We met at a party in New York City through a mutual friend. He was twenty years older, but we had a good conversation – topics of common interest, plus I tend to ask a lot of questions and he liked to talk about himself. So, we made a date for coffee a few weeks later, then another date. For something like four years, every few months I’d reach out to him and we’d meet somewhere for coffee or a beer – a Japanese coffeeshop off University, or one of the dive bars on Fifth Avenue near his apartment in Brooklyn – and we would sit, chat, hash out something going on in his life. First of all, he did not like to talk about his family. From what I remember, he grew up in the Midwest, one of several children (I believe he had sisters) and ran away young, to do with problems with his parents, his father. Eventually he found his way to Manhattan. He lived in a YMCA, he lived in a shelter on the Bowery. At some point, he obtained a fruit stand, and sold oranges and bananas around Downtown. He liked the interactions, he said, being a merchant on the street, he liked the idea of playing a part in the life of the great lumbering metropolis. He also drove a cab at one point. Later, he fell in with a group of poets and managed their café, working on his own writing on the side, poems and essays about his life. (He always carried a book in his backpack and reread it frequently, he never went anywhere without it, The Loser by Thomas Bernhard.) Also, he played cards for money in Atlantic City? He might have gotten in trouble for counting cards? When we met, he was in his early fifties, Jewish, on the shorter side of average height, with small, oval glasses that made his eyes slightly gleam. He had a wide education, mainly self-taught, and he knew some women (enough women) found him handsome, charismatic, he knew most people thought him smart, even brilliant – we’d sit there and he’d tell stories, he’d be charming and funny, also prideful and vengeful, exasperating on occasion. It wasn’t easy, I don’t think, to be his girlfriend, or even a close friend; like I said, I only saw him three or four times a year. The first time we had coffee, he told me about how, early in his life, he had so fastidiously trimmed his fingernails that basically he had none left, just cuticles. He held out his hands. Where fingernails should be, were soft fleshy pads.
We haven’t spoken since I left New York more than a decade ago. I heard recently through a mutual friend that he is in a bad way, with early-onset dementia. It’s depressing to think about. Of all people, the great talker. He gave me some of the best conversations I ever had.
What the what? An occasional newsletter by Rosecrans Baldwin of (very) short essays about things he finds beautiful. Rosecrans’s next book, Everything Now, is now available for preorder. Most books mentioned in the newsletter are on a list at Bookshop.org.