During hurricane Irene, I was living in a boarding house near Stony Brook I called The Castle Despair. I named it after its driveway which I called The Precipice of Despair (straight drops onto major roads are bad, urban planners! bad!). It was an apt title though, coming to represent the general malaise of the place: poor cleaning, pots in the sink, smell, and two students, a guy and a lady, from separate parts of China, who had taken to having loud orgasms at four a.m. and singing beautifully together… while they were showering.
They moved out after a year.
In one of their respective rooms, right next to mine, there moved in a slim Korean fellow who had played the housing lottery and lost and was training to be an engineer. We got along great by not really talking to each other, except to belt out the usual pleasantries when our paths accidentally crossed.
Come the Hurricane. All of our power went out, fortunately only for a few days.
Alex or Andrew or whatever his name was came knocking on my door and said: “Do you have a book I could borrow?” What he was asking–it took me a moment to realize–was: “do you have a book.” His room had the usual textbooks but I had never seen a room that lacked the beloved well-thumbed paperbacks. Science guys tended all the more so to have books of great imagination and scope–not just the usual combination of trashy and literary science fiction. A friend of mine who was as much an engineer as anyone I have ever met (he has since jumped ship to the law) had the complete works of Edgar Allan Poe, a rather strange book about folk-religious practices in Haiti and Louisiana, and a memoir by a Christian man who had taught English in a Hasidic yeshiva, among a dozen or so other secular volumes. He also had the entire Talmud in very small books, a Bible, etc.
But not to have books–to have a book–at all? With my new-found age and wiliness, something I did not have at the time to quite the same extent, I would think to myself: I can make him read anything I want! Psychedelia from John Gardner; disturbing quasi-erotica from Laclos; the Complete Works of Shakespeare; the Iliad. For some reason I found myself giving him the Best American Comics, selected and edited by Chris Ware. I figured: go easy on the kid; he’s used to pictures.
He brought it back a couple days later, having read the whole thing. “These… are not what I expected,” he said. “They’re not like regular comics.”
“Did you like them?” I responded.
For the life of me I cannot remember his answer. Note to self: be less self-involved.
Footnote: for the longest time I have been thinking about the possibility that technology is constantly setting us back. We now have electronic ways to entertain ourselves; but they fail during power outages, they are liable to copyright laws in frightening and unforeseen ways; they force us into a state of complacency that is the antithesis of real fun. I don’t say this as someone who turns up his nose and sniffs at the idea of using a computer for amusement. I say it as someone who does so entirely too much and nevertheless, each time, think: at what cost? Feh. downer.