John Cheever moved his young family into an apartment at 400 East 59th Street. His daughter Susan reports that each morning he would put on his one good blue suit and ride the elevator to the basement where there was a small storage cubicle he used as a work space. He would then strip to his shorts and begin the day’s writing.
Welcome to Reading the City, written and illustrated by Rita J. King.
On the way to John Cheever’s old building, I thought about how much this pandemic has taken from us. My sorrow was small compared to what so many people have been going through, but it hurt. One of my favorite things in life is wandering into places I’ve never been and learning from my encounters with strangers. I wanted to see the storage cubicle where John Cheever stripped out of his suit to write about the duality of the human condition, sometimes within a single character grappling with the chasm between outward social conventions and inner corruption, or between two characters set against a backdrop of nostalgia for a vanishing way of life.
When we arrived, I asked the masked doorman whether he knew where in the basement John Cheever wrote.
“Who is John Cheever?” he asked. “We are all new here.”
I love when buildings have bronze plaques to preserve the memory of writers and their works. How is a ghost supposed to haunt a building if nobody remembers the person it once occupied? How can you sit at the front desk all day not remembering that a man in a blue suit once rode the elevator and stripped in the basement to produce his work? The painful truth is, all of us have landscape blindness.
The first time I went to Florence, for example, I ate gelato at the Piazza della Signoria near a round plaque on the ground. I had never heard the name Savonarola. I had no idea I was standing in the spot where the religious zealot had convinced the Florentines to burn their books, poems and luxuries in a massive Bonfire of the Vanities. Botticelli’s famous painting, The Birth of Venus, survived the artist flinging his other works into the flames only because the Medici had it with them in exile. He hated poetry, music, dancing, art and profitable business. Luxurious clothing, he believed, was a symptom of abandoning Christlike values. Enclothed cognition is a way to describe the influence that clothes have on the wearer’s psychological processes, similar to John Cheever wearing a suit in front of people and shorts when he was alone. The pandemic has given remote workers a daily confrontation with enclothed cognition.
The second time I visited Florence, I understood who Savonarola was, how he had persuaded the finery-loving Florentines to his bleak vision with his powerful rhetoric, and the significance of him being burned and hanged in that spot. Landscape blindness is a form of ignorance of local history, but it goes much deeper than that. Savonarola has a plaque, but the millions of other people who have crossed that square don’t.
On the way back from John Cheever’s old building, my husband James and I stopped at Central Park on a gorgeous autumn day. I took my mask off for a second as I stood on this rock because nobody was around. I have no idea who else has stood on this rock. It has been here longer than any of us and will outlast us, too. I don’t know what any of the people who stood in this spot before me were thinking and feeling, but I know that despite every decision they ever made in their lives, they, like me, ended up right here on this rock at some fleeting point in time. We think of ghosts as the remains of people who once lived, but we are the ghosts, filling the earth with our emotions and perceptions. It’s just that we’re still embodied while we do it.
John Cheever wasn’t born in Manhattan. He came into the world in a Massachusetts suburb. His father was a shoe salesman who turned to alcohol when the industry declined. Cheever’s mother saved the family (or humiliated her husband, according to her son), by opening a gift shop to pay the bills. Cheever started writing young. Before enlisting in the Army on May 7, 1942, he got married.
His first book was a collection of short stories called The Way Some People Live. He hated it, but it probably saved his life. One of his commanding officers recognized a “childlike sense of wonder” in it and had him transferred to the former Paramount studio in Astoria, Queens. Most the rest of his infantry company went on to lose their lives on a beach in Normandy.
When Cheever lived at 400 East 59th Street, he accepted a $4,800 advance from Random House to work on his novel, The Holly Tree. His short story, “The Enormous Radio,” appeared in the May 17, 1947 issue of The New Yorker. It’s about a radio that broadcasts tenants’ private conversations in a New York building. In the preface to the story collection, Cheever wrote:
“These stories seem at times to be stories of a long-lost world when the city of New York was still filled with a river light, when you heard the Benny Goodman quartets from a radio in the corner stationery store, and when almost everybody wore a hat.”
These days, the city is again full of river light. It won’t stay this way forever.
As Cheever’s family grew, so did his work. Eventually, they spent a year in Italy. Rome became a new backdrop for him. Cheever appeared on the cover of Time magazine for a profile, “Ovid in Ossining.” I too once lived in Ossining, long ago, in another era of my life, when I was an investigative journalist secretly writing novels at night.
Cheever’s father may have started drinking because of the economy, but relationship problems catalyzed his son heading down the same path. He expected their marriage therapist to agree with him that his wife’s darkness was the problem, despite the fact that one of his lovers, a student of his, lived with the family. The writer took notes in his journal, revealing the therapist’s view that he himself was the problem: “a neurotic man, narcissistic, egocentric, friendless, and so deeply involved in [his] own defensive illusions that [he has] invented a manic-depressive wife.”
He opted against continuing therapy. His alcoholism became a crisis. The same way we have landscape blindness, we often can’t see the possibilities written into our own genetic code. We can learn that John Cheever once wrote in the basement of the building, or we have a tendency toward some condition or the other, but all of us remain largely ignorant of the full truth simply because it is too much. You can feel the too muchness of it all even in things that seem the simplest, like the way leaves turn, or the angle of the sun changes, or a book feels so final and finished in your hands though the reality of the author’s life and process remain mysterious.
On John Cheever’s old block there’s a shop filled with everything. Butcher paper covered the windows but I peered in through the locked door at two bronze goddesses tucked between vases, signs, paintings and a frog playing the guitar.
A woman popped out of nowhere and started haggling with me over the statues. She unlocked the door and invited me in to browse her treasures. I declined, waving at my mask as she stood on the sidewalk, listing prices and slashing them in real time. One price for both statues. Another price for a third tucked away in another part of the store. She wanted cash, far more cash than I’ve ever carried on me at one time. I didn’t even have my purse with me. It’s sad to see stores boarded up and to not enter the ones that are open, but taking walks and knowing I’m not going to buy anything is a great feeling.
My husband said he didn’t mind supporting the local economy.
“You’re going to get those two bronze goddesses for me?” I asked. He nodded. He didn’t have cash either, but he had his credit card. No, the woman said. We haggled some more, a very New York moment, the kind of moment I never would have had when they city was packed with crowds.
In the end, the transaction became impossible, with too many caveats and price changes. I don’t have the bronze goddesses but I can imagine them in the place I would have put them, a place that belonged to another woman before me, and another before her. We exist in space and time. Time passes, and new people come, afflicted by landscape blindness. John Cheever wrote about Rome, and so do I. And what I say of the ancient city is this:
Rome is not a place you see. It’s a place you feel.
Same as New York.