printer friendlyOFF THE DEEP END: Travels in Forgotten Frontiers

Excerpt

PROLOGUE: CABIN FEVER

It had been a tough winter here on Tenth Street.

The island of Manhattan was encased in ice – a thick protective layer of it, sparkling in the brilliant sun. Icicles hung in daggers from every window. Pedestrians skated along the footpaths, trying not to break their necks. Cars were lined up under giant piles of snow, like pagan burial mounds.

When it got this cold, Lesley agreed, it was best not to go out. For days on end, we ordered in Chinese noodles, pizza, Ukrainian soups. It was claustrophobic, sure, bute we could normally have managed.  Our one-room apartment is organized as efficiently as a NASA space shuttle: Every inch serves several purposes, from the fold-down futon/couch, to the shower closet that doubles as a photo darkroom.  Les has her easel and canvasses out the back; I’ve got my laptop and negatives in the front.

As I say, normally we could survive the long dark winter.  Unfortunately, this year, cabin fever was getting to us.

It all started in December, when new tenants moved in overhead, a charming pair we soon referred to simply as “the Scum Upstairs.”  We quickly learned that they were club kids, and that they liked to come home dancing in their snow boots at 4 a.m.  By about 5.30, they’d start a screaming argument and throw the furniture at each other. These old tenements work like echo chambers; their stomping and tossing shook the foundations and brought rotten plaster showering down on our heads. We’d bang the roof with a broom and bellow on the window; they’d stomp and bellow back.  When things got too violent, the police would turn up – sirens, crackling radios, the whole regalia.

 Things took a turn for the worse when the Scum bought a dog.  It happened at precisely 6 p.m. on Christmas Eve, when we heard a pitiful howling echo through the corridors. It sounded as if the animal was being exquisitely tortured – ritually disemboweled, perhaps, or burned alive on a spit – and the sound went on all night.  From then on, the Creature woke up every morning at dawn, then went into an epileptic fit on the bare floor above our heads; all night it would bay like the Hound of the Baskervilles.

 I won’t deny that we had some forms of revenge. The hot water runs up through our kitchen, so when we heard the Scum having a shower, we’d turn on the sink taps full boor.  We could take a mirthless pleasure in their curses as the water ran ice cold.  It was petty, but strangely satisfying.

 But then – no sooner had the Scum Upstairs bought their dog than the Scum Downstairs brought in a piano.  It was placed by the airshaft window, where the building’s acoustics are better than Carnegie Hall’s, and a German music student practiced religiously at the machine for eight hours a day.  Scales, old Broadway show tunes or modern jazz – pretty well anything calculated to drive the average person insane.  We imagined this character poised over his piano like Schroeder, a bust on the mantelpiece, pounding the ivories until his fingernails bled.  “He never even goes to the bathroom!” Les noted bitterly.

 Between the show tunes and the dog and the lunatics fighting upstairs, we weren’t getting a lot of work done. Living on Tenth Street was like being part of a sleep-deprivation experiment.  And in winter, there was no escape. We lived with earplugs in, even during the day.  We bought a device called a “white noise machine” to put by the bed; it was round and plastic, and we soon referred to it as the Orgasmatron.  Every night it hummed away next to our heads, slowly giving us brain tumors.

 I found myself lying awake in the dark, wondering how much it would cost to hire a hit man. It wouldn’t be much, judging from the movies. A couple of hundred dollars, even. Or what if I bought a shotgun? I could walk up and down the apartment, blasting away randomly through the ceilings until I quietened them all forever.

 That’s when I realized: At last, I was turning into a New Yorker.

*        *       *

To pinch a line from Melville’s Ishmael, who once lived on this “insular city of the Manhattoes”:

    Whenever I find myself growing grim around the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I found myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off – then I account it high time to get to see as soon as I can.

As for me, at times of stress, I call a few editors. Les arranged a couple of weeks’ break at a friend’s studio, to so some painting in peace. I went to dig up an assignment.

 There are three things that get me worked up about a place:

    * it should be as obscure as possible.
    * it should be some sort of former colonial frontier.
    * it should have some kind of weird literary association.

I started thinking about desert islands – and one in particular, the archetypal escape, the definition of remoteness, the very antithesis of the isle of Manhattan.