May 05, 2005

845 Third Avenue

“Maybe there’ll be something I can write about in the Times today,” I thought as I headed for the computer, and there it was on the front page of the online edition: a building where I used to work, its lobby windows shattered by a bomb. 845 Third Avenue, between 51st and 52nd Streets, is a high–rise office building that houses the British consulate, so the attack must be connected to today’s election. It was jolly decent of that Brit, though, to set it off at 3:50 am when no one would be hurt. The bomb consisted of two toy grenades – one of them the size of a pineapple -- filled with gunpowder.

I worked there from September 1977 to September 1979, reading manuscripts for a literary agency. It was a schizoid agency – on one hand its clients included Norman Mailer and Garry Wills and a mob of successful genre writers, and on the other hand it charged reading fees to amateurs. I’ve calculated that I read 3,500 manuscripts there in five years (there had been an earlier stretch at a different address), typing a million words a year. The outside world did not know that the reading fees paid the agency’s overhead; the legitimate stuff was all gravy.

I was one of the half–dozen “fee men” who read who skimmed two or three full–length books each working day and, for each book, pounded out a 2,000–word rejection letter containing various proportions of formulaic advice, sarcastic or sincere consolation, genuine craftsmanly evaluation, and false encouragement. We sat in a white room the size of a smallish bedroom, divided into six cubicles, each with a heavy battleship–gray IBM Selectric that, under our abuse, needed a new ribbon every week or two and frequent oilings and alignments. That was where I learned to pour out copy. I had got the job straight out of college by taking a test consisting of reading a Western short story –– cunningly crafted to include every possible literary and marketing flaw – and writing a letter to the author. I got the job despite the fact that I couldn’t type, and by necessity I got my speed up to 100 words a minute with four fingers.

Some of the smartest and wittiest eccentrics I’ve ever known worked in that place. My best friend there, who introduced me to Stendhal and Manzoni and Sonny Rollins and Artur Schnabel, miraculously escaped and is now the editorial director of a famous book club. Three others founded their own literary agency together, strictly legit and extremely successful. One more is an arts writer for a big West Coast newspaper. Another went to law school and then medical school and is a Horneyan psychiatrist. The most interesting character among them jumped from his fourth–storey apartment window in early 1979. And there are so many others who passed through – the woman, the only one in our sexist bunker, whom we laughed at for trying to get us to join Mensa – and the boss’s daughter, surprisingly nice and normal and humorous – and the two bosses themselves, rivalrous brothers from the Lower East Side who’d taken Anglo–Saxon names and whose children had no idea they were Jewish. Those two men whom we demonized are both dead this past decade or so, their fraudulently gained fortunes flowing back into the economic cosmos.

I took the fast, sleek E train there every morning from the West Village, where we lived on Jane Street at the corner where Fourth Street and Twelfth Street famously intersect. Ann was passing time at an ad agency, painting in the evenings, and applying to law school. So many places we used to go to then are long defunct: the Café New Amsterdam, our favorite restaurant, scene of innumerable subdued quarrels and reconciliations; the Art and Ice Cream Gallery, with its dual–product gimmick, where we were usually the only customers and, even though we only went there every month or two, the owner greeted us gratefully like longlost friends. And just as surprisingly, some are still there: the Corner Bistro, the classic Manhattan hamburger bar for middle–aged gripers, with thick pine tabletops deeply gouged by penknife desperation; Da Silvano’s, the Italian restaurant we discovered before supermodels took it over; the White Horse Tavern, where Dylan Thomas took his fatal eighteen shots of whiskey – his last words, “I’ve just had eighteen shots of straight whiskey. I think that’s the record” -- and St. Vincent’s Hospital, where he died — his cranium, at the autopsy, giving off alcohol fumes.

I was suffering terribly then, but my memories take on a fondly bittersweet tinge. Was the British consulate at 845 Third back then? If it was, I was too sunk in myself to notice. But it’s interesting that I remember that office warren so clearly when I didn’t really work in it very long. After a few months I negotiated an deal with my boss: I’d get to take the manuscripts and the IBM Selectric home and do the work there. Once a week I’d haul my quota of “fee reports” to the office and take back the next week’s manuscripts. As a result of this arrangement, every Friday I left my apartment building lugging a large green Amelia Earhart suitcase, filled with manuscripts and rejection letters, toward the fourteenth Street E station, and came back a few hours later with the same suitcase, just as heavy. I wonder what the doorman thought.

And one day my strutting supervisor at the agency, a former beefcake model, asked me in his officious, loud–queen voice, “And just what is it you DO when you’re not issuing fee reports?”

I said, “Write novels.”

“NovELS, plural?”

I had three of them by that time, but I only showed him the good one, and he sold it for me a few months later. And that began a new phase of my life.

So much more to remember, too much to write down in a morning’s post. Material for unpublished novels – a fate I sometimes think is my penance for all those rejection letters I wrote.

And how fitting for these times that my Proustian Madeleine should be a terrorist’s bomb.