Lawyer, 42; single; lives in the West Village.
J. Wolf is awake, trapped in a twilight state between sleep and wakefulness for a long period of time every day—a period called morning. His breakfast ambrosia: All-Bran, Spoon Size Shredded Wheat, raisins, peanut butter, soy milk—a reaction to childhood, in a minor sort of way, remembering that when he was growing up he could only have one cereal at a time. Now he likes the idea of mixing four or five together. It feels like liberation. Shaking out vitamins, Ester C and Especially for Men, reminds him that he’s of an age where he can cherish the idea of 50 milligrams of saw palmetto slipped into his morning meal. He takes a slug of Gatorade and the vitamins go down.
The apartment is not immaculate. It is, in fact, maculate—spotted. There’s something everywhere. The cleaning lady was here yesterday; he gave her a raise and she said, “good ting too I’m glad you did.” He hasn’t told her that the domestic partner left; one would think surely she knows. He should tell her … it would be a good idea. She still puts the pillows on the bed as though they were for two people, arranges the towels as though they were for two people.
Wolf stands before his Diane Arbus photograph of a group of Russian midgets, bent, observing. He is forever noticing something—this time, a small tub of Breakstone’s sweet whipped butter in which a violet appears to be growing. Stranger still, around the corner is a portrait of Wolf’s parents taken by Amy Arbus; the parents made small, black-and-white, fixed in place. It is an opening, a portal, one generation folding into the next.
Jaime Wolf pauses to return a book to the shelf—S. J. Perelman will be happy next to Mike Albo. The house is quiet and a little dim—Wolf hates when the sunlight just comes pouring in and socks him in the face. “Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.” No. 14 of Berryman’s Dream Songs—bathroom reading for this boy. Wolf doesn’t think reality is banal or pathetic, and yet last night as he put out his clothes, he was all too aware that it was not very interesting or of particular consequence whether he picked the ripped Calvin Kleins or the newer pair of 2(x)ist. He puts on his work clothes, takes his gym clothes and changes into the gym clothes at the gym. Sometimes it’s a little chilly out and he doesn’t want to be running around in his gottkes … . Is that a real Yiddish word? Yiddish is on his mind—he once met a woman who referred to her undies as her schmeevers. Wolf checked with fluent people who’d never heard of the word. The woman insisted that it was real—Yiddish is filled with all sorts of outlaw elements. En route to the gym T-shirts speak to the passerby—YOU AREN’T WHAT I AM. And Naughty by Nature’s “It’s On” plays in Wolf’s head.
The elliptical trainer provides a gentle transition allowing him to travel in his mind and exercise safely. He muses on a line his friend Rhonda Garelick recently coined: “How infrequent are the instances of Schadenfreude, and how frequent the instances of feeling Gluckschmertz.”
Wolf, the straphanger in love with the efficiency of the train, is a citizen superhero there to help with a stroller, to offer his seat. He is beaming—ebullient. Shazam—it sure is glorious. Up the steps, the park, the fountain and the Duane Reade. J. Wolf, of course, has a Duane Reade club card and uses it frequently to get the 39 cents off moisturizer … he really likes being a member of the club.
Having just relocated his expanding law practice, Pelosi, Wolf, Effron and Spates LLP, to the Woolworth Building, Wolf enters the Cathedral of Commerce paying his respects to the carvings of architect Cass Gilbert and F. W. Woolworth himself, wedged into the ceiling, counting his nickels and dimes.
The elevator opens onto a construction site—the space is 80 percent done and the last 20 percent is on Wolf’s mind constantly. In the office, Wolf’s computer desktop opens to a cascade of urgent and unfinished items unfolding like a magician fanning a deck of cards. Checking his voice mail, he flips through the pages of a legal pad making notes in scratchy pencil. “Oh, Jesus,” he says, scratching. “Okay, okay,” he mutters as though he doesn’t believe what he hears. He pauses. “Lie,” he says. “Not a problem,” he offers—all the while talking to the voice mail.
He is a transactional entertainment attorney, putting together deals, counseling clients, drafting documents, with a sub-specialty in libel vetting. Wolf loves having his own firm, didn’t know it would suit him quite so well. He spent two years at the edge of the high dive thinking it looks cold and when he finally took the plunge it was the best thing he ever did.
He slaps a binder on his desk—a book by a first-time author, Shalom Auslander, Beware of God. Auslander was on “This American Life”—he talked about walking to a Rangers game on Shabbes from New Jersey.
Reviewing a letter of agreement for a TV producer, the little yellow billing clock on Wolf’s computer clicks—like a taxi meter. He reads aloud. “This constitutes … maybe be divided.” The yellow second hand sweeps around again.
He glances at something for a pro bono client, a hip Jewish magazine called Heeb. Wolf reads and types frantically. “NO, it is not clear that this is satire. It’s like the kids with the chemistry set in the basement … Sometimes I’m the grown-up who has to say no jokes about Dr. Mengele.”
Wolf likes his clients and wonders what would happen if everyone only worked for people they liked and respected—a lot of people and a lot of companies would be without legal representation. Maybe that would be a good thing; they’d have to do better work, be nicer. What is the spiritual aspect of manners—a distinction between manners and courtesy? … Just thinking how corrupted the word spirituality is; there’s a kind of dampness to it, it has a commercial sound, the word seems to have been hijacked by New Age marketing people. And as transcendent issues and the uninstalled in the conference room vie for his attention—a distraction; it’s amazing having a view of the water—I’ll see a ferry boat and think—a boat—completely putting me in touch with the 3-year-old aspect of myself. Being near ground zero makes me think about September 11 a lot … sometimes the sadness of being here is overwhelming and other times I think I’m bringing some life back to the joint and that’s a good thing. —A. M. Homes
Movie producer, 51; married, three children; lives in Greenwich Village.
Typical morning: six cups of coffee, going 800 miles an hour, then I lock myself in the bathroom for an hour and a half, read seven newspapers. All that information floating around in my head, along with the stuff I need to remember for work, producing Noah’s movie The Squid and the Whale, selling the competitive-eating film. Yesterday I was in a cab, the driver tells me how, 30 years ago, how he got involved in some pyramid scheme in Florida selling ladies’ cosmetics door to door, some scam run by a guy named Turner … I ask him, Guy have a harelip? He says, Yeah. How do you know? I remembered. Read it in the papers.
The building’s got a lottery, I get to park in Washington Mews. Otherwise I’d be out here all morning sitting in my car. The other day I got a $125 ticket for dropping my kid off in front of my building. There’s a sign there now that says: no standing. Is that what Bloomberg means by No Standing? Dropping your own kid off in front of your own house? Having a car in New York is insane. But we need it, at least until the kids can get to school on their own. Griffin takes the subway to Saint Ann’s. I’m not crazy about the train. I had bioterror fantasies long before 9/11. Just yesterday, that actress got shot on the W train . . .
It’s eight. Half an hour to drive the kids uptown. Romilly gets to listen to Avril Lavigne and Professor Longhair till we pass the Intrepid, then James—sixth grade—gets to hear Radiohead and the Ali soundtrack the rest of the way to Calhoun. A big part is timing the lights. It’s all about the other drivers “making the move,” what I call “making the move,” cutting you off just as you’re about to make the light. Look at that garbage truck—a double move! If I miss by five minutes, I lose the double-parking spot in front of Romilly’s school. Every single time we drive by those new towers at the bottom of the West Side, we curse Donald Trump. Another floor up! Cutting off the sunshine, jamming the phone signals!
Every day I’m supposed to remember to tell them who’s picking up Rommy, every day I forget. Has she got her karate bag? Kiss kiss, love you, bye. 8:25. We made it! Thirty percent of my life is spent moving kids around. I already need more caffeine. Grab the cell, still driving: Hi Dan, it’s Peter. Okay, see you there. We’re showing the competitive-eating documentary to a lady from Spike TV at two. A&E already wants it. It’s partly all that free publicity we got when we screened the film at the Tribeca Film Festival, Crazy Legs Conti ate his way out of a sarcophagus full of popcorn. The Evel Knievel of the alimentary canal. The Houdini of cuisini.
Noah’s film is supposed to start shooting in six weeks, and we’re not sure how much money we have to spend. All these people need to get paid. It’s like gambling. Working on the faith that something’s going to happen. I used to bet the house every morning, practically before I even got up. Not anymore. Everyone’s playing it safer.
Time for breakfast. The usual: two hot dogs at Gray’s Papaya. Hot dogs for breakfast is a special thing. My last meal on earth would definitely be at Gray’s Papaya. Most people might think it’s weird to have hot dogs for breakfast. But hey, it’s sausage, right? Lately, I’ve been putting the two hot dogs on one bun—my modified attempt at the Atkins diet. Start the day with a good deed! Quick stop back home, see my wife, Antonia, grab another coffee, then off to the office. Every day I show up at the office with 50 Post-its in my pocket. It’s a trick I learned from being on an airplane with Gene Simmons, the guy from Kiss. The whole trip, he kept writing little notes to himself that said things like: Coat in the overhead bin. So now I have all these notes. The only trick is to figure out what I meant when I wrote them.
I love my garage near the office. Once I went to get my car, and they’d busted some guy who worked there for dealing drugs. The cops impounded all the cars, I couldn’t get mine out. Quick stop at Florent. Large black coffee to go. I love working in this neighborhood, but it’s changing so fast. The irony is the rat problem. All these fancy hotels have rats. Well, what did they expect? It’s the meatpacking district.
I love my job. But the rewards are certainly not financial. If you prorate independent movie production, you’d get maybe 23 cents a day. And that’s a happy outcome!
The office is a mess. But I know where everything is. If I get enough caffeine, the walls start vibrating, and I have enough energy to do what I have to do. Noah’s movie’s going to get made. It’s the quality of the—oh, wait, phone. Hello? Hello? No one there. The quality of the script. Phone again—oh, hi, did you just try to call me? Now is when all the calls from Europe come in. Oh, hi. Hi, François. Hi, Ed. Could you let me know when the lady from Spike TV shows up?
Lunch. I’m such a creature of habit. I ordered the same thing from the same place for years, and then I switched, and now I order the same thing from a different place. Hamburger and salad. Hello? I just got off with Mark who talked with Steve who had something he needed to clear up before he talks to Eric. Wait. Jennifer? Are you on the cell? Can I call you right back? I was supposed to call Jennifer back, wasn’t I? Wait. I did call Jennifer back. Oh, hi, Bob. Look, just so you know about the chicken and the egg and the chicken and . . .
Screen the film for Spike TV. Then it’s off to meet James after school at the Kingsway Boxing Gym. The smell, the history on these walls. The ethic. Everyone is so nice to everyone else, they treat everybody like an equal. People here are much more honorable and straightforward than they are in film. If you make a mistake here, you get knocked out. If you make a mistake in film, you get rewarded. James is really good at this. He’s the baby-faced assassin. One day this old guy says to me, You a Jew? I say, Yeah. He says, That boy of yours a Jew? I say, Yeah. He says, He’s the best Jewish fighter I’ve seen since Lenny Rosenbloom, and that was in 1961. He wanted to manage James. Sign him up. James is only 12!
Home. Finally! Just when I’ve had my first glass of red wine, starting to relax, some really abrasive person from California calls, tries to pin me in a corner. Antonia cooks. We eat dinner, veal cutlets and … what’s this vegetable called? Brussels sprouts? Brussels sprouts. Two glasses of red wine. Watch the news, the talk shows. The phone calls stop around nine or ten.
I have a thing I like to do. Lie down on the floor with the kids and tell them crazy stories. Like: Long ago and far away, we’re floating on the river, something weird is happening in the sky … Last week Rommy told me she dreamed it was raining mashed potatoes, big chunks of sausage were falling from the sky, she was trying to glue them together. That’s what my stories do for her. I tell them stories to put them to sleep. But most of the time, I’m the one who falls asleep. I fall asleep like that, lying on the floor with the kids. It’s peaceful. —Francine Prose
Computer teacher, 42; single; lives in Chelsea.
Soterios johnson, what does he look like? I could Google him, but that seems excessive. I’ve been listening to WNYC in the morning for fifteen years, and I wonder this every morning. Why screw up a good thing? Anyway, it’s time to get up. By which I mean turn on the computer and check on my clients, who my friends call “the wrinklies”: Some of them are just learning how to use e-mail. Such troupers! Mr. B is mastering attachments. A-plus, Mr. B! Francesca wants to cancel her lesson and—wow, Monday’s NYU class is a go with only four students! I better get the current version of Quicken to play with. Guess I should put some clothes on—but maybe food first.
Hunk of salmon, seaweed salad, and a glass of water—best breakfast on earth. My old Fire Island housemates are coming for dinner. Addison’s friend Rich had a seizure and died last week. Only 40! I’m 42. Addison flew back from Brazil for the service, so I rounded up the others. I want to use my mom’s special artichoke plates—wineglasses, napkins, forks … setting the table naked at 8 a.m. Is that weird?
Soterios says rain later, but I don’t believe him. No one ever sees me two days running, so I put on yesterday’s clothes: black trousers, white sweater, flat sandals, and out the door. Four flights down. Wow, perfect day. One long block to subway at 14th and Eighth, and there’s even a train sitting there. I hate rush hour. Plenty of room on that seat, except the guy has his legs spread like he’s riding a stallion. I’m sure you need all that room, honey, but would you mind just … ? Thanks. Okay, to-do list: Buy artichokes, get Quicken, oh, find someone to take Francesca’s slot. It’s always like this, but the referrals keep on coming. I started out as a closet organizer (well, after the shoe modeling and the puppeteering both went south). Then people wanted help organizing their computers too, and then someone sent me an elderly friend who needed to learn, and then I wrote It’s Never Too Late to Love a Computer, and now it’s my life.
Mr. B lives with his wife in a penthouse at 70th and Madison. There’s a butler, a maid, a secretary, and a chauffeur at the ready. He’s also got an office in midtown, where he makes the occasional emeritus appearance. Today, we look at refdesk.com—he loves the atomic clock. We synchronize our watches and he wants to reset the computer’s clock, too—down to the second. It takes eight tries. By the time he gets the numbers in, he’s off again. Finally we do a duet—I input the digits and he clicks apply. I’m not really teaching him anything at this point, I’m more like a coach. Perfect! I tell him. You get an A-plus, Milty! No I don’t, he says, I forgot the subject line in that e-mail. Well, okay, an A, then. The guy’s got to be 80 years old and he’s knocking down his own imaginary grades. I guess that’s how he got the staff and the penthouse. He pays me in cash from the safe in the bedroom—crisp $50 bills—I love that.
Check voice mail in the cab downtown—Francesca still wants her lesson. Call her back and tell her she must not use the mouse with a sprained wrist—but she’s afraid she’ll lose what she learned last week. No, no, you won’t forget. It’s like riding a bike, Francesca. Call me if you get scared. Don’t worry. End the call, the phone rings again: Addison. Can he bring a friend tomorrow night? Tomorrow night! Addison! The table is set, the scallops are marinating! Let me just make a call—I thought you said Thursday. Make that call, Addison—everyone’s coming to see you!
Mrs. Z’s building at 54th and Broadway is a mystery: cubbyhole mailboxes behind the desk and strange copper lamps that cast weak light. Some of the tenants look like former Ziegfeld girls who’ve been here since the lamps were new. Not Mrs. Z: I acquired her at a fancy party last year—I was the closest thing to an old showgirl in that room. Everyone else was a Kissinger or a Montebello or a Negroponte. The man seated on my right was recently bereaved, about 60. I figured my job was to charm him; I did my best. Three months later, the women all started calling me for computer lessons.
Today, Mrs. Z wants to try Amazon. Chooses $70 worth of books on tape but makes sure the shipping is free before confirming. She’s got four houses. Next, we Google a hairbrush she got in Europe last year: “Spornette.” She clicks sponsored links—can’t tell the difference. If I explain, it will only confuse her. Am I an assistant, a teacher, a servant? A month ago, she gave me a bathing suit she’d never worn—tags still on. Abby—did I break something? (It’s an infinite regression of pop-up ads.) No, no, it’s never you, Mrs. Z. Just drag until you see the close button—X marks the spot, see? She looks frightened. Don’t worry. They’re just ads.
Back outside, I check voice mail. NYU class is canceled. That’s one less errand, but the money! My sister says I should have a 24-hour cancellation policy, like a shrink. A shrink with no health insurance? Anyway, the illusion is that I’m a pleasant and helpful houseguest, and houseguests don’t have cancellation policies.
Guests trickle in between 7 and 8:30. Addison’s last—I guess he winkled in that other engagement—great to see him. We don’t talk about Rich, except to say how sorry we are, again. Then chat ourselves silly. Four totter downstairs at midnight, but Addison and Dan stay until two. I have an 8 a.m. tomorrow—but that’s another thing about my clients: No matter what, they tell me I look great. —Rachel Cline
Artist and performer, 29; married; lives in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn.
The voice of Howard Stern. Nine o’clock and no dread yet. Two-plus years as a touring artist, a “slide-show poet” whose art has moved from gallery walls onto rock-club stages and low-lit taverns via a slide-show performance—and now time to finish new work. The draw-ing waiting for me on the easel. The wife Tara gone already, her school-day social work begun. No rushing: Stick to the rituals, stay loose, warm up like an athlete.
First thing is reading: Pick up the Skip James biography, although it’s not the preferred choice. Left the Andy Kaufman book in the Catskills. Trying not to think too hard about the drawing. Gotta check the e-mail because no bookings, no money. Hate the e-mail, feel like a junkie. Need an agent, a manager. There’s one good mes-sage: Some Colorado guy bought my book off the Website. Collection of my work—writing and drawings.
The ringing phone while packing up the book. Tara, to say hello. Look at the photo of her on the fridge while talking, a family-reunion shot from before we met. Wonder what Tara was like then. Ask her about it, her different hair. When are we gonna have a kid not mentioned. Both of us thinking about that, sometimes talking. Soon maybe. Grew my sideburns long for the wedding just so our future kids would laugh at their parents’ wedding photos.
Heading outside. Sending myself through the mail: Andy Friedman, the maverick visual artist—invite him to come and play in your town. He goes to bars and music clubs, gets onstage, shows his pictures on a science-class projector screen. Kind of performance art, kind of a reading—it’s a new something. Painter with lyrics, pictures and words that come together in a rambling, country-blues-rock-and-roll-cabaret spoken song. (But no music.) When will the Times write about me the punks. Down four flights onto St. Marks Avenue. Nod to the stroke-victim guy with a million cigarettes at his feet. “Hey, champ,” in reply.
Back home: starting to think about the drawing a bit, and what albums to play while working. First new drawings in three years, shit. Turn on NPR and hear Brian Lehrer. Always about the war. Is he a pink-faced white man in a sweater? Boil the water for the green tea, the Cream of Wheat—the kid on the box a dead ringer for Speiser, a friend from second grade.
Brush my teeth: Sour mouthtaste would distract me. Take the taped piece of paper off the drawing: a pen and pencil of a man stubbing out a cigarette in a plant bed. Extremely detailed work: Spent last week on the shadow behind the head. Two weeks on the hair. Put in “Love and Theft,” Swordfishtrombones, and Bryter Layter. Sony headphones over the ears. Hit play, and then light the candle. It’s gotta work in the first five minutes. Stare at the man’s arm. Pick up the pencil—a Ticonderoga Extra Soft No. 1. Sharpen the pencil with the razor. Three strokes. Re-sharpen. Three strokes. Re-sharpen. I’m in the arm. I’m falling into the picture. I’m gone.
Hours pass. Sense of hunger, smell of hot wax. I’m out of the picture. The candle snuffed out on its own. A signal that the working time is done. Has that happened before, all timed perfect like that? Cover the drawing on the easel. Brew coffee. Find the vein: Go and check e-mail. Take off shorts and T-shirt, and put on pants, plaid shirt, and a straw hat.
Walk to Vanderbilt Avenue. The neighborhood triple crown achieved years ago—Freddy’s bar, Vanderbilt Laundromat, diner called The Usual, all know Andy, say hello Andy, and no reason to leave ever really. Order a bacon burger deluxe with fries at The Usual. A few burger bites while watching the Twins game on television. Three days of no shaving: not depressed enough yet.
Home again and the ritual of falling back into the picture, except now it’s Jackson Browne’s Late for the Sky and Lucinda Williams’s Sweet Old World in the CD player. No point working after nine o’clock anyway. Sit down on the couch and join Tara in the middle of a Sex and the City. The girls are in L.A.
Tara gets a phone call, and now it’s a no-man’s land for me. E-mail-addict thing creeping up. Find the vein: Go and check. Oberlin offers a November date to come out and perform, another pin to put in the map. Mississippi John Hurt recorded a live record there, maybe I’ll do the same. Find a slice from nearby Gino’s pizza in the fridge. Tara says, “You’re microwaving that?” And I say, “That’s the way I grew up.” Long Island pride.
Friends from Atlanta phone up and say they’re here and can I come out for a beer? Then another call and they’ve ended up in Clinton Hill. Too late to go. Turn out all the lights and recede to the back room. Look through the book of Ingres drawings, and admire his untortured lines. Go back into the studio, uncover the drawing for a look. Different from the others but satisfying.
Midnight and a peek in at the sleeping wife. Turn on the TV to Blind Date. Dread leaving, body relaxing. The girl is a really hot Russian model. Put my hand on my head when her geeky date grabs her—“Vhat are you doing that for!” TV off and the burbling Brooklyn sounds. In bed with Skip James bio and the book-lite attached. The batteries are weakening. The pages turn yellow and then brownish-orange. The light fades, then dies. Twice today, all perfect-timed like that. —Michael Agger