Why I Went to Yale; or, The Year of Living Dangerously
Or, Lives of the Novelists Part XXIII. Or, a Requiem for Drazen Petrovic.
A while ago I decided to write something explaining why I went to Harvard and then Yale. Because people ask me about that a lot, and the answer is funny, sort of.
I explained about the Harvard part here. Now I’m doing the Yale part.
This involves telling the story of one of the strangest and most miserable years of my life — a whole year of my life that I almost never talk about or think about. And yet it happened, apparently. It’s been on my mind lately because I’m fictionalizing a version of it in The Magician King.
[These images are more comprehensible, slightly, if you mouse over them and read the alt text … ]
The story picks up at the end of yet another autobiographical piece, one that ended with my fleeing the state of Maine with my vestigial tail tucked between my legs. (If only it had been a prehensile tail. Then I would have shown that state what for.)
That was in February of 1992, less than a year after I graduated college. I fled to New York City, where I served a brief and inglorious term as an intern at a non-profit publishing company, which due to its alert staff and intellectually rich back catalog was able to survive my disastrous stint there. Suffice to say that I did not find my calling in book publishing.
Though I will say that I became a top-notch Xeroxer there. No kidding. To this day I make quality copies.
But I was lousy at the rest of it, and plus New York freaked me out. I lived on 10th Avenue in Hell’s Kitchen, which was a much more extreme location back then. Giuliani time was still a long way off. The neighborhood did have its charms: there was an arcade within walking distance that had Magic Sword, which is my all-time favorite arcade game, and was open 24 hours a day. Such were the joys of the old pre-Disney Times Square. (I don’t think it had a name, but it was the one with the red police-light spinning over the doorway, you too haunted Times Square back in the day.)
But the little kritch-kritch sounds I heard as I walked to work in the morning were the sounds of crack vials popping under my shoes. That felt like bad news. And my room-mate turned out to be a prostitute. I answered his phone a lot. He’s not here? Would you like to get together instead? Your voice sounds nice.
That felt wrong to me too. I’ve heard my voice, and it’s not particularly nice.
By June I was back in Boston, where, having learned nothing from experience, I did another publishing internship, this one at Faber & Faber, under Fiona McCrae, who has since gone on to great and deserved success running Graywolf Press.
But by August I had run out of publishing internships, and out of ideas, and out of money. Whatever force college had launched me into the world with, I had already used it all up. I sold my car and moved into a cheap apartment in Allston. It was located only a block or two away from the future location of the fictional tennis academy in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. (This being 1992, it hadn’t been written yet.)
It’s hard even now to explain, or excuse, the fact that for the net 8 months I was incapable of doing almost anything. At the age of 22 I was lost in space. It was like I had shot the albatross.
(It’s selfishly comforting to me to know that Wallace went through a similar aimless period handing out towels at a health club in Newton, Mass. Although he was a much better writer than me, with much better reasons for being depressed.)
I actually tried, sort of — I did send out resumes and make calls. But I couldn’t imagine anyone anywhere giving me a job, and I think that became a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts. I showed up at interviews looking weirdly ashamed for suggesting that anybody should hire me. As a result legions of publishers, magazines, newspapers, bookstores and libraries lined up to not offer me jobs. I realize now I must have been depressed.
I did do some temping during this period, thus deploying my only marketable skill, which was typing. Sometimes I transcribed tapes of corporate focus groups. It was strange moving through the world of normal people who hadn’t been infected by whatever zombie virus I had. The only assignment I specifically remember was doing word processing for a firm called CompuKing, which I remember because how could anybody choose a name for their company that had the word “puking” in it?
I remember once getting a call about a promising temp assignment, and just as they were about to give me the details and close the deal, my left hand grew a life of its own and spontaneously ripped the phone line out of the wall. You don’t have to be Jacques Lacan to see some self-defeating psychological mechanism at work there. (I cannot accept this promising temp assignment, for that would be killing my father…)
Fall became winter. The money I got from selling my car whittled itself down to a tiny nub. I moved (by which I mean skipped out on the rent) from http://quotecorner.com/online-pharmacy.html my Allston apartment to an even cheaper, even worse apartment in Cambridge that listed visibly to one side. Every morning (by which I mean afternoon) when I woke up the kitchen was dusted with a layer of fresh new-fallen cockroaches.
The deaf woman downstairs blasted her TV all day and all night. I asked her to turn it down. I stuffed throw-pillows in the heating ducts to try to block it out. I stuffed earplugs in my ears. I’m ashamed to say that one night, Raskolnikov-style, I crept downstairs and out behind the house and I cut her cable line. That bought me 24 hours relief. To this day I can’t fall asleep without first putting a pillow over my head.
I wasn’t completely isolated. I had a roommate (and if you’re reading this blog, which I can’t imagine you are, I want to apologize for having been such a toxic, useless human being). I sometimes saw friends who were still in college. But however much you did or did not like him when he was actually in college, no undergraduate is really that happy to see the guy who graduated last year still moping around campus.
My overwhelming memory from this period of my life is depression — I thought about suicide all the time — and boredom. The world had forgotten about me. I only worked two or three days a week. I toyed with my first novel, which would later attain national obscurity as the-work-which-must-not-be-named.
The rest of the time I spent reading or writing or … what? What did I do all day, or all night, since I rarely got up before 2 in the afternoon, or went to bed before dawn? There was no Internet. I had a TV but no cable, and the TV was black and white and only occasionally got reception. The only video game I had was Beyond Dark Castle for the Mac Classic.
Somehow I managed to dispose of the time. I burned it down or threw it away or dumped it in the river, week after week after week. This was the heyday of the Romance of Slacking, but I don’t remember much romance. Maybe I wasn’t doing it right.
Oh, and when I could get alcohol, I drank. Fun fact: This period of time played host to one of the two times in my life I succcessfully drank myself to the point of vomiting. This is due not to my not drinking enough but to my incredible cast-iron stomach, which always insists on absorbing its full share of toxins and empty calories.
All I can remember from the night in question was drinking a lot of vodka at an undergraduate party and then walking home singing the circular song that opens the second act of Waiting for Godot (“A dog came in the kitchen/And stole a crust of bread …”) over and over again. Then I was lying down in an empty bathtub, and Croatian NBA star Drazen Petrovic was sitting on the toilet talking to me. Though I know this is impossible, because he had died shortly before that in a car accident in his native Croatia.
I was the CompuKing.
[Actually Petrovic died a few months after that, in June 1993, so where this incredibly vivid, specific memory comes from I don’t know — ed.]
I sometimes look back at this period and think, why did I not get my shit together? And also, why didn’t my friends and family intervene and make me get my shit together, when I obviously couldn’t or wouldn’t do it myself?
Recently I figured out the answer to the second one. When people try to help me I have a charming way of running them off the property with a shotgun. Eventually they learn from that and stop trying. People aren’t stupid.
I remember the day I realized it couldn’t go on any longer. I can tell you the exact date: March 13, 1993. I know this because that was the date of the 1993 Superstorm, a colossal blizzard that was the first storm ever to close every single major airport on the East coast at once.
I didn’t know this at the time. I had no access to the news — no Internet, remember. I just knew that it was snowing. By then I’d lost any real sense of time. Every day was the same, and I slept through most of them anyway.
But I did know that I’d finished The Hand of Oberon, book four in the Corwin Cycle of The Chronicles of Amber, by Roger Zelazny, and life could not continue until I obtained the next and final book, The Courts of Chaos, which I happened to know was in the Cambridge Public Library.
I attempted to walk there.
The snow was so thick and the wind was so strong that you couldn’t look straight ahead of you — you had to either walk bent over double or walk backwards. I had spent most of my life in the area — I grew up in Lexington, Mass. — but the landscape was almost unrecognizable. I wandered past the Peabody Museum, where as a child I’d been taken to see the poor coelecanth, the living fossil, pickled in formaldehyde. I knew how it felt.
I got lost in the Harvard biochemistry buildings, where just two years before I used to hang out with my then-girlfriend, whose lab was there, and who had gone on to high-powered biochemical success at MIT. Now it seemed huge and forbidden, an abode of giants and angels. People there had work to do and lives to live and experiments to run. What did I have?
After a while I just gave up. I sat down in a little alleyway between two brick buildings. It was peaceful, out of the wind. I had nowhere to be. Overhead, between the rooftops, the wind had formed an eddy. It was spinning the snow around in a perfect cyclonic oval. It was like a smoke ring — the white snow against the white sky. It was hypnotic.
I must have sat there for 20 minutes, staring up at the snow going round and round, before I realized that I was looking at my life: trapped in an eddy, spinning in place, going nowhere. That was the moment when I realized that this couldn’t go on.
When I finally got to the library it was closed. Obviously.
I sat on the steps for a while, getting snowed on some more. Somehere inside me I’d hit my limit. I didn’t know I had one, but apparently even I couldn’t go on going nowhere forever.
A couple of weeks later I got a letter. The previous fall, in a 3-day burst of industry, I’d managed to complete an application to the department of comparative literature at Yale. It turned out I’d been accepted. No grant, no stipend, no frills. They weren’t overjoyed about it or anything. But they would take me.
And that was it. Yale was a dead end, of course, a red herring that I would eventually add to my list of abandoned careers, but I didn’t know that yet. At the time it suddenly seemed like I had a future. I started getting my shit together. I took an adult education course in Russian. I moved back home. And when fall came I moved to New Haven and did my best to forget about my lost year.
So that’s the answer. Why I did I go to Yale? Because I had nowhere else to go, and nobody else would have me.