From the Archives: "Who"
"If you are only an imposter to yourself, you are in on your own secret."
I, the restless one; the circler of circles;
Herdsman and roper of stars, who could not capture
The secret of self.
Conrad Aiken, “Tetelestai”
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. I’m away from home, as I said I would be, in a city I’ve never visited before, Seattle, with friends, friends’ grown children, friends of friends. Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, not, certainly, because of the historical mythology of its beginnings but for the cultural mythology Americans created around it in practice, of just that gathering of family, in friendship, and — at least as I experienced it over my life — with gratitude for the exceptional time in history and location in space in which those gathered got to warm each other against the coldness of the world. I know it doesn’t always work out quite that way — for me, too — and recent years have sorely tested my feeling for that mythos, but hope, as we say, springs, until it doesn’t anymore.
This week’s essay of memoir was my second post on Homo Vitruvius, back in April. Presuming you care to know some more about me, “who” it is that that seeks to subject you to his sense and sensibility each week — and I make that presumption with caution — here is that “some more.”
May I make holiday request? (I may? You’re so kind.) I’ve suspended paid subscriptions while I’m away, which includes new ones, but I haven’t suspended subscriptions, or the interest of readers in becoming paid subscribers. Still, I need more people to know about Homo Vitruvius, and you can help. By word of mouth. Sharing a piece on social media. Forwarding by email. “Restacking” it, as they say on this platform –- which means to share it on Substack, even with commentary of your own. Like/heart the post. I welcome your comments. I’ll respond. All these acts spread presence and attract attention. Remember, you read, therefore the reader exists.
And now, “Who.”
Arriving home late from an evening out, I sat at my laptop for one last check of all the modern, disparate yet convergent paths of communication and social connection I had refrained from perusing on my phone through the night. An email made me cry out.
“Is this you?” it read. “My wonderful friend that I moved from Virginia to NY to work with? You fell off the face of the earth after I moved back to Virginia.”
I read the words in wonder at life coming back to me. It was B., after twenty-five years. It took only minutes to write back and say, yes, I am the friend. (“Wonderful” has had its dissenters.)
B. had been my assistant – not my number two, but my right arm – when I was an executive in the air courier business during my twenties. She was the first hire I made after my boss was fired and I was promoted the same morning to take his place as manager of “international.” B was in her early twenties, a stunning beauty with full, rosy lips, waist-length, chestnut hair, and an equally stunning figure that turned every male head of every age in the company. She was also innocent, sensitive, and precious, with a tangy Southern twang to match my New York caw. Our long workdays together quickly revealed that I could rely on her for anything: she performed every task meticulously and she gave me the loyalty, through all the battles of corporate warfare, of the truest friend. Of course, everyone in the company whispered about us, but we were always nothing other and no less than friends, and we adored each other. She believed me better than I believed myself to be and better than I was. She made me better than I was. To have ever had a B. in your life is to have at least once been lucky in this world.
In the 1970s and early 80s, the air courier business, in the buzzy excitement and startup creation, operated a little like Silicon Valley two decades later, except the field promised no transformation of humankind, the billions were mere millions, and only a relative few became modestly wealthy, or in a handful of cases, more. But the industry offered the exotic allure of international travel and shipping; the compelling attraction of solving, often by the seats of pants already in motion, varied logistical problems, and small hordes of young people in their twenties, largely male, who rose quickly through the ranks, often to leave to helm their own new companies. Fedex, still Federal Express, had not yet turned a profit. DHL was steeped in the mysteries of its origins and ownership.
Part of the excitement was that we were all making it up as we went along. Today, expedited delivery and inventory control logistics are highly professionalized, mathematically systematized and computerized activities. In the 70s, we were cowboys. Today, we possess all the forms of digital data transfer, and even 3-D printing. Then, we had telephones, telex machines, and jets. If it needed to go somewhere, it traveled there physically. A contract to an executive fishing in the Alaska wilderness? A solar panel to Dusseldorf (misdirected and lost for a month in a Marseille warehouse)? A male rock star’s hairspray to Marrakesh? Sure, we’ll do it. (How are we doing it?)
That first Friday as head of what was then only an international department, I told a major client we could get him Sunday delivery in Trinidad. Sunday. In Trinidad. And we didn’t have an agent in Trinidad. But I wasn’t going to mark my first week in charge by telling a major customer no. I didn’t leave the office Friday night or all day Saturday. The phone bill alone lost us money on the job, but I found an agent in Port-of-Spain who understood the demanding nature of American business and who had close contacts in customs. Package delivered. I was only 26 and I was on my way.
But to where?
I had never wanted to be a businessman. It was the last thing I wanted, or for which I had ever demonstrated the least aptitude. That wasn’t me. Me, just a couple of years earlier – dropped-out of college twice, kicked-out finally – was unemployed and boarding dogs in my low-rent Upper Westside Manhattan apartment for money. Already prone to depression, acutely sensitive and easily wounded, short of self-esteem and hobbled by insecurities and shyness, and then further psychologically and emotionally destabilized by teenage hippie drug use, I would walk the Manhattan streets sunk into my introversion, sit in the parks and merge with the slow-passing invisible hours, vibrating, it felt, in my stillness and silence, with the quick atomic motion of the world at rest. If, along the way, in some required contact of daily life, man or woman spoke to me, what returned to them, pressed though the vise of my compressing inwardness, sounded weakly a croak in the guise of a voice. Once, on a late fall day, I entered the St. Marks Cinema in the East Village and sat through a triple bill of Last Year at Marienbad, La Strada, and La guerre est finie. Emerging seven hours later into a chill, melancholy night, I walked driven so deeply into interiority I doubted I might ever speak again.
Now I sat a self-assured young executive behind a wall on a restaurant patio in Las Mercedes, Caraccas, eating my first rabbit, with turtle soup, talking to the man whose company he sought to make our new agent in Caracas, and I’m telling him I’m glad he’s lived in the U.S. and understands the demands of American business, and it’s great that his son is going to West Point, but I’ve heard this kind of thing before, and if six months from now the promised second morning deliveries start becoming afternoon and third morning, I’m going to have to terminate the agreement. (And I did.)
“I sat self-assured.” To be assured, as to be confident, includes a “certainty of mind.” To be self-assured, then, might seem a redundancy. Who else is feeling assured but oneself? Unless one includes certainty about the self itself as one of the objects of that certainty, beyond “consciousness of one’s powers” amid circumstances. To be confident of who one is, of one’s qualities and powers, in order to be assured of how one will act and succeed in the world. But this was one of the things, precisely, that I had never been in my life. I had lived among other people since childhood in timid uncertainty, easily hurt, sometimes mocked, and even bullied for it. From whence arose, now, this self-assurance, no previous particular success ever having been my gain in the world (but that people often seemed to think I wrote well)?
I had developed the idea along the way, to start, that one could pretend. Walk into a room and pretend one is cool and confident. But that sort of thing is often badly done, and the consequences, in appearance and the opinions garnered, grossly undesirable. We all know plenty of those people. The idea was for the performance to go undetected. Good acting. Good writing. The artifice – I understood something about crafting artifice – invisibly forged into the real. Lo. Behold. People thought me competent, confident. I led my peers without hesitation. I assessed. I decided. Often daringly. I was often right. I succeeded. People followed. I became what I pretended – what I appeared – to be.
But before that lunch on the patio, I had flown in a couple of days earlier escorting as passenger cargo a dozen boxes of medical brochures. They needed on-board accompaniment for a trickier passage through customs in 1979 Venezuela. I had an idea, and the company president said, sure, go find us a better agent. I had booked a hotel on the coast, in La Guairá, not far from the airport, thinking the companies I needed to visit would be headquartered nearby, but as it happened, I had to travel multiple times by taxi through the northern mountains that separate Caracas proper from the coast and the airport. The dense, humid air clung so oppressively, I changed perspiration-soaked clothes three or four times a day. During the slow drives up the mountain highway, stuck interminably behind huge lorries freighted with timber and the same carga larga sign behind them all, I peered closely through the huge needles of moisture that hung suspended in the air and studied the tin shacks of the poor that climbed the mountain sides to the top. They sit there still today, home to the Chavistas. No wonder nothing gets done, I thought, or delivered on time. It’s an effort to move. Here, sit down. Sip a cool drink. Let’s talk a little. It’ll all still be there when we’re done.
It's curious how feeling the body more closely, and the atmosphere pressing on it, leads to a sharper awareness of its opposite, the formless self the body contains. What was I doing there, I wondered? Who was I fooling? Everyone, clearly, but myself. I had arrived at National Airport, outside of Washington D.C. in the evening, for my connecting flight from Miami, only to discover – B. still handling customers and not yet taking care of me – that I had forgotten my passport. On a morning flight the next day, I managed to make the same connection to Caracas. No one, then, needed to know. But then, after deposit at my hotel on the northern coast of the South American continent, when I counted up the boxes in the lobby, the cab driver already gone, I found them one short. I followed the coastal highway desperately by foot: he worked the airport and the airport hotels – surely I would see him going one way, returning the other. I didn’t. Come evening, I hired another taxi to take me back to the airport. Tensely, I scanned the line of cabs. I saw him. He saw me. Yes! Yes! He had looked for me. He didn’t know my name, my room.
Businessman? Executive? I couldn’t remember my passport. I couldn’t make a courier delivery – a thing we paid students a hundred dollars to do – without fucking it up. But I had fixed both errors, and no one had needed to know in either case. So if you are only an imposter to yourself, you are in on your own secret: it is your secret alone. But it was my secret, and I did know it, and the sense of otherness from myself that enveloped me was only greater, as it so often is, for the foreign locale and my skin crawling with the press of the world upon it. Sitting haunted by myself in my hotel room, I had to get out, had to walk, to feel space around me, a breeze, any kind of sensation to touch me and remind me there was a world outside my mind. I walked along that northern coast of Venezuela in the night. All around me in the deep darkness of the coastal road, the side streets, I saw figures, caught the tail of furtive movements, the trailing lines of bodies there but gone. I began to conceive the short story I would begin to write when home again: a foreigner – always a foreigner – mistaken for someone else. I needed a circumstance to represent this profound dislocation of identity I felt – a first-time homosexual encounter, I decided. I imagined anonymous figures in the dark – unknown to themselves as unknown to each other – a Columbian, in fact, mistaking an unspeaking American for something other than what he was, beating him after the American’s hesitant, awkward overture in the shadows, kicking him, spitting out his contemptuous dismissal: “Venizolano,” the title I gave the story.
Home in the U.S. again, I began the story, but one way or another, I was working sixteen hours a day. There was no time to write. Besides, as consolation for not writing, I was being, in the world. For the first time in my life, I was acting on the world and the world was responding as if I existed. So what that I was only acting out a self. Or was I?
Then my car gave out, an old Subaru I loved like a first dog. I went to see the revered company man who today would be the head of Human Resources, JD, a huge, deep-souled born again Christian, deeply Southern, deeply country, a former good ‘ole boy with a broad blast of white hair and a heart wide enough to make every up-and-coming young male, every tender female in the company his ward. He took me to the president, who listened.
“Oh, what the hell,” the president said, “Give him a company car.”
JD told me to find what I wanted on any lot, come back and tell him, and he would work out the lease. Most of the other young managers with company cars were driving Gran Prix’s. But that bourgie opulence wasn’t my style. Short of an Alfa Romeo, what I wanted was a 280ZX. The thing was, the Grand Prix, in 1979 dollars, went for eight thousand dollars. The ZX was twelve.
I reported back to JD.
“Boy!” he bellowed and drawled, in a diphthong that had at least three phonemes to it. “Boyahhhuh! You got to be SHITTIN’ me! You picked out a twelve-thousand-dollar car?”
I was already well into feeling my savoir faire, but I stammered before the JD.
“You GOT to be shittin’ me!”
But he hadn’t given me any limit, I weakly excused myself. But he was also JD.
He gave me the car.
All the young peacocks were stylin’, as they’d say twenty years later. London Fog. Fedoras. Cigars. I went for three-piece suits, a brown Borsalino (I like them still), my ZX. By the time we moved what was now an international division up to New York, just outside of JFK (down the block from The Owl Tavern – see Goodfellas) – B. and my number two moving with me – I was living what they called the high life, working even more hours, playing the rest, tooling around town: wine after wine at dinner, taking the measure of every vodka and brandy at The Odeon on West Broadway. CW, a decade my senior, who had bought in as a third, minority owner, to lend his international expertise, was now the chief executive of an independent international subsidiary, while I served as chief operating officer. He and I spent late nights at his favorite riverside haunts on the Queens side, bent noses and soaring tenors at tableside. Every Friday we picked an Italian restaurant on “the Island” for an extended lunch: a couple of cocktails, a bottle or two of wine – the Borolo’s not big enough; let’s try an Inferno – and we’d saunter back into the office cool as two guys who didn’t know they were walking distilleries not pulling it off. In the meantime, we were expanding around the world, our own offices in Sydney, São Paulo, joint ventures in England and France.
In 1980, a still young HBO raised our profile even higher. While NBC would broadcast the big name matches from Wimbledon, as usual, HBO would carry the secondary matches in the off hours.
Each morning, we flew videotape of the previous day’s matches from London to New York. I had been tasked to figure it out. There was only one way to make the time constraints: the Concorde, with an on-board courier. This was much too big to delegate. I set it up myself. And just to be sure there were no kinks in the system, you understand, I assigned myself as the first courier. I enjoyed a few days’ matches at Wimbledon (but watched the classic McEnroe loss to Borg in the final from my Murray Hill living room) and flew the Concorde home, with a 9 a.m. London departure, a 9:30 a.m. arrival at JFK, a car to rush the tape to Manhattan, and a full day at the office.
On the plane, it was poached Scotch salmon, champagne, cigars, and brandy from take-off to landing. My seatmate perused his leather-bound portfolio of Rolls Royces with me. Somewhere in flight, we approached twice the speed of sound. I stared hard out the window. Instead of the usual cruising altitude somewhere around thirty-five thousand feet, we were soaring at fifty-seven thousand. The atmosphere darkening to a rarified violet, the earth was curving. I was very high.
Just short of a year later, with B. a Virginia girl not born for New York pavement and her romance with my number 2 ended, she decided to return home and seek work outside the company. I wrote a letter of reference intended to ensure her employment through any future lifetime. Think George Clooney for Anna Kendrick in Up in the Air.
Maybe a half year after that, a day that I always knew was coming began to approach in my mind, though it still hadn’t arrived. Before it could, the owners made me an offer.
My counterpart at the parent company, younger brother of one of the two founders, was leaving the business. They asked me to take his place. In the corporate hierarchy, there would be the three owners and then there would be me. Of course, they offered much more money. The probable future was clear. I was 29 years old. If I accepted the promotion, it was very likely that by forty, if not well before, I would be a wealthy man. I would be a very unhappy, wealthy man. It was Friday afternoon. I spent the weekend at home, never leaving my apartment. Over three days, I spoke to only one person, my older brother, Jeff, the one person I always turned to for guidance in my life, the person on whom, in truth, in my efforts to engage the world with self-assurance and any level of personal charisma, I had always been emulating. Though hardly a natural fit for corporate life, Jeff’s entrepreneurial spirit and drive would have gunned its engines down the open road before me. But he knew I was a different person than he, even if I had discovered within me a different person than I thought myself. Jeff listened. He asked questions. He never told me what he thought I should do; he really only walked beside me where he sensed I already wanted to go. I was struck to recognize that I even contemplated accepting the job. The brooding young man who had taken an entry-level customer service job with another company for $150 a week just three and a half years earlier wouldn’t have considered it for a moment. But that young man had no idea what it was like to act in the world and be greeted with success and praise and accomplishment and the feeling that he was something more than a yearning organic mass in pain. So for a weekend, the 29-year-old did consider it. Because it had been a hell of a ride.
On Monday morning, I walked into CW’s office, and I resigned.
Now that I had managed to become a functional person, I determined, I would try to write again, return to school to earn the B.A. everyone always assumed I had, go further. I would teach and write. I would be forty at least before I might be finished earning degrees and do the former, I bemoaned, in considering my future prospects to Jeff.
You’ll be forty anyway, Jeff said. You might as well achieve something you care about while getting there.
Would I be happy?
I would try as I could to persuade the world, as I wrote in Waiting for Word, to
take my word,
borne out of the buzzing hive,
deep dark and honeyed down the fervent center where
I was born, to bear the words
into this bare barkless
leaving and unleaving left to go.
But sloughing off old selves never transpired painlessly, even if I spied new selves waiting in the shadows inside me. Now advanced the guise of academic, a figure I knew had long been loitering for notice, though I hadn’t really wanted to assume its shape. Before that, I still had to let go the demanding, fast living young businessman.
I had felt, almost, as if the international company were my own. Operationally, I had created it, designed all the systems and protocols, hired all the people who hired all the people. I felt responsible, possessive. I signed a short-term consulting contract and agreed to conduct the search for my successor. The owners and some peers continued to woo me for the other position. During those final three months, in addition to offers of more money still, I was invited to an excess of power breakfasts with colleagues from Virginia, all the others in my cadre of up and comers who had made it to directorships and vice presidencies. Jay liked the night life, everyone knew, so there were late nights and restaurants and bars. At the last breakfast, I emerged from a hotel lobby in Turtle Bay with one of those VPs of sales, my age, JFK Jr.-handsome and tall. We paused on the sidewalk as he lit our cigars. We puffed them into life, our forefingers curled around their bases, turned our heads up to emit plumes of self-satisfied smoke into the air above our heads.
“Jay,” he said staring at me intently with his glamorous glow. “Aren’t you gonna miss this?”
He expected, as they all did, that the prospect of missing it would finally move me.
I gazed down the street toward the U.N. and the East River beyond.
“Sure,” I said, truthfully, though we never said what “this” was.
Then I was gone. and truthfully, too, the missing didn’t last that long, only the wonder, forever, at a different life I might have lived.
Within a few years, the original two owners, facing industry headwinds, put the company up for sale to get their maximum return before it was too late. CW bought rights to the international subsidiary’s name, and moved to England, where he created a worldwide network of independent expediters. It exists today. For fun, he opened a London wine bar. The parent company was sold to Airborne Express, where for twenty years, under its own name, it provided specialized courier services. Then, DHL acquired it. About a decade after I left, I had reason to learn that no one then with the company had any idea who I was or knew who the people were who founded the business.
Then came the day when B. would write me.
We started to catch up on twenty-five years. She wanted to know why I had disappeared from her life.
She got married, I said. She had children. A married woman with children in Virginia. A single man hundreds of miles away in New York City. Different lives.
“I know,” she said.
But she wasn’t completely satisfied, and it wasn’t the whole truth. The whole truth is that I leave all my lives behind, one imposter after another slipping away, a disappearing self, working my way, I keep thinking, to the real me.
I remembered when we had last seen each other. I visited soon after her first daughter was born. And I remembered that soon after my return to New York I had received a card from B. It’s in one of the boxes that contain the memorabilia of all those lives. I haven’t laid eyes on it in years, but I know what it says. It says that I have to visit often, because B. couldn’t imagine her daughter growing up without knowing me.
She is older now than B. was when I met her, and she has children of her own.
Searching my memory, I thought I had to have been at B.’s wedding. There was no way I would not have been. Yet I had no recollection of it. The next astonishing morning, as if after so many years still anticipating my needs, I received an email from B. with two attachments: photos from her wedding.
In the first, one of those table shots, behind those seated, five people stand. In the middle is B., her silken veil of near waist-length hair a kind of talisman of her innocence and beauty. On one side of her is her new husband. On the other side of her is me. Once again, somehow, the imposter leads my life. I do not recall the moment. I do not remember the day. Yet that is my own self standing there, in one of those three pieces suits, taller and leaner than I remember anymore ever having been, already losing my hair, but still only balding, not yet bald. The hair that is there, and my beard, that I have worn since I was seventeen years old, is so dark it seems to have been inked in by a penman. I was once that young.
Staring and staring, I don’t know what to make of a self I left behind, on a day I have forgotten, and I am reminded of poem I wrote as my mother disappeared into Alzheimer’s.
At that, we both turn to Katherine Hepburn, sixty years ago and taut as a bowstring, wonder if the stars remember every escapade and kiss, or if sometimes in the darkness they sit and only stare at some actor on the screen.
The second photograph shows a lineup of young men. I am among them, reaching forward, perilously balanced on one leg as I stretch my arm for something.
“What are we doing there?” I wrote and asked.
Lined up for the tossing of her garter, I’m told.
“Guess who caught it,” B. wrote.
That seemed, in all the remembering, to be the question for me. Or the beginning of many questions, the questions that preoccupied me in the weeks after B.’s email and that raise their hands from the back row through all the phases of my life and the personas I adopt and abandon, as I keep moving on to assume some other real, still unrealized self. All the questions about the life that was, and was before, the life that is and the life to come, and all of them beginning with “who.”
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Poet. Storyteller. Dramatist. Essayist. Artificer.
“Not just words about the ideas but the words themselves.”