had I not met Paul in the bookstore I might not be here in New York today. Everything would have been just that much altered—the timing, my tolerance for the city, my stamina for the job search, the degree of confidence that I had, an early knowledge that there were people to meet beyond the cocoon of college.

Paul and I didn’t see each other again after that evening, mostly because of my own embarrassment. Some lunch hours I would take the train to the Frick Museum to see a favorite Renaissance portrait by Bronzino of a young man named Lodovico Capponi, whose beautiful, wavy, auburn hair reminded me of Paul’s. Soon afterwards, Paul wrote me a letter, sent to my apartment, to tell me that he had moved to San Francisco to join a dance troupe—and work part-time in a bookstore.

How can I help but wonder whether he made it through the rest of the 1980s in San Francisco? Although I am now middle-aged and have made my living in publishing ever since as an editor and writer, Paul remains a part of life, a presence, if not a living character, in my ongoing New York story.


David Masello is a poet and cultural critic based in New York City.