Saturday, January 31, 2015

THERE at THE NEW YORKER: TALES OF MY TIME ON THE STAFF OF ''GOINGS ON"

those were the days

"The Talk of The Town" in this week's New Yorker (Feb 2, 2015) is about the staff making "its final preparations to leave 4 Time Square, its headquarters for the past fifteen years, to join the rest of Conde Nast, the parent company down at 1 World Trade Center."  The article goes on to describe how some of the staff remember fondly the offices at 20 West 43rd Street. And a select few,  going back, it seems, to the very beginning of time, even remember where "the magazine spent more than fifty years at 25 West 43rd Street." That was the office Brendan Gill described as "bureaucratic squalor."

And yes - that was my era!  When I think of The New Yorker, I think of the building at 25 West 43rd Street, home of the magazine when I was hired by Tony Gibbs to write for Goings On.

So I thought I'd take you on a trip down Memory Lane. When I got that job, I felt as if I'd struck gold. I thought I would stay at the magazine for the rest of my life, if they'd have me. However my stint was sadly all too short - since my husband joined the US Foreign Service and we moved to Caracas Venezuela.

Nevertheless, when I worked for The New Yorker, I wrote art gallery and museum listings, and I worked on the famous 19th floor, the editorial floor, which was completely separate from the other departments of the magazine, except that it was joined by a staircase to the 18th and 20th floors.

It was all very shabby.  The paint was on the grimy side, the floors were ordinary discolored linoleum, and there was none of the high end glamor one might have expected from such an exalted place as this -  none of your mahogany bookcases or Persian rugs.  You sure came across some interesting people though: Ann Beattie sitting on a chair in the hallway, or Jay McInerney, shuffling down the hall as he worked for the Fact Checking department.

Goings On was a separate little group. Our office was small and it was run by Marjorie Quinn, who lived in the same Manhattan apartment building as Katherine Hepburn. She was conservative, soft spoken and religious, and talked about such things as going for cocktails to the 21.

I worked primarily with Jane Olds.  Jane was the most intelligent woman I had ever met. She was meticulous about our work and knew a lot about art, literature and music and she'd been writing the art listings for years.

Another person in Goings On was Sally Ann Mock, who did all Pauline Kael's movie listings and made sure everything went in the magazine correctly.  Sally Ann was always at work early and she always left early - and although our office was a communal space, her section was separated with bookcases.  Sally loved gossip, but was not enthusiastic about much else.  She tended to drive everyone else in the office a little bit crazy, but I didn't mind her so much.

Then there was Joan Manion. She handled all the Brendan Gill and Edith Oliver listings.  Joan was very sporty and made a lot of coffee. She was extremely social and her favorite subject was food preparation.

Lastly there was Susan Thompson, who came from the south and who helped Sally Ann.  Susan was very bright, fresh faced and sweet. When I moved away from New York, she took on my two beloved cats.

Jane and Joan had facing desks in the center of the room and old fashioned space heaters to ward off the cold on winter days. We sometimes ate scones, we made endless cups of tea and at Christmas we all went to the Algonquin for drinks.

I remember telling Jane that I thought ours was the perfect job.  This was The New Yorker, after all. We had press passes and were invited to all the important gallery openings in Manhattan.  We frequently spent our Wednesday afternoons doing the rounds at galleries and museums.  Even though I wanted most of all to be a writer, I felt as though this job had set me up for life.  I had made it, if not in my own mind, at least in the minds of others. I only had to say that I worked at The New Yorker for jaws to drop. 

But Jane was not as enamored as me. "I'd rather have Tony's job," she said, meaning Wolcott Gibbs Jr, our boss.  "Except I have one terrible flaw. I'm a woman."

You see,  even though The New Yorker in those days was mostly staffed on the editorial side, by women, all the respected positions were held by men.  Loo Burke, and Eleanor Gould Packard who were primarily responsible for how the magazine's style remained the same, were only "query editors" not full editors - and yet Mr Shawn, who was the editor back then, couldn't have run the magazine without them.

Mr Shawn, and I remembered him well, was very elderly and rather small, with a red, baby face. Whenever you encountered him in the hall on his way to lunch (and he never went out without a hat) he tipped his hat at you. He knew everyone on the staff.  Even two years later when, with my baby Rosalind, I returned to say hello to my friends, Mr Shawn remembered me, and made polite inquiries.

Once, when Tony was out of the office, I had the distinction of having my copy edited by Mr Shawn himself.  He wrote his comments in black ink. I wish I had kept that copy sheet - but Jane, who was neither sentimental nor terribly impressed, dropped it into the trash can. I was too embarrassed to fish it out.

Brendan Gill was often in our office.  What a handsome and charming man. There were so many interesting people there - the cartoonist, Ed Koren, for instance, or  Edith Oliver who wrote the Off-Broadway reviews.   She was hunched with a deep gin voice and she always had a cigarette in hand. Every time she caught sight of herself in the mirror of the ladies room, she pretended to be frightened, and screamed.

One of the people I worked with a lot with was Mr McMillan.  He was a large gentleman with white hair and he did some of the spot drawings and some of the gallery reviews.  He tended to drive me and Jane a little bit up the wall because he was so stubborn and self important. I never dared challenge his word. The trouble was, he often made mistakes, and it was my job to check everything he wrote with the galleries before we ran anything, especially the colors. Because you see, Mr McMillan was colorblind.

This was our weekly routine.  On Mondays we went to press, so the mornings were very busy for Marge and Jane, while I was making up the Art section for the following week.  On Tuesdays, Jane and I checked what I had roughed out against the press releases and on the phone to the galleries.  On Wednesday, we continued this process and on Thursdays we read everything through and altered last minute things.  We were never to editorialize. We were simply to describe the work in specific terms - for instance, primary colored stripe paintings in oil.   On Fridays we checked the hours and the addresses. And we did this absolutely meticulously. One of us would read aloud, and the other would check every last comma, dot and dash.  On Fridays we almost always left the office at 2:30.

Bear in mind, we didn't have computers. All the galleries and the painters and sculptors who we had written up in the past, were recorded on index cards in a tatty file cabinet.  The index cards had the listings on them, cut from the magazine and glued there, with handwritten dates beside them.

I learned about art, about writing and especially about editing while working at The New Yorker. But most of all,  I learned that there's a very thin line between those on the outside and those on the inside.  It seems like a gulf when you are on the outside, but actually it isn't.  It was a job. It was a serious job but it wasn't particularly glamorous on the day to day level.  In fact, it was rather like something out of a Barbara Pym novel.  There again, it was The New Yorker.  And I was there!

Friday, January 23, 2015

A TRIBUTE TO BASIL, THE GREATEST OF DACHSHUNDS

The unconditional devotion that characterized Basil
On Sunday, we picked up a foster greyhound who we bought as a companion for our dogs Adam and Basil.  A week later,  I find myself writing about the death of Basil - our thirteen year old dachshund who passed away on Wednesday.  What extraordinary timing.  Basil, Adam and Izzy were all getting along so splendidly.  But Basil was ill and elderly and maybe he realized that we'd be fine. In any case his death came as a sudden shock.

He had an enlarged heart and we'd recently been told by the vet that he might pop off at any minute.  We didn't know the end would come that soon.  But there was nothing they could do to correct the damage.  They could only recommend a doggy cardiologist and an MRI.  He was already on the "Silver Whiskers" insurance plan at our vet's, for which we paid a handsome price. We thought that for a thirteen year old dachshund who doesn't understand that he is mortal, it would be more cruel than kind to put him through exhaustive treatments and yet more vet visits.

We opted instead to keep him comfortable - with several prescriptions and periodic blood tests.  He continued to go on two walks every day, and to eat his two meals a day, mostly without loss of appetite.  He barked at the neighbors and at other dogs, driving them all a bit nuts.  He barked at the cable guy.  He waited for me when I came back from teaching or back from my yoga practice, sometimes lying in the closet so as to be close to the door. He always greeted me effusively.

In his final months, he had us carry him up the stairs. But he continued to go in and out of the garden and let us know, by barking and whining that he knew when it was time for a walk or time for him to have his pills.  That is, Basil was himself until the end.
Basil barking, with his friend Adam

Then on Tuesday night, after his walk and his dinner, he began to show signs of distress. It was terrible to watch him trying to breathe.  But he settled down, and although we had him on the bed, he jumped onto the floor. Then we all fell asleep,  in the same room. I woke up at around 1:00 to find he had passed away.

Our house is not the same.  For one thing, it's a lot quieter.  Ben said he hadn't realized that one of us in the house was making 95% of the noise. He was the little engine that drove our walks.  He'd always be out ahead of us, pulling on the lead. And we would obediently trot on behind.
with Alex and Elliot (and Adam) at Great Falls

It was Basil pulling the lead, that caused my frozen shoulder. Getting frozen shoulder led me to practice Bikram yoga.  So I guess that's a backhanded way of thanking Basil for the enormous improvement to my life that has come from practicing Bikram.

But let's go back to the early days of Basil - to 2002, when everything was going wrong with our lives. One of the kids noticed an ad in the Washington Post for wire-haired dachshund puppies. So we drove out to Culpeper to look at the litter.

We were only going to 'look', mind you.  Obviously we bought one.  I remember wondering, as we drove back home, and Basil threw up in the back seat, whether I had made the right decision.  But it was after 9/11. We had just moved back to the States from Belgium and my father had recently died.  Ben had cancer and there was a sniper on the loose in our county.  We needed something to perk us up.  And boy, did Basil do that.
sweet puppy Basil

Never was there a more charming puppy.  Our Labrador, Hannah also found a new lease on life.  She taught him how to play with sticks in the back garden, and when she got tired of him, she ran up the stairs so that he would follow - and then ran down again, leaving him stranded on the landing.  He was too small to run back down.

Basil with his friend Hannah


Two years later, we moved to Italy. Basil of course came along.  In Rome he was an apartment dog, with more or less mixed results.  He tried his best to protect our territory - barking at the vicious Jack Russell who lived across the hall from us, and who once tore my jeans, trying to bite me.  Basil also barked at the dog who lived in the apartment directly underneath us. He'd position himself on the balcony, staring down between the floor and the guard rail, waiting for movement below. This earned him the reputation of a nasty little dog.  Our friends Ian and Francesca visited. They had coincidentally had the same apartment before we moved in and the portiere told them,  "Quello piccolo e un diavolo!" 

But we knew better. We knew he was only, misguidedly trying to protect the family.

In those days, his greatest joy was to go for walks on Monte Mario.  On the walks he often got absorbed with watching lizards. He was like a gambling addict at the slots - on a loop of endlessly trying to make a score and losing track of time. We'd be walking, and suddenly realize he wasn't there. And then we'd have to back track, only to find him with his nose to the ground watching lizards move too quickly for him to catch.
a younger more robust Basil

On our flight back to the States, Basil came in the cabin. Technically he was too big to be in the cabin, but we took him anyway.  The Italian customs people let him go through. Only trouble was, to keep him from whining, we had to feed him pills.  At Fuimicino at the pharmasists's suggestion we purchased a herbal concoction to help with sleeping. Then one of the passengers behind us gave us one of her prozac pills and we cut it in half and fed it to him.  Poor Baz.  But I must say, it did the trick.
Basil with Rozzie

Back in Virginia again, he continued to live with Sol the cat and Hannah the labrador and outlived them both.  Then we got Adam, the greyhound, and Baz taught Adam how to be a normal dog. Greyhounds are not normal.  Nevertheless, the two became devoted companions.  The neighbors thought them marvelously incongruous- one with no legs to speak of, and the other with very long legs - both in perfect harmony.
Basil spooning with a sleeping teenage Elliot

Another important person in Basil's life was my friend Helen.  She would often come out to look after him when we went away and whenever she came over to visit us, Basil barked with joy, moving from one foot to the other. Then he would tuck right in next to her and she would sing to him.

When I told her he had died, Helen cried. "Who am I going to sing to," she sobbed.  Basil's favorite song was Helen singing: "What a man, what a man, what a man, what a mighty good man" - and when she sang this, he licked her face and snuggled in.

Mind you, he also once bit our friend John quite badly, when John put a hand out to greet him. We felt terrible about it. Baz could be a piece of work.

The mailman was shocked today when he met us on our walk without Basil. "His heart?" he cried. "No!  How come? But he walked every day!"

We have received some lovely messages since he passed.  My friend Gail wrote, "He was such an English gentleman. What a charming fellow he was... it is so sad to lose a pet that has been a part of the family for so many years."
He of the illustrious paws

Our neighbor Jacky, who has gone on walks with Basil more times than I can count, along with his wife Sara and dogs Charlie, Boris and Daisy, said, "One really nice thing about Basil is that he kept chugging on until the last meal, the last walk, right to the end.  He may have had a geriatrics's list of afflictions, but he remained steadfast in doggy determination."

Basil was mourned in San Francisco, in Paris, Boston, New York, Sydney, in Richmond Virginia and of course here in Washington.

He was a piece of work, was Basil. But he gave us his all.  And it makes me reflect on the people in our lives.  Sometimes we might be tempted to opt for hanging out with  'easy' people - those less complicated folks who give little but also take little out of us.  But the ones who are a bit higher maintenance, often have a lot more to give. And they give it, generously, passionately and unconditionally. They are the ones who make us feel alive.

How relatively small must be the heart and mind of a dachshund. And yet to be on the receiving end of that sweet little heart reminds me of Jesus' parable about the widow's mite. What he had to offer may have been small but all of it was trained on us, with unconditional devotion. And that was a supreme compliment.

little man,  how we will miss you

Sunday, January 18, 2015

A GREYHOUND COMES TO TOWN

A first walk in the garden
This morning at 8 am, Ben and I were in Fredericksburg Virginia, picking up a greyhound.  We are fostering her, rather than adopting - a dubious distinction - since we have already fallen in love with her and it's been less than twelve hours.  In theory,  we have three weeks to decide if we want to keep her for good.  We are  'test driving' this greyhound - because she needs to fit into our family dynamic - which includes an elderly dachshund with an enlarged heart and another greyhound, who has been part of the family for three years.

She arrived in a van, accompanied by two other greyhounds. Five others were to arrive in a second vehicle.  I was on the porch at the house in Fredericksburg when they pulled into the driveway, so I hurried along under an umbrella, with several other adopters, to watch the release.

Three greyhounds leaped down from the hatchback. There was a brindle and two black hounds, all wearing muzzles.  "Careful. There's a feisty one here," said the driver.

The coordinator checked their name tags. "This one is L.K's  Cover-Up - tag name Missy.  That's yours, Amanda."  This was my first encounter with the little black greyhound we had been waiting for.  Her proportions seemed so tiny and so delicate. By the way, we've decided we might rename her Izzy. If we keep her, that is. ;)

After the handover of paperwork, pills, specific instructions,  and of course the dog itself,  Ben and I drove back home. It was a very grey winter's morning and pouring with rain. Izzy lay in the back seat panting. When we arrived in Falls Church, I ran inside to get our dogs Basil and Adam and together we  all went for our first walk round the block.

Basil the dachshund was predictably cantankerous. He barked his head off at first, while the two greyhounds slotted into place quite quickly.  But on balance, the walk was calmer and more coordinated than Ben and I had expected.
Basil is mystified. Who are these long legged dogs?

Back at home, we fed her. She had traveled from Florida on an empty stomach and was starving.  We mixed her kibble with rice, as instructed.   But Adam didn't like the idea of Izzy eating without him.  He wanted to have some too. And that presented problems.

After a suitable resting period, we let them into the back garden. They wandered around sniffing the borders of the property, peeing on things, lifting legs or squatting - as the case may be, then going back over each other's spots to re-pee. Maybe that's like re-tweeting.
Here she is - so thin, and so in need of love

At one point Adam and Izzy were down at the far end of the property, sniffing about in what we've come to think of as fox terrain.  Suddenly, as if at some invisible signal, Adam turned and charged back to the house top speed, followed swiftly by Izzy.  It was a beautiful picture  of two racing greyhounds.  Except that Izzy is closer to life at the tracks than is Adam,  and it ended badly.

Adam growled and snapped in the final stretches of the race and as Izzy bounced back in through the kitchen unperturbed, Adam ended up retching in the bushes for several minutes.  In greyhound terms  it was a pretty intense interaction.

Getting to know each other~
Back indoors there was more resting on dog beds. We had purchased a new bed for Izzy.  But Adam insisted on trying it out too.  I'm the boss around here, he wanted to communicate.

She still hasn't figured out how to go up stairs. That will involve a lot of coaxing when the time comes.  But when I went up the stairs myself,  followed by the other two dogs, Izzy watched as if we were going into a time warp.  At least it provided an opportunity for Adam  and Basil to get away from all the intensity of their new companion - to come up to the library and lie beside me and, yes, let's face it - forget about females for a while.

Meanwhile she, poor darling, can also forget about them. Right now she is lying on her bed, while Ben watches the football game.  She is clearly trying to relax. She seems a very calm girl and a sweet one.  In watching her movements, we are aware how far Adam has come since we rescued him from the tracks three years ago.  He is so much more normal by comparison with her.

the dog who fell to earth
She still doesn't know what to expect.  Think of it.  She has never known a life outside the kennels or the tracks.  She has never known a home, a garden, trees, beds or stairs.  She is the alien who fell to earth. And we welcome her.

If you are interested in adopting a greyhound in Virginia, check out Virginia Greyhound Adoptions .