This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
is the remarkable portrait of one young man's day at the office—actually, his lunch hour and, more exactly, his escalator ride back to his office on the mezzanine level, after purchasing shoelaces. Nicholson Baker's novel is fiction of an astonishing new and original variety. The seemingly small and inconsequential events of the narrator's life—breaking both shoe laces within a day of each other—assume the narrative weight of major discoveries, signif icant events in a straight-faced comedy of the quotidian. Pushing at the boundaries of supposedly average thoughts—why the spout on the milk carton? is the hot air blower in the men's room really more sani tary?—the tale uncovers the strange and wonderful parameters of the everyday. Complete with footnotes, lists, and charts, The Mezzanine marks Nicholson Baker's inspired debut as novelist.
N I C H O L S O N BAKER 'S short stories have appeared in The Atlantic and The New Yorker He lives in Mount Morris, New York, with his wife and child.
Jacket illustration and design by Dave Calver Author's photograph © 1988 Abe Morell
Weidenfeld & Nicolson 841 Broadway New York, N Y 10003-4793
10/88 Printed in U S A © 1988 Wheatland Corporation
THE MEZZANINE .
THE MEZZANINE A NOVEL BY NICHOLSON BAKER UN WEIDENFELD & N I C O L S O N New York .
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Baker.54 88-10783 Manufactured in the United States of America Designed by Irving Perkins Associates First Edition 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 . No reproduction of this book in whole or in part or in any form may be made without written authorization of the copyright owner. 1988 by Nicholson Baker All rights reserved.A4325M49 1988 ISBN 1-55584-258-5 813'. PS3552. New York A Division of Wheatland Corporation 841 Broadway New York. Title.Copyright © 1986. Nicholson. Portions of this novel. first appeared in The New Yorker. Ltd. New York 10003-4793 Published in Canada by General Publishing Company. The mezzanine. in somewhat different form. Published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson. I.
For Margaret .
THE MEZZANINE .
1 W h e n I drew close to the u p escalator. its receipt stapled over the top. m e t the real escalators just above their middle point. On s u n n y days like this one. and adding long glossy highlights to each of the black rubber handrails w h i c h wavered slightly as the handrails slid o n their tracks. like the radians of black luster that ride the undulating outer edge of a n LP. the curve of each fan blade picks up the light for an instant o n its circuit and then hands it off to its successor. I involuntarily trans ferred my paperback a n d CVS bag to m y left h a n d . Even propellers or desk fans will glint steadily in certain places in the grayness of their rotation. w h e r e m y office was. carrying a black Penguin paperback a n d a small w h i t e CVS bag. The escalators rose toward the mezzanine. 1 3 . steeper escalator of daylight. formed by intersec tions of the lobby's towering volumes of marble a n d glass. a temporary.Chapter One AT ALMOST ONE O'CLOCK I entered the lobby of the building w h e r e I w o r k e d a n d t u r n e d t o w a r d t h e escalators. They w e r e the free standing kind: a pair of integral signs swooping u p w a r d between the t w o floors they served w i t h o u t struts or piers to bear any intermediate weight. spreading into a needly area of shine w h e r e it fell against their brushed-steel side-panels. so that I 1 love the constancy of shine on the edges of moving objects.
the early manufacturing runs looked good. and w h e n I looked d o w n at it. I paid for the carton of milk. and then the girl (her n a m e tag said " D o n n a " ) hesitated.4 NICHOLSON BAKER could take the handrail with my right. I thought: they kept your pur chases private. w h e n I gave the subject more thought. The bag m a d e a little paper-rattling sound. " D o you want a s t r a w ? " I hesitated in turn—did I? My interest in straws for drinking anything besides milkshakes had fallen off some years before. What they had forgotten to take into account. though the straw engineers were probably blameworthy for failing to foresee the straw's buoyancy. according to habit. they went ahead. attracted by the notion of spending a few m i n u t e s in the plaza in front of my building eating a dessert I should have o u t g r o w n and reading my paperback. steering it back d o w n into the can every time you wanted a sip. was that you did not have to set d o w n the slice of pizza to suck a dose of Coke while reading a paperback. what happened was that the plastic material used in place of paper was in fact heavier than Coke—their equations were absolutely correct. probably peaking out the year that all the major straw vendors switched from paper to plastic straws. as many have. I decided that. m y recollection snagged on the stapled receipt. while signaling to the world that you led a busy. circa 1970 or so. full of pressing errands run. How could the straw engineers have made so elementary a mistake. to buy a half-pint of milk to go along with a cookie I had bought unexpectedly from a failing franchise. 1 1 stared in disbelief the first time a straw rose up from my can of soda and hung out over the table. designing a straw that weighed less than the sugar-water in which it was intended to stand? Madness! But later. barely arrested by burrs in the underside of the metal opening. But of course that was one of the principal reasons you needed little bags. perhaps. I discovered that I was unable for a second to r e m e m b e r w h a t w a s inside. I w a s holding a slice of pizza in one hand. folded in a threefinger grip so that it wouldn't flop and pour cheese-grease on the paper plate. while straining your eyes to keep them trained o n the line of the page y o u were reading. I had thought. I h a d visited a Papa Gino's. the problem was more complex than I had first imagined. I soon found. and a paperback in a similar grip in the other hand—what was I supposed to do? The w h o l e point of straws. and w e entered that uncomfortable era of the floating straw. rich life. As I reconstruct that m o m e n t of history. a chain I rarely ate at. and though the water-to-plastic weight ratio was a little tight. that there was a w a y to drink no-handed with these n e w floating straws: y o u had to bend low to the table and grasp the almost horizontal straw with your lips. was that the bubbles of carbonation attach themselves to invisible 1 . sensing that some compo nent of the transaction w a s missing: she said. Earlier that lunch hour.
I think. But maybe I'd like a little b a g . with its spiral seam. They must have had w h o l e departments dedicated to exacting concessions from Sweetheart and Marcal. thus clad with bubbles. and make the slits even tighter. The straw men at the fast-food corporations had had a choice: either w e (a) make the crossed slits easier to pierce so that the paper straws aren't crum pled. " She said. even leaving aside the attractive price that the straw manufacturers were offering as they switched their plant over from paperspiraling equipment to high-speed extrusion machines—so they adopted it. the once marginally heavier straw reascends until its remain ing submerged surface area lacks the bubbles to lift it further. But the fast-food places were adjusting to a novelty of their o w n at about the same time: they were putting slosh caps o n every soft drink they served. w h i c h had been the source of some unhappiness in the age of paper straws. and are even possibly generated by turbu lence at the leading edge of the straw as you plunge it in the drink. Suddenly the paper-goods distributor was offering the small restaurants floating plastic straws and only floating plastic straws." a n d hur1 asperities on the straw's surface. w h y wasn't it corrected? A different recipe for the plastic. or w e (b) abandon paper outright. until just last year. a thicker straw? Surely the huge buyers. through nobody's fault. to go or for the dining room. " N o thanks. w a s much rougher than plastic. and the slosh caps had a little cross in the middle. and cause frustration. and was saying that this w a s the w a y all the big chains were going. stable geography for that microscopic region. I assumed that w h e n you softly crunched over those temporary barriers you were leveling actual "cell walls" that the joint had built to define what it believed from your motionlessness w a s going to be the final.THE MEZZANINE 5 although I did still like plastic elbow straws. w h o s e pleated necks resisted bending in a w a y that w a s very similar to the tiny seizeups your finger joints will u n d e r g o if you hold t h e m in the same position for a little w h i l e . Though the earlier paper straw. stain car seats and clothing. not thinking that their decision had important consequences for all restau rants and pizza places (especially) that served cans of soda. w h e n one day I noticed that a plastic straw. and more likely to attract bubbles. And (b) was the ideal solution for them. " O h ! Sorry. So w h e n Donna asked if I w o u l d like a straw to accompany my half-pint of milk. and the smaller sub shops did n o independent testing using cans of soda instead of cups with crossed-slit slosh caps. stood anchored to the bottom of my can! When I was little I had thought a fair amount about the finger-joint effect. In this way the quality of life. I smiled at her and said. All right—an oversight. wouldn't have tolerated straws beaching themselves in their restaurants for more than six months or so. went d o w n an eighth of a notch. with a colored stripe in it. because the cross w a s often so tight that the paper straw w o u l d crumple w h e n you tried to push it through. the fast-food companies. so that ( 1 ) any tendency to float is completely negated and (2) the seal between the straw and the crossed slits is so tight that almost no soda will well out. w h i c h cut d o w n o n spillage. it was porous: it soaked up a little of the Coke as ballast and stayed put. made of some subtler polymer. 1 .
a wish to shield the nature of m y purchase from the public eye—although this was often a powerful motive. mock-innocently w a r p the "Little b a g ? " convention by asking. they felt. you could tell by the w a y she opened the bag: three a n e m o n e splayings of her fingers inside it. etc.a n d . until it lay flat again? I might have defended my snub at the time by saying something about unnecessary waste. " I w o u l d leave holding the quart coolly in one hand. they often prompted. as they automatically reached for a bag for my quart of milk. t h a n k s . a loaf of bread—in a bag: food m e a n t to be eaten indoors. "I don't need a bag. W h e n I w a s in high school I used to unsettle these proprietors. But even after ringing u p things like cigarettes or ice cream bars. I thanked her and left. by raising a p a l m and saying officiously. as if w o u n d e d .p o p stores b u t at the n e w e r a n d m o r e a n o n y m o u s convenience stores. w h i c h I b o u g h t for the most part not at the m o m . But the real reason w a s that by then I had become a steady c o n s u m e r of magazines featuring color shots of naked w o m e n . She was quite new. or to be tough and say . w h e n I h a d loved bags since I w a s very little and h a d learned h o w to refold the large thick ones from the supermarket by pulling the creases taut a n d t h e n tapping along the infolding center of each side until the bag began to h u n c h forward o n itself. a p a n of Jiffy Pop. distributing m y purchases among several in the area. w h o understood these things. obviously m e a n t for ambulatory consumption. Small m o m and pop shop keepers. and not to be ridiculed. the guy at the register would sometimes cruelly. should be seen only indoors. landfills. touchingly flustered. the slowest way. a quart of milk. W h y h a d I intentionally snubbed their convention. "You need a bag for that?"—forcing m e either to concede this need with a nod. instinctively shrouded whatever solo item you b o u g h t — a box of pasta shells. And at these stores. thinking she h a d goofed.6 NICHOLSON BAKER riedly reached u n d e r the counter for it. "Little b a g ? " "Small b a g ? " "Little bag for t h a t ? " Bagging evidently w a s used to m a r k the exact point at w h i c h title to the ice cream bar passed to the buyer. as if it w e r e a big reference b o o k I had to consult so often that it bored m e . and then I began to w o n d e r : W h y h a d I requested a bag to hold a simple half-pint of milk? It w a s n ' t simply out of some abstract need for propriety.
and she slipped the magazine in a bag without asking whether I "needed" one or not.p o p store during that period w a s a w a y of demonstrating to a n y o n e w h o might have b e e n following m y movements that at least at that m o m e n t . always on Tuesday morning. " Hence the fact that I often said n o to a bag for a quart of milk at the m o m . vice-free family purchases from time to time. boldly. to submit happily to the convention. But there was a simpler. saying it so softly however that she heard "Powerhouse" and cheerfully pointed out the candy bar until I repeated the name. And n o w I w a s asking for a little bag for my half-pint of milk from D o n n a in order. It seemed that I always liked to have o n e h a n d free w h e n I w a s walking. That afternoon I expanded her brief embarrassment into a helpful vignette in which I became a steady once-a-week buyer of men's magazines from her.a n d . I tried it—I looked directly at her mascara and asked for a Penthouse. and I began finding little handwritten notes placed in the most wide spread pages of the magazine w h e n I got h o m e that said." and "Last night I posed sort of like this in front of my mirror in my room—the Cashier. I had nothing to hide.THE MEZZANINE 7 no and roll u p the unbagged n u d e magazine and clamp it in my bicycle rack so that only the giveaway cigarette ad o n the back cover showed—"Carlton Is L o w e s t . 1 . exiting that store." and "Sometimes I look at these pictures and think of you looking at them—the Cashier. and she had quit the next time I w e n t in. Breaking all eye contact. to clean away the bewilderment I h a d caused those m o m s and pops. she placed the document o n the counter between us—it was back w h e n they still s h o w e d nipples o n their covers— and rang it up along with the small container of Woolite I was buying to divert attention: she was embarrassed and brisk and possibly faintly excited. "Hi!—the Cash ier. less anthropological reason I h a d specifically asked D o n n a for the bag. walking t o w a r d the escala tor to the mezzanine and looking at the stapled CVS bag I h a d just transferred from o n e h a n d to the other. but which I n o w perceived. a reason I h a d n ' t quite isolated in that first m o m e n t of analysis o n the sidewalk after ward. but once. even w h e n I had several things to carry: I liked to b e able to slap m y h a n d fondly d o w n o n the top of a green mailmen-only mail box. until m y very ding-dong entrance into the 7-Eleven was charged with trembly confusion for both of us. even to pass it o n to someone w h o h a d not yet quite learned it at Papa Gino's. finally." Turnover is always a problem at those stores. that I did m a k e typical. even though I preferred the less pretentious Oui or Club. or b o u n c e my fist lightly against the steel support for the 1 For several years it was inconceivable to buy one of those periodicals w h e n a girl was behind the counter.
b u t very soon my walking softened the paper a little. building cell walls in earnest. and I would have forgotten it completely had it not been for the sight of the CVS bag. a n d the tops of the slim cookie bag and the CVS bag against the other side of the paperback. a n d the milk bag as one into my curled fingers. even insignificant perceptions like this one are almost always . dusty surfaces with the springy muscle o n the side of my palm w a s intrinsically good. It might have been possible to hold the blocky shape of the half-pint of milk against the paperback.8 NICHOLSON BAKER traffic lights. but m y fingers w o u l d have had to maintain this a w k w a r d grasp. Then it had not b e e n tagged as knowledge to be held for later retrieval. in order to keep one h a n d free. and because I liked other people to see m e as a guy in a tie yet carefree and casual e n o u g h to be doing w h a t kids do w h e n they drag a stick over the black uprights of a cast-iron fence. the CVS bag. similar e n o u g h to the milk-carton bag to trigger vibratiuncles of comparison. I especially liked doing o n e thing: I liked walking past a parking meter so close that it seemed as if my h a n d w o u l d slam into it.h e l d curl so finely wrinkled and formed to your fingers by the time you get h o m e that you hesitate to unroll it. that I consolidated the tiny understanding I h a d almost had fifteen minutes before. (A straw poking out of the top of the milk bag would have interfered with this scrolling—lucky I h a d refused it!) Then I could slide the paperback into t h e space b e t w e e n the scroll of bag paper and m y palm. both because the pleasure of touching these cold. A bag for the milk allowed for a m o r e graceful solution: I could scroll the tops of the cookie bag. as if I w e r e taking a small child o n a walk. At first the Papa Gino's bag w a s stiff. although I never got it to the state of utter silence a n d flannel softness that a bag will attain w h e n you carry it a r o u n d all day. And this is w h a t I h a d in fact done. the CVS bag. All of these actions depended o n a free h a n d . as I watched my left h a n d automatically take hold of the paper back and the CVS bag together. and the cookie bag. n e a r the base of the escalator. and at Papa Gino's I already w a s holding the Penguin paperback. It was only just n o w . Under microscopy. and at the last m i n u t e lifting my arm out just e n o u g h so that the meter passed u n d e r n e a t h my armpit. for several blocks until I got to m y building. its h a n d .
It would have b e e n less cumbersome. but the truth was that it was only the latest in a fairly long sequence of partially forgotten. inarticulable experiences. . finally n o w reaching a point that I paid attention to it for the first time.THE MEZZANINE 9 revealed to be m o r e incremental t h a n you later are tempted to present t h e m as being. In the stapled CVS bag was a pair of n e w shoelaces. in the account I a m giving here of a specific lunch h o u r several years ago. to have pretended that the bag t h o u g h t had come to me complete and "all at o n c e " at the foot of the u p escalator.
and the covert chokings and showings of tongues and placing 11 . the jingle of their change. the squeak of their shoes. and as I had sat at m y desk working o n a m e m o .d o w n areas of public traffic. as well as the almost sonic w h o o s h of receptionists' staggering a n d misguided perfumes. Only u n d e r the desks and in the little-used conference r o o m s w a s the pile still plush e n o u g h to hold the beautiful Ms and Vs the night crew left as strokes of their v a c u u m cleaners' w a n d s m a d e swaths of dustless tufting lean in directions that alternately absorbed a n d reflected the light. m y foot had sensed its potential freedom and slipped out of the sauna of black cordovan to soothe itself with rhythmic m o v e m e n t s over an area of wall-to-wall carpeting u n d e r m y desk. The nearly universal carpeting of offices must have come about in m y lifetime. At some earlier point in the morning.Chapter Two M Y LEFT SHOELACE h a d snapped just before lunch. unlike the t a m p e d . which. the efficient little sniffs they m a k e to signal to us and to themselves that they are busy and walking somewhere for a very good reason. w a s still almost as soft and fibrous as it had b e e n w h e n first installed. m y left shoe h a d b e c o m e untied. judging from black-andwhite movies a n d Hopper paintings: since the pervasion of carpeting. all you hear w h e n people walk by are their o w n noises—the flap of their raincoats.
although n o w . m y foot had. threw out m y earplugs and. slipped from the untied shoe and sought out the texture of the carpeting. even though I believed for some years that this was a clever trick. m a y still m a n a g e to get their footfalls heard. b u t the combination of fluorescence and linoleum. computer r o o m s . I n o longer pre-bunch. taught by admirable. m o r e carefully. I stapled a copy of a m e m o s o m e o n e had cc.12 NICHOLSON BAKER of braceleted h a n d s to windpipes that m o r e tastefully scented secretaries exchange in their w a k e . I stopped working. I don't gather the sock up into telescoped folds over m y thumbs and then position the resultant donut over m y toes. then. as I reconstruct the m o m e n t . Why? The more elegant prebunching can leave in place any pieces of grit that have embedded them selves in your sole from the imperfectly swept floor you walked on to get from the shower to your room. while the cruder. as a n y o n e k n o w s w h o has visited those areas of offices that are still for various reasons linoleum-squared—cafeterias. so that y o u seldom later feel irritating particles rolling around under your arch as you depart for the subway. the remainder of my m o r n i n g coffee—placing it upright within the converging spinnakers of the trash can liner o n the base of the receptacle itself. though it risks tearing an older sock. y o u are really enjoying the slippage of the inner surface of the sock against the underside of your foot. and 1 W h e n I pull a sock on.'d m e o n to a copy of a n earlier m e m o I h a d written o n the same subject. Linoleum w a s bearable back w h e n incandescent light w a s there to counteract it with a softening glow. but in general n o w w e all glide at work: a major improvement. fresh-faced kindergarten teachers. does detach this grit during the foot's downward passage. is n o t good. so that t h o u g h y o u think you are enjoying the texture of the carpeting. working the ankle a few times to properly seat the heel. 1 . w h o have special pounding styles of walking. that is. without any sanction from m y conscious will. and that I revealed my laziness and m y inability to plan ahead by instead holding the sock by the ankle rim and jamming my foot to its destination. I realize that a m o r e specialized desire w a s at w o r k as well: w h e n you slide a socked foot over a carpeted surface. w h i c h must have b e e n widespread for several years as the two trends overlapped. more direct method. some thing you normally get to experience only in the morning w h e n y o u first pull the sock o n . At a few m i n u t e s before twelve. mailrooms. One or t w o individuals in every office (Dave in m i n e ) . the fibers of sock and carpet m e s h and lock. As I had worked.
reaching the innermost end of the roll. a n d bingo. "Abe—should I keep h a m m e r i n g o n these people or drop i t ? " I put the stapled papers in one of m y Eldon trays. as well as superbly quiet. became bluish-transparent. Dave. and then. with the rise of Post-it notes. which have made the massive black tape-dispensers seem even more grandiose and Biedermeier and tragically defunct. and shaking it into place. I experienced a faint surge of pride in being able to tie a shoe w i t h o u t looking at it. and w h e n I crouched forward. (b) pulling on the red thread that is supposed to butterfly a Band-Aid and having it wrest free from the wrapper with out tearing it. it broke. Then I slipped my shoe back o n by flipping it o n its side. overhearty "Have a good one. guys!" They disappeared. At that m o m e n t . not sure whether I would forward t h e m to Abelardo or not. I accomplished all this by foot-feel. and stamping down on the landing. disruptions of physical routines. The curve of incredulousness a n d resignation I rode out at that m o m e n t was a kind caused in life by a certain class of events. to reach the untied shoelace. weighted Duesenberg of a dispenser. As incandescence gave w a y before fluorescence in office lighting. in m y best casual scrawl. Scotch tape. hearing the slightly descending whisper of adhesive-coated plastic detaching itself from the back of the tape to come (descending in pitch because the strip. a n d Steve. waved as they passed by my office. Right in the middle of tying a shoe as I was. 1 . (c) drawing a piece of Scotch tape from the roll that resides half sunk in its black. you almost believe that you will never come to the 1 When I was little I thought it was called Scotch tape because the word "scotch" imitated the descending screech of early cellophane tapes. once yellowish-transparent. such as: (a) reaching a top step but thinking there is another step there. just as you are intending to break the piece off over the metal serration. o n their w a y to lunch.THE MEZZANINE 13 wrote at the top to m y manager. I pulled the left shoelace tight. hooking it with my foot. Especially now. is also getting longer as you pull on it ). so I called out a startled. Sue. I couldn't w a v e nonchalantly back. over the papers o n my desk. while amplifying the sound. so that the segment you have been pulling wafts unexpect edly free.
that it has run out of staples. third. the broad stylistic changes w e have witnessed in train locomotives and phonograph tonearms. like the chewing of an ice cube. (In the case of the tonearm. before the stapler arm makes contact with the paper. and later. instinctively sensing that staplers were like locomotives in that the t w o prongs of the staple make contact with a pair of metal hollows.14 NICHOLSON BAKER end of a roll of tape. a unit. the m o m e n t w h e n the small independent unit in the stapler arm noses into the paper and begins to force the two points of the staple into and through it. on the phone. forces them to follow a preset path. the felt crunch. second. make sharp points of contact with their respective media of informational storage. the invoice: boom. irra tionally. the stylus retrieves the information.) In the aftermath of the broken-shoelace disappointment. both of w h i c h they resemble. and looking forward. and when you do. then. stapled. and. break ing it into smaller segments. which. The oldest staplers are cast-ironic and upright. as you begin to lean on the brontosaural head of the stapler arm. lagging by about ten years. and finally disengaging from the machine completely— but finding. of shock and grief. this incremental. Sue. while in the case of the stapler. the copies of canceled checks and receipts. making them dangle on a hinge of glue. sta1 . How could some thing this consistent. "Cheerful assholes!" because I had probaStaplers have followed. as the twin tines of the staple emerge from the underside of the paper and are bent by the t w o troughs of the template in the stapler's base. in midcentury. betray you? (But then you are consoled: you get to reload it. the resistance of the spring that keeps the arm held up. curving inward in a crab's embrace of your m e m o . like the paired rails under the wheels of the train." and as tonearm designers housed the stylus in aerodynamic ribbed plastic hoods that looked like trains curving around a mountain. and that they were like phonograph tonearms in that both machines. the letter of apologetic response: boom. as locomotive manufacturers discovered the word "streamlined. I pictured Dave. the people at Swingline and Bates tagged along. nearly. like coal-fired locomotives and Edison wax-cylinder players. the letter of complaint. roughly the same size. there is a feeling. Then. and Steve as I had just seen t h e m and thought. you get to toy with the piece of the staples you couldn't fit into the stapler. to the three phases of the act— 1 first. (d) attempting to staple a thick memo. the staple binds it together as a unit—the order. laying bare the stapler arm and dropping a long zithering row of staples into place. the shipping paper. though very briefly. as you lean on the stapler with your elbow locked and your breath held and it slumps toothlessly to the paper.
as I w a s yanking it tight to tie it. a sequence of m e m o s and telexes holding the history of some interdepartmental controversy: boom. just after I h a d started this job. copying. imagining the smiles o n m y three co-workers' faces suddenly vanishing if I had really called t h e m cheerful assholes. you can see the TB vaccine marks in the upper left corner where staples have been removed and replaced. as I h a d b e e n getting ready for work. however. And n o w . removed and replaced. Apparently my shoe-tying routine w a s so unvarying a n d robotic that over those hundreds of mornings I h a d inflicted identical levels of wear on both laces. pled. and regretting this burst of ill feeling t o w a r d t h e m . I w a s surprised—more t h a n surprised—to think that after almost t w o years m y right a n d left shoelaces could fail less t h a n t w o days apart. The near simultaneity w a s very exciting— it m a d e the variables of private life seem suddenly graspable and law-abiding. It w a s the original shoelace. .THE MEZZANINE 15 bly broken the shoelace by transferring the social energy that I had had to muster in order to deliver a c h u m m y "Have a good o n e ! " to t h e m from m y a w k w a r d shoe-tier's crouch into the force I had used in pulling o n the shoelace. I rolled back in m y chair to study the damage. the high-speed trains of France and Japan have reverted to aerodynamic profiles reminis cent of Popular Science cities-of-the-future covers of the fifties. while AR and Bang & Olufsen turntables became angular—no more cream-colored bulbs of plastic! The people at Bates and Swingline again were drawn along. I repaired it with a knot. the tonearm's stylistic progress has slowed. just as I w a s planning to do n o w with the left. because all the buyers w h o w o u l d appreciate an up-to-date Soviet Realism in the design are buying CD players: its inspirational era is over. ridding their devices of all softening curvatures and offering black rather than the interestingly textured tan. and soon the stapler will incorporate a t o n e d . Of course. h a d snapped. u n d e r very similar circumstances. it w o u l d have w o r n out sooner or later anyway. the right one. stapled. In old sta pled problems. Sadly. I w a s reminded of something that should have struck m e the instant the shoelace had first snapped. a unit. m y first out of college—so the breakage w a s a sentimental mile stone of sorts. too.) And then the great era of squareness set in: BART was the ideal for trains. The day before. as the problem—even the staple holes of the problem—was copied and sent o n to other departments for further action. and the shoes w e r e the very ones m y father h a d bought m e two years earlier. As soon as m y gaze fell to m y shoes. of course. m y other shoelace. and stapling. one controversy.d o w n pompadour s w o o p as well.
a complete blank. deciding that brain cells ought to die . ordering a rubber stamp with my address on it to make billpaying more efficient 8. not its repeated later applications. b u t r a n d o m midday c o m i n g s . And t h e n I grew uncertain. W h a t I found w a s that I did not retain a single specific e n g r a m of tying a shoe. As it h a p p e n e d . u n w h o l e s o m e minaret. But I suppose this is often true of m o m e n t s of life that are remembered as major advances: the discovery is the crucial thing. I was able to guide the saliva-sharpened leader thread through the eyelet w i t h o u t too m u c h trouble. And h o w could I be positive that this thirty percent was equally distributed—that right a n d left shoes had come randomly u n d o n e over the last t w o years with the same frequency? I tried to call u p some sample memories of shoe-tying to determine w h e t h e r o n e shoe tended to come untied more often t h a n another.u n d o n e would have to have constituted a significant proportion of the total wear on both of these b r o k e n laces. In order for the shoelaces to h a v e w o r n to the breaking point on almost the same day. and Steve passed m y office door.16 NICHOLSON BAKER I moistened the splayed threads of the snapped-off piece and twirled t h e m gently into a d a m p . discovering that sweeping was fun 7. Over twenty years of empiri cal data w e r e lost forever. But w h e n Dave. or a pair of shoes. you always tied both shoes. I h a d b e e n in the middle of tying one shoe— one shoe only. of course. A n d in the course of a normal day it w a s n ' t at all u n u s u a l for o n e shoe to come untied independent of the other. pulling up on Xs 3. shoe-tying 2. the age at w h i c h I h a d first learned the skill. In the m o r n i n g . putting on deodorant after I was fully dressed 6. I felt—possibly thirty percent. brushing tongue as well as teeth 5. Sue. they w o u l d have h a d to be tied almost exactly the same n u m b e r of times. that dated from a n y later t h a n w h e n I w a s four or five years old. the first three major advances in m y life—and I will list all the advances h e r e — 1. steadying hand against sneaker when tying 4. Breathing steadily a n d softly t h r o u g h m y nose.
—have to do with shoe-tying, but I d o n ' t think that this fact is very unusual. Shoes are the first adult machines w e are given to master. Being taught to tie t h e m w a s not like watching some adult fill the dishwasher a n d t h e n being asked in a kind voice if you would like to clamp the dishwasher door shut and advance the selector k n o b (with its uncomfortable grinding sound) to Wash. That w a s artificial, w h e r e a s you k n e w that adults w a n t e d you to learn h o w to tie y o u r shoes; it w a s n o fun for t h e m to kneel. I m a d e several attempts to learn the skill, b u t it was not until m y m o t h e r placed a lamp o n the floor so that I could clearly see the dark laces of a pair of n e w dress shoes that I really mastered it; she explained again h o w to form the introductory platform knot, w h i c h began high in the air as a frail, heart-shaped loop, and s h r u n k as you pulled the plastic lace-tips d o w n to a short twisted kernel three-eighths of a n inch long, and she showed m e h o w to progress from that base to the main cotyledonary string figure, w h i c h w a s , as it turned out, not a true knot b u t a n illusion, a trick that y o u performed on the lace-string by bending segments of it back o n t h e m selves and tightening other temporary bends a r o u n d t h e m : it looked like a knot a n d functioned like a knot, b u t the w h o l e thing was really a n amazing interdependent pyramid scheme, which m u c h later I connected with a couplet of Pope's: Man, like the gen'rous vine, supported lives; The strength he gains is from th'embrace he gives. Only a few weeks after I learned the basic skill, m y father helped me to my second major advance, w h e n h e d e m o n strated thoroughness by showing m e h o w to tighten the rungs of the shoelaces o n e by one, beginning d o w n at the toe and working u p , hooking a n index finger u n d e r each X, so that by the time you reached the top you w e r e rewarded with surpris ing lengths of lace to use in tying the knot, a n d at the same time your foot felt tightly papoosed a n d alert. The third advance I m a d e by myself in t h e middle of a playground, w h e n I halted, out of breath, to tie a sneaker, m y
Sneaker knots were quite different from dress k n o t s — w h e n you pulled the two loops tight at the end, the logic of the knot you had just created became untraceable; while in the case of dress-lace knots, you could, e v e n
m o u t h o n m y interesting-smelling knee, a close-up view of anthills a n d the tread m a r k s of other sneakers before m e (the best kind, Keds, I think, or Red Ball Flyers, h a d a perimeter of asymmetrical triangles, a n d a few concavities in the center w h i c h printed perfect domes of dust), and found as I retied the shoe that I w a s doing it automatically, w i t h o u t having to concentrate o n it as I h a d d o n e at first, and, m o r e important, that s o m e w h e r e over the past year since I h a d first learned the basic moves, I h a d evidently evolved t w o little substeps of my o w n that nobody had showed me. In o n e I held d o w n a tempo rarily taut stretch of shoelace with the side of my t h u m b ; in the other I stabilized m y h a n d with a middle finger propped against the side of the sneaker during some final manipula tions. The advance here w a s m y recognition that I had inde pendently developed refinements of technique in a n area w h e r e n o b o d y h a d indicated there w e r e refinements to be found: I h a d personalized a n already adult procedure.
after tightening, follow the path of the knot around with your mind, as if riding a roller coaster. You could imagine a sneaker-shoelace knot and a dress-shoelace knot standing side by side saying the Pledge of Allegiance: the dress-shoelace knot w o u l d pronounce each word as a grammatical unit, understanding it as more than a sound; the sneaker-shoelace knot would run the words together. The great advantage of sneakers, though, one of the many advantages, w a s that w h e n y o u had tied them tightly, without wear ing socks, and w o r n them all day, and gotten them wet, and you took them off before bed, your feet w o u l d display the impression of the chrome eyelets in red rows d o w n the sides of your foot, like the portholes in a Jules Verne submarine.
p R O G R E S S LIKE THAT did n o t c o m e again until I w a s over twenty. The fourth of the eight advances I h a v e listed (to bring us quickly u p to date, before w e return to the b r o k e n shoelaces) came w h e n I learned in college that L. brushed her tongue as well as her teeth. I h a d always imagined that toothbrushing was a n activity confined strictly to the teeth, possibly the gums—but I h a d sometimes felt fleeting doubts that clean ing merely those parts of your m o u t h really attacked the source of bad breath, w h i c h I held to b e the tongue. I devel oped the habit of pretending to cough, cupping m y h a n d over my lips to sniff m y breath; w h e n the results disturbed m e , I ate celery. But soon after I began going out w i t h L., she, shrugging as if it were a matter of c o m m o n knowledge, told m e that she brushed her tongue every day, with her toothbrush. I shivered with revulsion at first, but w a s very impressed. It w a s n ' t until three years h a d passed that I too began brushing m y o w n tongue regularly. By the time m y shoelaces broke, I w a s regu larly brushing not only m y tongue b u t the roof of m y m o u t h — and I a m not exaggerating w h e n I say that it is a major change in my life. The fifth major advance w a s m y discovery of a w a y to apply deodorant in the m o r n i n g while fully dressed, a n incident I 19
but that she would go h o m e a n d clean her apartment. (I lived in a h o u s e with four other people. (In my case. although it was a useful waymark. The p h o n e rang just as I had swept u p a final pile of dust. and I found that the act of sweeping a r o u n d the legs of the chair and the casters of the stereo cabinet a n d the corners of the bookcase. I w a s extremely cheerful. but one just like the kind I h a d g r o w n u p with. adulthood itself w a s n o t a n advance. because that always cheered her u p . since it occurred on the very m o r n i n g I b e c a m e a n adult.) My second a p a r t m e n t after college w a s the scene of the sixth advance. I told her that I w a s sweeping m y r o o m . Someone at work (Sue) told m e that she w a s depressed. did next. They swept. I came h o m e o n a Sunday afternoon after staying over at L. I got to work. m a d e m e see these familiar features of m y r o o m with freshened receptivity. a n d thus h a d only o n e r o o m that w a s truly mine. h o w strange. because the pile that I had just assem bled w a s still there as evidence. h o w mannerist. It w a s L. reminded of a w h o l e chain of subsidiary childhood discoveries. too.) I picked u p articles of clothing a n d t h r e w some papers out. this sweeping was making m e wildly cheerful! She said that she h a d just swept her apartment. and after a few m i n u t e s of reading. coins. a n d that even t h o u g h I had already been feeling very cheerful. such as putting to use o n e of m y father's shirt cardboards as a dustpan. or the depressed w o m a n at work. a n d bracing the b r o o m with a n armpit in order to sweep the dust o n e . h o w inter estingly contrary to m y o w n instincts a n d practices—deliber ately cleaning y o u r a p a r t m e n t to alter your mood! A few weeks later. She said that for her the best m o m e n t was sweeping the dust . then I asked myself w h a t people like L. I stood u p with the decision that I w o u l d clean m y r o o m .h a n d e d o n t o the shirt cardboard. as if I w e r e putting each chair leg a n d caster a n d doorjamb in quotation marks. outlining t h e m with m y curving broom-strokes. I thought. In the kitchen closet I found a practically n e w b r o o m (not o n e of the contemporary designs.20 NICHOLSON BAKER will describe in m o r e detail later on. with synthetic bristles uniformly cut at a n angle.. The b e d r o o m h a d a w o o d e n floor.'s apartment. a n d old earplugs—the m o m e n t w h e n the r o o m was at its very cleanest. with blond smocked twigs b o u n d to a blue h a n d l e by perfectly w r a p p e d silver wire) that o n e of m y h o u s e m a t e s h a d bought.
services were being performed. so that I w o u l d n ' t have to write out m y return address repeatedly w h e n I paid bills. and getting those ruler-edged gray lines of superfine residue. just as they suggested in the back of all their paper backs. simply because I h a d requested t h e m and in some cases paid or agreed to pay later for t h e m . b u t contributed to the feeling even so. t w o days earlier I had dropped off m y shoes to be reheeled—it's amazing that heels wear d o w n before the laces s n a p — a n d paid several bills (which had m a d e m e think of the need for a n address stamp). Advance n u m b e r seven. somewhere in the Midwest in rooms full of T a n d e m computers and Codex statistical multiplexers the magnetic record of certain debts in m y n a m e w a s being overwritten with . A n d from t h e n o n w h e n I read things Samuel J o h n s o n said about the deadliness of leisure and the uplifting effects of industry. a n d I h a d sent off to Penguin. I b e c a m e a w a r e of the power of all these individual. a n d I h a d ordered a transcript of a MacNeil-Lehrer s h o w in w h i c h a n interviewee had said things that represented with particular clarity a w a y of thinking I disagreed with. The fact that w e h a d independently decided to sweep our apartments o n that Sunday afternoon after spending the w e e k e n d together. for a "complete list of books available". b u t never completely disappearing.) Molten rubber w a s soon to b e p o u r e d into backward metal letters that spelled m y n a m e a n d address. I also h a d written m y grandparents. I took as a strong piece of evidence that w e w e r e right for each other. blind people were making clarinetists' finger motions over the holes of a half-caned chair. diminishing in thickness toward invisibility. occurring n o t long after the Sunday sweep. and the day before I h a d taken some chairs thai L. events were being set in m o t i o n o n m y behalf. As I walked out of the office-supply store.THE MEZZANINE 21 into the dustpan. gauging distances a n d degrees of tautness. I always n o d d e d and thought of brooms. was occasioned by m y ordering a rubber stamp with my n a m e and address o n it from a n office-supply store. and at selected sites in other states. I h a d dropped some things off at the cleaner's that day. (The letter to my grandparents didn't exactly fit. simultaneously pending transactions: all over the city. had inherited from a n a u n t to be recaned by blind people in a distant suburb. as you backed the dustpan u p . one after another.
u n b u r d e n e d with the niceties of the individual tasks. and those connections keep branching out over the years. "It's t r u e . the dry cleaner's w o u l d close soon. b e h i n d the faded posters in the w i n d o w saying "For That Newly Tailored Look. One w e e k e n d I confessed to m y m o t h e r on the p h o n e that I h a d b e e n worrying that over the past six m o n t h s especially. living m y life! I felt like a n efficient shortorder cook. All of this and m o r e I could get the world to do for m e . the last o n e that I can think of antedat ing the day of the b r o k e n laces. dropping the toast. a n d their parents h a d before t h e m ) . but w h i c h w o u l d save time later. w h i c h h a d taken time n o w .22 NICHOLSON BAKER a n e w magnetic record that corresponded to a figure dimin ished to the p e n n y by the a m o u n t that I h a d written out in hasty felt-tip p e n o n m y checks (I m a d e the traditional long wavy m a r k after " a n d ° % o o " o n the dollar line. as I k n e w she would. I trusted t h e m to take temporary possession of it. rolling the sausages. It w a s the rubber stamp specifically that pushed the advance over the top. w a s a set of four reasons w h y it w a s a good thing for brain cells to die. setting u p the plates. a n d the n e w s broke (while I w a s in college) that a n o u n c e of distilled spirits kills one t h o u s a n d n e u r o n s (I think that w a s the ratio). but the ones that stay grow m o r e a n d m o r e connections. and they trusted m e to return to their store and pay t h e m for making it look like n e w . the stamp s u m m e d u p all of this action at a distance. having eight or nine different egg orders working at once. a n d w h e n I began to drink in a small way. I h a d worried about the death of brain cells since I was about ten. life-ordering act. a n d she offered reassurance. " t h a t your individual brain cells are dying. The eighth advance. tied in a b u n d l e to keep it separate from all other bundles. and that's the progress you h a v e to keep in mind. convinced year after year that I w a s getting m o r e stupid. It's the n u m b e r of links . because. " she said. m y brain wattage h a d d i m m e d perceptibly. just as my parents had. in bearing m y n a m e . a n d was itself a secondary. She had always b e e n interested in materialist analogies for cogni tion. a n d in a sack somewhere in the darkened store. the concern intensified." m y dirty clothing would rest for the night. I could walk d o w n the street. One w a y or another. flicking the switch that illuminated a waitress's n u m ber. a n d at the same time all of it w a s going on. every bill I paid.
) With fewer total cells. and therefore the death of the brain cells is part of a planned and necessary winnowing that precedes the move upward to higher levels of intel ligence: the weak ones fizzle out. more mingled pole: mathematicians become phi losophers. for it makes room for experience. In the w e e k or t w o following her news that connections continued to proliferate in the midst of neural carnage. as it hadn't when you were younger. college provosts become political consultants. your brain wakes up in the . toughening them selves against the accelerated wear of these artificial sol vents. as opposed to a bright beadlike row of unaffiliated moments. crossword puzzle-solving parts of your mind with pain and poison. forcing the neurons to take responsibility for themselves and those around them. such as alcohol. people fall into types. substances that harm neural tissue. shortcutting through intermediate territories and causing them to wither and shut down like neighbor hoods near a new thruway.THE MEZZANINE 23 that are important." This observa tion was exceedingly helpful. not the raw n u m b e r of cells. and your life begins to seem. and the gaps they leave as they are reabsorbed stimulate the growth buds of den drites. giggly. biographers become college provosts. Mathematicians need all of those spare neurons. but the rest of us should be thankful for their disappearance. perhaps. but more connections between each cell. the quality of your knowledge undergoes a transformation: you begin to have a feel for situations. which now have more capacious playgrounds. an inevitable thing composed of a million small failures and successes dependently intergrown. your past memo ries link together. philosophers become historians. and political consultants run for office. can aid intelligence: you corrode the chromium. (Or perhaps the dendrites' own heightened need for space to grow forces a mating struggle: they lock antlers with feebler outriggers in the search for the informationally rich connections. historians become biographers. and complex correlational structures come about as a result. After a night of poison. you are shifted as your brain ages toward the richer. and their careers falter when the neurons do. (b) Used with care. Depending on where on the range you began. with a brain that is much too crowded with pure processing capacity. I formed several related theories: (a) We begin.
NICHOLSON BAKER morning saying, "No, I don't give a shit who introduced the sweet potato into North America." The damage that you have inflicted heals over, and the scarred places left behind have unusual surface areas, roughnesses enough to become the nodes around which wisdom weaves its fibrils. (c) The neurons that do expire are the ones that made imita tion possible. When you are capable of skillful imitation, the sweep of choices before you is too large; but when your brain loses its spare capacity, and along with it some agility, some joy in winging it, and the ambition to do things that don't suit it, then you finally have to settle down to do well the few things that your brain really can do well—the rest no longer seems pressing and distracting, because it is now permanently out of reach. The feeling that you are stupider than you were is what finally interests you in the really complex subjects of life: in change, in experience, in the ways other people have adjusted to disappointment and narrowed ability. You realize that you are no prodigy, your shoulders relax, and you begin to look around you, seeing local color unrivaled by blue glows of algebra and abstrac tion. (d) Individual ideas are injured along with the links over which they travel. As they are dismembered and re membered, damaged, forgotten, and later refurbished, they become subtler, more hierarchical, tiered with halfobliterated particulars. When they molder or sustain dam age, they regenerate more as a part of the self, and less as a part of an external system.
These w e r e t h e eight m a i n advances I h a d available to bring to bear o n m y life o n the day I sat repairing the second shoe lace to w e a r out in t w o days.
the repair knot, a l u m p with two frizzed ends just below the top pair of eyelets, I pulled o n the tongue of the shoe—another of the little preludes to tying that my father h a d s h o w n m e — a n d gingerly began the regula tion knot. I took special care to scale d o w n the b u n n y ' s ear that I h a d to form from the n o w shorter lace-end, so that there would be e n o u g h leeway to pull it tight w i t h o u t m i s h a p . I watched with interest the fluent, thoughtless rumblings of m y hands: they were the h a n d s of a m a t u r e person, with veinwork and a fair a m o u n t of hair o n their backs, b u t they h a d learned these moves so well a n d so long ago that elements of a m u c h earlier gilled and tailed self seemed to persist in t h e m . I noticed my shoes, too, for the first time in quite a while. They were n o longer new-looking: I t h o u g h t of t h e m still as n e w , because I had m o r e or less b e g u n m y job with t h e m , b u t n o w I saw that they h a d t w o deep wrinkle lines above the toe, intersectingly angled, like the line of the heart a n d the line of the head in palmistry. These creases h a d always appeared o n
I HAD FINISHED
Not liking w h e n you end up with only one of the t w o bunny's ears that make up a normal bow; for if for some reason the lace-end forming that one ear works free, you have n o backup and y o u end up with a granny or square knot that you have to tease untied with your fingernails, blood rushing to your head.
m y shoes in exactly the same form, a puzzling fact that I had t h o u g h t about often w h e n I w a s little—I h a d tried to accelerate the forming of the paired wrinkles by bending a n e w shoe manually, a n d I h a d w o n d e r e d w h y , if the shoe had just h a p p e n e d to begin to b e n d in a certain atypical place, because of a fluke weakness in the leather there, it never established the wrinkle line w h e r e it h a d first bent, but eventually assumed the classic sideways V pattern. I stood, rolled m y chair back into place, and took a step toward m y office door, w h e r e m y jacket h u n g all day, unused except w h e n the air-conditioning became violent or I had a presentation to give; b u t as soon as I felt myself take that step, I experienced a sharpening of dissatisfaction with the whole notion that m y daily acts of shoe-tying could have alone w o r n out m y shoelaces. W h a t a b o u t the variety of tiny stretchings a n d pullings that the shoe itself exerted o n its laces as I walked a r o u n d ? Walking w a s w h a t h a d w o r n d o w n m y heels; walk ing w a s w h a t h a d p u t the creases in m y shoe-toes—was I supposed to discount the significance of walking in the chafing of m y laces? I r e m e m b e r e d shots in movies of a rope that held u p a bridge cutting itself against a sharp rock as the bridge swayed. Even if the shoelace's fabric moved only millimetrically against its eyelet with each step, that sawing back a n d forth might eventually cut t h r o u g h the outer fibers, t h o u g h the lace w o u l d n o t actually p o p until a relatively large force, such as the first tug I gave it w h e n tying, was applied. All right! M u c h better! This walking-flexion model (as I styled it to myself, in opposition to the earlier pulling-and fraying model) accounted for the coincidence of yesterday's a n d today's breakages very well, I thought. I almost never hopped, or lounged in a storefront with o n e foot crossing one ankle, or otherwise flexed o n e foot to the exclusion of the other—patterns of use that w o u l d have w o r n one shoelace disproportionately. I had slipped o n a curb's icy wheelchair r a m p the year before, a n d h a d used a crutch the next day, favoring m y left leg for a w e e k after that, b u t five days of limping w a s probably insignificant, and anyway, I wasn't at all sure that I h a d w o r n these, m y n e w and best, shoes that week, since I w o u l d n ' t h a v e w a n t e d to get m o u n t a i n - r a n g e saltstains o n the toes.
Now this is a very subtle tie. holding the knob at its very edge. with m y h a n d resting o n the concave metal d o o r k n o b . . and the combination of solidity and laxness made for a multiply staged experience as you turned the knob: a smoothness that held intermediary tumbleral fallings-into-position. My father must have had special affection for them. If I asked to borrow a tie. to avoid injuring the several ties that hung there. as you closed a bedroom. . instead of brass. as sommeliers hold their arm-cloths. As you extended your fingers to open a door. however. really. "Here's a beautiful t i e . a cloud of flesh-color would diffuse into the glass from the opposite direction. . resisting this further u n 1 Too modern-looking. pulling promising ties out carefully and displaying them against his forearm. and heavy. looking out at the office. to the left of the steering wheel. though: they can get a turn-signal switch in a car or a volume knob o n a stereo to feel resistant and substantial and worn into place—think of the very fine Toyota turn-signal switches. bathroom. once in a while a tie w o u l d ripple to the floor. Few American products recently have been able to cap ture that same knuckly. the Japanese do it very well. because h e draped his ties over them. pulsating amoebas that absorbed excess stomach acid in Rolaids' great dripping-faucet commercial. And the tie I wore for the job interview at the company o n the mezzanine w a s one he had pulled from a doorknob: it was made of a silk that verged o n crepe. But the 1905 doorknobs in our house had that quality. The knobs were loosely seated in their latch mechanism. my 1 .THE MEZZANINE 27 Still. to be called a doorknob. The whole upstairs had the air of a nawab's private chambers. orthopedic quality (the quality of bendable straws) in their switches and latches. on days w h e n he was pitching a big client. . paisley tie. w h e n I was tall enough to wear them. he w o u l d appear in the kitchen in the morning with three ties he had selected and ask us—my mother. neat tie. w h y did they invariably fray only in contact with the top pair of eyelets o n each shoe? I paused in m y doorway. having been gradually cranked into disequilibrium by many turnings of the doorknob. or closet door. or glass knobs? The upstairs doorknobs in the house I grew up in were made of faceted glass. . each containing a fascinating blob motif that seemed inspired by the hungry. My father was able to find ties as outstanding as that even though he was himself slightly color-blind at the green end of the spectrum. that those instances of brightness only contrib uted a secret depth and luminosity to the overall somber. like suburban tract houses. if it were true that the laces frayed from walking flexion. and its pattern was composed of very small oval shapes. What about this tie?" He taught m e the principal classifications: rep tie. and w h e n you looked closely you noticed that the perimeter of each oval w a s made of surprisingly garishly colored rectangles. porce lain. I reflected. Often you had to open a door carefully. w h i c h m o v e in their sockets like chicken drumsticks: they feel as if they were designed with living elbow cartilage as their inspiration. . my father was always delighted: he w o u l d tour the doorknobs. a heavy plume of richly variegated silks would swing out and sway back silently. old-masters color ation of the design. Why can't office buildings use doorknobs that are truly knob-like in shape? What is this static modernism that architects of the second tier have imposed o n us: steel halfU handles or lathed objects shaped like superdomes. a border so small in scale.
and me—to choose the one that went best with his shirt: this consti tuted a sort of dry run for his imminent meeting. "Is this one of mine or one you bought?" "I picked this one up a while ago. Possibly the stress of walking fell most forcefully o n the lace bent a r o u n d the top eyelets." I said. mostly red. I looked around at my male relatives' ties: at my grandfather's tie and m y uncle's tie and my aunt's father's tie— and it was clear to me that my father and I were without question wearing the t w o best-looking ties at the table that night." I said. "Very fine. caught sight of my tie." "This?" he said. moussed out impressively a r o u n d a small smart face. Sue's. as if he too had to remind himself of the circumstances in which h e had bought it." fingering the silk. and w h e n I visited the following Thanksgiv ing. I wrote " L u n c h " in the space pro vided for explanation. and it fit right in. "A 'neat' tie—a 'neat' tie. I spotted what had been my tie hanging over a doorknob in the midst of all the ties he had bought himself. I wore the best tie I had bought to date. mock-ups of eighteen-page sales promotion pieces or themes for trade-show slide presentations. "I picked this up at Whillock Brothers. the other secretaries in m y department. I h a d never heard of a shoelace parting over some middle eyelet. w h e n in fact I remembered every detail of the transaction. Later still. t h o u g h scary to imagine. "Have y o u signed t h e poster for R a y ? " said Tina. "Really nice. I swapped a tie with him. she w a s probably at her most alert just then." He lowered his glasses and bent to examine the pattern more closely—rows of paired lozenges intersecting like Venn dia grams. "This is one I haven't seen before. a n d m o v e d the green magnetized puck next to m y n a m e from IN to OUT . o n the outside wall of which was the sign-out board. He flipped it over. remembered carrying the very light. hey— nice. "Hey. pretending to think back with effort. it fit right in! . rolling out in her chair. have I?" fingering his tie in turn. until they sister. my father turned toward me. It was conceivable. where he would also present three choices. very expensive bag h o m e not more than five weeks before. using a green Magic Marker. w h e n I went h o m e to visit. and said. because she w a s watching the phones for Deanne and Julie. and as my uncle conferred with the hostess about the table.28 NICHOLSON BAKER welcome puzzlement. I walked to Tina's cube. W h e n I had dinner with him and other relatives in the first year of m y job. I guess. and Steve's pucks. just as the stress of pulling the laces tight to tie t h e m did. bringing it in line with Dave's. Tina h a d lots of hair. A sudden balloon payment of pride and gratitude expanded within me." As w e were all seated at the table. that the pull-fray model and the walk-flex model mingled their coefficients so subtly that h u m a n agency w o u l d never accurately apportion cause.
a n d thereby defining that day as truly over for that office. w o r e plaid shirts—he w a s always asso ciated for m e with the feeling of working late. " Y O U M E A N YOU W A N T M E TO RUSH THE RUSH JOB I'M RUSHING TO R U S H ? " " W h a t ' s h a p p e n e d to old R a y ? " I said. I've h a d to lower it t h r o u g h this puffy cushion of plastic. The person w h o ' s b e e n taking Ray's place doesn't k n o w h o w to get rid of the trapped air. He m a y be out for a while. effectively becoming trash itself. Deanne h a d a n o t h e r o n e p u s h p i n n e d to a wall of her cube. she had pinned u p shots of a stripe-shirted h u s b a n d ." "That explains w h y for the last few days.THE MEZZANINE 29 returned from lunch after one. even t h o u g h you might still be working in it. In the m o r e private area of her cube. and h e tied a very fast knot in the plastic so that it wouldn't be pulled in. a n d a multiply xeroxed sentiment in Gothic type that read." ." "A toddler's pool for his grandniece." said Tina. h e left a second. Get Into It!" I w o u l d love sometime to trace the progress of these support-staff sayings t h r o u g h the offices of the city. because anything you n o w t h r e w out was tomorrow's trash. I've b e e n kind of enjoying the effect. Ray being the m a n responsible for emptying the trash in each office a n d cubicle and restocking the b a t h r o o m supplies. t h o u g h — a pillow effect. it said. "He hurt his back last w e e k e n d while trying to m o v e a swimming pool. because I could hear the gradual approach of distant papery crashes a n d the slinkier sounds of sheet plastic as Ray w o r k e d his w a y d o w n the row toward m y office. " A n above-ground pool. I hope. Barbra Streisand. as soon as you discarded something big like a newspaper. b u t n o t for v a c u u m i n g . its capitals in crumbling ruins u n d e r the distortion of so many copies of copies. I winced in office sympathy. some n e p h e w s and nieces. "If You Can't Get Out of It. He w a s a b o u t fortyfive. saving himself a few motions o n every stop. folded o n e cached in the bottom for the next day. in the s h a d o w of the shelf u n d e r the u n u s e d fluorescent light. which was d o n e by a n outside c o m p a n y . emptying each wastebasket liner into a gray triangular plastic push-dumpster. proud of his kids. w h e n e v e r I t h r o w out my coffee cup. Before h e draped a n e w plastic liner in a wastebasket.
30 NICHOLSON BAKER "I'll bet you enjoy the pillow effect. flirting mechanically. but not wanting to refuse her offer. I almost signed. not register ing until it w a s too late that she had w i t h d r a w n the offer. "Ray. h a d gone back to reaching for my o w n pen—so w e w e n t t h r o u g h a little foilwork that w a s like the mutual bobbings you exchange with a n oncoming pedestrian. she. I m a d e a n exclamation about its beauty: it was beautiful. nearly identical signatures of m a n y secretaries from the mezzanine. was located o n e petal over o n the very same flower I had chosen." And o n the petals of the felt-tip flowers w e r e the neat. canceled her retraction. missing you. hoping you come back to w o r k soon! From y o u r Co-Workers. I did the flowers. I found a n unobtrusive petal of the fourth flower: not too prominent. and then luckily I noticed that my boss Abelardo's tall a n d horizontally compressed conquistador signature. loopy outlined flowers. "I sign w h e r e ? " " A n y w h e r e . She led m e to a poster laid out on the desk of a research assistant w h o h a d called in sick. a vase holding five large. because I h a d a feeling that I might have been a little o n the cool side to Ray recently—you go through inevita ble cycles of office friendliness—and I w a n t e d h i m to see signatures of people w h o s e sentiments h e would be absolutely sure of first. all of t h e m signed at different angles. m e a n w h i l e I had decided to accept hers a n d h a d let go of the o n e in m y pocket. Intermixed with these were the more varied signatures of a few of the managers and research assistants. I hesitated. " I h a d already half pulled out m y shirt-pocket pen. w h o ." said Tina. and with a n " O h " began to retract hers from the proffering position. "Julie did the vase. she saw that I already h a d a pen. On the vase w a s the legend. it depicted. in A + cursive handwriting. Here's a p e n . To sign m y n a m e so near his w o u l d have been vaguely wrong: it might be construed as the assertion of a special alliance (my signature being closer t h a n Dave's or Sue's or Steve's. Finally I took her p e n a n d studied the poster. b u t m e a n w h i l e I. at the same time." she said. with lots of overloops and proud flourishes. processing her earlier correc tive m o v e m e n t . seeing that I w a s n o w beginning to reach for her pen. as both of you lurch to indicate w h e t h e r you are going to pass to the right or to the left. in felt-tip colors.
peep!' from the other one. . A n d t h e n the very next day. efficient." said Tina. secretaries continued to answer with good mornings for an hour or so into the afternoon. I w a s just o n m y w a y out the door. "Good morning. . peep! . she excused herself by raising her h a n d . and signed at w h a t I hoped w a s a n original angle. One broke yesterday a n d o n e broke just n o w . in the morning. peep!— red alert! But the other o n e only w e n t off once that I can remember. I was always touched w h e n . out of a morning's worth of repetition." Tina frowned for a m o m e n t and t h e n pointed at m e . . Two days in a r o w . Tina. peep! . slightly breathy.M. a n d suddenly I hear. . all right? W e ' v e h a d t h e m since about a year ago. near D e a n n e ' s n a m e . " "Yeah. I moved over to an antipodal flower's petal. . just as 1 1 . "Aren't you nice. . "You know. platinumthroated. Wait a second. avoiding the secretarial signa tures. Chicken roasting—peep. May I take your number and have him get back to you?" Though by then it was by Tina's o w n desk clock 12:04 P.THE MEZZANINE 31 also worked for Abelardo)." "So you're saying it doesn't matter if they're used or n o t . ' P e e p ! . she said. Donald Vanci's office? I'm sorry. . . the battery of one of t h e m w o r e down. in a voice that was suddenly sweet. because w e have t w o smoke detectors in our house. I've got my keys in m y h a n d . Doesn't that seem strangely coincidental to y o u ? I don't k n o w h o w to explain it. and it started to go. peep!' So Russ went out and bought a n e w battery." Her p h o n e h a d begun ringing. or it might seem to imply that I w a s seeking out my boss's n a m e because I w a n t e d to be near another exempt person's n a m e . it's interesting you say that." I said." "It is. Don's stepped away from his desk. "Ray will sob with joy w h e n h e sees this poster. Then. it doesn't matter. " L u n c h t i m e ? " "Off to buy shoelaces. because it's nearer the kitchen a n d it doesn't like it w h e n I do any kind of broiling. Especially because one of t h e m goes off m o r e often. 'Peep! . I had signed e n o u g h office farewell a n d birthday and get-well cards by that time to have developed a n u n h e a l t h y sensitivity to the nuances of signature placement. " "That's very strange. Last week.
I picked u p her heavy c h r o m e date-stamper. she began to take a complex message. you set the square base of the machine d o w n o n the piece of paper you wished to date and pressed o n the w o o d e n k n o b (a true k n o b ! ) — t h e n the internal element. depositing today's date. and h a d t h r o w n the pellet out. then. unless the message she was taking w a s clearly going to go o n for m o r e t h a n three minutes. would release m e — c u e d first by some "Gee. guided by S curves cut out of the gantry-like superstructure. It was a self-inking model: at rest. To use it. in w h i c h case Tina. a n d h a d frisked the crumbs from her finger tips into the piece of plastic w r a p that the d o n u t had come in. . I checked the revolving message carousel for messages.32 NICHOLSON BAKER Smoothly disengaging her p e n from m y fingers. since the true tone of afternoons does not take over in offices until nearly two. people often date things with the previous year well into February. some times they caught their mistake and went into a "This is not my day" or "Where is my head?" escape routine. our interchange h a d passed just barely beyond office civility into the realm of h u m a n conversation. a joke salute)—with a m o u t h e d " B y e ! " While I waited. she located her While You W e r e Out pad and wrote d o w n a n a m e . despite the fact that I h a d b e e n in all morning and w o u l d have gotten a n y calls for m e . reaching into Tina's cube. and h a d folded the plastic w r a p in a r o u n d the crumbs until it formed a neat whitish pellet. W h a t with Ray's poster and the roast ing chicken. I'm taking off n o w " m o v e m e n t from m e (pulling u p the pants. W h e n I came in early in the morning. but in a w a y they were right. and thus had to be terminated conversationally: etiquette required m e to wait until her p h o n e duty w a s d o n e in order to exchange one last sentence w i t h her. Then. but it would have been brusque to do so. uprighting itself just in time for landing like the lunar excursion m o d u l e . repeating product codes and a m o u n t s . began its graceful rotational descent. I w a n t e d slightly to leave. w h o k n e w the conventions well. the internal dating element. touching the paper for an instant. I sometimes watched (through the glass wall of my office) Tina advance the date of the date-stamper: after she had finished her plain d o n u t . and then springing back u p to its bat-repose. checking for my wallet. held its current numerology pressed upside d o w n against the moist black roof of the armature. looped with six belts of rubber.
a performance that by n o w probably began the day for her. the less likely it b e c a m e that w e w o u l d resume w h e r e w e had left off. and neither of us w a n t e d to be perceived as having paid too close attention to t h e m : w e w a n t e d to preserve their status as chance observations that w e h a d h a p p e n e d to m a k e in the midst of a h u n d r e d other equally interesting items in our lives w e might just as easily have m e n t i o n e d to each other. even t h o u g h w e had been in the middle of a conversation w h o s e interrupted m o m e n t u m was w h a t w a s holding m e there. vibrating pulley-ropes from the w i n d o w . placing any extra packets of sweet ener that the deli h a d t h r o w n in with her coffee into a special partition in the drawer that contained nothing b u t sweetener packets. b u t because w e had been discussing light.w h e e l s . w h i c h w a s sticky with ink. sensing that I w a n t e d to get going. and the date-stamper from her meticulously arranged central drawer. changing instantly from her telephone voice. not because w e h a d forgotten the thread.THE MEZZANINE 33 she would unlock her desk a n d remove her stapler. Now I touched the date-stamper's belts of rubber n u m b e r s . as her first office act—just as my turning ahead m y Page-A-Day calendar. with its t w o hoops of metal over w h i c h you guided the holes of the post card-sized page. the belts that corresponded to days w e r e entirely black. w h e n Tina finally h u n g u p . I opened m y palm and pressed the date into it. And then she w o u l d advance the rubber belt of the date-stamper by a single digit. And indeed. " Tina w a s saying. to the next day (which I always did last thing the night before. she said. " H o w is it out t h e r e ? " She leaned back to look at the square of blue sky a n d t w o taut. "Let m e read those figures back to y o u . her While You Were Out pad (these tended to disappear if you didn't hide t h e m ) . because I found it deflating to confront yes terday's appointments and " t o d o ' s " first thing in the m o r n ing) had become the escapement o n w h i c h m y o w n life ratcheted forward. The interesting thing about having to stand there a n d wait for her to finish before I left for lunch w a s that. dismissable subjects. the longer I stood.w a s h e r ' s gondola visible t h r o u g h her boss's . which were updated by little metal t h u m b . b u t the belt that corresponded to the decade w a s still red-rubber-colored and new. except for the 8.
and I've got to get a flea collar for m y dog. but green. "Tell m e one thing—where w o u l d I get shoelaces?" "CVS.34 NICHOLSON BAKER 1 w i n d o w . oddly enough. The first is more c o m m o n . " I said. There are two ideal ways to wind up a light conversation with a co worker. though. " " O h m a n . . She wagged her finger at m e . and the other is with the exchange of a piece of useful information. "I have to watch you every m i n u t e . a card for Mother's Day . the reflective layer of the glass shifted colors from true. was to have that day. " "Did you sign o u t ? " I said I had. " O o h . I think. until L. " she said." "A battery for your second smoke a l a r m . she had learned something that other people apparently didn't know. but the second is preferable. and the outside temperature hard to guess. combined with the hiss from the registers below each w i n d o w . and she was n o w passing the knowledge o n to me. "I've got so m a n y things to do—Julie better be back on time. it's gorgeous o u t . and the lunch h o u r beyond. I've got to get a birthday present for m y goddaughter. He's smart. on errands of her o w n . 2 1 ." "All righty!" I p u t d o w n the date-stamper in its correct position o n her desktop. . and I was pleased that it had ended with her telling m e that I could get shoelaces at CVS. that's closed. " "Yep. and that change. The chat with Tina w a s the longest conversation I had had yet that day (and. called at nine in the evening—more than enough talk. to satisfy my midweek socializing instincts). m a y b e ? There's a shoe repair place over by Delicato's—no. " B y e . It made us both feel w e were moving ahead in our lives: at random. Have a nice l u n c h ! " I stepped a w a y t o w a r d the m e n ' s room. and w h a t else? There w a s something else. actually Russ b o u g h t extras. that's coming u p . CVS w o u l d definitely have them. I had noticed that it was not considered cool to make any remarks about the window-washers if they rose past while you were talking to a co-worker. made the sky seem very distant. as it turned out. tapping m y temple as she had. you k n o w ? " " S m a r t g u y . " "That's right! No. 2 Really it wasn't blue sky at all. everyone was supposed to be so used to them that they couldn't possibly elicit a joke or a comment. one is with a little near-joke.
used to love x. " W h e n w a s little. and supermarket roller coasters made of rows of vertical rollers arranged in a U curve over which the gray plastic n u m b e r e d containers that held your bagged and paid-for groceries w o u l d slide out a flapped gate way to the outside.Chapter Five to say. Other people r e m e m b e r liking boats. and the fringe of rubber strips that m a r k e d the transition between the bright inside world of baggage claim and the outside world of low-clearance vehicles a n d m e n in blue outfits). milk-bottling machines w e saw o n field trips that hurried the queueing bottles o n curved tracks with rubber-edged side-rollers toward the m a c h i n e that socked 35 IT I S N T ' R I G H T I I . supermarket checkout conveyor belts. with a seam like a zipper that kept reappearing. I admit that part of m y pleasure in riding the escalator came from the links with childhood m e m ory that the experience sustained. turned o n and off like sewing machines by a foot pedal." if you still love x n o w . trains. or planes w h e n they w e r e children— and I liked t h e m too—but I w a s m o r e interested in systems of local transport: airport luggage-handling systems (those over lapping n e w m o o n s of hard rubber that allowed the moving track to turn a corner. cars. neatly drawing its freight of compressed clothing with it.
a n d sensibly w a s n ' t allowed to steady myself with the high step a h e a d of m e . the barbecue-chicken display at Woolw o r t h ' s that rotated w h o l e orange-golden chickens on pivot ing skewers. the soft sounds reached m e from some department I . gears that (as m y father explained it) in their greased intersection modified forces and sent t h e m o n their way. I couldn't comfortably hold the rubber handrail. The escalator shared qualities with all of these systems.36 NICHOLSON BAKER milk into t h e m a n d clamped t h e m with a paper cap. the cylindrical roller-cookers o n w h i c h hot dogs slowly t u r n e d in the opposite direction to the rollers. and as soon as I stepped off. So m y pleasure in riding the escalator that afternoon was partly a pleasure of indistinct memories a n d associations—and n o t only memories of m y father's (and m y own) world of mechanical enthusiasms. She w a r n e d m e not to j a m a w a d of molar-textured pink g u m into the gap between one curved riser a n d the grooved stair below it—I w a n t e d to because I w a n t e d to see the g u m crushed with the dwarfing force of a large. Olympic luge a n d bobsled tracks. the hanger-manage m e n t systems at the dry cleaner's—sinuous circuits of rustling plastics ( NOT A TOY! NOT A TOY! NOT A TOY !) and dimly visible clothing that looped from the customer counter way back to the pressing machines in the rear of the store. She would lift my sister u p as w e stepped onto the escalator. steady m a c h i n e . As w e drew close to the next floor. marble chutes. pinning the noisy form of the shopping bag to herself with her elbow. a n d the rotating Timex w a t c h displays. and set her d o w n o n a higher stair. the w a y garbage trucks forced paper cartons to crumple into each other. o n t o oddly immobile linoleum and t h e n a tundra of car peting. I could see a green glow coming from u n d e r the crenellated slit w h e r e the escalator steps disappeared. laundry lines that cranked clothes out over empty space a n d cranked t h e m back in w h e n the laundry w a s dry. with o n e difference: it w a s the only o n e I could get o n and ride. fanning side ways as they slalomed a r o u n d old m e n at antique sewing machines w h o w e r e m a k i n g sense of the h e a p of r a n d o m pairs of pants p i n n e d w i t h little notes. each w a t c h box o p e n like a clam. blistering. b u t memories also of my mother taking m y sister a n d m e to department stores and teaching us to approach the escalator with care.
dinging in slow sets of fours. 1 I drew close behind a green truck going about five miles a n h o u r slower t h a n I was. while n o sun fell directly on m e to m a k e m e squint. w h i c h w a s h o t o n the left— in fact. I realized that escalatorial happiness is not too far removed from the standard pleasure that the highway commuter feels driving his warm. I w a s driving south. knitted b u r d e n s in tight school girl circles a r o u n d a cardboard CLEARANCE sign. notched in o n e corner to clear the rearview mirror) by slipping a manila folder over it—so the sky in front of m e was filled with a n excellent. several years after the escalator ride that is the vehicle of this memoir. that I reached a s o m e w h a t firmer position o n the w h o l e issue." but not the kind of city m a c h i n e that comes to m i n d w h e n you hear that phrase (the drooping rear section like the hairnet of a At the time I was riding the escalator to the mezzanine every day I didn't o w n a car. p u r e blue. Cars a n d trucks a r o u n d mine were all nicely spaced: close e n o u g h to create a sense of fellowship and shared purpose. 1 h a d the sun-visor flap s w u n g over to shield m e from direct sunlight. like the " M i s s " department: clickings of hangers with metal h o o k s and plastic armatures. I had extended the shade-range of the sun-visor (that beautiful aileron. I h a d the vertebrae of the steering wheel in m y left h a n d a n d a Styrofoam cup of coffee with a special sipmaster top in m y right. w h e n I did. but later. Yet. o n m y w a y to the job that I had taken after leaving m y job with the depart ment on the m e z z a n i n e . in the middle lane of a wide highway. on a very blue. accompanied by the melodious signal of the " M i s s " telephone. It w a s technically a "garbage truck. though it is true that m y thoughts about escalators n o w are composed of u p to seventy or eighty percent of this kind of kid-memory. snowless day in winter. at about 7:45 in the morning. bright. b u t n o t close e n o u g h to m a k e you think that you couldn't swerve exuberantly into another lane at any time if you w a n t e d . I have lately become increasingly uncomfortable about including it in descriptions of the things I love—and it was only a few weeks ago. quiet box b e t w e e n pulsing intermittencies of white road paint at a steady speed.THE MEZZANINE 37 knew nothing about. 1 . hangers that were not heavily loaded with m e n ' s anechoic wool suits but rather were shouldering light. one ding every second.
w e r e d r a w n across the top of the container. rusted. Right w h e n I suddenly h a d m o r e blue sky in front of m e t h a n green truck. such as a group of fossil brachiopods I set against a white shirt cardboard. applied n o t only to things I o w n e d . so that there w a s a combination of the freshness of recent paint a n d the h i d d e n weatheredness of rust. looked good if you set it d o w n o n a stretch of white cloth.38 NICHOLSON BAKER food-service w o r k e r ) . Thick green canvas covers. h a d continued to grow u n d e r its n e w coat. fluffy. w h i c h I h a d c o m e u p o n w h e n I was eight or so. I k n o w that the garbage was s o m e h o w compressed because I could see little pieces of it pressing fiercely o u t the slight gap u n d e r the rear panel—it was not refuse of a normal. I remembered that w h e n I was little I used to be very interested in the fact that anything. the larger kind of truck that hauls the compressed garbage from some central process ing site to a landfill: a big rectangular container d r a w n by a semi-detached cab. but also to things in m u s e u m s : curators arranged geodes. dirty. or any kind of clean background. it w a s able to take o n its true stature as an object of attention. early American eyeglasses. Then I looked b e t w e e n the b u n g e e lines at the surface of the metal container: organic shapes of rust h a d b e e n painted over with m o r e green. or otherwise discredited it was. m a k i n g a very s m o o t h surface. a n d boot scrapers against black or gray velvet back grounds because anytime you set some detail of the world off that way.) This clean-back ground trick. still active. The w h o l e thing looked crisply beautiful as I changed lanes to pass it. just-gathered density. secured w i t h b u n g e e lines that stretched in angles d o w n its sides. instead. very dirty. The angles of the b u n g e e lines and the transition between those straight lines a n d the taut scalloped curves they pulled from the cloth covers w e r e w h a t pleased m e first. The thought came to m e with just that prefix: " w h e n I w a s little. But it w a s the garbage truck I saw at age thirty o n display . a n d the rust. no matter h o w rough. It was. (Garage dust fills in concrete's imperfections w h e n you sweep with it." along with the sight of a certain rusted railroad spike I h a d found a n d placed on an expanse of garage concrete that I h a d carefully swept smooth.
" or e v e n "tuna and celery". As if in reward for this resolution. w h e n it is n o w so clearly a n adult pleasure? I decided that from n o w o n I wouldn't get that faraway look w h e n describing things that excited m e n o w . briny. pickled. less pre cise. rusty—but set t h e m off against a background of cream cheese and you have jewelry. later that same day I w a s looking in a cooler in a convenience store a n d saw a plasticpackaged sandwich labeled " C r e a m Cheese a n d Sliced Olive. most innocent. the " w h e n I w a s little" nostalgia was misleading: it t u r n e d something that I w a s taking seriously as a n adult into something soupier. cackling. and therefore demon strate higher yearnings." You don't have to say "tuna and sliced celery. while olives are more expensive ounce for ounce than cream cheese. and the olives inset into it demand an equal billing. cocktail-wickedness of a narrow gourmet jar of Spanish olives in the door shelf of your refrigerator inhabited the cheapest. regardless of w h e t h e r they h a d first b e e n childhood enthusiasms or not. the reason w e flag the existence of olives is that while the tuna is tan and crumbly and therefore aggregative. Though simple. the trick w a s something that struck me as interesting and useful right now. 1 . the question is less subtle than this: olives are a more powerful taste in a bed of cream cheese than celery is within the tangy disorder of tuna: celery is often used simply as an extender. So I w a n t n o w to do t w o things: to set the escalator to the mezzanine against a clean mental background as something fine and w o r t h m y adult time to think about." The idea of a cross-section of olive-encircled pimiento set like a cockatoo's eye in the white stretch of cream cheese hit m e very hard as an illustration of the same principle I h a d rediscovered that morning: o n their o w n . cream cheese is a unitary scrim. most childlike sandwich you can make. assigned the task of making a simple cream cheese sandwich appetizing. olives are old. t h a n it really w a s . perhaps o n the model of "sliced egg sandwich. W h y should w e need lots of nostalgia to license any pleasure taken in the discoveries that w e carry over from childhood. Thus. In truth. worth maybe t w o cents wholesale. nobler intentions. spaced them evenly in their white medium. into six pieces. Mushrooms? Chives? Paprika? And then—he sliced one olive. a n d to state that 1 1 was especially interested that the food service had inserted "sliced" in the title of their sandwich. texturing and adding a cheap chew-interest. What can freshen and brighten that blandness? the food scientist asked himself. m o r e falsely exotic.THE MEZZANINE 39 against the blue sky that h a d reminded m e of m y old backdrop discovery. and suddenly all the squinting.
40 NICHOLSON BAKER while I did d r a w some large percentage of joy from the conti nuities that the adult escalator ride established with childhood escalators. . as if only children h a d the capacity for w o n d e r m e n t at this great contrivance. I will try n o t to glide o n the reminiscential tone.
gravelly texture. the half-pint carton I b o u g h t at Papa Gino's to go with the cookie was one of the very last times: it w a s a sort of test to see w h e t h e r I still could drink it with the old pleasure. But other things. like the shoulder of a road. or milk containers. they creep in any way. is to sample early images of the objects in whatever form they take in k i d . you have to live with their constant tendency to screw u p your fragmentary historiogra phy with violas of lost emotion. unchanging (except for that exciting season w h e n glass-sided escalators appeared). because escalators h a v e b e e n a r o u n d . for m y w h o l e life—nothing has b e e n lost. I drink milk very rarely n o w . ice cube trays. I have to say that n o matter h o w h a r d I try to keep sentimental distortions from creeping in. (You have to spot-check your likes and dislikes every so often in this 41 WHILE . and the only w a y that w e can u n d e r s t a n d the propor tion and range and effect of those changes. like gas p u m p s . w h i c h constitute the often u n d o c u m e n t e d daily texture of o u r lives (a rough. in fact.m e m o r y — a n d once you invoke those kid-memories. I can probably keep the warpage d o w n . w h i c h normally passes too fast for microscopy). In the case of the escalator.Chapter Six STILL temporarily intoxicated by this sensation of candor. have u n d e r g o n e disorienting changes. transit buses.
I think. w h i c h brought milk into supermarkets w h e r e all the rest of the food was. I may be fusing some details of the gray microfilm reader in with it. older and you w o u l d have already exhausted your faculties of regret o n earlier m i n o r transitions a n d shrugged at this change. of the milk carton. possibly five or six) : the radiant idea that you tore apart o n e of the triangular eaves of the carton. I have a single m e m o r y of a rival cardboard 1 For example. I first saw the invention in the refrigerator at m y best friend Fred's h o u s e (I d o n ' t k n o w h o w old I was. I think) that the black bag with its interesting pair of circular hinges is almost mythological now. a n d I believe that the change from milk delivered to the door in bottles to milk bought at the supermarket in cardboard containers with peaked roofs w a s a significant change for people roughly my age—younger a n d y o u w o u l d have allied yourself completely with the novelty as your starting point and felt n o loss. and I was so young w h e n it happened (three. next to each other within a large gray photographing box. the assistant librarian laid out (1) the typed title-card for the book. in boxes of wax-treated cardboard that said "Sealtest. Because I grew u p as the tradition evolved. I don't grieve over the great shift in library checkout procedures that happened in the sixties: instead of a due date stamped o n a card that held earlier due dates (allowing you to learn h o w frequently a particular book had been checked out). I have an awe. Likewise.42 NICHOLSON BAKER w a y to see w h e t h e r your reactions have altered. still. (2) your o w n library card. pushing its wing flaps back.) But I continue to admire the milk carton. w i t h o u t ever having to touch it. and (3) a computer-punch card that bore a preprinted due date. into a diamond-shaped open ing w h i c h b e c a m e a n ideal pourer. a better pourer t h a n a circular bottle opening or a pitcher's m o u t h because you could create a very fine stream of milk very simply. for m e the history of libraries begins with the shutter-flashes in that gray box. waiting to have shots. I feel n o loss that doctors don't perform house calls: only one house call w a s ever paid o n me. something I appreciated as I was perfecting m y ability to p o u r m y o w n glass of milk or m a k e my o w n bowl of cereal—the radiant idea filled m e with jealousy a n d satisfaction. forcing the seal inside out. using the stiffness of its o w n glued seam against itself. (Having not seen one in a long time. letting it bend over that leading corner." a nice laboratorial word. and pressed a worn button.) 1 . after I had been hallucinating in a measles fever that the motionless flame of a bedside candle had bent toward m e and flowed like some very warm drink along the roof of my mouth. certainly not missed: the real beginning point of the history of medicine for me is in doctor's offices.
o n credit. w h i c h while intrinsically interesting are unrelated to the glued flaps of cardboard at their tops and bottoms). but the n a m e o n the step-van. w e continued to take h o m e delivery. Milk continued to appear with out interruption. Yet soon I began to sense that everything w a s n o t right in the realm of h o m e delivery.o u t bottles of other defunct dairies. foreign half-gallon bottles—Keen W a y Dairy is the only o n e I remember—began cropping u p : one dairy was using the b o u g h t . a n d saw quart glass bottles in rows rising u p out of bins of steaming spray on a machine like a showboat paddle as they w e r e washed. even though the delivered milk often w e n t bad m o r e quickly. I felt superior to those w h o reached into the supermarket's dairy case and withdrew Sealtest products. w h i c h so gracefully uses the m e a n s of clo sure as the means of dispensation (unlike. a disturbing discordance. A m a n opened our front door a n d left bottles of milk in the foyer. a n d the stepvan itself. Then the dairy mergers began. admitting to the world in doing so that they did not have h o m e delivery a n d h e n c e w e r e not really members of society b u t loners a n d drifters. say. b u t the t r i u m p h a n t superiority of the peaked-roof idea. swept every alternative aside. the little metal pourers built into the sides of D o m i n o sugar or Cascade dish washing detergent boxes. But I also had a strong counter-fascination for the system of h o m e delivery. w h i c h m a n a g e d to hold o n for years into the age of the paper carton. their quart glass bottles topped with a paper cap that held the glass with folded pleats. meaning that the name molded in the glass no longer matched the name printed on the cap. removing the previous empties— mutual trust! In second grade w e w e r e bussed to a dairy. Out of habit or a reverence for tradition. .THE MEZZANINE 43 method. W e h a d b e g u n with O n o n d a g a Dairy. Strange. replaced first by white plastic con tainers with red handles. and t h e n by the very same Sealtest cartons you could buy in the supermarket. in which a paper stopper w a s built into o n e corner of a flat-topped carton. their trademark a n American Indian child wearing the kind of Western-movie feather h e a d b a n d that I doubt was ever w o r n a m o n g the tribes of upstate New York. It w a s m y first glimpse of the social contract. Deliveries w e n t from three times to twice a week. kept changing. Despite m y intense admiration for the carton. Then glass was abandoned altogether.
a different person every other week. Finally the last merged dairy left a leaflet saying that they w e r e discontinuing h o m e service. . curveaccommodating terminus against the riveted door-regions of unloading passenger planes.d r a w n ice and coal trucks. of wheeled and segmented arms that telescoped out from airport gates to press their vinyl. m y m o t h e r began buying supplemental cartons of Sealtest from the A&P. willingly by this time. Though I re sisted it at first." enclosed in the outline of a n arrow—to disregard it was to fail to take the invention seriously. And here I a m pulled. and the transition was complete. w e responded to the sad promotional leaflets they left between the cartons. Fuller brush m e n . unrefrigerated. w h e n e v e r I think over it I a m tempted away from history into all kinds of u n t r u s t w o r t h y emotional details. a n d person-to-person telephone calls. b u t in order to keep (we thought) the home-delivering dairy afloat in these twilight years. But because the w h o l e gradual change was complete before I b e c a m e a n adult. services that could be grouped with h o r s e .44 NICHOLSON BAKER after a day in the foyer. cottage cheese. My father m a d e iced coffee after a m o r n i n g of lawnm o w i n g or shrub transplantation. It took m y m o t h e r a few years before she stopped absentmindedly trying to tear o p e n t h e w r o n g side of the Sealtest carton. their difference indicated by the w o r d s " O p e n Here. chocolate milk. and often h e left the carton sitting out o n the counter afterward.a n d . I'll guess a n d say that it w a s 1971. buttermilk. doubtless m o r e of a nuisance t h a n a mainstay: the delivery m a n . or sending m e out to buy t h e m from the m o m . while my parents w o r k e d and m y sister and I were at school. of Water Piks. despite m y having lectured her o n the fact that one triangle w a s m u c h m o r e heavily glued t h a n the other. to consider m y father's great iced coffee: several spoonfuls of instant coffee and sugar. By this time the step-van h a d n o n a m e painted o n it at all. w o u l d accelerate roughly as soon as h e h a d s w u n g back into the seat and put the van in gear—he h a d a w h o l e city of isolated sentimentalists to cover. with the spout open.p o p stores. in an age of Brasilia. a n d of escalators. Did I m o u r n ? Any sadness I felt w a s overpowered by a n embarrassment that w e h a d associated ourselves with the losers. diversifying into orange juice. w e w e r e the last house o n the street and perhaps in the w h o l e neighborhood still taking deliveries.
water to halfway u p the glass. too. I have to include. a m o c k . The intercellular notches were helpful after the tray was frozen. but never used them myself. others producing large squared-off cubes and bathtub-bottomed cubes. the little notches designed into the inner walls that separated one cell from another allowed the water level to equalize itself: this meant that you could fill the tray by running all the cells quickly under the tap. The cubes w o u l d h o p as one above their individual homes about a quarter of an inch. 1 . If y o u couldn't catch the edge of a notch-stump because the cell had not been filled to above the notch level. as if the tray were a fry pan and you were flipping a pancake. w h e n you had twisted it to free the cubes. Or you could twist all the cubes free and then. with the milk falling in diffusional swirls a r o u n d them. a n d with the rule that you should have four glasses of milk every day. drinking four at o n e sitting just before bed if I had to. a n d milk to the top: so many ice cubes that until they melted a little. too. w o u l d loft higher and often land irregularly. the subsidized half-pints of milk w e b o u g h t in school for four cents and raced each other to drink in o n e skull-chilling continuous inhalation o n the paper straw—this mystical four cents linked b o t h with the picture of the tall glass of milk in the poster of the four food groups. and hold the tray at an angle. His plan w a s to m a r k e t a bottled m o c h a version of it called Café Ole. you might have to mask all the cubes except one with your hands and turn the tray over. At first there were aluminum barges inset with a grid of slats linked to a handle like a parking brake—a bad solution. sat o n our mantel for a while after the plan w a s set aside. so that the single cube you needed fell out. with a dramatic Zorro-like logo scripted diagonally across the label. t h e n four or even five ice cubes. you could selectively pull out one cube at a time by hooking a fingernail under the frozen projection that had formed in a notch. toss them. hissing a n d popping. or you could turn the faucet o n very slightly. of several designs—some producing very small cubes. allowing the water to enter a single cell and well from there into adjoining cells one by one. so that a thin silent stream of water fell in a line from the tap. and most w o u l d fall back in place.THE MEZZANINE 45 liquefied into a v e n o m o u s syrup by a bare quarter-inch of hot tap water to remove any granulation. leaving one graspable end sticking up—these y o u used for your drink. he could barely get a spoon to the b o t t o m of the glass to stir the drink. but some. All of these nostalgia-driven memories p o u r out of that 1 The ice cube tray deserves a historical note." really molds.u p of which. the loosest. you had to run the grid under warm water before the ice w o u l d let go of the metal. And then suddenly there were plastic and rubber "trays. I remember seeing these used. feeling as if you were playing the harmonica. gradually filling the entire tray. There were subtleties that one came to understand over time: for instance. a rule I faithfully followed.
pulling m e off course. Before she understood that she w a s physically allergic. their knees and cheekbones visibly growing. she w o u l d sniff at the open carton suspiciously. associated dairy products with a certain kind of cheerful brutishness—blond mezzosoprano camp counselors in W a g n e r i a n h o r n . aside from the recent cream-cheese-and-sliced-olive thing. influenced by her dislike. And here was another . and t h e n a few years later it developed that L. W h e n she h a d to use milk in a recipe. She r e m e m b e r e d his quoting Tacitus's Germania darkly. as I have said. but uncertain too w h e t h e r her uncertainty w a s not actually a n aversion to its n o r m a l smell. m y pity for all those bouts of diarrhea that she had gone t h r o u g h before she understood her allergy and m y o w n deep desire n o t to b e t h o u g h t of as a hair-butterer combining. she ascribed her dislike to her father's influence: he. uncertain of its freshness. In my first year of college it b e c a m e widely believed that "milk makes more m u c u s " a n d h e n c e should be avoided w h e n you have a cold— that w a s the beginning of m y disenchantment. was allergic to milk: it gave h e r blood-flecked diarrhea. and the sight of s o m e o n e swallowing a full cold glass o n TV m a d e her m o a n with distaste. began to feel uncomfortable w h e n I saw the semio p a q u e coating left o n the side of a glass of half-drunk milk narrowing u p to w h e r e someone's lips h a d slurped at the rim. but so far. I noticed soon afterward that it seemed to coat m y tongue and give m e bad breath.46 NICHOLSON BAKER Sealtest carton. pursed-lip. I look forward to the time w h e n I will have thought about milk and cheese products e n o u g h as a n adult that the unpasteur ized taint of sentimentality will lift from the subject. a n d she w o u l d finally say. distorting w h a t I w a n t to be a simple statement of gratitude for a great packaging design that h a p p e n e d to c o m e into widespread use w h e n I was little. frowning expression I liked a lot—the " W o u l d you kindly corroborate this bad o d o r ? " expression—studying my face carefully as I p u t m y nose to the carton. only o n e additional unit of dairy thinking has occurred to m e : I have lately t u r n e d against milk as a beverage. very anxious to avoid. she told m e .h a t s sitting a m o n g the lupins drinking b o w l after bowl. some thing about "barbarians w h o buttered their hair." (Or was it n o t Tacitus b u t A m m i a n u s Marcellinus?) And I. something I w a s . "This seem all right to y o u ? " h a n d i n g m e t h e carton with a pragmatic.
luckily. then. circular milk-bottle opening could have been nearly as helpful for diagnosis. rather t h a n o n e I h a d repeatedly as a child? Will the universe of all possible things I could be reminded of ever be mostly an adult universe? I h o p e so—indeed. I have. if I could locate the precise m o m e n t in m y past w h e n I conclusively b e c a m e a n adult. And this is true of many. perhaps most. I can remember the very day that my life as a n adult began. And. subjects that are important to m e . . I m e a n a m o r e t h a n fifty-fifty chance. a few simple calculations w o u l d determine h o w m a n y years it will be before I reach this n e w stage of life: the end of the rule of nostalgia. the beginning of m y true Majority. Will the time ever come w h e n I a m not so completely d e p e n d e n t o n thoughts I first had in childhood to furnish the feedstock for my comparisons and analogies a n d sense of the parallel rhythms of microhistory? Will I reach a point w h e r e there will be a good chance. concentrating any scent of sourness: no wide. only o n e unit of adult t h o u g h t about milk to weigh against dozens of childhood units.THE MEZZANINE 47 wayside greatness of the milk carton: the small d i a m o n d shape of the spout is a perfect fit for the nose. that any r a n d o m idea popping back into the foreground of m y consciousness will be an idea that first came to m e w h e n I w a s an adult.
as long as n o n e of the previous wearings had been o n unusually h o t days. and let string and paper fall at my feet. so frequently there w o u l d be a single shirt hanging in my large. resonant closet w h e n I came h o m e from w o r k . My mother had sometimes brought h o m e paper parcels of thinly sliced Westphalian h a m and allowed m e to o p e n them. yet it w a s perhaps even more pleasing. because in this case I w a s rediscovering my old buddies. and they took four days. except for the blue. The cleaner's w o u l d accept n o fewer t h a n three shirts at a time. On that morning of my adulthood. n o longer wrinkled inside the elbows or a r o u n d the waist w h e r e I h a d tucked and 49 . w h i c h continued to look sharp well into the fourth wearing. and this first m o m e n t of shirt disclosure h a d something of the earlier Westphalian unveiling. three times. I h a d o n m y b u r e a u an unopened b r o w n paper parcel containing three clean shirts. at a time w h e n I o w n e d only five shirts. at the most. or to fiddle with the rapid b u t excellent dry cleaner's k n o t ) . articles of clothing I h a d w o r n m a n y times before. Each of t h e m could be w o r n .Chapter Seven IT HAPPENED w h e n I w a s twenty-three. I pried off the string (for it never paid to try to snap the string that early in the morning. now made almost unrecognizably n e w . four m o n t h s into my job on the mezzanine.
It m a d e the sound of a flag at the consulate of a small. having come about either as a result of the occasionally indiscriminate force of the pressing and starching machines (such as the crow's-feet o n the sleeve near the cuffs) or as a result of the final careful foldup. their arms impossibly bent behind t h e m as if each w e r e concealing a present. Now—was I ready to p u t it o n ? My T-shirt. while mine were gray and smaller. of the wet. looking at the sky. I w a s sure I could detect a slight aging of the cotton—it seemed to be soaking u p the starch m o r e completely t h a n the n e w e r white shirt was able to. made a nice receptacle to hold under your chin as you trimmed your beard. w a s already tucked into my under pants: a few weeks into the job I h a d discovered that this small act of foresight m a d e the w h o l e rest of the business day m u c h 1 2 1 used the casual unscabbarding m o v e of retraction I had admired years before in practiced Polaroid owners. slick black-and-white image. of course. also I had found that a shirt cardboard. w h o with negligent ease pulled the thick. rich country. I held the chosen shirt in the air with my little finger h o o k e d u n d e r the collar and shook it once. pre-SX-70 pane of film through rollers that crushed its chemical jellies into a facedown snapshot. something I had been doing more frequently since starting the job. (At that point. on the back of which you could often find interesting lichen-scapes of green and brown developer seeping through. t h e n I pulled out the shirt card b o a r d a n d tossed it o n the pile of cardboards I had already saved. as they counted chimpanzees to themselves. curved into a trough. Four w h o l e m o n t h s as a business m a n ! W h e n I looked closely. leaving behind a stratiform baklava of trash. I snapped the blue paper strip. finally hunching to peel back just the corner. And the shirts weren't merely folded: strips of light blue paper held t h e m tightly and individually to their stored state. b u t wrinkled with positive kinds of semiintentional knife-edge creases and perpendicular fold-lines that only heightened the impression of ironedness. although his cardboards had been white and glossy o n one side and legal-sized.50 NICHOLSON BAKER retucked t h e m . 1 looked at the three of t h e m — t w o whites and the longr u n n i n g blue—and I decided I w o u l d wear my slightly older (four m o n t h s old) white.) 2 1 . and then more confidently the rest. com posed of the negative set into its baroque casement of multilayered paper. Quite a pile by then: I saved them because I had always liked drawing on the shirt cardboards saved from my father's shirts. I had not yet rediscovered its usefulness as a dustpan. and w h o then walked in little circles.
untucking t h e T-shirt from the underpants: was it w o r t h it? I w a s r u n n i n g late. pulling the w h o l e wriggling thing nonchalantly out of . This w a s a setback. These two cuff buttons were the hardest. I undid a single middle button. after a few arousing shrugs of their shoul ders. Sped up. I weighed u n d o i n g the belt. but I had gotten so that I could fasten t h e m almost without thinking: you u p e n d e d the right cuff b u t t o n with your thumbnail and cracked the starch-fused b u t t o n h o l e apart over it.THE MEZZANINE 51 more comfortable.t i p as I pushed that button through and heard the minuscule creaking or winching sound that its edge m a d e in clearing the densely stitched perimeter. An image came to m e — Ingres's portrait of Napoleon. I felt like Balboa or Copernicus. the belt. closing your fingers hypodermically to propel it into place. I began buttoning at the second b u t t o n from the top. thereby exposing the area you needed to cover. I had my coat on w h e n I remembered that I had forgotten to put on antiperspirant. and. The topmost b u t t o n called m e to the mirror. The shirt w a s always colder t h a n you expected. because y o u could use only one hand. Then the tie. a n d moved o n to the cuffs. braving the minor pain in m y t h u m b . it w a s possible to get at your under arm by entering the shirt t h r o u g h the gap m a d e by o n e u n d o n e button and then working the stick of antiperspirant u p the pleural cavity between T-shirt and shirt until you w e r e able to snag the sleevelet of the T-shirt with a finger and pull it past the seam w h e r e your shirtsleeve began. Here was w h e r e I m a d e a discovery. Yes. did u p my pants. I was ready. the t w o symmetrical cuff-buttoning sequences would have looked like a Highland reel. then you repeated the procedure with the other cuff. by unfastening the rear bra-catch through the material. pushing o n e sleeve u p far e n o u g h to slip off one strap. the shoes—all automatic subroutines. w h e r e I saw m y chin jut u p into a bulldog expression to m a k e w a y for the fists at my neck. and because the starch w a s always heavier there than elsewhere. In col lege I had been amazed to see w o m e n take off bras w i t h o u t removing their sweatshirts. untucking the shirt. Displacing m y tie. From here I progressed right d o w n t h e central strip of buttons. And my suit pants w e r e o n but not fas tened.
the sitter k n e w it because that was simply the w a y everyone turned things inside out.—only after several minutes did I get the shirt truly reversed. and the T-shirt began to fall around the t w o fixed sleeve-points. push the neck partway in and wait for the miracle. . and uncrossing your arms. I retroactively upgraded shoe-tying into this category. disclosed your purpose. stand on your head. trying to take in the seeming impossibility and w o n derful intelligence of what she had just done. (4) pre-bunching the sock before you put it on. only a few m o n t h s of w e a r o n the laces) m a d e a nice granular sound o n the sidewalks. Soon I created a special order in the taxonomy of human dexterity to cover this kind of trick: it w a s better than being able to whistle. came w h e n I was somewhere between three and five years old. and according to the baby-sitter my mother hadn't taught it to her—rather. " i n s i d e . (3) forming a simple knot (the base shoe-tying knot) in a string by crossing your arms like Mr. from her fingers. no longer upside d o w n . After watching my mother. and took hold of a sleeve. The T-shirt happened to have been washed inside out: my mother turned it upside d o w n and reached into the torso of the shirt with one hand." as if it were stage patter. like the final flowering of the NBC peacock. I felt a pang of missed oppor tunity in not having invented the trick myself—up until then. 1 . My shoes (very n e w then. rather than trying to push a corner of the pillow into the retreating flaps of a horizontal pillowcase. and I got a standing spot I liked. It was one of those good rides. and later included ( 1 ) holding a pillow with your chin over the open clean pillowcase. . because the dexterity was based o n a leap of mind that had understood the need for a set of seemingly incomprehensible preparations before a single transforming motion that. out. . tentatively curl the bottom hem back. She raised her elbows. inserting both arms in both armholes. though as I have said. . I had been using pure trial and error to turn my T-shirts right side out: I would push a sleeve in through its hole and get nowhere. I watched my mother select a T-shirt for my sister from a w o o d e n folding structure made of thin dowels over which you draped clothes to dry. I felt my brain perform an analogous inversion. w h e r e the m o t i o n of the train is soothing. repeating. I walked to the subway very pleased with myself. crack an egg with one hand. The subway wasn't crowded. Clean. all over the city of Rochester. then she reached in with her other hand and took hold of the other sleeve. and no longer inside out. use the overlapping fly of your underpants without strangling your miniature dick. i n s i d e . that other people k n e w the trick as well. I found out. observing a baby-sitter. My o w n antiperspirant discovery had some of the topologically revelatory flavor of those bra removals. o u t . or play the Batman theme on the piano.52 NICHOLSON BAKER the opposite sleeve. and had r o o m to bend to p u t m y briefcase b e t w e e n my ankles. . however. snap your fingers. I eventually abandoned the practice. and it never happened in a way I could later remember. 1 The earliest point o n this topological time-line. . a last flip and it hung. (2) placing your coat on the floor. and flipping the coat over your head. as if fishing for something in a deep bag. I practiced her moves until I understood h o w they worked. taking hold of the ends of the string.
I then began to w o n d e r h o w late to w o r k I w a s going to be. Now. w o m e n ' s a n d m e n ' s . as it might first have appeared. and that the convention w a s not. I recalled the strange steamy feeling of white toast at the m o m e n t you removed it from the toaster—no matter h o w crumby or dis reputable your toaster was. or you could tap little chips of butter onto the toast w i t h o u t spreading them at all. w h e r e you w a n t e d it to be as you began to chew. most of the tapered bite w a s situated right u p near the front of your m o u t h . the toast always came out s m o o t h and clean—and the m a n y styles of buttering you could use. so that the pressure of the knife stroke aided the melting of the butter in addition to halving the bread. place the t w o pieces of toast face to face. y o u h a d to angle the shape into your m o u t h . You could scrape lightly. with the rectangular slice. and only white bread looks good w h e n cut diagonally. I spotted m a n y watches. My o w n watch had been stolen by threat of force a w e e k before. I imagined the subway car as a rapidly moving loaf of bread. keeping to the surface. It was a shame. Also. only t h e n did you c h o m p d o w n . One subway stop before mine. drawing the m o u t h o p e n with it so that its other edge could clear. as you angle a big dresser through a hall doorway: you had to catch o n e corner of your m o u t h with one corner of the toast a n d t h e n carefully turn the toast. The motto "You can taste it with y o u r e y e s " occurred to m e . that white bread had fallen into disfavor. a b u r d e n s o m e frac tion was riding out of control high o n t h e d o m e of the tongue. merely a n affectation of short-order cooks. with a diagonal slice. you might be obliged to crush into the softer layer below the crust as you forced the butter to spread.THE MEZZANINE 53 and the interior temperature pleasantly w a r m but not hot. and cut them in half diagonally. but I glanced hopefully d o w n the diminishing perspec tive of hands and wrists that held the metal loops of the subway car. In the case of rectangular toast. or if you h a d colder butter. The . I concluded that there h a d been a logic behind the progress a w a y from the parallel a n d toward the diagonal cut. since only white bread looks really good as toast. I thought. w h y was diagonal cutting better t h a n cutting straight across? Because the corner of a triangularly cut slice gave you an ideal first bite. but on this particular morning they w e r e all unreadable.
b u t I w a s not nearly the magnitude of m a n I had hoped I might be. crisp scrape of the butter knife is muted by occasional contact with the soft. I w a s set: I w a s the sort of person w h o said "actually" too much. to get coffee and a muffin to go at the really good coffee place. I did not move or flinch or m a k e a n y o u t w a r d sign. the only timetelling I could do w a s to determine that it was not yet actually past nine o'clock. a n d w h e n if you cut across a raisin. h o w ever. A wristwatch less t h a n a foot from my head. I tried to revive the initial pain of the discovery: I h a d heard a lot about people having episodes of s u d d e n perception like this. By the time I w a s outside. And this w a s w h e n I realized abruptly that as of that minute (impossible to say exactly w h i c h m i n u t e ) . w o r n by a too carefully shaven m a n reading a newspaper folded into tiny segments. I had decided that I had just b e e n t h r o u g h something serious e n o u g h that I w a s justified in taking the time. as you lift the slice. using the same . and not the face. and had not under gone m a n y myself. several lacked all circumferential points of reference. some were too far off. some were oriented so that glints from their crystals obscured the h a n d s or the diodes beneath. as I w a t c h e d the w o m a n briskly open a small bag for my Styrofoam cup a n d tissue-protected muffin. the half I needed was eclipsed by his cuff. I w a s the sort of person w h o s e biggest discoveries were likely to be tricks to applying toiletries while fully dressed. late or not. a n d that I w a s n o w permanently arrested at an inter mediate stage of personal development. I was a m a n . I h a d finished with whatever large-scale growth I w a s going to have as a h u m a n being. of one pointed my way. even: w h e n the high. and thus remained Necco wafers to all but their wearers.54 NICHOLSON BAKER buckle. I was the sort of person w h o stood in a subway car and thought about buttering toast—buttering raisin toast. heat-blimped forms of the raisins. it will sometimes fall right out. Actually. so that while I could easily m a k e out the terminal " g e t " of the tall-lettered trademark. The cuff w a s possibly m o r e expertly starched t h a n my o w n . Once there. the feeling w a s not unpleasant. w a s exactly half visible. Riding the escalator to street level. still intact t h o u g h dented. the w o m e n ' s w e r e too small. once the first shock of r a w surprise h a d passed.
I shot my cuffs and pushed t h r o u g h the revolving door to work. I felt a n impatience to get to the office: I looked forward to the m o r n ing show-and-tell period with Dave.n e w adult. Sue. h o w m y personality had ground to an amazing halt. Tina.THE MEZZANINE 55 loose-wristed flip my m o t h e r had used in shaking d o w n a fever thermometer (which is the fastest w a y to o p e n a bag). . Abe. and pats of butter. and then sprinkle the purchase with handfuls of plastic stir rers. napkins. right o n the subway. Steve. w h e n I would describe. and the rest of them. packets of sugar. leaning in door ways and o n modular dividers. and h a d left me a b r a n d .
or later n e w thought. but rather remained intact to the extent that they could be plucked back into living m e m o r y at any later time— even though the particular event. (The thoughts had to be n e w only to m e . three. once they occurred. or three hundred a day.Chapter Eight I WAS BOTH RELIEVED and disappointed to find. it depended o n the fineness of the filtra tion used to distinguish the repeaters from the novelties. that I wasn't quite so developmentally fixed as it h a d seemed on that morning. later. and their actual n u m b e r was u n i m p o r t a n t — o n e . we'll assume that every day of my life I had thought a constant n u m b e r of n e w thoughts. And let's say that my m e m o r y began suddenly to func tion consistently at age six. Under these three simplifying 57 . thirty-five. as well as on my o w n rate of n e w thinking—so long as it remained constant. that would remind m e of any given earlier thought might never arise. previously u n thought by me. regardless of w h e t h e r or not everyone else considered t h e m to be o u t w o r n and c o m m o n p l a c e . keeping this fixed age of twenty-three in m i n d as the definitive end of my childhood. did not decompose past a cer tain point.) We'll assume that all of these n e w thoughts. once-in-a-lifetime change of -hoods. but even so I continued to think of that day as marking a notable. Now.
I w o u l d have laid away in storage seventeen years' w o r t h (23 . bringing to a close with a crisp high-hat cymbal "Kssh!" the lulling electronic rhythms of the sound track—except that these cigarette sparks were the farewell explosions of such intimate items. or whether they k n e w what moments of sublimity they were creating for the nonsmokers behind them. w h e n I will consistently put the past to wise and welltempered uses. landed o n the cold invisible road and cast out a small firework of tobacco sparks. This had reminded m e of h o w I used to open the window on car trips w h e n I was little and release an apple or pear core into the bolster of air and noise and watch it shrink away into the perspective of the road behind the car.? I was turning these various thoughts. on the highway that only a few days earlier had borne the garbage truck that had reminded m e of the railroad spike and the white-background trick. with the addict's sentimentality and self-regard. w h e n the conclusion arrived. w h e n any subject I call u p for mental consid eration will have a w h o l e sheaf of addenda dating from my late twenties and m y thirties in it." etc. as you passed the still wildly spinning and tumbling butt that was traveling at forty miles an hour to your sixty-five. It is the m o m e n t w h e n I will really understand things. shimmer ing goal. around in my head. and did it for us—had they noticed those same fireworks trailing other smokers' cars? Did they. flicked out narrowly opened w i n d o w s by invisible commuters ahead of me.6 = 17) of childish thoughts by the time I finally turned into an adult o n that subway ride to work. appearing just beyond your headlights and then washed out by them. and h o w the sight had the same effect on me as the last shot of a scene in Risky Business: a late-night Chicago subway train sends off a flare of sparks in the darkness. still bouncing and spinning fast—suddenly changed from something I held in my hand to something not mine that would come to rest on a stretch of highway which had no particular distinguishing feature. Therefore. still warm from people's lips and lungs.58 NICHOLSON BAKER assumptions. as litter. forcing d o w n the primary1 I reached the conclusion as I was driving h o m e fast in the dark. and I would finally have amassed e n o u g h miscellaneous n e w m a t u r e thoughts to outweigh and outvote all of those childish ones—I would have reached m y Majority. some of them n e w ones and some repeaters. but it quickly took o n the stature of a great. and I was wondering whether the people w h o tossed their cigarette butts out in the darkness did it simply because they preferred this to stubbing the cigarette out in their ashtray. It was a m o m e n t I had not k n o w n existed. a place between h u m a n places. associate this high speed cremation and ash-scattering with the longer curve of their o w n life— "Hurled into the darkness in a blaze of glory. I needed simply to continue to think m o r e n e w thoughts at the same daily rate until I passed the age of forty (23 + 17 = 40). 1 . I concluded recently. and because they enjoyed the burst of cold fresh air from the quarter-opened w i n d o w as they flicked it away. I had been thinking that only after I had become a commuter had I noticed the w a y cigarette butts.
It happened that nobody was o n the escalators just then. because the eye moves in little hops w h e n it is following a slow-moving pattern. The absence of passengers. even t h o u g h the end of lunch hour was a peak time. two-seventeenths. While maintaining the o u t w a r d appearance of b o r e d o m . it became difficult to track. Middle age! As I paused for a n instant a few feet from the escalators. combined with the slight t h u m p i n g sound the escalators m a d e . quick ened my appreciation of this metallic. Grooved surfaces slid out from u n d e r n e a t h the lobby floor and with an almost botanical gradualness segmented themselves into separate steps. and the rest were childish. w h i c h I believed m o r e and m o r e strongly as I approached the end of the ride. at the close of my lunch h o u r o n that day m y shoelace broke. you find yourself skip ping back d o w n to the early. Since nobody was o n the escalators. or trying to magnify in with your eye to enter the first groove of a record a n d track the spiral visually as the record turns. I was t w o years o n m y w a y t o w a r d this great goal.THE MEZZANINE 59 colored pipings from " w h e n I w a s eight" or " w h e n I was little" or " w h e n I was in fourth g r a d e . being that if . getting lost in the gray anfractuosities almost immediately. carrying my Penguin paperback of Aurelius's Meditations and my CVS bag. it seemed individual and easily distinguished from the others. w h e r e things are clearer. or roughly twelve percent. I could have played a superstitious game I often played during escalator rides. b u t after a few feet of escalation. the premise.u p ideas. that is. though I did not understand it clearly at the time. " w h i c h had been of necessity so prominent. Middle age. and I h a d to accept t h e m as such. and sometimes a h o p lands the gaze o n a step that is o n e above or below the one that you h a d fixed on. emergent part of the climb. the object of which w a s to ride all the w a y to the top before anyone else stepped onto the escalator behind m e or above me. I w o u l d inside be experiencing a state of near-hysterical excitement similar to what you felt w h e n you w e r e singled o u t to be chased in a game of tag. either going d o w n or going u p . uplifting m a c h i n e . of the available ideas in my brain at that m o m e n t w e r e g r o w n . gliding slowly u p the long hypotenuse. As each step arose. It's like trying to follow the curve o n a slowly rotating drill bit.
I solved the prob lem by freezing in mid-stride. I often lost the game. or pretend to inspect whatever belongings could plausi bly need inspection o n a n escalator ride. electrocuting m e . and since once I locked myself into it. and Bob was o n e of the very last. and walking off quickly in a n o t h e r direction. it became a s o m e w h a t nerve-tingling experience. wrenching past that second of forced proximity as if the other person did not exist. a sense of discomfort. I ran into Bob Leary at the copying machine several weeks after our near encounter—his department's copier was being serviced—and perhaps 1 . destined to intersect at about the mid point of o u r progress. or near guilt. the certainty that Bob a n d I were gradually going to be brought closer a n d closer to each other. Bob and I h a d never had o n e of those less-than-a-minute chats that are sufficient to define acquaintanceship in large com panies. just by having seen the other's n a m e o n the distribution lists of m e m o s and o n the doors of o u r offices. filled m e with desperate aversion. a discomfort which increased every time w e ran into each other. the instant I caught sight of him (just before I h a d actually stepped onto the escalator). pointing in the air with a n index finger. was associated with o u r never having gotten a r o u n d to performing the minimal social task of introducing ourselves. His face was so familiar that his ongoing status as stranger w a s really a n embarrassment—and just then. because his presence m a d e the g a m e a n impossibility for the time being. There are always residual people in a n office w h o occupy that cate gory of the not-introduced-to-yet. I was at first relieved to glimpse the head of someone n a m e d Bob Leary appearing w a y u p at the top of the d o w n escalator. and thereby twisting the simple fact that w e had never exchanged pleasantries onto an even higher plane of awk wardness. or stonily stare into space. he or she w o u l d short out the circuit. w h e r e w e would have to m a k e eye contact a n d n o d a n d m u r m u r . the not-joked-about-theweather-with: the residue gets smaller and smaller. o n his d o w n and my u p escalator rides. 1 You can never be sure whether people have noticed this kind of evasion or not.60 NICHOLSON BAKER s o m e o n e got o n either escalator before I finished my ride. yet w e k n e w w h o the other was. twenty feet in the air in the middle of a h u g e vaultlike lobby of red marble. as if I had just thought of something important that I h a d forgotten to do.
in case she didn't have time to revisit a copy center between times. and not for support staff from the building to h a n g out o n during lunch break. I passed several guys from the mailroom in sunglasses w h o w e r e lounging o n a decorative clump of couches (couches that w e r e really intended for people like the w o m a n with the résumé. and the knowledge pleased me. so I waved at them. at one time myself. in which white n a m e s a n d floor n u m b e r s glowed out of a black background (although little imperfect slits of light were visible in the black film here and there. past a grouping of plants I had never noticed before. . out into the other side of the lobby. w h i c h wetted a n d sealed envelopes in addi tion to printing a faint red postage e m b l e m o n t h e m that included the time. The sound of the mailroom's Pitney Bowes meter machine. making sure that the copies that she would casually hand out at anyone's request were not the bad ones with the "New Hapmshire" typo. a n eagle's wings. and the use of air suction as an element of the paper-feed mechanism that nobody could have foretold. I thought disapprovingly). but saving them for the interview after the one in this building. past the long. Circling back around to the front of the lobby again.THE MEZZANINE 61 I walked quickly through the b a n k of elevators that handled traffic for the fourteenth t h r o u g h twenty-fourth floors. since I had hung around lobbies with résumés that had typos. This was all it took: from then on w e were perfectly at ease with each other. She was going through the copies she had made of her résumé. wearing a n e w suit. w a s loud a n d rhythmical. w h e r e a less artful h a n d had updated the list of tenants). but was meant to convey fellowship. I k n e w t h e m from a time I had had to send a n u m b e r of last-minute packages via DHL to Padua for a philanthropic thing the c o m p a n y got involved in. although she wasn't throwing out the "Hapmshire" résumés. low building directory. a n d a n exhortation to give to the United Way. I was booming and hearty and friendly with him. and even with 1 in reaction to my cowardice in the lobby. I nodded to her in a w a y that might have been interpreted as patronizing. 'I could guess exactly what she was doing. introducing myself and firing up a minute or so of conversation about the decreasing margins in the n o w mature copyingmachine business. since the second job was one she probably didn't want anyway. w h e r e a w o m a n in a blue business suit stood paging through a stiff n e w manila folder that she had pulled from her equally n e w briefcase. The ignominy of my having veered away from the escalator that day in order to escape an intersection with him never colored our years of chortliness. smiling and nodding w h e n w e chanced to see each other in the hall or the men's r o o m — w e even worked together briefly on a thirty-page cross-departmental requisition for a fleet of trucks.
At the base of the machine. so that the gray plastic stickfigure limbs of the clip-on m e c h a n i s m were plainly visible) leaning toward the others while looking at m e in order to say something mildly malicious about m e to them. One of t h e m waved back. He goes doink! a n d t h e n h e makes a face. brooms.62 NICHOLSON BAKER earplugs I never w o u l d h a v e been able to stand it all day long the w a y these mailroom guys did. a n d as I d r e w close.u p rag and applied the rag to the rubber handrail of the escalator. h a d in m y absence wheeled u p a cart bearing squirt bottles of various cleaners.w a s h i n g squeegee. spare rolls of toilet paper. incredibly. and because if I had b e e n lounging o n that couch. looking u p at o n e of the secretaries. Probably he m a d e a mistake a n d pulled out three at o n c e . the all-embracing definition of w h a t a clean office building really was. Finally I closed in o n the escalators again. and lots of other things o n it. something like: " A couple of weeks ago. nnng. but before I turned a w a y I w a s fairly sure that I caught sight of another of t h e m (notable because o n hot days. " I k n e w it was some story like that. Imagine working in a building w h e r e o n e of the standard weekly jobs of a maintenance person was to polish the handrail of the escalator! The com prehensiveness of this. I would have been tempted to say something mildly malicious about someone like m e . n o w viewing t h e m in profile. several secretaries were riding u p . but because it w a s something that m a i n t e n a n c e m e n had not been doing for h u n d r e d s of years: they had been sweeping. . was thrilling! I was sure that this w a s o n e of the parts of the m a n ' s job that he liked the most. I w a s walking past that guy's office? I look in: he's right in the middle of pulling a hair from his nose. w h o s e n a m e I didn't k n o w . and not just because it was fun to watch the secretaries. because I heard " N o ' s ! " and laughter at just the right interval after I'd waved to them. h e atomized some pale green liquid o n t o a w h i t e b u n c h e d . too. while the moving handrail polished itself to a blacker gloss. eyes watering. there n o w was a n interesting little scene. though. A m a n from building maintenance. this m a n w o u l d w e a r a clip-on tie clipped to the V at the second button of his open-collared shirt. He did not m a k e any wiping motions: h e simply leaned o n the rag with both hands. and t h e n this shiver goes t h r o u g h him. Bob Leary w a s gone. a w i n d o w .
" H o w ' s it g o i n g ? " and then. the m a n shrugged. sprayed it with m o r e polish. " We told each other to take it easy." "Maybe I'll get u p there this afternoon. but really nice. pointing u p at the mezzanine. stay h o m e ." He lifted t h e rag that had been pressed to the handrail and looked at its under side. W e ' v e got to get Ray healthy so I don't have to r u n a r o u n d doing his w o r k . He b u n c h e d the rag a different way. " "Ray was fast. I said to him. with flowers. Then I took hold of the handrail that h e h a d not b e e n polishing (it w o u l d have been ." "He came in last w e e k . waxing. He w a s holding o n t o things. finding the right key in the large ring that was clipped to a belt loop." "Tina has m a d e a get-well poster for him. "Definitely I'll sign it. This guy probably k n e w every landmark of that rubber handrail as it circled around—the chip in it w h e r e it looked as if s o m e o n e had tried vandalizing it with a knife. yet using it so casually that they appeared to us all as if they were lounging against their Camaros at a beach. " said the escalator m a n . a big poster—it's u p there if you want to sign it. This happened to h i m once before. reminded by the sight of a box of trash bags in the lower tier of his cart." Then. One of these landmarks was w h a t he n o doubt w a s using to be sure that h e held the rag to the handrail long e n o u g h to have polished all of it. "Ray's out. "I k n o w Tina. kind of cornball. "He is fast." I said. and the little fusion scar w h e r e the t w o ends h a d been spliced together to close the loop. They've got a kid in to help out but he's n o g o o d . I hear. " a n d I told him. but they h a d only recently begun shining escalator handrails by leaning motionlessly o n a white cotton rag. mopping. 'You're nuts. surprisingly. and reapplied it. all that bending y o u have to d o ? ' You could see h e w a s hurting. a n d the section w h e r e it warped outward. " "You k n o w Tina." "Awful. It's n o t serious in m y o p i n i o n .THE MEZZANINE 63 repairing damage. the secretary T i n a ? " I said. "He'll be fine. You have to respect his speed. using the technology. The edges of the r a n d o m folds were already darkened where they had been in contact with the rubber.
w h e r e they break d o w n m u c h m o r e frequently than in corporate settings—is it the heat. in part gauging the speed of the escalator from the feel of the handrail in m y h a n d . as w e often see n o w in subways. seemed impossibly complicated. and finally head.64 NICHOLSON BAKER odd to grasp the handrail h e had b e e n polishing—like walking o n a newly m o p p e d floor: it would have heightened the always nearby sense of the futility of building maintenance— better to wait until the m a n h a d finished the w h o l e handrail before I contributed to the inevitable dulling process that would force h i m to polish it all over again next week).) In high school. torso. I w a s able to time the m o m e n t I took the step that put m e in contact with the moving grooves of the escalator so that my foot landed not o n a crack b e t w e e n t w o steps. but on the middle of o n e of t h e m . and I stepped onto the escalator. One of the things m y m o t h e r taught m e w h e n I w a s very little (her emphasis o n safety d u e probably to the fact that escalators a n d u n m a n n e d elevators were still s o m e w h a t novel then. hauling Struwwelpeter with them. shoe. I used to ride escalators with m y shoes left deliberately untied. like the folding u p of a travel alarm clock. or bad maintenance schedules. Without having to look down. I also k n e w by habit just h o w high the still half-formed and growing escalator step w o u l d be as m y other foot landed on it. or the a m o u n t of water and dirt and chewing g u m they have to h a n d l e ? — a n d the triangular shape of the steps finally became clear: before that. could b e c o m e caught in the crack b e t w e e n t w o steps. and then steamrolling h i m still further in the hard-to-picture flat jour ney in the underside of the stairs. I still felt proud of myself. I was told. just as I had felt p r o u d of being able to tie my shoes without looking. through the metal tines at the top of the circuit. leg. and therefore were thought to be. The loose shoelace. the subsiding of w h a t I believed to be a rectangular block into a two-dimensional surface at the end. full of n e w dangers) was always to be sure to retie m y sneakers before I used any system of vertical transport. and I imagined the results: the steps begin to flatten themselves for their T r o p h o n i a n redescent. threshing him. like CRT screens a n d microwave ovens later. in order to . (This was long before I had seen escalators taken apart for repairs. and even t h o u g h just about everyone m y age has mastered this skill.
or even slipped t h e m o n in the m o r n i n g untied. might hold markings only my skate blade could have made. often a slight vacuum between the shrinkwrap of one album and the next pulled the succeeding one a few degrees along before it fell back. the grooves of records. such as coins or shoelace-ends. making it impossible for stray objects. w e w o u l d see dark gleams here and there. or possibly were purely decorative. n o w irrevocably melted. incidentally. and in corduroy. with let-your-fingers-do-thewalking motions. If explorers were lowered into a highly magnified groove left by a speed-skater's blade. as if And escalators are safe: their safety the result (I n o w believe) of a brilliant decision to groove the surfaces of the stairway so that they mesh perfectly with the teeth of the metal comblike plates at the top and bottom. I gave no direct thought to the escalator's grooves that afternoon. During the period that I rode the escalators with untied shoelaces. slow unvarying strokes. to get caught in the gap between the moving steps and the fixed floor. I rode the very short escalator to the second level of the Midtown Plaza Mall. I spent the winters speed-skating (an escalator step. d o w n w h i c h you can run your ballpoint pen. There. directly at eye level. the grooves in socks that allow them to stretch. our beards whitened with condensation. like small moraine stones that still retain the characteristic parallel scratches left as the weight of a glacier forced other stones slowly past them. laterally displaced plasticities resulting from the millennium of that single skate stroke. grooved to remind us of h o w beautiful grooved surfaces are as a class: the grooves o n the underside of the blue whale that must render some hydrodynamic or thermal advan tage. looks like a row of upturned skate blades) around and around an outdoor pond behind old Italian skaters with raisin faces and hooded sweatshirts w h o held their skate guards behind their backs and moved with long. and as the steps of the escalator pulled in their chins at the top. I would get a first shot.THE MEZZANINE 1 65 demonstrate to myself h o w safe escalators were. and stood in that immense tilted valley. among the great crushed. one of my o w n grooves in the ice of Cobb's Hill Pond. h o w casually they could be treated —this w a s during a phase in w h i c h I allowed my shoes to c o m e untied and didn't bother to retie them. and indeed at that time I had indistinct notions as to their purpose—I thought they were there for traction. our packs laden with chunks which w e had collected for later labwork and which. Believing firmly in symmetry in those days. of the stretch of floor that led past the boxlike theft detectors and into the carpeted region of Midtown Records. skating and record-playing. I tried to make comparisons between the grooves associated with these two seasonal activities. I would leaf through the albums: if there were multiple copies of the same album I got a primitive nickelodeon animation of the artist sitting still at the piano. looking pompous. for instance. and the summers I spent listening to records: twice a week or so. and near them fragile growths that demonstrated what the professors had always maintained—that ice was slippery because it momentarily melted under the pressure of the blade's 1 . the grooves left by a rake in loose soil or by a harrow in a field. the single groove that a skater's blade makes in the ice. exhausted from the previous t w o hours of slow traversal. under the ornate yellow Deutsche Grammophon title bar.
edge. thinking it w a s cool. where it has been pounded deep into the material by later playings. as workers in Scotchgard vests spray-paint the road to indicate utility lines beneath. I think. even as w e watched. the sideways stop? Was very cold ice. If you made a negative of that image of my skate blade's gorge. As in the later case of the frayed shoelace. to be small sheared pieces of metal—skate-blade wear. you would arrive at the magnified record groove—a hushed black river valley of asphaltic ripples soft e n o u g h to be impressed with the treads of your Vibram soles: an image cast from a master mold that was the result of a stylus forced to plow through w a x as it negotiated complex mechanical compromises between all the various conceptually independent oscillations that stereo phony demanded of it. and once in a while. sworn at by the listener as if it too were c o m m o n dust. like My Fair Lady. For skating: Were there certain kinds of skate strokes that were particularly to blame for the dulling of the skate blade? The sprinting start. pacing off distances and making calculations (your feet sparking static with each step). echoed by the owner's pamphlet that had come with the Shure cartridge. ripples so interfingered and confused that only after a day with surveying equipment. but my mother. as far as I . and big obsidian chunks of cigarette smoke are lodged here and there in the oddly echoless surface. a precious boulder of diamond. That was needle wear. or was it the ripples of vinyl music itself. made apparently of the same material that coats the filter-screen of the clothes dryer and the inner surface of gerbil nests. Cobblestone-sized particles of airborne dust. which were allowed to rest o n the carpet w h e n not in use—were in fact visibly hairy—there would be a blue-gray fez of dust left on the stylus. and if it was the music. There w e r e a few years there w h e n lots of undergraduates walked a r o u n d with laces u n t e n d e d to—1977 or so. could w e find out what sorts of timbres and frequencies made for a longer-lived needle? Or was most of the wear to the stylus in practice incurred before it ever touched the record. Those dark gleams would prove. shorn s o m e h o w from the stylus by this softer surface. are you able to spray-paint "Bass Clarinet" with some confidence in orange o n an intermittent flume of vinyl. as w e drew closer and bent to inspect them. I had appropriated the practice. Great m e n from Hirsch-Houck Labs. shines out from the slope.66 NICHOLSON BAKER they w e r e loafers. Scholl's sandals. and this inanimate harvest was mine to whisk away. mounding into brittle crystal line shrubbery that evaporated. but the risk had to be run. by a h u m a n thumb? That was a possibility. liable to dull my blades faster? Was there a way to infer total miles skated by the wear inflicted o n the edge of a blade? And for records: Was it the impurities in the vinyl that wore d o w n the needle. If my sister had been playing one of our oldest family records. then refroze w h e n the blade was gone. strongly advised you never to perform the whisking with your stereo system turned on. unlucky spores with rinds like coconuts. or ice with a surface already crosshatched with the engravings of many other blades. into a whitish mist. simultaneous with Dr. because you might cause "transients" that could overtax the powerful and obliging magnets within your speakers. what I wanted here was tribology: detailed knowledge of the interaction between the surfaces inflict ing the wear and the surfaces receiving it.
w h o happened to be taking some classes at the time at the University of Rochester, found it affected and irritating a n d thought I should stop; a n d n o w I can certainly understand h o w the sight of groups of nineteen-year-olds shuffling
was concerned, because the act of removal was confirmed only w h e n the growl of your o w n thumbprint, each groove sonically magnified, filled the room as you ever so gently drew it under the stylus—playing its unique contour-plowed furrows just as you w o u l d soon be playing the spiraled record of one unique studio session in the life of a pianist—and My Fair Lady's fuzzball had fallen away, revealing the tiny point of contact itself, curiously blunt, shaped like the rubber mallet used to elicit a motor reflex from the knee, hanging insectivorally there in space, ready for a n e w Deutsche Grammophon. The album was still sealed; and here you experi enced a further sort of groove before playing the actual record: the soundless and perfectly unresistant parting of the album's plastic shrink-wrap as you pierced it with your thumbnail and drew it d o w n the temporary groove (between what you k n e w to be, although this w a s not visible beforehand, two separate sides of cardboard), taking a m o m e n t to consider the unusual properties of this shrink-wrapping material, so strong and stretchable until locally breached, and then willing to continue the tear almost of its o w n accord, a characteristic nicely exploited by the designers of cigarette packs, w h o build into the cellophane a little colored tab that initiates the tear and a guide-band of thicker plastic that shepherds the effortless undoing around the top of the package. You withdrew the record without ever making contact with the musical surfaces, using a tripod grip: thumb at the edge, t w o fingers in the middle o n the label. Though brand-new, the record would have attracted ambient dust in its passage through the air and onto the turntable; hence you used a record-cleaning system such as the one w e had: a separate tonearm-like device that held a fan of superfine bristles to the record in front of a red cylindrical brush that caught any bulk debris. This cleaning arm rode the record slightly faster than the real tonearm, drawn ahead possibly by its multiple inner bristle-points of contact (a puzzle I never really solved), and thus it finished about five minutes before the music did on that side. The record-cleaning system was strongly reminiscent of the yellow street-sweeping machines that were introduced in my childhood, with sprayers in front that wetted approaching debris so that circular spin ning brushes could hustle it inward from the curb, into a place of invisible turmoil where a huge bristled reverse-roller at the rear flung it up from the street into a receptacle built into the interior of the machine. If only the record-cleaning systems w e used could have worked as well as those streetcleaning machines, which left behind a clean w e t track, decorated with ringlets of scrub marks at the outside of the swath and straight sweepings in the middle, even w h e n they swung out from the curb to avoid parked cars and then veered back in to reengage, with obvious satisfaction, the baked mud and leaves and bleached litter of the curb. But no record-cleaning system really worked well; and supposedly the antistatic cleaning solution that you dribbled onto the cylindrical dust brush left an unctuous residue in the grooves, smoothing infinitesimal joys out of the sonic reproduction. Still, w e used it; w e wetted the brush with solution and laid it in place o n the spinning record. And then, ignoring the turntable's bothersome hydraulic
a r o u n d from class to class with the plastic tips of untied Wallabees and Sears w o r k boots clicking against hallway tile, their socked heels occasionally popping right u p out of their foot wear, w o u l d m a k e you shut your eyes for a second at the
cuing mechanism, which had you positioning the skittish tonearm high above the spot you wanted it to land on, you braced your hand against the base of the turntable (in a manner similar to my old way of stabilizing my hand against the sneaker's upper while tying it) and used your thumb to exert a slight, trembly upward lift o n the cartridge's gull's-wing finger-hook. Counterweights—brushed chrome disks o n calibrated screw threads that could be turned precisely to the desired gram weight (and what controversy there was over what the proper weight should be!—some holding that a two-gram handicap w o u l d gradually ruin your records; but stern columnists in Stereo Review asserting o n the other hand that an insufficient load would possibly allow the stylus to hydroplane over loud passages, or to take off like a skier running a mogul o n surface irregularities, coming d o w n injuriously hard o n the passages that followed)—caused the tonearm to float upward at the slightest thumb-prompting, as if under the dustcover of this machine a special moon's gravity prevailed. You held the cartridge over the smooth outer perimeter of the revolving record; warps made the surface rise and fall, often in a heartbeat rhythm— fwoom-hoom, fwoom-hoom—and onto this moving, pliant surface you finally allowed the stylus to establish gentle contact, so that it too n o w bobbed along with the waves of warpage, producing as it first landed a concussion like the setting d o w n of a heavy trunk o n the carpet, followed by an expanding sigh and at least one big pop that reinforced the feeling that you had n o w entered the microscopic spell of the technology, in w h i c h sounds were stored in a form so physically small that even an invisible particle within a thread-thin groove could resound like the crack of a circus whip, during which sigh you settled back on the carpet from your squatting position. And then the music began. After three minutes of intent listening, once the emotion of the microscopy had worn off and the piano had wandered into passages that were less good or less familiar than the opening, I w o u l d begin to read the record jacket, and then, later still, w o u l d myself wander into the kitchen to make a sandwich and read Stereo Review, returning twenty minutes later, near the end of side A, to listen to the technology finish: you rode the last grooves as if o n a rickshaw through the crowded Eastern capital of the music, and then all at once, at dusk, you left the gates of the city and stepped into a waiting boat that pulled you swiftly out onto the black and purple waters of the lagoon, toward a flat island in the middle; rapidly and silently you curved over the placid expanse, drawing near the circular island (with its l o w druidic totem in the middle, possibly calendrical) but never debarking there; n o w the undertow bore you at a strange fluid speed back toward the teeming shore of the city—colors, perspiration, sleeplessness—and then again back out over the lagoon; the keel bumped first one shore, then the other, and though your vessel moved very fast it seemed to leave only a thin luminous seam in the black surface behind you to mark where the keel had cut. Finally my thumb lifted you up, and you passed high over the continent and disappeared beyond the edge of the flat world.
mindless monkey-doism of the y o u n g . A n o t h e r thing I did even into adulthood w a s to retie m y shoes o n the escalator— making it a little challenge: H o w late in the ride could I suc cessfully tie both shoes w i t h o u t seeming rushed before I arrived at the top? Given all of these powerful, preexisting connections in m y past life between escalators and shoelaces, you w o u l d expect that at the m o m e n t I boarded the escalator that afternoon, I would have b e e n forcefully reminded of the problem of shoe lace wear which h a d occupied m e a n h o u r earlier. But the de terminism of reminding often works obscurely; a n d in this case the subject h a d already occurred to m e a n d b e e n laid aside in the few minutes I spent in the m e n ' s r o o m before lunch: following this recurrence, the subject didn't arise until very recently, as I began to reconstitute the events of that n o o n t i m e for this opusculum. Even after lunch, back in m y office, as I tore open the stapled top of the CVS bag a n d pulled the bubble pack of n e w laces out and w o v e t h e m into m y shoes, zigzag ging u p every other eyelet with o n e lace-end, as shoe salesmen had s h o w n me, a m o m e n t w h e n I should certainly have b e e n reminded of the subject, I w a s instead preoccupied with whether I should send off four h u n d r e d dollars to Chase Visa, or w h e t h e r that was too big a c h u n k a n d w o u l d get m e in trouble before my next biweekly paycheck, a n d I should send only two h u n d r e d . Just after lunch always seemed to be the time to think about practical things like bills—and I can't help mentioning here the rarefied pleasure that I took in handling my finances back then: especially the pleasure of getting in the mail fat envelopes filled with charge statements a n d their receipts, the documentary history of that m o n t h , dinners out and odd purchases that you w o u l d h a v e forgotten completely but for those slips, w h i c h nicely resurrect the m o m e n t of pay ing for you: you're there in the restaurant, very full, a n entire steak in your stomach, with your beloved darling, smiling a n d happy, your b o t t o m by this time o n fire from the u n a b sorptivity of the vinyl seat, and you weigh w h e t h e r or not to ask her help in calculating the tip—sometimes it is better to be the complete m a n and dash in a generous r o u n d sum, other times it is nice to confer with her about the shades b e t w e e n fifteen and twenty-two percent that evening's waiter or wait-
that I again briefly took u p the thread of shoelace theory. And just as your signature is freed into illegibility by the wine. followed by a second click as y o u bare the ballpoint—these two sounds being like the successively more remote clicks that initiate a long-distance call that you come to associate with the voice of the person w h o will answer—audible even in loud restaurants. some times it is more satisfying to wait with your hand o n your o w n pen in your shirt pocket until the end of a story y o u are being told. so you imagine that the very ink in the pen adheres more readily to the tiny pores o n the surface of the ball because it has been warmed by your body and by the flow of all this conversation. which is usually a cheap stick pen. once the totaling has b e e n d o n e and double-checked. m o r e rapidly t h a n you w o u l d sign a business letter because it doesn't matter here w h a t character traits people will read into your signature. it w a s before lunch. because the burble of voices is of a much lower frequency.70 NICHOLSON BAKER ress deserved—and you experience the pleasure of writing d o w n the tip's a m o u n t t h r o u g h several layers of carbon paper. you sign. 1 . a n d because w i n e makes you sign m o r e fluently: y o u w h i p off most of your last n a m e with the sort of accelerating wriggle that a v a c u u m cleaner cord makes in retracting into its coiled place of storage —this m o m e n t of a n evening's closure returns to you entire. only a few minutes after I said good-bye to Tina. even w h e n the restaurant is quite fancy. and then. its carbon image less distinct a n d the n a m e of the restaurant sometimes barely legible. hearing the click of its clip as it slips off the shirt pocket's fabric and springs against the barrel. and then. No. rightly sized d o w n to something the size of that duplicate receipt. nodding and laughing. remove it from your pocket. 1 Sometimes it is better to use the pen the restaurant provides. Rarely do pens go dry in restaurants. bearing d o w n hard against the little black tray the restaurant has provided to keep its compensation off the tablecloth. to accord w i t h its fading state in m e m o r y .
and you k n o w that the people w h o are friendliest to you in the first weeks are almost never the people you will end up liking and respecting. yet you can't help but think of them as central figures in the office simply because they have ingratiated themselves. I instinctively said. this w a s h o w I saw t h e transi tion: the stop at the m e n ' s r o o m w a s of a piece w i t h the morning's work. a n d the lunch h o u r beyond". or just as you exit it? At the end of a n earlier chapter. it w a s part of my job in a way that the full h o u r of sunlight and sidewalks and pure volition was not. "I stepped away toward the m e n ' s r o o m . no business cards printed. W h a t that m e a n t w a s that m y c o m p a n y w a s as a rule paying m e to m a k e six visits a d a y to the m e n ' s 1 For new-hires.Chapter Nine A SMALL. t h o u g h it obviously didn't help the company to m a k e m o r e m o n e y . and therefore. even if others seem to avoid them for reasons you can't yet 1 71 . right or w r o n g . y o u have no nameplate on the door yet. because the corporate bathroom is the one place in the w h o l e office where you understand completely what is expected of you. perhaps n o t very interesting question has troubled m e occasionally: Is a lunch h o u r defined as beginning just as you enter the m e n ' s r o o m o n the w a y to lunch. a chore like the other business chores I w a s responsible for. and. the number of visits can go as high as eight or nine a day. Other parts of your job are unclear: you have been given a pile of xeroxed documents and files to read. your office is bare and unwelcoming. relative positions of power are not immediately obvious. you have tentatively probed the supply cabinet and found that they don't stock the kind of pen you prefer.
as I have lately noticed it to be. w h i c h exist in isolation. typewriters. in w h i c h I adjusted my tie. you let your hand drop casually o n the flush handle with as much of an air of careless familiarity as m e n w h o have been with the company for years. I saw big smooth flinty waves. even though I too needed to go. and three in the afternoon: my w o r k was b o u n d e d a n d segmented by stops in this tiled decompression chamber. and computers are electronically sophisticated and therefore fundamentally uninteresting. See you later. w h e n w e reached the hallway to the men's room. for reasons that will become clearer soon. take it easy. Once I took a new-hire to lunch. and though he asked not-quite-to-the-point questions as w e ate our sandwiches." and walked on. But in the men's room. m a d e sure that my shirt w a s tucked in. washed the newsprint from m y h a n d s . Thanks again. he suddenly made a knowing." (Gerard Manley Hopkins. cleared my throat. much swelling w h e n the wind freshened. and nodded without comprehension or comeback at my answers.72 NICHOLSON BAKER r o o m — t h r e e in the morning. "I've got to drain the rooster.) 1 . burst on the rocky spurs of the cliff at the little cove and break into bushes of foam. a n d urinated onto a cake of strawberry deodorant resting in one of four wall-mounted porcelain gargoyles. one-man-to-another face and said." I said. 1873. Is there any other spot in the m o d e r n office w h e r e a compa rable level of mechanical ingenuity is so concentrated and on display? Telephone PBX systems. The Pitney Bowes licker-and-stamper and the automatic paper-feed m e c h a n i s m in the high-speed copier are s o m e w h a t m o r e interesting because they are combinations of electronic a n d mechanical invention—but besides datestampers a n d the ball bearings in pens and in desk drawers. shapes of porcelain designed so that the turbulence in t h e m forms almost fixed and decorative (yet highly functional) braids and twists that Hopkins would have liked. w h e r e b u t in the corporate b a t h r o o m do w e witness mechanical engineering in such a pure form? Valves that allow a controlled a m o u n t of water to rush into a toilet a n d n o m o r e . In an enclosure of rocks the peaks of the water romped and wandered and a light crown of tufty scum standing high on the surface kept slowly turning round: chips of it blew off and gadded about without weight in the air. wanting to make out h o w the comb is morselled so fine into string and tassel. Journal. a little built-in m a c h i n e that squirts pink liquefied soap with a special additive that gives it a silvery sheen (also used in 1 grasp. "Yip. you are a seasoned professional. August 16. carved and scuppled in shallow grooves. For instance: "Before going I took a last look at the breakers.
I've noticed) into the curve of your fingers. with n a m e s like Sloan Valve a n d Delany Flushboy inscribed o n their six-sided half-decorative boltlike caps—names that b e c o m e completely familiar over the course of your e m p l o y m e n t even t h o u g h if asked you couldn't come u p with t h e m . w h i c h gives you the impression of walking into a petrochemical plant. too. n o matter h o w close to the hallway wall you walk: I k n o w because I sometimes tried in passing to glance into the w o m e n ' s corporate b a t h r o o m w h e n by chance someone was opening the door. you confront a very industrial-looking storm drain set right in the floor.THE MEZZANINE 73 shampoo recipes n o w . the sight of her wearing the holy expression that w o m e n h a v e only for t h e m selves in mirrors: slightly raised eyebrows. a plastic fish-eye directly into the soap tank. a r o w of four identical states of severe gnarledness. because the sight of this in a corporate setting gave a n exotic overlay to memories of m y beloved darling getting ready for parties:—the arousing skinsmell of her recent shower. carpeted a r r a n g e m e n t of in boxes. Buckley. Here also. holding the screwed-out stick of gloss motionless. a n d then. This suggestion of domesticity. dry.. very slightly flared nostrils. contrib utes a characteristic tone to the inventions found in the corpo- . slide the lip from side to side u n d e r it a n d press h e r m o u t h together and then m o u e it outward. And consider the architectural mazelet you must walk in order to arrive in the b a t h r o o m proper after going in the door—an e n o r m o u s i m p r o v e m e n t over the older double-door system—intended to keep passing eyes from see ing in. the k n o w l e d g e that she w a s put ting on m a k e u p to be attractive to other people. o p e n e d throat. framed art gallery posters. c o m e to think of it. and the soap-level indicator. that shows t h e m a i n t e n a n c e m a n (either Ray or the very o n e w h o w a s n o w polishing the escalator's handrail) w h e t h e r h e m u s t unlock the brushed-steel panel that day and replenish the supply. a n d horizontal filing cabi nets. It works. the beautiful chrome-plated urinal plumbing. w a n t i n g to see a w o m a n drawing her lower lip tight over her lower teeth à la William F. Jr. in the midst of the surrounding office's papery. w a n t i n g even at the age of twenty-five to glimpse the r o w of sinks a n d t h e w o m e n lean ing over t h e m toward the mirror to adjust their shoulder pads or put o n lip gloss.
the page I remember from first grade was a picture of Jack standing with a red w a g o n at the top left. The lines dividing one year from another in your past are perforated. to some degree—before that invention. more heroic vari ants of machines central to our life a w a y from work—the sink. o n the zip-lock perforated top of the ice cream carton. a n d toilet of h o m e bathrooms. adapting w h a t his c o m p a n y manufactured to deal with the realities of actual behavior. a n d because I a m tall.74 NICHOLSON BAKER rate b a t h r o o m : these inventions are grander. showing an age-transforming feel for the unique properties of pulped w o o d fiber. Yet do w e have national holidays to celebrate its development? Are festschrift volumes published honoring the dead greats in the field? People watch the n e w s every night like robots. the toilet seats are complete ovals. so that you had to pull slowly a n d carefully in order to keep the paper from tearing o n o n e of the perforations. never paying attention to the far more immediate develop ments that arrive unreported. a second dropped into place. and 1 . a little flap was left bound in the workbook that told the teacher in tiny sideways type what that page w a s meant to teach the student. leaving a row of fine-haired white pills or tuftlets o n each n e w edge! It is a staggering concep tion. the toilet paper here w a s housed in a locked device that paid out the frames of paper with a certain a m o u n t of resistance. (Until I learned h o w to raise the seat with m y shoe I myself sometimes urinated into toilets with the seat d o w n . in reply coupons bound in magazines and on the "Please Return This Portion" edging of bill stubs. I'm n o t sure. having to do with acces sibility. discouraging waste. mirror. In h o m e b a t h r o o m s . thinking they are learning about their lives. in rolls of plastic bags for produce at the supermarket. I h a d sometimes felt a qualm 1 Perforation! Shout it out! The deliberate punctuated weakening of paper and cardboard so that it will tear along an intended path. in strips of hanging file-folder labels. The only educa tional aspect of the Ginn series of grade-school readers was the perforated tear-out pages in their workbooks: after you tore out the page (folding it back and forth over the line first to ready it for its rending). o n sheets of postage stamps and sheets of Publishers Clearing House magazine stamps. There m a y be several other reasons for the horseshoe shape.) Unlike h o m e rolls. while in corpo rate b a t h r o o m s the seats are horseshoe-shaped. soap dish. o n paper towels. and w h e n o n e roll w a s spent. I was willing to have m y wastefulness discouraged. But I a m pleased that someone gave this subject thought. I almost always w a s inaccurate. I suppose the gap lessens the problem of low-energy drops of urine falling o n the seat w h e n some scofflaw thoughtlessly goes standing u p w i t h o u t first lifting the seat. and the mental sensation of detaching a period of your life for closer scrutiny resembles the reluctant guided tearing of a perforated seam.
The instructions were "Make Jack take the w a g o n to Spot. the mezzanine held a restaurant and the offices of a small. sinking in heaps o n t o a b a s e m e n t con crete pad as the cars answered their call buttons. another line of type." or something like that—and you clearly were not supposed to take the direct diagonal route. stamping the paper with their barbed braillery? Why isn't the pioneer of perforation chiseled into the façades of libraries. a n c h o r gauge. despite the boy and dog at either end. A n t h o n y — w h y don't I have any clear idea even n o w . once famous m u t u a l fund. behind o n e of the hallway Spot waiting for him on the lower right. although w h e n you have a cold and you w a n t a mass of absorbency to hold to your face w h e n you b l o w your nose. Our mezzanine m e n ' s corporate b a t h r o o m w a s d o w n a short hallway that housed a recessed r o w of vending machines and a bulletin board with internal job postings neatly tacked behind glass. I scorned the exercise only a little. the mezzanine w a s served only by the escalators. about Harriet Tubman and George Washington Carver and Susan B. the care you have to take tugging at the nearly tearing paper can be irksome. except for a freight elevator and the emergency stairs. a zag of a carriage return. about the Indians of New York State. along with Locke. It w a s a pleasure to consider these boxes of h u m a n beings undergoing substantial accelerations s o m e w h e r e very near m e . l's" and "fig. 2's. after years of schooling. and the clinking of what seemed to be very heavy sets of chains. Franklin. h o w the perforation of the reply coupon or the roll of toilet paper is accomplished? My guesses are pitiable! Circular pizza cutters with diamond-tipped radii? Zirconium templates. fatally sharp to the touch. . and the standard bunch of French Encyclopedists? They would have loved him! They would have devoted a whole page of beautifully engraved illustration. about the making of the Erie Canal. suspended from bundled filaments of steel.) You heard the m o a n s of vertical tradewinds in the elevator shafts.THE MEZZANINE 75 w h e n I was able to m a k e the roll trundle m o m e n t u m o u s l y around the spindle. In this hallway you could hear the ghostly activ ity of inaccessible elevator cars as they dropped or rose past our floor—inaccessible because. (Besides the offices of three departments of our company. possibly safety chains. later. with a dotted line in a large Z shape connecting the two. with "fig. reeling off a great drape of unnecessary paper. but rather were meant to travel this pointless Z with your crayon." to the art. I was taught. The sideways explanation o n the grown-up side of the perforation claimed that the Z path taught the child the ideal motion of the reading eyeballs—one line of type. because the dotted line itself was like the dotted line printed over perforations in reply coupons and intrinsically beautiful.
a single person stood. I have pointed at a n imaginary person and said. I did like touching the Braille n u m b e r s next to the buttons. greeting strangers with a voiceless lip-pop m a d e by opening your m o u t h and then clos ing it. and I liked w h e n the doors began to open just before you had come to a stop so that you could admire the precision of the car's automatic m a t c h to the edge of the desired floor. in a unique m o m e n t of true privacy—truer. change-jingling. and reading the m u c h . t h o u g h they were perfectly c o m m o n place out in the noise of the lobby. in fact.76 NICHOLSON BAKER walls. finally. to simulate a passing passenger. in any case. assuming the responsibility of holding the " D o o r O p e n " button or the rub ber door-sensor with a pious expression as people boarded. Such m o m e n t s of privacy w e r e impossible o n escalators. I have pretended to rip a latex disguise off of my face. shorten ing the wait time. interrupting the light beam b e t w e e n the o p e n doors with your h a n d if nobody gets off or o n at a certain floor. nimble counterweights scoot ing roachlike o n little three-inch wheels u p and d o w n the elevator shaft's rear wall in the opposite direction to the cars.x e r o x e d inspection form. in others. b u t even so I preferred the fairly u n u s u a l distinction of reaching m y office via escalator over being forced to participate day after day in all the little ceremo nies of elevator behavior—raising your eyes with everyone in the car to w a t c h the floor n u m b e r s change. Some of the elevator cars were filled with passengers. hearing the tail ends of conversations suddenly become con spiratorial a n d arch because they are so completely overheard in the press of the car. making cries of agony. I'll slap that goiter of yours right off. the impressive row . n o w I said watch it!" The indicator light a n d s l o w d o w n give you e n o u g h warn ing to adjust y o u r glasses and reassume a hieroglyphic expres sion before other passengers get on. L. I enjoyed imagining the massive. I k n o w that in solo elevator rides I have pretended to walk like a w i n d u p toy into the walls. "Hey pal. w i t h o u t m y k n o w i n g architecturally just where they were. told m e once that sometimes w h e n she found herself alone in a n elevator she would pull her skirt over her head. On this mezzanine hallway. I imagined. t h a n the privacy you get in the stall of a corporate b a t h r o o m because you can speak loudly and sing and not be overheard.
are n o t in the forefront of general stylistic shifts) : it w a s a hot-coffee. W h e n you m a d e your selection. w h e n I stopped here (normally o n the w a y back from m y fifth company-paid visit to the m e n ' s room) to get a snack. unelectrified. except that the descending foodstuffs. short-lived thoughts about o n e or more of them. It h a d t w o tiers of eleven clear plastic knobs (why eleven?). Louis. a holdover from the first great epoch of vending machines. but fell w h e n s u m m o n e d straight d o w n to lobbies and foyers of varying design. and it h a d a wide metal m o u t h w h e r e the chosen b r a n d w o u l d slide par tially into view. t h o u g h they deserved attention. a n d indeed. Caligarian baffles. late most afternoons. n o t d o w n w a r d ) a n d stop. functioning entirely with the aid of gravity a n d springs. I often had inconclusive.u p w a r d . never m a d e stops at intermedi ate floors.a n d . Hollister x 7 8 9 2 . " And next to the Pepsi m a c h i n e w a s a shorter cigarette machine. 1 Just as it had in the days w h e n my mother w o u l d let m e buy her packs of Kents from a machine in the basement of my father's office building. or one of those single-syllable brands) with a blackboard pointer. t h o u g h it w a s probably manufac tured a r o u n d 1970 (vending machines. like staplers. tea. showing the TV viewer the features of its proprietary system of Dr. a frosted row of metal rungs behind one of the small doors w o u l d shift one rung u p w a r d (I think it w a s u p w a r d . harder t h a n y o u used in launch ing a pinball or playing Foosball. exert ing a satisfying level of force. back w h e n heroic French horns helped the Marlboro Man ride across aerial shots of western lands. To the right of this m a c h i n e w a s a design that resembled the classic 1950s o u t w a r d . m a k i n g n o change. repetitive. "This m a c h i n e ate three quarters of m i n e ! — S. and w h e n another m a n toured the magnified minimalist interior of a cigarette butt (I think it w a s True. The most elevator-like of all the machines was the o n e I used the most: it h a d a panel with three small doors. unlike life-sized elevator cars. these y o u pulled on.THE MEZZANINE 77 of vending machines took the place of the b a n k of elevator doors. Next to it w a s a Pepsi m a c h i n e that often h a d notes o n it saying things like. They seemed in a w a y like miniature office buildings themselves. that forced the smoke to leave behind some of its more adhesive resins on the irregular planes of this filter. m a d e by National Vendors of St. revealing the end of a n ice cream bar neatly w r a p p e d in paper.a n g l i n g fast-food/gas-pump style. I paid n o attention to t h e m as I passed. for instance. 1 . designed by a w o m a n gynecolo gist.
decorated with a backlit white plastic panel that said. cozier-looking brown ceramic mug." in left-handed jaunty Highlights for Children handwriting. and decorated with a pattern of thirty identical 1950s kitchen blenders w h o s e electrical cords have round wallplugs: m y question to the talented visionaries at Trend Pacific being. names. caused by the search for the tray). The motleyness of mugs gradually has taken over because. Right n o w . mugs simply hold more stimulant. because of the exaggerated distance between the cup's handle and the central weight of the liquid it w a s supporting. hobbies. as cups and saucers became alien objects in our lives. brought out in uncomfortable clinky silence o n trays only at the end of dutiful dinner parties (following a crashing of pans behind the swinging door to the kitchen. like car bumpers and T-shirts. as opposed to a w h o l e arbor of identical cups hanging from hooks in a white Rubbermaid shelf organizer. sometimes three fingers around the handle (cups allow only one finger). Since as a rule you have only one of any particular novelty mug. except possibly at the officer level or in legal or classy sales settings) giving off a curlicue of s t e a m . like their avant-garde mug. despite a theoretical disapproval of camp that I feel able to allude to here probably only because camp. and their larger handles allow a pluralism of grasps—for instance. mugs. showing coffee beans spill ing from a bean-scooper a n d a n anachronistic china cup and saucer just b e h i n d it (such as you w o u l d never find in the workplace. the overdainty background coffee cup in the backlit panel gave w a y to a larger. and you try to give even the ones y o u like least a chance to contain your coffee once in a while—you feel about ugly mugs that y o u have been given the w a y you do about bad book-cover designs o n paperbacks w h o s e insides y o u really like—you begin to cherish that slight grit of ugliness and wrongness. I assume. Also. heroes. the t w o . half an hour before I have to leave for work. before they could illustrate the old golden-agey cartoonish kind of blender? W h y do these images have to age before w e can be fond of them? But I like this mug in a w a y I could never like a teacup that was part of a set: it is stylish-looking and I reach for it often w h e n deciding which will be m y m u g for the morning. spare white creations made by Braun and Krups. "Hot Beverages. and blenders had become. day before yesterday's mug is on the windowsill still: a really nice white straight-sided spare mug made by Trend Pacific of Los Angeles circa 1982. w h y did they have to wait until appliance plugs had changed from round to square. you develop a fondness for each m u g as an individual. has long been 1 . that actresses use w h e n they are playing people having real-life conversations at the kitchen table. The last vending m a c h i n e before the doors to the restrooms 1 1 think that in later versions of this model that I saw elsewhere. graphic tastes. ignoring the handle completely. though it is still trickling d o w n through the class structure level by level. or the very c o m m o n one finger hooking the handle and the thumb and other fingers tripoded onto the body of the mug. The cup forced a primness and feyness to the hand and even caused some pain to the joint of the middle finger which at other times shouldered a pen or pencil.78 NICHOLSON BAKER a n d chicken-soup m a c h i n e . or the two-palm grip. have become places for people to proclaim alle giances.
And y o u might ask. though the "serving suggestion" panel o n the Hot Beverages vend ing machine showed a china cup or a mug. this n e w machine offered thirty-five choices. possibly to discourage pil ferage with bent coat hangers. W h e r e old candy machines (similar to cigarette machines—knobbed) might h a v e offered you eight choices. although. Of course. plus a side buffet of chewing gums. oddly. I think I have seen (and bought) granola bars residing in the very top left spiral! The m a c h i n e h a d t w o difficulties. more modern Sty rofoam cup drop from inside this vending machine? The answer I came up with. in m y experience. since they w o u l d suffer less d a m a g e t h a n . w h y did a paper cup and not the cheaper. fell a fair distance into a low black gulley—hence the pillowy bags of chips w e r e placed into the highest spirals. having decided that you w a n t e d a packet of Lorna superseded and in the limbo of its demotions can be glibly disparaged. and y o u had to walk very carefully. a n d almost d e m a n d e d that you use two h a n d s — o n e to hold the guard open. as I stood waiting for the sign saying "Brewing" to go off. The coffee sprayed into a smallish cardboard receptacle without a handle of any kind. not e v e n the ingenious fold-out cantilevered paper handles that seem in general to be vanishing as insulative Styrofoam has moved into dominance. ( 1 ) The black triangular guard you h a d to reach past in order to remove your snack from the gulley w a s excessively heavy a n d clumsy and powerfully sprung. w a s that Styrofoam cups w o u l d be too light and clingy to slide d o w n the internal guide-rails into place properly under the spigot—and Styrofoam sticks together: the machine might have a hard time separating one cup from the stack. huge ribbed versions of vacuum-cleaner or clothesdryer exhaust tubes. The cardboard of these cups became almost intolerably hot. holding the cup by its cooler rim but avoiding any jostle. outside of delicatessens. .THE MEZZANINE 79 was a recent acquisition. a package of Lorna Doones or cheese-and-peanut-butter crackers if dropped from that height. w e r e treated architecturally as orna ment—flaunted its interior mechanisms. in reality the machine dispensed neither for thirty-five cents. w h e n this question occurred to m e in the afternoons. Your purchase. a n d o n e to grasp the Lorna D o o n e s — w h e n very often y o u h a d only o n e h a n d available. screwed out into space by the forwarding spiral. This v e n t u r e s o m e snack palace— designed in the era of the Centre P o m p i d o u a n d of various atriums and malls in w h i c h the admittedly beautiful HVAC tubes. including hard-to-vend bags of chips or pretzels. displaying its inventory behind glass o n metallic spirals that t u r n e d w h e n you entered the appropriate two-character letter-number combination o n a small keyboard. say.
as the spiral edged yours off with his o w n . The next person w o u l d get a b o n u s bag. and as a result. with n o surface in the area except the floor to rest it on. closely allied with the clinking Newtonianism of the gumball m a c h i n e a n d the parking meter—had b e e n replaced by a n o t h e r h u g e heterodox b o x that sold yogurt.80 NICHOLSON BAKER Doones after you h a d brewed u p some thirty-five-cent coffee at the Hot Beverages m a c h i n e next door. and w h o l e apples." w h o makes sure that if a n actor is wearing a Band-Aid a n d sitting in front of three pancakes o n o n e day of shooting. gripping a precariously full and h o t container of coffee by its rim. And (2) the spiral invention. b u t I did acknowledge their presence in some grateful part of m y consciousness. or a certain faded poster in the w i n d o w of the dry cleaner's. t h o u g h elegant. w a s n ' t infallible: often your last fifty-five cents bought a bag of pretzels that remained h u n g by one heatcrimped corner out over the drop. boxes of cranberry juice. n o r was there any way to tilt or shake so massive a m a c h i n e . . And w h e n t w o years later I walked d o w n that hall and discovered that the cigarette m a c h i n e — t h e primary trunk of original innovation from w h i c h all the rest of vendition had branched. seize the Lorna Doones. t u n a sandwiches. all rotating o n a multitiered central carousel accessed through individual plastic doorlets (in compliance with a much-dis cussed three-phase plan intended to m a k e m y company a "smoke-free e n v i r o n m e n t " ) . a part equivalent in function to the person in movie credits charged w i t h "continuity. you w e r e forced to hold o p e n the edge of the black guard with the u n p a d d e d bones a n d tendons of the back of your hand. I didn't think about the vending machines as I passed them. I grieved piecemeal over the loss once a day for about a week. and t h e n w i t h d r a w your h a n d . the pancakes and the Band-Aid look exactly the same the next day. mar veling in the midst of your discomfort that the veins that diagonally crossed those bones a n d tendons w e r e n ' t abraded or their flimsy adventitia crushed as that heavy rounded plastic edge w a s d r a w n over t h e m . I depended on the m a c h i n e s ' presence as you depend o n a certain bulbously clipped coiner hedge. as visual n o u r i s h m e n t along the way h o m e .
" a n d then stopped. because I realized that I h a d unknowingly interrupted s o m e o n e else's quieter a n d m o r e masterly whistling of a soft-rock standard with m y toneless. "AU I w a n t is a r o o m s o m e w h e r e . Once. or remembered by a previous user as soon as h e reentered the tiled liveness of the room. followed immediately by " I ' m a Yankee Doodle D a n d y " whistled with infectious cheerfulness a n d lots of rococo tricks—most notably the difficult yodel-trill technique.Chapter Ten FROM THE MEN'S R O O M came the roar of a flushed urinal. w h e r e people froze. as some of the salesmen seemed to think. Tunes sometimes lived all day in the m e n ' s r o o m . embarrassed. I loudly whistled the b o u n c y opening of the t u n e that starts out. as the whistler passed. h o p p e d . 81 . sustained by successive users.u p after several cups of coffee. a n d not. used here o n the " e e " of " d a n d y . " in w h i c h the whistler gets his lips to flip the sound binarily b e t w e e n the base tone and a higher pitch that is I think s o m e w h e r e b e t w e e n a major third and a perfect fourth above it (why it is n o t a true h a r m o n i c b u t rather perceptibly o u t of t u n e has puzzled m e often—some thing to do with the physics of pursed lips?): a display of virtuosity forgivable only in the m e n ' s r o o m . in t h e relative silence of working areas. hate exuding from sus pended Razor Points.
" O o p ! " and then. holding his tie with his free h a n d against his stomach. Les b o w e d close to his sink. that h e had seen while brushing his teeth since he was eight years old. and w h o turned out to be Alan Pilna from International Service Marketing—his face. in my experience. "oop. A few sinks over from me. the singular. as h e stood aside. He blinked frequently. holding the door for m e to enter. He said. but not about the nose. but had a momentary flinch of surprise o n it. the same quick bulgings in his cheek. though. the word is found in its plural as "oops" most often among w o m e n . although there are so many exceptions to this that it is irresponsible of m e to bring it up. I leaned quite hard into the m e n ' s r o o m door to open it. A l a n . or men talking to w o m e n . and the sinks' counter and the dividers between urinals and b e t w e e n stalls w e r e of red lobby-marble. in order to shield his sense of privacy against m y presence in the mirror. It w a s decorated in two tones of tile. I heard a stylishly embellished version of my t u n e whistled at the copying machine by s o m e o n e w h o must have been in one of the stalls during m y earlier roughshod interruption of the soft-rocker. " T h a n k s . was not formed in the fruity whistler's pout. w h e n the opening door revealed it. I checked in the mirror to be sure that while chatting with Tina I had not had some humiliating nose problem or newsprint smudge on my face—she w o u l d probably h a v e told m e about the smudge. As soon as I took my place at a sink." is the normal usage. later that day. w h o w a s on his way out. a vice-president n a m e d Les Guster was brushing his teeth. startling the Doodle Dandy m a n . His tap was running. even t h o u g h h e was clearly not ready to rinse or spit yet. possibly because the large motor m o v e m e n t s of tooth brushing interfered with the autonomic r h y t h m s of blinking. gay men.82 NICHOLSON BAKER aerated tweets. " I negotiated the quick right and left that brought m e into the brightness and w a r m t h of the b a t h r o o m . " O o p ! " I said. He was staring straight at the mirror and very likely seeing there the same expression o n his face. each blink slightly more deliberate t h a n a blink h e w o u l d have performed while read ing or talking o n the p h o n e . We were not obliged to greet each other: the noise of the water from his 1 Among average men. hybrid colors I didn't k n o w the names for. 1 .
she soaks up information every where she goes. Silently I pounded my knee. I admired their forthrightness. Les Guster turned off his tap. and perhaps in fifteen years I too would be spending twenty-minute stretches in similar corporate stalls. newspapers folded and batted into place. But for n o w . squinting and marooncolored from suppressed hysteria. The two paused momentarily. a m o m e n t later. the grotesque intrusion of my fart struck me as funny. I w a s impressed by people like Les w h o had the bravery to brush their teeth (before lunch. t h e n I cleared my throat so unpleasantly that there could be n o doubt that I was oblivious to him. exhausted sighs. Unfortunately. smaller fart. and that in fact I was u n a w a r e of his presence. and then. I leaned into the mirror. the fact that I had not yet begun to urinate w a s k n o w n to 1 The absence of stealth or shame that men. since the act was so powerfully unbusiness like." "She's a major asset to us. she is a very. and I sat o n the toilet containing my laughter with the back of my palate—this pressure of containment forced a further. She's got armor. and then recovered without dropping a stitch—"Oh." "She is a sponge." "She really is. that's the thing. I was just o n the point of relaxing into a state of urination w h e n two things h a p p e n e d ." Etc. a familiar problem. while I was locked behind a stall. was that in this relative silence Don Vanci would hear the exact m o m e n t I began to urinate. and Alan Pilna's w i n d i n g . displayed about their misfortunes in the toilet stall had been an unexpected surprise of business life. In the s u d d e n quiet you could hear a wide variety of sounds coming from the stalls: long. colleagues of mine.d o w n urinal-flush. I used the stalls as little as possible. never really at ease reading the sports section left there by an earlier occupant. I'm quite clear on that. 1 . making sounds that I had once believed were made only by people in the extremity of the flu or by bums beyond caring in urban library bath rooms. I did unintentionally interrupt the conversation between a member of senior management and an important visitor with a loud curt fart like the rap of a bongo drum. The problem for m e . manipulations of toilet paper. to indicate to h i m that I didn't think that his toothbrushing was in any w a y notable or comic. pretending to study a defect o n my face. and of course the utterly carefree noise of the m a i n activity: mind-boggling pressurized spatterings followed by sudden urgent farts that sounded like air blown over the m o u t h of a beer bottle. One time. defined us as existing in separate realms. not happy about the prewarmed seat. a sponge. in a way. even!) at work.THE M E Z Z A N I N E 83 tap. M o r e impor tant. very capable young w o m a n . And she's tough. Don Vanci swept into position two urinals over from m e . dejected. I pivoted and stationed myself at a urinal.
" Later. zip m y fly. and then flushed and took off! H o w very weird! That guy has a problem. "Wait. my bladder's cargo would stay locked a w a y behind scared and stubborn little muscles. and walk out. But until I developed m y technique of pretending to urinate o n the other person's head. a n d you hear his nose breathing and you sense his proven ability to urinate time after time in public. I w o u l d pretend to finish. unforthcoming. This h a p p e n e d about forty-five times—until one night in the very busy b a t h r o o m of a movie theater at the end of the movie.84 NICHOLSON BAKER h i m as well. Though w e k n e w each other well. puffing and spluttering to keep it from getting in his m o u t h . clear m y throat. like the parts that appear in the grass of a lawn w h e n y o u try to w a t e r it with a too-pressurized nozzle-setting. and crouch in a toilet stall (so that m y head w a s n ' t visible) to urinate without risk. And then. if s o m e o n e else w a s there. I heard Don Vanci begin to urinate forcefully. I h a d b e e n standing at the urinal w h e n h e walked into the b a t h r o o m — I should be fully in progress by n o w . w e said nothing. and his protestations: "Excuse me? . My problem intensified. hating myself. I w o u l d sneak back in. I discovered the trick. Imagine drawing a n X over his face. Imagine your v o l u m i n o u s stream making fleeting parts in his hair. Others did not seem to have any trouble relaxing their uriniferous tubing in corporate b a t h r o o m s . W h a t was m y problem? Was I so timid that I was unable to take a simple piss t w o urinals d o w n from another person? We stood there in the intermittent quiet. imagine your self turning and dispassionately urinating onto the side of his head. just as I k n e w w o u l d h a p p e n . sure that the other person was thinking. painful with need. as his porcelain resounded from his o w n coursing toxins. W h e n s o m e o n e takes his posi tion next to you. I began to blush. faked that h e h a d taken a piss. w a t c h h i m fending the spray off with his arm. I d o n ' t think I heard that guy actually going! I think he stood there for a m i n u t e . Some w e r e obviously so at ease that they could continue conversations side by side. the barren seconds I spent staring at the word "Eljer" and waiting for something I k n e w w a s not going to h a p p e n w e r e truly horrible: even at times w h e n I needed to go badly. and at the same time you feel your o w n muscles closing on themselves as hermit crabs pull into their shells.
Don Vanci a n d I finished at about the same time. pff. turning from the urinals. . I resorted to this tech nique with Don Vanci.THE M E Z Z A N I N E 85 What are you doing? Hey! Pff." It always worked. If I found myself in very difficult circumstances—flanked o n both sides by colleagues. both of w h o m said hello to m e and t h e n began confidently to go—I might h a v e to sharpen the image slightly. his toothbrush stowed in a plastic ribbed travel container. w e greeted each other: "Don. And n o w ." Les Guster was on his w a y out. " G e n t l e m e n . After a short mechanical delay. a thick. I gave it a secondary boost from m y dia phragm. and it blasted out." "Howie. world-conquering rope of a m m o n i a sprung o n t o the white slope of porcelain. as the silence lengthened. " Don Vanci followed Les Guster out w i t h o u t washing his hands. He n o d d e d at us. pff. imagining myself urinating directly into o n e of their shock-widened eyeballs. just before w e flushed in near unison.
or perhaps not—emptied the trash bag full of used paper towels. I think. a b a n d of brushed steel. a waste region w h e r e you could throw the towel away. I h a d all four sinks to myself. some companies that used to use these wide towels 87 . then I washed m y h a n d s briefly. laid almost flush with the wall. wavily embossed. The paper towels themselves w e r e the best kind: nearly a foot wide. just below it. into w h i c h w a s recessed a diamond-shaped opening that offered you the next paper towel. folded with two flaps for easy removal—it w a s a n h o n o r to use them. It was a kind you saw frequently in corporate b a t h r o o m s : a sixor seven-foot-high architectural element. I chose the o n e that w a s n ' t surrounded by pools of water. making the date I h a d stamped o n my palm fade b u t not disappear. and.Chapter Eleven UNTIL SOMEONE EMERGED from the stalls. The m a i n t e n a n c e m a n unlocked the front panel of this unit—perhaps using the very same key that opened the soap dispenser. a n d loaded h u n d r e d s of justu n b o u n d and slowly expanding n e w towels into a q u e u e above the diamond cutout. W i t h o u t turning off the water. W e h a d the finest style of paper-towel dispenser available. Since the cost of paper has gone u p so m u c h in the last decade. I used a paper towel to dry m y h a n d s . white. I set d o w n my paperback a n d rested m y glasses on it.
What they seem to have done. you must supplicate u n d e r the droning funnel for thirty seconds. and the place quickly b e c a m e a wasteland. they removed the only unpostponable reason for a staff m e m ber to glance over t h e b a t h r o o m at least once a shift. as the instructions r e c o m m e n d . you Rub Hands Gently u n d e r the dry blast. installing. You find it n o w not only in t h r u w a y rest stops. while the blower continues to heat the room. At the very bottom of the range. Other facilities managers have turned even m o r e radical. hypnotized by the sales rap of hot-air blower companies—was to rip out their paper-towel dispensers. t h o u g h it once (to m e as a child. Meanwhile. right beside the ghost t o w n of the brushed-steel dispenser. But in removing that wastebasket. a n d use less paper. m u c h longer t h a n anyone has patience for. at least for a short period—the wellm e a n i n g b u t deluded managers responsible for overseeing b a t h r o o m cost-control in these chains. advancing a large internal roll. Another version of this replacement m a c h i n e has a rotating crank with a calculatedly low gear ratio: they h o p e that you will tire of cranking sooner. at least) was an exciting symbol of futurismo progress. the manufacturer (World Dryer Corporation) has provided a short silk-screened text to read to pass the time. therefore they n o longer needed to pay bodies to empty the wastebaskets. But to dry t h e m even as thoroughly as a single paper towel would dry t h e m in four seconds. is the "hazards of dis e a s e " m a c h i n e — t h e hot-air blower. the restaurants n o longer provided towels. Wendy's. bolt lots of hot-air blowers o n the walls. cheaper ones. Towels were w h a t filled the wastebaskets.88 NICHOLSON BAKER have installed an adapter in the dispenser that allows it to handle smaller. but w h e n I was little it bespoke the a w e s o m e oracular intentionality of . In case you do decide to stand for the full count. a n d t h e n remove all the wastebaskets. inevitably you exit flicking water from your fin gers. crumplable length of b r o w n rough paper. and other great chains. which you tear off against a set of metal teeth with a satisfying sound. Howard J o h n s o n ' s . I disapprove of this text n o w . I m e a n . b u t in the restrooms of Friendly's. a plastic Towlsaver with a little lever like a slot machine's that you have to pull four times. are people truly content to b e using the hot-air blower? You hit the m u s h r o o m of metal that turns it o n and. before you get an accept able.
in fact. which four friends a n d I w o r e w h e n w e w e n t out with trash bags and picked u p litter o n Milburn Street near the school (finding surprisingly little. This quick sanitary method dries hands more thoroughly prevents chapping and keeps washrooms free of towel waste. a symbol that in seventh grade I cut out of green felt and glued to five w h i t e felt armlets. I used to read it to myself as if I were reciting a quatrain from the Rubâiyât. a r o u n d us) o n the first Earth Day celebration. Does it protect us from the hazards of disease? You will catch a cold quicker from the w a r m metal public d o m e you press to start the blower t h a n from plucking a sterile piece of paper that n o h u m a n has ever . and feeling the hugeness of the city. Is it m o r e thorough? It is less thorough. and I read it so m a n y times that n o w it holds for m e some of the Urresonances of Crest's "conscientiously applied program of oral hygiene and regular professional c a r e . p r o g r a m m e d learning. an efficient. " It says: To Serve you better We have installed Pollution-Free Warm Air Hand Dryers to protect you from the hazards of disease which may be transmitted by towel litter. the symbol of the environmental m o v e m e n t . 1987 (copying the legend out. Does it pre vent chapping? Dry air? Is it quick? It is slow. environmentally upright user of the electricity produced by burning fossil fuels? No—there is no off button that would allow you to curtail the thirty-second dry time—you are forced to participate in waste. But does the e n v i r o n m e n tal m o v e m e n t have anything to do with the reason w h y the Wendy's restaurant that I stood in o n September 30. paper clothing. food in capsule form. while I counted at M M = 6 0 to be sure that the w a r m air really did blow for about thirty seconds as I had estimated) had installed this m a c h i n e in its m e n ' s r o o m ? No. Is it. World has printed the small Greek letter that looks like a h a m b u r g e r in profile. engineers of traffic flow. In the corner of this statement.THE MEZZANINE 89 prophets w h o s e courage a n d confidence allowed t h e m to scrap the old ways and start fresh: u r b a n renewal architects. whenever that w a s — 1 9 7 0 or 1971. litter-filled. and domes over Hong Kong and M a n h a t t a n . foretellers of monorails.
toilet paper is ill suited to functions outside of a n a r r o w range of activities.s h e e t roll. You go into a stall and pull yourself a huge handful (that's assuming that the stall is untenanted). you resort to the toilet paper. you need t h e m to wash your face. Come to your senses. You m o v e this dripping plasma over your face. But even so. t h e n you must assemble a n o t h e r big w a d to dry off with—but ah! n o w your fingers are wet. with its immov able funnel. and throwing it away. are pretending that the only thing you do with paper towels is dry your h a n d s . W h e n y o u are oily-faced o n a h o t afternoon in a r o o m m a d e hotter by the hot-air dryer and you decide you w a n t to w a s h y o u r face before you order your Big Classic. As soon as you d a m p e n it with w a r m water. So m u c h toilet paper is being used in bathrooms with hot-air blowers that some of the same facilities managers w h o thought they w e r e cost-cuttingly crafty in moving to blowers have gone to the opposite extreme in the area of toiletpaper dispensers. Not so. the leading end simply dissolves in your fingers. and return to the sink with it.t h o u s a n d . real and true desperation that I myself have experienced. tearing prematurely. it wilts to a semitransparent puree in your fin gers.90 NICHOLSON BAKER held from a towel dispenser. Deciding to let . World! The tone of authority and public-spiritedness that surrounds these falsehoods is outrageous! How can you let your marketing m e n continue to m a k e claims that sound like the 1890s ads for patent medicines or electroactive copper wrist bracelets that are printed o n the Formica on the tables at Wendy's? You are selling a hot-air machine that works well and lasts for decades: a simple. w h a t do you do? Out of desperation. possibly justifiable means for the fast-food chains to save m o n e y o n paper products. aided by World's rhetoric. n o t so! You need paper towels to dab at a splash of food o n y o u r sleeve that you notice in the mirror. But far m o r e important t h a n silk-screened hype is the fact that in trading paper towels for this blower. you need t h e m to polish y o u r glasses dry. the food chains. Say that or say nothing. clasping it in your very o w n h a n d s to dry t h e m . installing gigantic side-mounted hundredthousand-sheet rolls the size of automobile tires in each stall. so that w h e n you try to pull m o r e toilet paper from the h u n d r e d . little pieces of it adhere to your cheek or brow.
W h e n I would say to Dave or Sue that I sometimes w o n dered h o w w e . or any company. rather t h a n the hot air blower standard. Our salaries were based o n a forty-hour week. and that of ten or twelve others. " D o n ' t worry. as a r o w of n u m b e r s spinning a r o u n d too fast to see. cobra-like staple removers.THE M E Z Z A N I N E 91 your face air-dry. plus Tina's. or flip it vengefully in the already clogged toilet. believe m e . n o n e of w h o m did anything that directly pulled in money. And this doubtfulness would sometimes extend to companies all over the city: a skyline's w o r t h of overreaching expenditure. Just because it is convention to have o n e t h o u s a n d . and discover that the wastebasket is gone. or w h e n I opened a gray steel supply cabinet stocked with black-handled scissors. Dave's. measuring the a m o u n t of cash that it took every second to bring us to work. But sometimes w h e n I pulled several paper towels from it. Abelardo's. Jim's. w e can afford it. staplers. I would suddenly start to doubt that the c o m p a n y I worked for could afford all this. o n e department out of m a y b e sixty-five in the corporation: I w o u l d visualize m y salary. or w h e n I got a m e m o with a distribution cover sheet that had fifty names o n it. And that is w h y I considered it an h o n o r to be working at a place that still used the classic corporate paper-towel dis penser. Sue's. could afford its operating expenses. Page-A-Day calendar refills. and box after box of Razor Point pens. " But they k n e w n o better than I did. they would smile at m e charitably and say. Steve's. So you drop it in the corner with the other miscella neous trash. not a thirty-five-hour week: think of the a m o u n t of money the c o m p a n y officially paid out every day just to finance the time all of its thousands of employees spent for lunch! In certain moods it b e c a m e impossible for m e to shift from my personal impression of the one small expensive subunit of the c o m p a n y to the overall net income figures w e read every quarter o n earnings reports in the internal newsletter—it was difficult to believe that m o n e y w a s coming in at a n y w h e r e near the rate at w h i c h w e w e r e pouring it out. magnetized paper-clip dispensers. you look a r o u n d for a place to t h r o w out the initial macerated flapjack. a whole corporate stratum existing at a n unsustainably high standard—the white paper towel standard. I w o u l d think of the people in my department.
unfortunately. every trash can in the whole corporation. you find yourself unable to recreate the sense of what was really at stake. half-understood. doesn't m e a n that it and things like it might n o t at some point pull the w h o l e structure of wasteful. restrooms with at least one more sink t h a n ever conceivably w o u l d be in use at any one time. inherited convention right d o w n . most of t h e m in the first year to relatives. the things o n your desk. xeroxed. the features of the corporate bathroom. unless you are a salesman or you do a lot of recruiting. and filed. taxi vouchers. and the price schedules at printers' encourage v o l u m e . a n d later only o n occasions in which the giving out of the business card adds a coy irony to some interchange. You can't throw them out—they and the nameplate and a few sample payroll stubs are proof to yourself that you once s h o w e d up at that building every day and solved complicated. turn out to have been hollow: two weeks after your last day they already have contracted into inert pellets one-fiftieth their former size. while the problems you were paid to solve collapse. and kept you working late night after night. distributed. though they once obsessed you. trips to three-day fifteen-hundred-dollar con ferences to keep us u p to date in our fields.92 NICHOLSON BAKER business cards printed u p for you the w e e k after you are hired. n o matter h o w valueless you may seem to yourself to b e in the first three months—just because this level of luxury is conventional. emptied and fitted with a fresh bag every night. the nod of the security guard. and made y o u talk in your sleep. you will probably give out n o m o r e than thirty in the course of your w h o l e employment. But coterminously. t h a n to demonstrate good faith o n the company's part. even the dinkiest chart or m e m o typed. one of the hardest decisions you have to make on cleaning out your desk is what to do with the coffinlike cardboard tray holding 9 5 8 fresh-smelling business cards. the escalator ride. even though. a n d even t h o u g h the possession of business cards has n o other function. all miraculously expand: and in this w a y what was central and what was incidental end up exactly reversed. really. over head transparencies to elevate the most casual meeting into something important a n d official. 1 W h e n you leave a job. to m a k e you feel that you belong there right from the beginning. expensive courier services. W e came in to w o r k every day a n d were treated like popes—a n e w manila folder for every task. utterly absorbing problems there. 1 . their faces seen from characteristic angles. for it seems to have been the Hungarian 5/2 rhythm of the lived workweek alone that kept each fascinating crisis inflated to its full interdepartmental complexity. the sight of colleagues' offices. over ten t h o u s a n d trash cans. his sign-in book. the problems themselves.
although w e weren't able to pinpoint our discomfort until n o w . I certainly helped myself to the paper towels. and is still. or • the uprising of yet another step of the escalator.s h a p e d opening: o n e to w a s h m y face with. a n e w b u t identical towel-flap w a s there for m e to grasp: if you h a d blinked at the right m o m e n t . and put the briefcase and the bag from the convenience store d o w n o n the floor and begin to pull handfuls of change and stubs of Velamints packs out of our pockets. y o u might never h a v e k n o w n that it was different from the towel you h a d b e e n looking at. two to rinse it. or • the rolling-into-position of a pinball after the previous one had escaped your flippers. or • one sticky disk of sliced banana displaced from its spot on the knife over the cereal bowl by its successor. n o ball bearings at all. dropping the w a r m change and keys and cash-machine receipts and litter into a saucer that is already overflowing with change. or • the sight of one parachutist after another standing for a sec ond in the door of an airplane before he jumped. a n d a fifth to dry m y glasses w h e n I had rinsed t h e m . consistently inter fere with the pleasure w e might take in it by (a) failing to stress And from this wealth and pomp w e return h o m e every evening and stand sweating in front of a chest of drawers. and then assuming another special contrapposto pose to pull out the wallet. N o w I briskly pulled five of t h e m from the d i a m o n d . but it was! This renewing of n e w n e s s — w h e t h e r it w a s 1 • the appearance of another identical Pez tablet at the neck of the plastic Pez elevator. was for m e then. relieved of ten hours of this remorid propinquity. forced to lean forward slightly in order to cup all the unwanted coinage w e have collected from the world that day because w e have lazily used whole bills for every transaction. w h o s e moist bulk w a s a subliminal bother all day. as w e drop the slightly sticky lump of leather and plastic o n top of the sliding m o u n d of change and feel one whole cheek of our ass instantly cool d o w n .THE MEZZANINE 93 ornamented with slabs of marble that w o u l d h a v e d o n e credit to the restrooms of the Vatican! W h a t w e r e w e participating in here? But despite this sort of periodic metascruple. A n d it remains a matter of some personal frustration to m e that fast-food restaurants. some hanging open. a fourth to dry it. ensuring that the 1 .m a d e world can offer. o n e of the greatest sources of happiness that the m a n . And w e store our pants away. Each time I pulled. w h i c h offer so m u c h of this kind of patterned mechanical renewal (as in the spring-loaded holes from w h i c h one Styrofoam cup after another emerges).
where n o b o d y will use t h e m because nobody will trust them. a n d yet t h r o u g h ignorance or carelessness its greatness is consistently traduced. with flap-folds hidden. "Flaps to the front! Flaps to the front!". ingen ious. recently m a d e heavy e n o u g h to stay p u t in a carbonated envi ronment. Pendaflex life w e lead in office buildings? Let m e mention another fairly important development in the history of the straw. which once had slipped so easily d o w n the plastic straw and bunched itself into a compressed concertina which you could use to perform traditional bar and dorm tricks with. long-lived. But I a m confident that the food chains will recognize this c o m m o n mistake in time and insti tute training procedures that h a v e their new-hires chanting.94 NICHOLSON BAKER to their employees the extreme importance of loading the black-and-chrome table-napkin dispensers with the napkins pointing in the right direction: not backward. so that the flap you pull tears or d r a w s the m a c h i n e shuddering on its rubber n u b s over the countertop—frustrating because here is a n invention that is simple. or if they d o n ' t do that by (b) allowing their people to stuff the dispenser full far b e y o n d its capacity. carried away by the admittedly impressive n u m b e r of napkins it can hold. a n d that could easily be o n e of those pings of small-time pleasure in y o u r fast-food meal. and they will trade in all of those hot-air blowers for the hazards of towel waste— just as the floating straw has been. they will be all fresh-seeming by day after tomorrow w h e n w e will need to wear them again. that the paper wrapper. so that to get t w o napkins out you have to pinch a bulge of six or m o r e at a time a n d wrestle t h e m all through the c h r o m e m o u t h at once. leaving the guilty excess o n top. noble. A w h o l e evolved method for unwrapping 1 . We walk around in our underpants and T-shirt waiting for the Ronzoni shells to boil. k n o w i n g that though the pants are a bit sweaty n o w . I recently noticed. It hugs the straw's surface so closely that even though the straw itself is stiffer than the earlier paper straw. and remembered dimly half noticing for several years before then. life-enhancing. at least by some vendors. n o w does not slip at all. Can this disorganized. the plastic sometimes buckles under the force you end up using in trying to push the wrapper d o w n the old habitual way. 1 creases are reinstated for later wearings by holding the pants upside d o w n by their cuffs and bringing them up through the triangle of the clotheshanger with its specially treated no-slip cardboard tube and letting them fall in half over it. do-it-yourself evening life really be the same life as the clean. and as a result millions of table napkins are t h r o w n away without having served their purpose.
the pencil. unpatented. But I have faith that this mistake too will be corrected. unregistered. very like rapping a cigarette o n a table to ensure that the tobacco was firmly settled into the t u b e — n o w n o longer works. The wings of m y nose were held closed by the sides of m y little fingers. folded it in half wet. Similarly. or that tradesmen would discover that they could conveniently store pencils behind their ears. " O h G o d " into the sopping paper. and the sound of those flapping sugar packets in the early morning. the windshield wiper—has been ornamented by a mute folklore of behavioral inventions. there are often unexpected plusses to some minor n e w development. Then. I raised the dripping folio in b o t h h a n d s and blinded myself in its w a r m t h . dislodging your attention from any t h o u g h t s that had been in progress and causing it to slide back r a n d o m l y to the first fixed spot in m e m o r y that it finds—often a subject that you had left unresolved earlier in the day w h i c h returns n o w as an image magnified ajgainst the grainy blackness of your closed eyelids. or later that they would gradually stop storing pencils behind their ears. and tapped just a half-squirt of pink soap onto it. What sugar-packet manufacturer could have k n o w n that people would take to flapping the packet back and forth to centrifuge its contents to the bottom. adopted and fine-tuned without comment or thought. straws—one-handed.THE M E Z Z A N I N E 95 I opened the first of the five towels u n d e r the h o t water. is not one I would willingly forgo. and w e may someday even be nostalgic about the period of several years w h e n straws were difficult to unwrap. An unpretentious technical invention—the straw. or that students w o u l d discover that you can flip pats of pre-portioned butter so they stick to the wall. Nobody could have predicted that maintenance m e n would polish escalator handrails standing still. which I diluted with a n o t h e r quick pass u n d e r the tap. I said. m y tie clamped out of h a r m ' s way under one elbow. and it takes time for them to be understood as evils and acted upon. It is impossible to foresee the things that go wrong in these small innovations. . the sugar packet. fluttering over from nearby booths. I scrubbed. bending low over the sink. especially the eyelids. and w e must pinch off the tip of the wrapper and tear our w a y two-handedly all the way d o w n the seam as if w e were opening a piece of junk mail. convenience has given rise to ballet. Face-washing seems to w o r k as a c u p u n c t u r e is said to: the sudden signals of w a r m t h flooding y o u r brain from the nerves of the face. immeasurably soothed. u n m o o r y o u r thinking for a n instant. so that they could handily tear off the top? The nakedness of a simple novelty in pre-portioned packaging has been sur rounded and softened and made sense of by gesticulative adaptation (possi bly inspired by the extinguishing oscillation of a match after the lighting of a cigarette). even though I take my coffee unsweetened. or that windshield wipers could serve as handy places to leave advertis ing flyers.
in readiness for the m o v e m e n t s I will be making in forming the t w o b u n n y ' s ears. say. that the shoelace o n my right shoe that h a d snapped yesterday m o r n i n g in my apart- . M y arms. n o t only because m y right a r m is stronger t h a n m y left. h o w come m y shoelaces broke within some twenty-eight hours of each other. This allows us to determine very easily w h e t h e r the chronic walk-flex or acute pull-fray model is d o m i n a n t . I must have flexed each shoe a n d therefore exerted tension and friction o n its lace thirty or forty times. And this time. I said to myself. t h e left shoe's inside eyelet a n d the right shoe's outside eyelet. I came up with w h a t looked to be a simple either/or test. You yanked in a floorward direction in this second pull.96 NICHOLSON BAKER In m y case. a real yank. perform their tying pulls asymmetrically. and since I have n o limp. W h a t I needed w a s a w a y to discriminate b e t w e e n the kind of w e a r inflicted by pulling o n the laces with my h a n d s and the kind that came about as I walked. I n o w thought. the image that returned was the broken shoelace as it h a d appeared just before I h a d repaired it in my office seven m i n u t e s before. as w e k n o w from m u r d e r mysteries. since the stresses of walking. and the friction seemed to be confined to a b o u t a quarter of a n inch of lace length—so that. I compared it with the important second pull. I felt I w a s making progress. even in walking just n o w from m y office to the m e n ' s room. The question t h e n had been. I turned off the water and began absentmindedly drying m y face with the fourth towel. often a m u c h harder pull. I did to tighten the twist of the o v e r h a n d base knot. o n the other h a n d . Assume. after t w o years of continuous use? N o w I relived the first sensations of pulling the lace-ends u p tight before I had begun the knot: it w a s a pull that seemed to involve about an inch of lace friction. w a s w h e r e the real concentrated wear w o u l d h a v e occurred. I tried again to incorporate in m y explanation of the dual breakage the addi tional contribution of walking flexion to total shoelace wear. As I rinsed m y face with the second a n d third paper towels. Since my feet are mirror images of each other. or even two. while individually small. the fraying u n d e r a purely walking-flex model of wear would be greatest at either b o t h inside or b o t h outside top eyelets—never at. but also because I hold the left a n d right lace-ends in a subtly different grip. were repeated t h o u s a n d s of times—for example.
scrubbing his h a n d s . a n d a right shoe also displaying a broken and repaired stretch of shoelace at its left top eyelet. " I said.u n d o n e a n d retyings. A toilet began roaring. This w a s not symmetrical. Good. Now I could see m y shoes. I adjusted m y glasses in the mirror so that they weren't crooked. m y standard response.THE MEZZANINE 97 ment had snapped at the left. I couldn't remember. emerged from a stall. making bribe-me. bribe-me finger motions over the t w o curved surfaces until they w e r e dry. And there I a b a n d o n e d the topic. or inside. " L u n c h t i m e ? " said Abe. I stepped back from the sink a n d b r o u g h t my glasses toward m y face. enjoying the approach of those two reservoirs of widening distinctness. I w o u l d expect the left eyelet of the left shoe to have b e e n the point of breakage. top eyelet of m y left shoe w o u l d h a v e snapped today. Conversely. top eyelet. 1 People seem to raise their eyebrows whenever they bring something close to their faces. W h a t I saw w a s a left shoe displaying a b r o k e n a n d repaired stretch of shoelace at the left top eyelet. it w a s his standard greeting—one I w a s fond of. k n o w i n g that they w o u l d revert to their normal slight skew in five minutes. or inside. A possible explanation is that eyebrow-raising is a w a y of telling your brain not to activate the natural flinch reaction that the approach of moving objects near the face normally triggers. w h i c h t w o eyelets had really been involved. for u n k n o w n rea sons. Under walkflex I would predict that the shoelace found in the right. because Abelardo. a n d consequently pullfray was d o m i n a n t a n d walk-flex discountable as a source of wear. u n d e r pull-fray. The first sip of a morning cup of coffee makes y o u raise your eyebrows. eager to b e able to study my shoes in detail once again. t h o u g h . maintaining symmetry. as I h o o k e d the sidepieces over my ears. " W h a t do you think. H o w i e ? " h e said. I d o n ' t k n o w w h a t to t h i n k . m y m a n ager. "Abe. I polished the lenses with the fifth paper towel. 1 . I rinsed my glasses quickly u n d e r the tap. I have seen some individuals displace their entire scalp along with their eyebrows whenever they bring a forkful of food to their mouths. But: these test results forced m e to reconsider the whole earlier problem of h o w to m a k e sense of the large percentage of r a n d o m daytime c o m i n g s . I raised m y eyebrows.
was serious or true. One popped yesterday. " O o p . the door s w u n g toward m e fast with n o resistance." "Nice." "Yep." . He blends alpaca and some of the finer tweeds. " I said. the other p o p p e d t o d a y ." I said. " " O h ? You b u y t h e m at CVS. " "It mystifies m e . " "Well w e l l . entering. Got to b u y shoelaces. or w h e r e ? " "I have t h e m flown in." Approaching the door. I heard Abe cheerfully start u p with "I Knew a n Old Lady W h o Swallowed a Fly. " O o p . A n Indian guy in Texas makes t h e m for m e . Has that ever h a p p e n e d to y o u ? " " N o .98 NICHOLSON BAKER "Yep. I held t h e door for h i m . Then h e sprays it with Krylon. " said R o n Nemick. I use a fresh pair every d a y . " From within. The secret to working for Abe was realizing that nothing h e said. UPS blue. outside of c o m p a n y business. "Take it easy. I began to whistle loudly. As I walked out into the hall. I realized that the t u n e I h a d just b e g u n w a s " I ' m a Yankee Doodle D a n d y . I pulled on the h a n d l e .
they r e n e w e d the p e r m a n e n t fourperson line at the cash machine. and the sounds of the lobby. as if each unitary tock of a secretary's heel w e r e a sharp brush-point of pigment touched to a wash-covered watercolor. o n e foot o n a higher step. gliding steadily u p w a r d o n the diagonal between the lobby a n d m y destination. too. From this height. flaring palely o u t w a r d . w o u l d raise their arms in joy ful surprise and exchange civilities while sidestepping in a neat clockwise semicircle in order to continue b a c k w a r d o n their way. o n intersecting rushed trajectories. w e r e blurred a n d assimilated into a universal lobby-sound. although I could still feel a faint r h y t h m of clicks transmitted t h r o u g h the steps. each held for an obligatory m o m e n t in the other's grav99 . the height of sociology and statistics. which I assumed w e r e caused as the links of the chain that drew m e u p w a r d were engaged by the sprockets at either end. one h a n d o n the handrail. foreshort ened employees m o v e d in visible patterns: they w e r e pro pelled one by one at a fixed speed into the lobby by the revolving door. I stood in the pose of George Washington crossing the Potomac. occasionally t w o of t h e m .Chapter Twelve LESS THAN AN HOUR later. they coalesced in front of elevators w h o s e arrival dinger had just lit. The sound of the escalator's motor h a d b e c o m e indistinct.
at air ports. Mont gomery. Before taking the job. That the handrail didn't progress at exactly the same speed as the steps w a s a n observation I o w e d to my lately acquired habit of standing still a n d gliding for the entire ride. and a shiny banister. and department stores. my elbow m o r e bent. I h a d used escalators relatively infrequently. certain subway exits. over an esti mated complete handrail loop of a h u n d r e d feet. until w e w e r e deposited o n the upper level. Your role w a s to advance at the n o r m a l rate y o u climbed stairs at h o m e . a practicable grade. and o n these occasions I h a d gradually developed strong beliefs as to the proper w a y to ride t h e m . malls. They w o u l d never have devoted fortunes of development m o n e y and man-years of mechanical ingenuity in order to construct a machine possessing all the external characteristics of a regular set of stairs. driven by w h a t kind of m e n ? Sad. unelectrified flight. I h a d switched to gliding only after I had b e e n working at the c o m p a n y for about a year. a n d Westinghouse h a d not m e a n t for you to falter after a step or t w o o n their machines and finally halt. It was strange to think that because of the difference in speeds. b u t maybe novices or fanatics. disappointed m e n . these escalator steps m u s t periodically lap the handrail that accom panied t h e m : since the slippage o n my escalator was about a foot per u p trip. Otis. my a r m was in a different position. you instinctively feel. your o w n physical efforts. or t w o feet per complete cycle. but because the handrail progressed u p w a r d o n its track at an imperceptibly slower speed t h a n the steps did (slippage?). than w h e n I h a d begun. arriving at the top later t h a n y o u w o u l d had you briskly m o u n t e d a fixed. not replace. including individual steps. rather than walking u p the steps.100 NICHOLSON BAKER itational field a n d then. the handrail w a s lapped by the moving stairway every fifty revolutions— like those stock cars with fewer decals that you think are r u n n i n g neck a n d neck with Foyt or Unser. just so that healthy people like m e could stand in states of sus pended animation. I h a d n o t m o v e d m y h a n d from its first grip o n the handrail. delighted to be there at all. but are in fact laps and laps off the pace. our eyes in test patterns of vacancy. allowing the motor to supplement. by m u t u a l consent. Their inspiration had . completing their loop-the-loop by turning and hurrying on. I repositioned m y h a n d ahead of me.
My total appreciation for the escalator deep ened. Headway w a s easier to establish going d o w n . a n d y o u just sapped their wills! You made them choose to waste their time! And they in t u r n impede those w h o follow t h e m — t h u s you perpetuate a pat tern of sloth and congestion that m a y persist for h o u r s . I began to care less w h e t h e r the original intent of the invention h a d been to emulate the stairway or not.THE M E Z Z A N I N E 101 not been the chair lift or the cog railway. tailgating t h e m until (often with startled sounds and offered apologies I didn't deserve) they doubled u p to let me pass. you are not only blocking m e ? D o n ' t you see that you indicate to all those w h o are right n o w stepping o n t o the escalator at the b o t t o m and looking timidly u p for inspira tion that if they b o u n d eagerly u p they too will catch u p with us and be thwarted in their advance? They w e r e wavering whether to stand or to climb. like an instructor at a n O u t w a r d B o u n d pro gram. Often in department stores I w o u l d get stuck behind t w o motionless passengers and w a n t to seize their shoulders and urge t h e m on. two abreast. bobbing steps melt into the inexhaustible meliorism of the escalator. my face a caricature of pointless impatience. Feel your o w n effortful. Bruce—this isn't the Land of the Lotus-Eaters. if I had to redescend to the lobby to take the elevator to one of the company's departments o n the twentysixth or -seventh floor—and the habitual thoughts that the experience had previously called forth b e c a m e too familiar at that frequency. "Annette. b u t the m o p e d . N o w I was a passenger o n the m a c h i n e four times a day—sometimes six or more. Can't you see that?" Sometimes I rudely halted at the step just below the one the pair stood on. because the rapid t h u m p of m y steps w o u l d scare t h e m over to o n e side. Watch the angles of floors a n d escalator ceil ings above and a r o u n d you alter their vanishing points at a syrupy speed that doesn't correlate with w h a t y o u r legs are telling you they are doing. saying. eventually becoming embedded along m y spinal col u m n . but each individual ride w a s n o longer guaranteed to trigger a well-worn piece of theory or state of irritation. But a year of riding the escalator to w o r k changed m e . Don't you see that w h e n y o u t w o stop. And w h e n I w e n t back to . w h i c h you helped out with leg p o w e r o n hills. You're o n a moving stairway. Yet people refused to see this.
Anyway. after years of eating the food that Seller's and ARA had cooked for me. skewering them on a dinner fork: grease from the hot dogs w a s released in short-lived fiery sparks. and I relaxed with them: it was natural. and he held me near the plume of steam coming from the small kettle that my mother had put on. In special situations. once I let my glasses clear. requiring a little scratch or irregularity in the metal to harbor their change of phase. white-watered calm. I studied with fresh interest the origination of the boiling bubbles in the Revere pan as I waited to pour in the Ronzoni shells: at the very beginning of boiling. "Croup again. I inhaled. m y glasses misted—and I was reminded of being awak ened by my parents years earlier from dreams in which I been trying to drink very thick shakes through impossibly slender straws.102 NICHOLSON BAKER department stores after those early m o n t h s of work. your yield of shells would diminish. I poured the Ronzoni shells into the tumultuous water: there was a hiss and a moment of complete. I found." his hair sticking in unusual directions. I b r o u g h t this n e w pleasure of standing still back with m e to the w o r k d a y escalations. a tie. though notable too for their paler yellow effects in daylight. riding u p to Housewares to buy a Revere saucepan to pair with my Teflon fry p a n a n d complete m y k i t c h e n . best seen if you turned off the light. later several beaded curtains of midsized spheres streamed where the parallel curves of the electric coil were most completely in contact with the pan's underside. and eventually I u n d e r w e n t a complete reversal: I never brought my long. because some would stick to the bottom of the pan. leisurely trip to a n early end with steps of m y o w n . in a separate smaller bag from Radio Shack. enjoying it as seasoned rail c o m m u t e r s enjoy the fixed interval of their train ride—and w h e n people stumped past m e I regarded t h e m with sympathy. and the heat charred to prominence the spoked pattern of the two ends of the hot dog. and as I breathed I thought happily about the blue gas flame pouring upward and flattening itself against the bottom of the kettle—the same flame which a few years later I was allowed to cook hot dogs over. toad-like globes of hard boiling took over. and. as glutinous. the desire to croak melted in the branches behind my sternum. I regarded the big motionless backs of shoppers ahead of m e on the crowded slope with n e w interest. 1 . it w a s understandable. Fairly early on. Unless you stirred at that point. croup again. later still. 1 even put m y shopping bag (which contained a suit. grains of mercury broke free and rose upward only from special points on the floor of the pan. the old irritation did 1 In those first months of cooking dinner for myself. a longer telephone cord) d o w n o n the step beside m e and closed my eyes for a short while. My father carried me to the bright kitchen saying cheerfully. it w a s defensible to w a n t to stand like a n Easter Island m o n u m e n t in this trance of motorized ascension t h r o u g h architectures of retailing. a shirt.
compressed into a blip of familiar curiosity. or w e r e they there simply to discourage a n y o n e w h o might be tempted to use the long median slope as a slide? This question. invisibly suspended lighting fixture that resembled the metal grid in a n old-style ice cube tray. Presently the metal disk that d r e w near w a s half lit by sun. a n d the height w e a k e n e d the functional correspondence b e t w e e n these stairs and their h o m e counterparts. My moving s h a d o w appeared far off. the m a i n t e n a n c e m a n h a d m o v e d his rag to the handrail I w a s holding—in a n o t h e r revolution. diminished by three-quarters. PC World. at the base. occurred to m e once or twice a quarter. unlooked-at. falling through the vacant middle reaches of lobby space.THE MEZZANINE 103 occasionally come back. and then it began folding itself over the sunlit piles of magazines in the newsstand—magazines as thick as text books. I had never figured out w h a t their purpose w a s . The trans formation wasn't instantaneous. especially o n s u b w a y escalators. sliding o n the lobby floor. Vogue. I followed the disks with m y eyes as they w e n t by. m y h a n d moved past a raised disk of burnished steel attached to the slope between the u p escalator I rode a n d the d o w n escalator to my left. Every few feet. separated by w o o d e n dividers— Forbes. d o w n into a newsstand inset into the marble at the rear of the lobby. thirty-foot-long. coronas of stage-struck protein iridesced from m y eyelashes. I was n o w close to two-thirds of the w a y to t h e mezzanine. the sunlight draped itself over m y escalator a n d contin ued from there. Did they cover the heads of large structural bolts. but w h e n it did I n o w divided m y blame b e t w e e n the halted pedestrians and the original designers of the m a c h i n e : clearly the engineers had m a d e the risers of the steps too tall. M—so filled with ads that they m a d e a . possibly the best part of the escalator ride. Falling from dusty heights of thermal glass over a h u n d r e d vaned. m y handprint would be polished away. Glamour. Behind me. I felt myself rise into its shape: m y h a n d t u r n e d gold. and o n e hinge of my glasses began to sparkle for attention. It w a s the last good blast of lunch hour. so that riders failed to feel innately that they w e r e expected to climb. Playboy. never urgently e n o u g h for m e to r e m e m b e r it later a n d find out the answer. it seemed to take about as long as the wires in a toaster take to t u r n orange.
each suggesting the next. (2) A discarded cigarette pack still wrapped in its cellophane. leaving. judging by the white shards. specifically. It was a potato-sized dinner roll. This last was a conception I had never envisioned in isolation before. (4) A giant piece of popcorn exploding in deep space. and bending closer. (3) The mowed remains of a dinner roll I had seen once on a nice Saturday morning on the way to the subway. I pictured: (1) The lines of Creamsicle-colored shine on the shrinkwrapped edges of the row of record albums in my living room as they appeared in the evening when I came home from work. o n e of t h e m n e w to m e . It had been mowed over where it lay that morning on the sharp slope that fell to the sidewalk (the street must have been widened at some point in the past): looking at it. Incited by bright textures and w a r m t h . I had imagined the flicker of indecision on the mower's sweaty face—"Rock?—No." and then the dip of the engine's drone and the card-shuffling spatter that followed.—Stop?—Not on this tricky slope—Push on. a roll. in place of a Chinese dinner roll. four distinct images occurred to m e in quick succession. Kromekote pages. . I recognized it as the kind of tasteless lov able roll that was included free with your order from a nearby Chinese takeout place.104 NICHOLSON BAKER splashing sound as you flipped through their eool. buzzing its glints and paper out over the dry grass. three of them familiar. a neat circular distribution of white fragments. the delight of running a lawn mower over it. Its brief appearance on the heels of the mowed roll (an image that occurred to me once every few months) was probably explained by my having bought and eaten a bag of popcorn earlier in the lunch hour.
the revolving door from the lobby h a d b e e n circulating a little too fast. The rear of a truck with quilted metal sides was packed with sandwiches. seated o n benches in the sun near raised beds of familiar corporate evergreens (cotoneaster. n o o n t i m e ! Fifteen healthy. Sidewalk vendors poked in the ranked c o m p a r t m e n t s of their carts. flipping metal doors back a n d forth. rolling u p a sleeve. filling three cups at a time without flipping on and off the coffee spigot. Outside. its o w n e r m a k i n g change from the monetary calliope o n his belt. Neenah.Chapter Thirteen I HAD NOT INTENDED to buy a bag of popcorn.s h a p e d shadows over its circular cast-iron trunk collar. pointing at the next customer. slender trees grew out of the brick plaza a short w a y into the blue sky in front of m y building. Wis. spigots. all in looping. each casting a n arrangement of potato c h i p . coltish. Drake's Cakes. as I imagine master telephone operators working the old plug105 . ("Neenah Foundry Co.") M e n and w o m e n . circling t w o . Under the impetus of a big-necked m a n and a rushed w o m a n behind him. I took advantage of the existing m o m e n t u m by milling t h r o u g h m y slice of its pie chart without contributing any additional force. and cans in ice. it was n o o n t i m e . w h e n my t u r n came. I think) w e r e withdrawing wrapped delicacies from dazzling w h i t e bags.a r m e d gestures.
despite the abrupt assumption of their final state. launching " p o p . like risen d o u g h or cave m u s h r o o m s . but u n d e r this sunlit n o o n m o o d I needed something insubstantial and altitudinous. or you can eat them w h e n they have waited in one of the high salted drifts warmed by the flat heating bulb with a frosted yellow blinding face and a back painted with reflective black material that has tiny scratches 1 . On impulse. subjected to heat. 1 You would think. after that sort of explosion. trailing the inevita ble t w o or three particles from each handful that exceeded the m o u t h ' s capacity. I let a complete dollar fall into the popcorn vendress's h a n d and lifted a twist-tied bagful garnered from the cart's glass poppery. shapes which seemed quite Brazilian and intemperate for so North American a seed. but no. composed of exfoliations that in bursting beyond their outer carapace w e r e nonetheless guided into paisleys and baobabs and related white Fibonaccia by its disappearing. out of which individ ual white fulsomenesses w e r e j u m p i n g from under a metal hinged flap. you can eat the results just afterward. that the outcome would need time to set and firm in cooling racks. and w h i c h seemed. an aster oid of Styrofoam. moving b e t w e e n cars w h o s e lacquer looked hot to the touch and pedestrians in white blouses and white pinpoint oxford shirts. I felt s o m e w h a t like an exploding pop corn myself: a dried bicuspid of American grain dropped into a lucid gold liquid pressed from less fortunate brother kernels. or: popcorn.106 NICHOLSON BAKER and-socket switchboards must have m a d e — h e was selling to the crew that w a s tearing d o w n everything but the I beams and the front façade of a building across the street. or three capers rolling a r o u n d a paper plate. like a miniature can of Bluebird grapefruit juice. " slowly arrived at. no change at all to abrade my thigh as I walked or to overflow my bureau saucer that evening! H o w kind of her! As I jaywalked across several streets in the direction of the CVS. or half a n arrowroot biscuit. I was hungry. as if doing a circus stunt for the blank drifts that composed the audience—and I got n o change back. and suddenly allowed to flourish outward in an instantaneous detonation of weightless reversal. m u c h larger but seemingly of less mass than before. the convulsive. with its 1890s-style painted lettering and yellow heat lamps and suspended popping chamber. back-arching b r o w n e d petals (which later found their way into the space b e t w e e n molars and gums).
. I got Mennen's h o m e number from informa tion and called him to congratulate him. seemed in fact one of the outstanding instances of h u m a n ingenuity in my lifetime.S. . Indiana. smiling sad-eyedly in his factory in La Porte. into a square can out front with a flap sticky from soft drinks: the trick here was to use w h a t e v e r you w e r e throwing out to push the flap open and t h e n snap your h a n d out of the w a y quickly e n o u g h that the flap didn't fall back o n it. or of the elegant machine he had invented to impart the spiral to the package. But the invention of Jiffy Pop seemed to m e in retrospect so much greater than any other popcorn-related product. and worrying that he might have died. Patent Gazette in 1957. the second derivative. Frederick Mennen. you tore back the thin foil in triangles. the other containing hydrogenated oil y o u squeezed out into the pan—and w e were even given a popcorn popper. slow-motion version of what each erumpent particle of corn is undergoing invisibly and instantaneously beneath it. thirty years after the fact. and found a 1960 picture of him. . I recently looked in the cupboards and found an old package of Jiffy Pop—not the n e w microwave Jiffy Pop. but the old aluminum Jiffy Pop. that after I had eaten a few handfuls. a few months after I was born. w h e n you tented it over turkeys. a wrinkled foil cover sheet adapted to be extended by expansion of container contents generated by cooking . The first patent appeared in the U. providing in its gradual expan sion a graspable. . the aluminum has revealed itself to be surprisingly thin. growing shyer with each ring. a relic of the great age of aluminum. flattened out its wrinkles with your thumbnail. . a technique in it through which the wattage shines. one containing kernels. made copies of the relevant patents ( " . gradually unfurls its dome. w e had as I grew up the slightly earlier Jolly Time and TV Time—the pair of plastic tubes. which was difficult to clean. The phone rang six times. of the original harvested ear of corn. with a maelstrom of swirled foil o n the top that. To serve it. Besides Jiffy Pop. froze with it. " ) . including all microwavables. while behind him w o m e n in lab coats kept an eye o n the conveyor belt. first by the direct collisions of discrete corns and then in a general indirect uplift of the total volume of potentiated cellulose. shaking it over the coils of the stove). dreading a widow's frail answer. I threw out w h a t was left of the popcorn before I w e n t inside. By the time the dome is completely deployed (I noticed.THE M E Z Z A N I N E 107 It took m e ten minutes to walk to the CVS pharmacy. Needing an actual taste of popcorn to confirm these recollections of h o w it had seemed that day. scraped the last crisp remnants of a Stouffer's baked spinach soufflé off its stamped and crimped sides—and more than a relic: Jiffy Pop was the finest example of the whole aluminous genre: a package inspired by the fry pan whose handle is also the hook it hangs from in the store. subjected to the subversion of the exploding kernels. I went to a university library and found out the name of the inventor. turning slowly as it despirals itself. and to ask him whether he was prouder of the spiral package itself. I hung up. thinner than Reynolds Wrap—and you realize that the only reason it could withstand the first battery of direct pops was that at that point it had been strengthened by its twirls (except in the vulnerable flat center). thus making bloom a flower no bee will ever fertilize: the final mannerist inflorescence. teased it off the inside of g u m wrappers.
worked his way 2 1 . If I buy these BandAids. very aloof. a n d the Band-Aid shelves. Fred.108 NICHOLSON BAKER that didn't w o r k perfectly in this case because the receptacle was overfull a n d I h a d to crush m y popcorn bag d o w n into earlier trash so that the flap could swing shut properly. most of my familiarity with CVS stores had come from my regular pur chase of earplugs. with a pair of pinking shears in the base of the neck. Li-Ban licekilling spray. and all of those nearby boxes of Band-Aids. as " h e a d a c h e " was. with a once catchy.'s apartment—I did not o w n a box of Band-Aids myself. I thought. a s y m p t o m to be cured. And very often you see w o m e n wistfully studying the Band-Aid shelves at CVS: perhaps they are thinking." near swimmer's nose-clips. I wiped popcorn salt and oil from m y h a n d s onto the inside of my pants pockets a n d entered the coolness of the store. needing a Band-Aid for a surprisingly gruesome little c u t ) that will shoot you directly back to w h e n you w e r e f o u r — a l t h o u g h I don't trust this 1 2 I borrowed the Band-Aid from the box in L. was never crowded with pill-studiers. moreover. Over the next week and a half. I used a box or m o r e of t h e m a week. At that age I once stabbed my best friend. The aisle. with specialized shapes for u n u s u a l w o u n d s and the bonus r o w of miniature strips that adults used even for quite bad finger-cuts. enraged because he had been given the comprehensive sixty-four-crayon Crayola box—including the gold and sil ver crayons—and w o u l d not let m e look closely at the box to see h o w Crayola had stabilized the built-in crayon sharpener under the tiers of crayons. In fact. " "hair notions. Caladryl. and considered myself an old h a n d at their layouts and their odd systems of classification. Cruex. such as you get slicing through a presliced bagel. implying. it will exhale a smell (as I found out recently. k n e w as I did to find earplugs in a far aisle called "first aid. Ace k n e e supporters. "eye c a r e . that hearing was an affliction. Incidentally. n o w dated absence of initial capitals—but few. ready to dress the minor w o u n d s of the good man I will maybe meet at some future date. seemed to m e to be the heart of the whole pharmacy. but I was a frequent customer of CVSes all over the city. if you o p e n a Band-Aid box. I had n o idea w h e r e the shoelaces were kept. Fred. still trustingly unsealed. " " h e a d a c h e ." read the suspended placards. because they were less ostentatious and self-pitying than the standard size. and later they will be there for the elbow scrapes of the children I will have with him. w h i c h w a s often true. and over the years I h a d g r o w n fond of their recherché placement. I will have them to put in my medicine cabinet.
rich. like the bubbles of s w a m p m e t h a n e that awed pro vincials once took for UFOs. a n d self-love. Only since 1982 or so have these superb plugs been generally available. . O n some days. to my knowledge). Before that I used the old Flents stopples. it w a s also that I heard the world distinctly for the first time since walking to the subway in the morning. writing impassioned m e m o s to senior m a n a g e ment. in the orange box—they were m a d e of cotton impregnated with w a x .. between smell. a n d taking only one out to talk o n the p h o n e . b u t also at work. Then a c o m p a n y called McKeon through every size and style of Band-Aid that Johnson & Johnson made (his family. helped m e to concentrate. and they were huge: you h a d to cut t h e m in half with a pair of scissors to get a shape that w o u l d stay p u t w h e n you w o r k e d it in place. and the muffling of all external noise. I used a lot of earplugs. w h o used to store any I left o n her bedside windowsill in an empty pastilles canister with a rural scene o n it—and I d o n ' t blame her. could afford the comprehensive variety box. I spent the w h o l e m o r n i n g a n d afternoon wearing ear plugs—wearing t h e m even to the m e n ' s r o o m . a tiny flesh-colored fried egg three-eighths of an inch across. and possibly this explained w h y m y thoughts h a d a different kind of upper h a r m o n i c during lunch: it w a s n ' t just the sun light and the clean glasses. They revolted L. because it seems to be a hardware bug in the neural workings of the sense of smell.) I used Flents Silaflex silicone earplugs. vision. even the printing of m y o w n calculator or the sliding of o n e piece of paper over another.THE M E Z Z A N I N E 109 olfactory m e m o r y trick a n y m o r e . which included shapes that no longer exist. Lunch h o u r s I never w o r e t h e m . stringing out my guilt and curiosity by wearing the smallest Band-Aid. because I had found that the magnified Sensurround sounds of m y o w n j a w and teeth. u n d e r n e a t h subtler strata of language and experience. refusing to s h o w m e the (very minor) w o u n d . (I w o r e t h e m in the subway. too. at least in the stores I visit. not only to get to sleep. a low-level sort of tie-in. w h i c h has been mistakenly exalted by some writers as something realer and purer and m o r e sacredly significant t h a n intellective memory. and they left your fingers greasy with pink paraffin. a n d t h e feeling of u n d e r w a ter fullness in my ears. long after I was sure he had only a faint white asterisk of a scar underneath.
and t h e n I selected a promising used plug from the array o n m y bedside table and pressed it into whichever ear w a s going to point toward the ceiling first. n o matter w h i c h ear turned u p . then. Flents continued to oversize the newer prod uct—though the package said " 3 pairs in h a n d y storage b o x . drop it in my ceilingward ear before I h a d gotten a r o u n d to doing so. take hold of a n earplug with them. she w o u l d get the w o o d e n toaster tongs. like Mack's. "You see? You see h o w m u c h I love y o u ? " 1 Although earplugs are essential for getting to sleep. I carried the case a r o u n d in my shirt pocket so that I could have n e w earplugs w h e n e v e r I needed them. " I still twisted each cylinder in half and got six complete sets. w h e n you are awakened with night anxieties. but the new job 1 . pushing their sleek Silaflex model—flesh-colored cylindrical versions of Mack's—while gradually phasing o u t the old waxand-cotton Tootsie Roll b e h e m o t h s .o p e n carrying case. was resigned to m y wearing t h e m . and your brain is steeping in a bad fluorescent juice. like a snuffbox. I w o r e t h e m until I forgot w h a t true sound was. If she asked a question after I h a d put the plug in and turned on my side. perhaps. offering Mack's Pillow Soft® earplugs—lumps of transparent gel-like putty that m a d e a seal so complete that your eardrums ached slightly as you released the pressure from your fingers. b u t w h a t I found was that the pillow ear w o u l d be in pain by the early hours of the morning. In bed I kissed L. they w e r e altering the sonic characteristics of the very air resident in the canal! Their fame spread from drug chain to drug chain by w o r d of m o u t h . Earlier I h a d tried sleeping with earplugs in both ears. to hear her. By this time L. I h a d to raise m y h e a d off the pillow.110 NICHOLSON BAKER Products began to be a force in the market. they are useless later on. w e r e sold in a plastic s n a p . saying. Fearing lawsuits. to demonstrate special tenderness. so that I w o u l d be sound-free as I revolved in my sleep. good night while she wrote d o w n the events of her day in a spiral notebook. w e r e not merely blocking soundwaves from passing t h r o u g h . and t a m p it in place. so I learned h o w to transfer the single w a r m plug from ear to ear in m y sleep w h e n e v e r I turned. I slept beautifully through college. sometimes. Flents counteracted powerfully. because they were creating a mild v a c u u m in your ear canal—a vacuum! We all k n o w h o w poorly sound travels in a vacuum! These n e w plugs. exposing the lower ear. The Silaflex plugs.
a n d the greatest brought regular insomnia. In Disney cartoons a little scene of sheep springing lightly over a stile or a picket fence appears in a thought-cloud above the m a n in the bed. taking off from an aircraft carrier in a l o w fast plane. I needed to pierce through the cartoon. waiting for a tactile ferment of bubbling to begin. and it sent a n almost u n e n d u r a b l e surge of w a r m water into your head. Then y o u took a shower. outlined with chrome edgework of lines and blinking stars. W h e n ever you discovered. . I heard reaches of the hertzian range that I h a d not heard probably since I w a s n e w b o r n . I Before E. it felt unsatisfactory: I w a s imagining sheep. So I h o m e d in o n each one in its approach to the hurdle and looked for individuating features— some thistle prominently caught. . I meant myself to be asleep by the time I passed through the expanding O. three. w o u l d encourage the dreaming state. which I wanted to uphold. or twisting water from a towel in a flooded basement.THE MEZZANINE 1 1 1 Just over from earplugs w e r e the long-nosed white bottles of ear-wax dissolver. The plane worked best. or the dormer w i n d o w of the A. rotating o n t w o axes. four . called for counting them. sur prised that I had taken so long to think of it. or a bit of dried m u d o n a shank. but it didn't work well. This did not work for long. Nosferatu.w a t e r blaster that nurses used: that device had t w o syringal finger-hooks a n d a t h u m b . while o n the soundtrack violins accompany a soft voice out of 78 records saying. that you did n o t h e a r any better with it out. And then. and less abstract pattern. and create a procession of truly differentiable sheep for myself. o n removing the night's earplug after your alarm w e n t off. Yet I didn't feel that there w a s any point to counting what w a s obviously the same set of animated frames recycled over and over. Some times I strapped a number o n the next one to jump and gave him a Kentucky Derby name: Brunch Commander. warm light from his clamp-on drafting-table lamp shining over the pushpins and masking tape and the special acetate pencil in his hand—I was soon successfully asleep. " I thought of story conferences in Disney studios back in the golden days of cartoons: the look of benign concentration o n the crouching animator's face as he carefully colored in the outline of a suspended stylized sheep one frame farther along in its arc. flushing impurities out into a b e d p a n you held steady at your neck. Wee Willie . w h i c h I b o u g h t once a year or so. you remained in bed a n d squirted the cold carbamide peroxide solution into your ear a n d lay motionless. I pictured myself driving in a l o w fast car. "One. true. but the convention.a c t u a t e d plunger. In the belief that images with more substance to them. After I h a d h a d m y ears roared clean that way. I began with Monday Night at the Movies title sequences: a n o u n like "MEMORANDUM" or "CALAMARI" in huge three-dimensional curving letters. two. It is true that this squirt of reagent w a s n ' t as effective as the mind-boggling steel w a r m . and with it a long period of trial and error. But though this Disney version achieved its purpose. until I hit on the images that most consistently lured m e back to sleep. I remembered the convention of counting sheep.
. I give them their cue through a rolled-up script: "Okay. and after w a r d stood in the s h o w e r for the count of sixty with my head at a n angle that allowed the h o t water to enter my ear with as Winkie.. throw their heads back for drama. is hurrying over farther hills to his next assignment. having cleared my hurdle and been checked off. she repeats my address again and again to her nodding subjects. and I demonstrate to them h o w I need them to send their plump torsos airborne. number four. and my personal flock departs fifteen minutes later. two. . And I made him take the jump very slowly. I comfort the weepers. still in the next county. expecting a rough night. and always. And at 3:30 A. Up. while at my office. they bustle up. the ripple moving through the w o o l on land ing. w h o . While I a m eating dinner with L. hike up their rear legs for an added boost. so I often resorted to the do-it-yourself white bottle of CVS solvent. and then I have become a very successful director of fabric-softener commercials—the agency needs lush shots of jumping sheep. for counting? The practiced crook of the sheep dispatcher travels over her herd. they are still miles away. I shampoo each sheep myself. so that I could study every phase of it—the crumbs of airborne dirt floating slowly toward the lens. log the sheep in and pay them off. the soft-lipped grimace. their small pink tongues visible with the effort. for I found that it w a s the approach to the jump. their fleece has to read as golden in the failing sunlight. but by bedtime. pointing: "You. and trot along the median valleys of highways. exhilarated from their journey: I put aside the unwritten thank-you letter I have been writhing over. If I wasn't off by then. three .. you.. Some sheep had probably reported for work around n o o n several towns over. w a d e brooks.M. and the first few begin lofting themselves over the planks and milk crates I have assembled out front. . awake with worries of her o w n beside me. that was sleep-inducing. full of relief and the glow of accomplishment.M. you". And the rear legs! More teeth! S h o w strain! N o w some nostril! And over!" Lately I have found that the last thing in my mind before resumed unconsciousness is often the dwindling sight of one lone sheep. . All that after n o o n they cross village greens. one. I backed up and reconstructed the sheep's entire day. N o w thrust.112 NICHOLSON BAKER pleasure in hearing this n e w wheat-field crispness overlaid on n o r m a l sound w a s in being able to bottle it away w h e n I w a n t e d to with a pair of Silaflex earplugs. the whites of their sheep eyes showing. with a voucher to be signed o n arrival.M. Around two in the afternoon. 11:30 P. tousled and fractious. But I w a s embar rassed to ask a nurse to use the ear-blaster o n m e because she w o u l d see the impurities gush from m y ear. I read to the assembled flock from Cardinal Newman's Idea of a University to heighten their sense of purpose and grace.. which is to leap an herbal border in slow motion for L. w h e n I need them badly. rather than the jump itself. I had (I imagined) placed a call to one of the shepherd-dispatchers: Could she send out some random number of sheep not larger than thirty to arrive outside my apart ment by 3:30 A. Lighter footfalls. I can spot them with my binoculars coming over a rise: tiny bobbing shapes next to a foreshortened Red Roof Inn sign. always lead in their landing with the left forehoof. and the greens of the countryside have to be incon ceivably full-throated.
obscured here a n d there by circular antitheft mirrors. w h i c h looks like a cross b e t w e e n a tea strainer a n d a medieval catapult. You slip by a w o m a n reading the fine print o n a disposable vinegar d o u c h e kit. w h e r e they lay folded like tennis sweaters in a drawer. Krazy Nails wallpaper. w h e r e I w o u l d with some difficulty p o k e a hole in one of them. Heavy curved soaps like Basis a n d Dove. Things w e r e for sale w h o s e use d e m a n d e d nudity and privacy. a n d urinate into the toilet—and CVS stores have some of this uncertain. just as there is n o good word for girlfriend. too. b u t m e n were allowed to r o a m with complete freedom past shelves that glowed with low b u t measurable curie-levels of luridness. W h e n I w a s younger t h a n I should have been. using a pencil or a toothbrush. and as abdomen is to consort. 1 . M e n a n d w o m e n eyed each other strangely here—unusual forces of attraction a n d furtiveness were at work. expensive. childish kinkiness and indirection to t h e m . all of the ex-billboards cropped a n d overlap ping. Frisson! Another w o m a n is contemplating a box of Aspercreme—what for? A third is deciding w h e t h e r she w a n t s a Revlon eyelash curler. highly specialized items that readied h u m a n bodies for h u m a n civilization. It w a s m o r e a w o m a n ' s store t h a n a m a n ' s store. simply for a pair of shoelaces. you feel the subdued tantalization of the place: the Coppertone billboards used as wallpaper. will b e slid from their packaging for tonight's shower: their cream-molded trade marks will be w o r n a w a y by their passage over w o m a n l y upper arms a n d s t o m a c h s . and as middle is to petite amie. She feels y o u pass. Deeply confidential n a m e s whispered u p at y o u from every 1 There is n o good word for stomach. This w a s the kind of important and secretive product that CVS stores sold—they were a w h o l e chain dedicated to m a k i n g available the small. Stomach is to girlfriend as belly is to lover. a n d take t h e m to the bath room with m e . Even if y o u are there just to buy some decongestant or. mixing so m a n y kinds of privateness together in o n e public store. as I w a s . and Maalox a n d Secret antiperspirant a n d Energizer bat tery wallpaper. square yards of tanned shoulders a n d knees a n d faces. I used to steal sanitary napkins from the b o x among the shoes in m y parents' closet. though sold in perky square boxes. p u s h m y crayon-sized penis t h r o u g h the hole.THE MEZZANINE 113 m u c h flushing directness as possible.
not chic. Gee. And I would recall the family w h o . Finesse. or Harsha of Kanauj. Pamprin. a n d bottle after bottle of the Akbaresque Flex. Prell's green is too simple a green for us n o w . the pattern of each color package repeated in piles of four and eight and ten o n the shelf. Clairol Herbal Essence. (I think that ad w a s for Prell—or w a s it Breck. overrun by later waves of Mongols. it is n o w late in its decline. the false French of its n a m e seems kitschy. the rise of the Chola kings of Tanjore and the fall of the Pallava kings of Kanchi. or Alberto V 0 5 ? ) I r e m e m b e r friends' older sisters w h o used those old sham1 And was it Prell concentrate or Head & Shoulders where the n e w unbreakable tube squirted from the showerer's fingers ("Oops!") over the glass shower stall. turbulence. told their father please not to wear his blue blazer because of dandruff flaking. Your Hair Smells Terrific. Tronolane—masterly syl labic splicings of the perverted and the doctorly. w h o once built the Seven Pagodas of M a h a b a l i p u r a m . insulated from the street by the Red Cross innocence and purity of the CVS sign. Muslims. Silkience. s h a m p o o ? Yes. w h e n you think of 1 . lightly advertised. It w a s a w h o l e Istanbul of the medicine cabinet. there was. w h e n you caught sight of a once great s h a m p o o like Alberto V 0 5 or Prell n o w in sorry vassalage o n the b o t t o m shelf of aisle IB. caught by the husband w h o studied it with wonderment? Manageability—the romance of the notion would come back if I paused in the shampoo aisle for a minute: so Harold Geneenian a word to be mur mured by models w h o s e hair looked like Samantha's o n Bewitched.114 NICHOLSON BAKER aisle—Anbesol. a n d plenty of lather in the last twenty years of that great Hindu inheritance. or the final desolation and ruin of the great metropolis of Vijayanagar. having descended year by year through the thick b u t hygroscopic emulsions of our esteem. Yet emotional analogies w e r e not hard to find between the history of civilization o n the o n e h a n d and the history within the CVS p h a r m a c y o n the other. and Chalukyas—Suave. Evenflo. w h e n w e had dynastic shifts. And here were the shampoos! Was there really any need to study the historical past of Chandragupta of Pataliputra. like the large descending pearl that was used in one of its greatest early ads to prove h o w lusciously rich it was. until after he used Head & Shoulders (a repulsive name for a shampoo. more in sorrow than in anger. and w h e r e once it was enveloped in m y TV-soaked m i n d by the immediacy and throatiness of w o m a n l y voice-overs.
exiting twenty floors up with glossy highlights. The fact seems especially puzzling. unable to place a n e w item in a it.THE M E Z Z A N I N E 115 poos—one sister especially. fresh from using Alberto V 0 5 and Dippity-do. Eventually. your original s h a m p o o p a n t h e o n . n o w reduced to leafing t h r o u g h trade magazines to keep u p with late-breaking news in hair care like outsiders. instead I exhausted i n n u merable bars of Ivory soap o n m y hair (the bars turned con cave as they diminished. becomes infiltrated by novelty. I a m not proud of the fact that major ingredients of m y emotional history are available for purchase today at CVS. it n o longer w o u l d be understood properly. Soon. since m i n e was entirely a spectator's emotion: I did not use any of the great shampoos. so that it passed from living m e m o r y . but you never do). that with it they had taken their product straight to the top! In time. or toothpaste or vend ing machine or magazine or car or felt-tip p e n p a n t h e o n . a kind with a slight matte gunmetal dullness to it instead of the unpleasant patent-leathery reflectivity of then existing efforts at transparency. brushing her oiliness away. w h e n hair began to leave m y head and I. and the w o m a n w h o s e life was so busy that she used an aerosol shampoo-in-a-can in the privacy of the elevator. correctly situated in the felt periphery of life. reading Fester Bestertester paper backs. nobody would know that they had introduced a better kind of plastic for their shampoo bottle. with her hair rolled u p in a n u m b e r of small pink foam curlers and three RC cola cans. reminiscing about the great days w h e n they had huge TV budgets and everything w a s hopping. trying to u n d o the years of soapy harshness that I thought might have been the cause of the departure. at least until a year into my job o n the mezzanine. switched to Johnson's baby s h a m p o o . . and y o u m a y find yourself losing your points of reference. sitting d o w n at the kitchen table to eat breakfast while w e (nine years old) ate raw Bermuda onions for lunch. instead it would be one of m a n y quaint vials of plastic in country antique stores—understood n o better t h a n a ninth-century trinket unearthed o n the Coromandel coast. once everyone h a d died w h o h a d used a certain discontinued brand of s h a m p o o . fitting m y skull). as products continue to be launched year after year. I think of the old product m a n a g e r s staring out the w i n d o w like Proust.
toe cap/sleeves." I saw them. the aisle labeled "footcare" offered only packets of corn cushions. n o matter h o w m a n y times I see it o n the shelf. 1 Already the disruption begins: the last few times I visited a CVS they did not staple my bag at all. too. a n y post-Flex product (like this Swedish birch-and-chamomile stuff. while CVS is its diary. t h o u g h . like Rite Aids or Oscos before t h e m : the red letters and stapled white bags b o w i n g before something w e can't even imagine. according to Tina. the higher incidence of successful shoplifting attendant o n unsecured bags w o u l d be more than outweighed by the faster throughput of cashiers w h o did not have to spend extra seconds stapling. electrifyingly chipper. research triangles. unable to entertain a single n e w enthusiasm. I checked "hosiery." b u t found only stockings. at w h i c h t h e combined v o l u m e of all the miniature histories of miscellanea that have b e e n collecting in parallel in m y m e m o r y . Scholl's line. covering a n u m b e r of the different aisles of CVS and even some of t h e h a n d i w o r k of civilization at large.116 NICHOLSON BAKER comparative nest of familiar brand n a m e s because the other n a m e s still themselves feel r a w a n d unassimilated. I w a s almost ready to believe that CVS didn't carry w h a t I needed. held ready in inventory against the fateful day that m i n e w o r e d o w n a n d snapped. For n o w . I think I have reached that point. external to m y life. a n d the rest of the Dr. Those places are the novels of the period. Hàlsa) will remain dead for m e . I expect it to h a p p e n w h e n the CVS stores themselves have become sad and dated. A n d s o m e w h e r e within this particular store. w h o k n e w it m u c h better t h a n I did. t h e CVS p h a r m a c y is closer to the center of life than. or restaurants. the lobbies of office buildings. m a r k e d "cleaners. I suppose there is a point. corn files. 1 . or b a n k s . turning d o w n aisle 8A. though the stapler was lying right there by the cash register—they had switched to using a plastic bag with t w o integral carryloops that made it look like the top of a pair of overalls. w h e n . airports. will reach some critical point a n d leave m e saturated. say. national parks. ingrown-toenail relievers. Crate & Barrel or Pier 1. corn/callus removers. Theoretically. t h e Flex family wore m e d o w n finally a n d I a m n o w living exclusively in the past: short of something really spectacular. Disappoint ingly. listless. w a s a pair of shoelaces. In sham poos. and this plastic was impossible to staple effectively. something even cleaner. I wonder whether close observation and time-motion studies s h o w e d CVS management that because the stores were permanently understaffed.
b u t at the shoelace level of detail. a n d her use of . because I had come to the conclusion that the differential in checkout speeds between a fast. yet easily as good as the cans of Filippo Berio olive oil. a n d she did n o t wait to see whether the customer h a d the exact change: she h a d learned that w h e n the guy said. She closed the register drawer with her hips a n d tore the receipt off at almost precisely the same m o m e n t . even t h o u g h her line was two people longer t h a n any of the others. smart ringer-upper a n d a slow. My shoes looked scuffed. a n Indian or Pakistani w o m a n in a blue sweater. I b o u g h t the twenty-seven-inch size. I d o n ' t .THE M E Z Z A N I N E 117 hanging over cans of Kiwi shoe polish. encircled Penguin o n the black paperback I was carrying. such w a s the variation in h u m a n abilities and native intelligence—even four to o n e if there were sophisticated transactions like returns. a n d there was a nice resemblance b e t w e e n the kiwi bird standing in its white semicircle and the white. n o b o d y could reasonably d e m a n d cotton. really. eliminating the need to handle everything twice. I studied the tech nique of the cashiers a n d chose the smartest-looking one. that Kiwi m a d e any m o n e y at all in this business. I think I h a v e it!" there w a s a good chance that after all his fishing a n d palm-counting. "Wait." A slight cheapo glint led m e to suspect that they w e r e w o v e n of m a n . the combination of coins w o u l d prove to be inadequate. A chart o n the back of each package correlated the n u m b e r of paired eyelets in your shoes with the length of shoelace you needed: counting m i n e (five). There were lines at all the cash registers. a n d h e would say. d u m b one was three transactions to one. This Indian w o m a n w a s a true professional: she put the items in the bag as she rang t h e m u p .m a d e fibers. next to sponges and flock-lined latex gloves. " a n d h a n d her a twenty-dollar bill. "Sorry. I thought: you lost it in the b o t t o m of your closet long before you ran out. a n d I almost bought a can of black Kiwi polish as well—I w a s attracted by the archaism of the canister's design: it w a s American. sixtynine-cent "replacement dress laces. They w e r e CVS's h o u s e brand. But I r e m e m b e r e d that I h a d several cans of Kiwi black at home—it w a s a w o n d e r . or the appearance of something w h o s e price h a d to b e looked u p in the alphabetical printout because it w a s n ' t price-gunned o n the package. given h o w long each canister lasted.
Even with this setback. I had watched her before. b u t there didn't seem to be any unembarrassing way of conveying this. Trident gum. Vaseline Intensive Care. m y errand complete. Paper coin rolls had beauty: interesting pulpy colors. 1 . similar to the thread in the Band-Aid wrapper. will. she ran out of loose dimes.118 NICHOLSON BAKER the c h r o m e handgrip-style stapler that w a s chained to the counter w a s everything you w a n t to see in bag stapling. w h i c h left m e with a h a n d free to take hold of the bag. I w a n t e d to tell her h o w nimble she was. But even so. What w e needed here was some kind of pull tab. unlike paper. It took her ten seconds of unvexed. and I left. unless it is made unmanageably thick. nude-colored stockings. and a package of Marlboro Light 100s). soft paper-bag paper but heavy with the density of m o n e y inside. She laid the bills o n m y p a l m a n d released the loose coins into the curve the bills formed—the riskiest. (To be truthful.) I broke a ten. and thus I already k n e w that she w a s the fastest. and the plastic w a s probably the product of some magnifi cent sorter/counter/packager/bundler at the bank. 1 1 forgave her completely for this delay: these plastic coin rolls were a very unhappy development in the life of the cashier. Her only difficulty c a m e w h e n . and good cashiers could crack them open against the edge of a coin trough and have their entire contents poured into place in five seconds. especially if she had long fingernails. expressionless bending a n d prying to w o r k four dimes out into the coin t r o u g h . that I really liked the fact that she h a d discovered the m o v e m e n t s a n d shortcuts that kept cash transactions enjoy able. I was excited. h o w ever. extending the length of the roll. w h e n I w a s at the store to buy earplugs. making change for the w o m a n in front of m e (tweezers. But plastic. w h e n I first saw the plastic rolls (around 1980). except functional. The coin roll was m a d e of thick shrink-wrapped plastic. and w h i c h avoided that sometimes embarrassing touch of a stranger's w a r m h a n d . I reached her with m y shoelaces faster t h a n I would have reached any of the other cashiers. She smiled a n d n o d d e d ceremonially. I was upbeat: you could tell more easily from the edges of the ranked coins which they were. tear easily once it has been nicked (as in shrink-wrapping o n record albums)—and nicks undoubtedly would happen in big heavy bags of coin rolls: thus the plastic coin roll advocates were evidently forced to adopt a thickness of their chosen material that made the cashier's life a time of periodic exasperation. most skillful way.
b u t which at that time seemed rare a n d wonderful. I took a bite of the cookie. architects having t h e n only recently b e g u n to a b a n d o n the low. for they offered n o back support) in this sort of public area for twenty regressive years. A cookie store I passed h a d n o customers in it. walking fast in order to save as m u c h of the twenty minutes of my lunch h o u r I h a d left for reading. I ate a vendor's h o t dog with sauerkraut (a combination w h o s e tastiness still m a k e s m e tremble). Waiting for a light five blocks a w a y from m y building. I h a d bought a large. in u n d e r thirty seconds. m a d e of thin slats of w o o d bolted to curves of ornate iron a n d painted green—a kind that might be t h o u g h t overly cute n o w . 119 . Thus supplied. a n d I nipped into a Papa Gino's and bought a half-pint carton in a bag. I returned to the brick plaza and sat d o w n o n a b e n c h in the sun near the revolving door. It w a s a neo-Victorian bench. immediately I felt a strong need for some milk to complement it.Chapter Fourteen ON THE WAY BACK. full of thoughts about the ritual aspects of bagging. evil slabs of cast concrete or polished granite that h a d served as places to sit (or slump. flexible chocolate chip cookie there for eighty cents. m y office seemed farther from the CVS than it had o n the w a y there.
the pages w e r e blinding. yesterday a drop of semen. another pure infusion of milk coldly w a s h e d the sweet m a s h d o w n . she explained w h e n I asked her why.120 NICHOLSON BAKER I placed the CVS bag beside m e and opened the carton of milk. tinted with after images of retinal violets a n d greens. Destructive and unhelpful and misguided a n d completely untrue!—but harmless. neckdefyingly. w r o n g . Until m y eyes adjusted. pushing a n edge of the bag Donna had given me under my thigh so that it w o u l d not blow away. and t h e n I took a bite of cookie and a mouthful of cold milk. illegible hillocks. It w a s a perfect day for fifteen minutes of reading. because you were more likely to choke. she w a s reading Readings in the Philosophy of the Social Sciences for a course she was taking) that it was not a good idea to take a drink of what you were drinking before you had swallowed what you were chewing—not. 1 found m y place o n the brilliant page and read: 1 Observe. I blinked and chewed. because. was the last wide story before the façade angled in a n d took off. I opened the Penguin Classic at the placemarker (a cash-machine receipt. even My mother had said unexpectedly one afternoon while w e both sat at the kitchen table (I was reading "Dear Abby" while finishing a peanut butter sandwich and a glass of milk. how transient and trivial is all mortal life. and bit and sipped by turns. The bench gave me a three-quarter view of m y building: the mezzanine floor. rela tively unobserved there on the bench. The building's shadow had reached o n e end of m y bench. w h i c h I slipped for the time being several pages a h e a d ) . but because it was considered rude. The independence of the bite of cookie and the mouthful of milk began to merge and w a r m pleasantly in my m o u t h . I went ahead. apparently. you did allow them to make undesirably detailed inferences about the squelchy mixing and churning that was going on behind your sealed lips. though y o u offered no unpleasant sights or noises to others present. into a squint of blue haze. in short. a grid of dark green glass with vertical marble accents. rude in a subtler way. tomorrow a handful of spice and ashes. and I felt my stomach flip w h e n others did. but since in the case of milk and cookies simultaneity really is the only w a y to deflect the killing sweetness of the cookie and camouflage the Pepto-Bismolian cheesiness of the milk. The thought that I had grossed my o w n mother out at the kitchen table was painful to me. 1 . w r o n g ! I thought. I never again took a sip while still chewing in public. than the childish crudity of talking with your mouth full or "smacking your lips" (a phrase I still don't fully understand). Wrong.
however. Christ! As our knowledge of these philosophers is brought within this domestic and anecdotal embrace. told us he w a s glad to k n o w that Milton wore latchets in his shoes. I took another bite of cookie and mouthful of milk. with pockets which might have almost held the two volumes of his folio dictionary. he [Johnson] wore boots. like Lecky (to get back to the point of this footnote). in another—a familiar enough point. "Upon this tour. small pursuits. A glowing mention in William Edward Hartpole Lecky's History of European Morals (which I h a d b e e n attracted to. I remember Dr Adam Smith. instead of buckles. I don't think. Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides. (History of European Morals. as well. I crave knowledge of this kind of detail. y o u can be eloquently virtuous in one sphere.THE M E Z Z A N I N E 121 agreeably sobering. Penguin. Can you take seriously a person's theory of language w h e n y o u k n o w that he was delighted by the woodenness and tedium of c o w b o y movies? Once in a while. using cheese as bait. and Gibbon 1 . w h e n journeying. page 2 2 8 . but never pivoting on the example of Spinoza before. As Boswell said. That was the problem with reading: you always h a d to pick u p again at the very thing that had m a d e you stop reading the day before. Let me not be censured for mentioning such minute particulars. hauling them in. in his rhetorical lectures at Glascow. within earshot of the rubbery groan and whish of a revolving door. Think of it: John Milton wore shoelaces!) Boswell. too. page 165. enjoying the resultant battle so much that he occasionally burst out laughing. by the ambitious title and the luxu riant incidentalism of the footnotes ) w a s w h a t h a d m a d e m e stop in front of the floor-to-ceiling shelf of Penguin Classics at 1 In one footnote. to be honest. Everything relative to so great a man is worth observing. I have read very little) have at least temporarily disabled any interest I might have had in reading them further. while tolerant of nastiness. And Wittgenstein." (Boswell. regu larly spaced trees. fluttering and wrapped in the feather-destroying snare. page 289. browsing in the library one Saturday. vol. Jesus H. or even nasty yourself. and he carried in his hand a large English oak stick.) Lecky uses this tidbit to illustrate his contention that sophisticated moral feelings are not consistent across a personality or a culture. Hobbes. apparently for fun. I could absorb any brutal stoicism anyone dished out! Instead of continuing. w e can't help having our estimation of them somewhat diminished by these cruel. Lecky quotes a French biographer of Spinoza to the effect that the philosopher liked to entertain himself by dropping flies into spiders' webs. w e learn in a Penguin selection of John Aubrey's Lives. liked during college ("rook racked" Oxford) to get up early in the morning and trap jackdaws with sticky string. I read in some biography. fine—but every day? Yet while these tiny truths about three philosophers (of w h o m . for instance. perhaps. loved to watch c o w b o y movies: he w o u l d go every afternoon to watch gunfights and arrows through the chest for hours at a time. to a m a n sitting o n a green b e n c h o n a herringbone-patterned brick plaza near fifteen healthy. 1. and a very wide brown cloth great coat.
and whether they would read it in context. or upward escalation. disdaining the footstool that was available. they k n e w . Octopus-like creatures"? Do w e need the very title of that poem ("The Kraken. italics.) They liked deciding as they read whether they would bother to consult a certain footnote or not.) It is true that Johnson said. through abandoned stations and submerged. (They were aware. hooking my finger o n the top of the b o o k and pulling it so that it half fell into my palm: a thinner Penguin t h a n most.'s" and "compare's" and "see's" that are the shield for the pure flow of argument as it lives for a m o m e n t in one mind. inflexible. Penguin before him. They k n e w that the outer surface of truth is not smooth. but is encrusted with a rough protective bark of citations. he suspects not why. or read it before the text it hung from. the thoughts are diverted from the principal subject. of the argument—is sometimes the only way to be thorough. failing to understand that the student's pleasure in poetry comes in part from the upper furze of nouns he can't quite place and allusions that he only half recognizes? Do w e really need Tennyson's "unnumbered and enormous polypi" neatly footnoted with " 3 .") But Johnson was referring here to the special case of one writer's commentary o n another—and indeed w h o s e mind is not chilled by several degrees w h e n the editors of the Norton Anthology of Poetry clarify every potentially confusing word or line for us. of the usefulness of tiny type in enhancing the glee of reading works of obscure scholarship: typographical density forces you to crouch like Robert Hooke or Henry Gray over the busyness and intricacy of recorded truth. and foreign languages. "The mind is refrigerated by interruption. Digression—a movement away from the gradus. want vertical itineraries. offering the model-railroader's satisfaction of catching the march of thought with a superscripted " 1 " and routing it." printed o n pages 3 3 8 . sometimes at length. o n the subject of exegetical notes to Shakespeare. the reader is weary. as they turned the page. a gray silt of further example and qualification waiting in tiny type at the bottom. a n d read n o m o r e t h a n twenty pages of. more generally. They k n e w the anticipatory pleasure of sensing with peripheral vision. in the Museum . leaching tunnels. the rectus externus and internus grow dazed waggling back and forth in the Zs taught in grade school: the footnote functions as a switch. quotation marks. In earlier short-lived classical enthusiasms I had bought. loved footnotes.3 3 9 of the revised shorter edition of that anthology) explained away for us? And do w e need the opening sentence of James's The American. glossy. as an hors d'oeuvre." ("Preface to Shakespeare.122 NICHOLSON BAKER the bookstore o n a lunch h o u r t w o weeks earlier and reach for the thin v o l u m e of Aurelius's Meditations o n the very top shelf. "essay-like" footnotes. The muscles of the eye. Were they nuts? Where is scholarship going? (They have removed this blemish in later editions. and footnotes are the only form of graphic digression sanctioned by centuries of typesetters. w h i c h mentions the "Salon Carré. w h i c h he has too diligently studied. a w h o l e variorum crust of "ibid. mintcondition. welling and gathering from paragraph to shapely paragraph. and at last throws away the book. And yet the MLA Style Sheet I owned in college warned against lengthy.
Footnotes are the finer-suckered surfaces that allow tentacular paragraphs to hold fast to the wider reality of the library. Very few men have ever lived concerning whose inner life we can speak so confidently. just above the shelf that held my records. or about the flowering of some especially rich tradition of terra-cotta pipes. restatement and self-disagreement and the enveloping sea of refer enced authorities all continue. I associated th. presiding over a society that was profoundly corrupt. and translating in the evenings—probably gay. w h o had. the first thing I read w h e n I o p e n e d the Meditations at r a n d o m in the bookstore s t u n n e d m e with its of the Louvre. accessible. a fair number of them: that excellent low-key sort of man w h o achieves little by external standards but w h o sustains civiliza tion for us by knowing. this room contains." dental-flossed (in the Penguin American Library edition. Gibbon. form also one of the truest. catty. what he says in the primary text. And sure enough. having come to history first through the backs of record albums. not academics. all that can be k n o w n about several brief periods of Dutch history. books in the whole range of religious literature.THE MEZZANINE 123 Classics of Arrian. I liked t h e m in part because. and considered way. Leonardo's "Mona Lisa. The heart of the picture-galleries in the great French national museum. in a perfectly balanced. a pairing that made those minor translational lives in Dorset and Leeds seem just as important as the often assassinating. and the spontaneous sentiment of his people proclaimed him rather a god than a man. and conspiring lives of the ancients.e Classics' blackness and gloss w i t h record vinyl." But the great scholarly or anecdotal footnotes of Lecky. are reassurances that the pursuit of truth doesn't have clear outer boundaries: it doesn't end with the book. 1 also liked the black Penguins because o n the front page they had a biographical note about the translator that w a s in the same small print as the biographical note about the major historical figure h e had rendered into English. The Penguin translators seemed frequently to be ama teurs. which form one of the most impressive. lived quietly running their fathers' businesses or being clergymen. and over a city that was notorious for its license. Cicero. His Meditations. Lecky h a d praised Aurelius in a w a y that m a d e reading h i m seem irresist ible: 1 Tried by the chequered events of a reign of nineteen years. Tacitus. of all places) with the following demoralizing aid: 1. after getting their double firsts. the perfection of his character awed even calumny to silence. or even correct over several later editions. in addition to works by the old masters whom James mentions below. or Boswell. written by the author of the book himself to supplement. a n d Procopius—I liked to see t h e m lined u p o n m y windowsill. 1 .
crinkly kind of paper. I d o w n e d it all at once. If I w a s n ' t going to read." "so well adapted for. Feeling n o w w o n back by the taste. "Manifestly. flipping a r o u n d a lot. Manifestly. Ten minutes of lunch h o u r remained. although a single white foldline did r u n d o w n the back. I felt that I should spend the time replacing m y w o r n . I was nearly ready to a b a n d o n it entirely.o u t shoelaces with the ones I had just bought. going h o m e ." " c h a n c e finds y o u . I h a d b e e n carrying the book around for t w o w e e k s of lunch h o u r s . going to lunch. " as well as the unexpected b u t apt rush to a n exclamation point at the end. disenchanted. a n d by n o w . and I closed the book. and then. I replaced the cash-machine receipt in the page. But mainly I thought that the statement w a s extraordinarily true and that if I bought that b o o k and learned h o w to act u p o n that single sentence I would be led into elaborate realms of understanding. w a s too m u c h for m e ." I read (the warped sound of a rinsed saucepan struck against the side of the sink ringing in my head). Half the milk remained to be drunk. no condition of life could be so well adapted for the practice of philosophy as this in which chance finds you today! W o ! I loved the slight a w k w a r d n e s s a n d archaism of the sen tence. I sat with m y eyes closed. As often happens. This latest thing about mortal life's being n o m o r e t h a n sperm and ash. w h e r e the "condition of life" sentence was. I liked that first deciding sentence better t h a n anything I came across in later consecutive reading. o n the p h o n e or having h e r over for the night. exactly as I h a d done. a n d stuffed it into the spout of the milk carton.124 NICHOLSON BAKER fineness. its spine w a s w o r n from being held m o r e t h a n from being read. I balled u p the cookie bag. But the s u n w a s too w a r m for that: inclining my face toward it. tired of Aurelius's unre lenting a n d morbid self-denial. even as I con tinued to do. going to work. remembering a habit of childhood. w h e r e it remained until quite recently. w h i c h m a d e the b o o k open auto matically to page 168. outwardly. full of phrases that never come naturally to people's lips n o w b u t once h a d : "condition of life. talking to L. which was m a d e of a thin. read two days in a row. m y arms outstretched .
in case I was blocking the w a y . in the shade. touched the cool d o m e of a neo-Victorian bolt. eaten half of a bag of popcorn. a current of complete peaceful c o n t e n t m e n t b e g a n to flow from the shade h a n d to the sun h a n d . white. Did it come u p every three h o u r s ? Once a m o n t h ? Every time a certain special set of conditions recurred to remind m e ? I certainly did not think about Penguin's financial condition every time I set eyes o n o n e of their books. sporadic self-improvers." I repeated.THE MEZZANINE 125 on the bench. and chance found m e n o w sitting in the s u n o n a green bench. chatted with Tina. W h a t . a n d h o w amaz ing it was that a color scheme as intrinsically questionable as that orange. I asked myself exactly how often I h a d wondered about the profitability of Penguin Classics. washed m y face. b o u g h t a n e w set of shoelaces. o n lunch hours? Or only students? Or cabbies. m y left hand. philosophically. b r o k e n a shoelace. passing t h r o u g h m y arms a n d shoulders and whorling u p into m y brain along the way. eaten a h o t dog and a cookie with some milk. and black w o u l d c o m e to seem lovely a n d . " n o condition of life could be so well adapted for the practice of philosophy as this in which chance finds y o u today!" Chance found m e that day having worked for a living all morning. as if scolding myself. green paint. touched hot. Sometimes I just thought of whatever that particular b o o k w a s about. People like m e . A gold bust of the emperor w a s o n the cover. "Manifestly. W h o b o u g h t this kind of book? I wondered. w a n t i n g some thing to surprise their fares with. smooth. sometimes I thought of the fact that the orange-backed Penguin novels faded in the sunlight like dry cleaners' posters. " Feel ing Aurelius pressing m e to practice philosophy o n the scant raw materials of m y life. with a paperback o n m y lap. and m y legs crossed at the ankles in front of me. uninter ested for the m o m e n t in w h o the publisher w a s . a b o o k to w a v e in front of the Plexiglas? I h a d often w o n d e r e d w h e t h e r Penguin m a d e money selling these paperbacks. My right h a n d . w a s I supposed to do with that? I looked d o w n at the book. Merely saying that you often w o n d e r e d something gave n o indication of h o w p r o m i n e n t a part of life that state of m i n d really w a s . urinated successfully in a corporate setting. drawing in m y feet w h e n e v e r I heard a person walking nearby. And t h e n I considered the phrase "often w o n d e r e d . in the sun.
" perhaps. a quick w a y of avoiding m i x u p s in manufacture. say.7 .8 .D. All of these particular Penguin-related observations had dif ferent cycles of recurrence a n d therefore microscopic differ ences of weight in m y personality—and it seemed to m e then that w e needed a m e a s u r e of the periodicity of regularly return ing thoughts.9 .) and realized that it w a s simply the initials of the book's title. My Family and Other Animals: my mother h a d given it to m e o n e summer. y o u feel that your forward progress is confirmed m o r e objectively t h a n w h e n you merely reach a n e w chapter.-14" (as far as I got in that particular M u r d o c h . a n d n o t only had I liked the lizards a n d scorpions a n d sunlight.-6. fifteen times a year. in the middle of reading Iris M u r d o c h ' s A Fairly Honourable Defeat ("F. " " F O A . I felt a retroac tive reach of love for this previously unsolved mystery.D. intimately associated with o u r idea of the English novel. M u c h later. "It's funny that 'God Rest Ye Merry. just w h e n M u z a k switched over to Christmas carols. . I w o n d e r e d about the financial situation of Penguin books m a y b e four times a year." etc. I thought.H. vitamin C. I thought—"Facing Off Alternate 7 . I thought as I filled the water glass. " .126 NICHOLSON BAKER subtle. livin' o n reds. " or "Feed Onto Assembly 7 . I h a d also b e e n interested. " " F O A . by a tiny printed code that occurred every twenty pages or so at the b o t t o m left margin of the right-hand page: " F O A . I h a v e to say. Gentlemen' is in a minor k e y . " Every time I stubbed a toe I thought. Sometimes the orange backs m a d e m e think of the first Pen guin b o o k I h a d read. as I read m y w a y deeper into the bulk of the pages. " A periodicity of 4"—it h a d a scientific ring. expressed as. " etc. just because it h a p p e n e d to be w h a t somebody at a publishing firm h a d decided to use as a standard format. Once a year. the n u m b e r of times a certain thought pops into your h e a d every year. Some kind of private technical book binder's jargon. w h e n I noticed this feature of Penguin books again. and cocaine If w e could assign a periodicity n u m b e r in this w a y to every . m u c h as I like her writing). "Amazing that a m a n ' s toe can take that kind of shock a n d not b r e a k " — a n d I stubbed a toe m a y b e eight times a year. and gratitude to Penguin for providing us with this m o r e absolute set of milestones to m e a s u r e o u r progress through a book: for w h e n you reach something like "F.H. About every other time I took a vitamin C pill. .
w h a t w o u l d w e k n o w ? W e would k n o w the relative frequency of his thoughts over time.0 15. " a n d "Is m y breath b a d ? " But below the "of" a n d " i n " level of thought-vocabu lary.0 14.0 31.0 35. don't have any Marriage. something that might prove to be m o r e revealing t h a n any statement of beliefs h e might offer. beauty of Sidewalks Friends are unworthy of me Identical twins separated at birth.0 16.0 150.0 32." "[fleeting sexual i m a g e ] .0 15.0 40.0 19.0 . or even t h a n a frozen section of available. Family Brushing tongue Earplugs Bill-paying Panasonic three-wheeled vacuum cleaner. there w a s a w h o l e list of mid-frequency ideas.0 18.0 38.0 25.0 23.0 34. a possibility? Vending machines Straws don't unsheath well Shine on moving objects McCartney more talented than Lennon? Friends smarter.0 33. all Job. but ne'er" etc.0 100.0 400.0 45. Just as t h e m o s t frequent words in English are h u m d r u m ones like "of" a n d " i n " a n d " t h e . potential t h o u g h t s (if that w e r e possible) at any one time in particular.0 15. "Itch o n face. I imagined them taking the form of a chart—something like: Number of Times Thought Occurred per Year (in descending order) Subject of Thought L. more capable than I am Paper-towel dispensers "What oft was thought.0 28. should I quit? Friends. studies of traits 580. " so the most frequent thoughts are bland a n d tiresome things like. People are very dissimilar Trees.0 19. greatness of Sunlight makes you cheerful Traffic frustration Penguin books.0 52.THE MEZZANINE 127 recurrent thought a person had.
smell of Zip-lock tops Popcorn Birds regurgitate food and feed young with it Kant. Earl Sweeping. image of Shoes Bags Butz.0 12.0 2. but they don't check out" Dinner roll.128 NICHOLSON BAKER Number of Times Thought Occurred per Year (in descending < Subject of Thought Intelligence.0 4. brooms Whistling. their insane danger Urge to kill Escalator invention People are very similar "Not in my backyard" Straws float now DJ.0 4. felt-tip Gasoline.0 0. w a y too m a n y of t h e m .0 8.0 8. as I saw as soon as I began sketchily to do so in m y head. w a s the best I could do that afternoon.0 4. And there were way.0 6. w a s not the enlightening process of abstrac tion I h a d expected it to be: thoughts w e r e too fluid.0 11. a n d once n a m e d to classify. sitting o n the b e n c h in the sun.0 3.0 8. would I be happy as one? "If you can't get out of it.0 7. nice smell of Pen.0 14. waiting . yodel trick "You can taste it with your eyes" Dry-cleaning fluid.0 9.5 0. for my estimate of their relative frequency to m e a n very m u c h . get into it" Pen.0 10. Yet this ranking of periodicity.0 6. Introspection w a s the only slightly philosophical activity I felt capable of practicing. too difficult to n a m e .0 4.0 13.0 9. ballpoint Stereo systems Fear of getting mugged again Staplers "Roaches check in.0 7. Immanuel 14.0 12.0 6. as a n ideal of description.5 But compiling the list. going fast Wheelchair ramps.0 5.0 1.0 9.
a n d you tried comparing o n e chart with another. w e felt 1 Not quite true anymore. a n d Steve. so she told m e . Ives I met a man with seven wives Every wife held seven sacks And every sack held seven cats And every cat had seven kits Kits cats sacks wives How many were going to St. she said once every three weeks or so) about a disturbing joke s o m e o n e h a d told her w h e n she was eleven. or merely that h e is responsible for seven wives as an ongoing condition of his life. Ives? Every m o n t h and a half. too: I'm bothered that the answer is supposed to be "None. w h i c h goes: " Q : Do you k n o w the description of the perfect w o m a n ? A: [Puts h a n d waist-high. Since she told m e the St.o p e n question " W h a t do I think a b o u t ? " People seemed so alike w h e n y o u imagined their daily schedules. once told m e that she t h o u g h t "all the t i m e " (I asked her to b e m o r e specific. Ives riddle. " Until t w o or three years ago. or watched t h e m walk t o w a r d the revolving door (as Dave. dummy—the man was coming from St." because (a) you can certainly "meet" a person o n the road by falling in step with h i m and talking to him. she had. often against her will. Ives.THE MEZZANINE 129 until the last possible m i n u t e before I w e n t back into work. yet if you imagined a detailed thought-frequency chart compiled for each of t h e m . she told m e . you w o u l d feel suddenly as if you w e r e compar ing beings as different from each other as a n extension cord and a grape-leaf roll. from the time she w a s ten or so. and the attribution of frequency did at least force a truer sort of introspection t h a n the w i d e . and (b) the line is not specific as to whether the m a n has seven wives "with" him right there o n the road. n o t noticing m e . A n d I t h o u g h t about n o n e of those things! She a n d I k n e w each other well. I worry. it has taken a place on my carousel.] This tall with a flat h e a d to rest your beer o n . L. whether I w o u l d have liked this perplexity as a 1 . Sue. she t h o u g h t with pleasure of a description in Daniel Deronda of a r o o m in w h i c h everything w a s yellow. t h o u g h t several times a w e e k of a rhymed riddle that w e n t : As I was walking to St. about h o w m u c h perplexity a riddle like this w o u l d have caused children in households where riddles were exchanged. n o t having imagined high-Victorian rooms decorated in that color before. thus. w e r e doing n o w ) .
restatings of mislaid truths in n e w vernaculars. Twenty-five times a year w e w o n d e r e d w h a t it w o u l d have b e e n like if m y parents h a d stayed married. Twice every s u m m e r w e discussed w h e t h e r colors in n a t u r e could clash. o n the p h o n e a n d in person. Every other day w e considered w h i c h city or area w e would most like to live in. above these. was the peri odicity of conversation. resurgencies a n d subsidings of interest in some avenue of inquiry or style of thinking from one century to the next. A n d there w e r e periodicities superimposed o n the plane of conversation.130 NICHOLSON BAKER that w e w e r e alike in important ways. b u t indistinct: almost always it came u p (that is. each of us m o r e enthusi astic n o w about the fresher-feeling arguments the other h a d m a d e the last time. child if I had been exposed to it (rather than to. W h e n a subject recurred. say. Fifty times a year w e talked about promiscuity's effects o n outlook a n d personality. a n d in w h a t kind of house. slower still. of 12. generational cor rections a n d p e n d u l a r overreactions. depen dent u p o n it yet existing o n a separate plane. the periodicity of libraries a n d Penguin Classics. the telling points that h a d b e e n m a d e the last time. Twenty times a year L. a n d less convinced by our o w n earlier ones. Affirmative action h a d a periodicity of 4. with exam ples t a k e n from her friends' lives a n d from our o w n . w e felt it as familiar. . internal thought. the heritability of mental traits. a n d I talked about the fact that w o m e n charac ters in film comedies almost always functioned as comic straight m e n . or if hers h a d gotten a divorce. Jack and Spot and their wagon). too: n a t i o n w i d e fifteen-year cycles of journalis tic excitement a b o u t o n e issue or another. what the intention of the original framer of the riddle had been. Above the periodicity of solitary. if w e were rich. unattributively. b u t often reversed our positions. delighted and not delighted in t a n d e m . yet charts of repeating thoughts and their periodicities for the t w o of us w o u l d reveal surprisingly little overlap in the mid-frequency range. and what station in life h e or she had occupied—I think about it all roughly nineteen times a year. felt w o r t h discussing again) only after w e could n o longer r e m e m b e r exactly w h a t our previous respective opinions h a d b e e n — w e r e m e m b e r e d vaguely. and.
at least until you have died. to b e m e a n ingful. I wondered whether S. I decided.THE MEZZANINE 131 On all these planes. it might not have b e e n for those minutes u n d e r consideration by anyone else in the entire city. Aurelius or shoelaces. I thought.1 9 8 6 Research Reports of MIT's Laboratory for Manufacturing and Productivity at my office. and I noticed that there was active work going forward o n the subject of the "pathology of worn ropes. the alternation of neglect and attention paid to a n idea w a s like the cycle of waxing a n d buffing. thereby lifting it u p from artificial Penguin storage into living m e m o r y for that short time. I lived through a rigorous month in w h i c h the subject of shoelace-tying and shoe lace wear came up 325 times. Patterns of mechanical and chemical deterioration were detected and quantified. sanding between coats a n d t h e n applying another—things h a p p e n e d to it during the long unsupervised stretches.t e n t h of a reminding per year. be averaged over a shorter interval. Degradation patterns were n o w being assembled! Iyiyi! Aside from deciding. I h a d paid attention to one sentence-long idea of Aurelius for a m i n u t e or t w o . representing a variety of deployment modes and periods of exposure. too. that I had to quit m y job and apprentice myself to this exciting project. I was flipping through the 1 9 8 4 . for the first time in twenty years. Just n o w . Seo's results could be adapted 1 . like five years. 1 I am fairly certain n o w that shoelaces will rank higher. m a y b e even in the world. w o u l d r a n k higher in my overall lifetime periodicity ratings u p o n m y d e a t h . The very last instance of shoelace thought happened as follows: by chance. for the sixth time in t w o w o r k w e e k s . having w o r n both of the thoughts out for myself. very briefly. since frequencies should. Major mechanisms of deterioration have been established for specific deployments. In the course of preparing the present record of that Aurelius-and-shoelace n o o n . dulling d o w n a n d raising the shine higher. w h e n b u t for its occupying m y thoughts. although that n u m b e r is misleading. It w a s impossible to predict which of the two." The research w a s described as follows: Numerous marine ropes have been gathered from around the world. I h a d o n t w o separate occasions been reminded of the act of tying m y shoelaces (three occasions. whereas Aurelius's sentiment cycled around only 90 times. if you count the m o m e n t a r y pride I h a d felt just before the shoelace h a d snapped). since they are artificial duplicative retrievals performed in order to understand h o w the earlier natural retrievals had come about. But these sudden later flurries may not count. Degradation patterns are now being assem bled for application to structural models of ropes with a view towards establishing a valid retirement policy. a lifetime average peri odicity of a r o u n d o n e . I doubt very m u c h that I will ever concentrate o n either of them again. Backer and M. Today.
33 No.l. "it is doubtful if any o n e machine can be developed that is able to duplicate the complex range of abrasive stresses.) This Scottish skepticism w a s exhilarating. Here w a s a man. and F. I consulted volume 07. I wrote for a reprint. and their respective proportions. the Instron Tensile Tester. 0 5 1 5 3 / 8 0 . The fingers of m y sun h a n d felt sticky.132 NICHOLSON BAKER It w a s time to go in. The joy I felt may be difficult for some to understand. 1984. Moving to the periodical literature. M. Department of Pure and Applied Chemistry. Text. (For this last. to which a textile material is subjected in service. Two mechanical devices for testing the abrasion resistance and knot slippage performance of shoe laces are described and investigated. University of Strathclyde. No. w a s brought into being. 72. T. h o w e v e r crudely. and Ukidre. [C] 1984/4522 I let out a small cry and slapped my hand d o w n o n the page. too. checking the 1984 volumes of World Textile Abstracts. I rubbed t h e m w i t h m y t h u m b until a tiny dark-gray cylinder.) Nonetheless. to the case of my o w n shoelaces. I learned of the Microcon I. as H. Inst. w a s still visible o n m y palm. Z.w a s h i n g . p. into the milk carton. 1987. 3-4 (2 pages). be more important than sophisticated instrumentation. skin. To my surprise." (J. and cookie sugar. Yahya of the Fibre and Textile Unit. Glasgow. Ellis. I took a n obscure satisfaction in the so that they applied. have used the machine in the determina tion of flex abrasion of sewing threads. w h o had to know! He was not going to abandon the problem with some sigh about . after my second pair of shoelaces had snapped. u r b a n dirt. and found a discussion of the procedures and instrumentation for the abrasional testing of textiles. but in the realm of abrasion.01 of the massive guidelines of the American Society for Testing and Materials. the library did not o w n a copy of the referenced September 1985 Proceedings of the Third Japan-Australia Joint Symposium on Objective Measurement: Application to Product Design and Process Control. and the Stoll Quarter Master Universal Wear Tester. see Textile Technology Digest. I noticed. S. the k n o w n effect of established testing machines might. since it bore out what I had myself suspected in those first few minutes in my office. the Accelerator Abrasion Tester. I flicked it away. but in the meantime m y impatience drove m e to look further. Czaplicki. Elder. In Polish. This also proved to be untrue. of India's Cotton Technology Research Laboratory.. or SQMUWT. I soon found that I had been a fool to think that the twisted pathology of marine ropes could have had anything to do with the w o v e n pathology of shoelaces. Munshi. composed of p o p c o r n oil. Czaplicki Technik Wlokienniczy. The abrasion machines pictured looked like they were products of the 1930s. Pal. b u t it w o u l d be gone after my next h a n d . I thought. 2. Polish standards are discussed. With some effort I w a s able to twist and crum ple the Papa Gino's bag tightly e n o u g h to stuff most of it. write. I read entry 4 5 2 2 : Methods for evaluating t h e abrasion resistance and knot slippage strength of shoe laces Z. And then. The date.
my stapled CVS bag a n d m y paperback. Czaplicki. w o u l d take it from there. I placed it very carefully at the apex of a m o u n d of bee-probed lunch trash ready at any m i n u t e to overflow a nearby oil d r u m . off to m a k e slum h o n e y from some diet root beer it h a d found inside. I couldn't crush the underlying trash d o w n . because any application of pressure w o u l d only h a v e m a d e the w h o l e m o u n d disintegrate. I entered the lobby and m a d e m y w a y toward the u p escalator. I stood u p . S o m e o n e w a s looking into the problem. or. m o r e accurately. making sure the carton w a s n ' t going to topple at least until I w a s gone by steadying it gently with m y fingertips in its precarious spot for a few seconds. . and instead of buying a pair of replacement dress laces at the corner farmacja and forgetting about the problem until the next time. and go to lunch— he was going to make the problem his life's work. he had constructed a machine and strapped hundreds of shoe laces of all kinds into it. Collecting m y possessions. wearing them d o w n over and over. A great man! I left the library relieved. so that humanity w o u l d not have to keep retying its shoelaces all day long and wearing them out before their time. as I had. Mr. Oh no! His very o w n shoelace had snapped one time too many one morning. The stuffed carton of milk I t h r e w out. Don't tell m e he received a centralized directive to look into a more durable w e a v e of shoe lace for the export market. A bee rose u p from a sun-filled paper cup. And h e had gone beyond that—he had built another machine to determine w h i c h surface texture of shoelace would best hold its knot.THE MEZZANINE 133 inside-outness of this achievement. in Poland. Progress w a s being made. in a passionate effort to get some subtler idea of the forces at work. as I had half a n h o u r earlier outside the CVS. complexity and h u m a n limitation after a minute's thought.
w h e n they are caught at the end of supermarket conveyor belts. I waved to him.Chapter Fifteen A T THE VERY END of the ride. I looked d o w n the great silver glacier to the lobby. then put it back d o w n o n the rubber handrail. He held u p his white rag for a second. The m a i n t e n a n c e m a n w a s at the bottom. or cans of orange juice or soup. their labels circling around and around—Hellman's! Hellman's! Hellman's!— something I had loved to see w h e n I w a s little. 135 . I stepped onto the mezzanine a n d turned to watch it for a few seconds. I caught sight of a ciga rette butt rolling and hopping against the c o m b plate w h e r e the grooves disappeared. Its m o v e m e n t w a s a faster version of the rotation of m a y o n n a i s e or p e a n u t butter or olive jars.
New York. New York. . with his wife and daughter. He attended the Eastman School of Music and Haverford College. He lives in M o u n t Morris. His w o r k has appeared in The Atlantic and The New Yorker.About the Author NICHOLSON BAKER w a s b o r n in 1957 a n d grew u p in Rochester.