Saturday, December 26, 2009

memory #9

It was like he was underwater for the first time, opening and closing his mouth, shocked that he couldn’t breathe. His face looked the way babies’ faces do when they’re struggling to communicate. That same ever-flowing bewilderment, feelings washing over like a stream over rocks. His eyes would be wide, his mouth working for sounds, like he was searching for words without knowing words existed.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009


I've been applying to some grad programs, and for the past four months I've been obsessed with that process. It's finally (mainly) over. The most immediate benefit of all of it, disregarding what future results may or may not occur, is that I've polished three pieces - most of which I've already posted here in rougher forms. I figured I'd share the final ('final'?) versions.

Number One:

"The glad years come"

On Valentine’s Day, my older sister and I are charged with cleaning our parents’ attic. They’re moving a few towns over in Virginia to a house better designed to accommodate my dad’s escalating health problems (fewer stairs), and they need us to clear out the junk before the movers come.

We crawl up gingerly, easing our way along the fold-out ladder, which always seems about to buckle to the side like an injured knee but does not, and poke our heads into the attic. It’s fairly typical as attics go: cardboard boxes with sharpie scrawl, banged-up suitcases, an electric kettle and lone ski boot; angled wooden ceiling beams so low you have to stoop. Our hands are soon thick with dust from thumbing over poorly boxed and bagged books, and our noses run; the air is stuffy, cloudy with particles of disrepair and inertia.

Once we’re done with the books, we spread out into opposite corners: Mia with the lumpy bag of stuffed animals, and me with the suitcase pile. Most of them (the suitcases, I mean) are useless; old and heavy, without rollers. I’ve just parted with my paternal grandmother’s threadbare Oscar de la Renta (noticing its tag for the first time and suddenly understanding why she carted it around like a puffed-up bird into her 80s), when I find the suitcase.

It is small and maroon and utterly unremarkable, nestled in the shadows between two other dusty relics. Unlike the others, however, it is heavy. When I lift it with the intention of tossing it downstairs into the garbage heap, I’m stopped by its heft.

“This one’s got something in it,” I say to Mia as I thump it down in front of me. “There are cards here signed by a ‘Philip.’” This stops her. She crawls over, squatting awkwardly, realizing before I have that this Philip is our long-dead grandfather, the famous Philip. Philip whose early death altered the trajectory of our mother’s life and became the crucible of her childhood troubles, described to us fleetingly, only in passing, as a long-lost loss. The great loss.

The lining of the suitcase is a shiny, shocking pink. We see from the initials under the handle that it belonged to our Nana, our mom’s mom, who died when we were children. At the very top is a man’s attaché case, which I open. I spread the wealth of greeting cards between me and Mia, and we take turns reading to each other. Happy Birthday, Dear Wife, states the cover of one. A woman in a 1940s dress and high heels arranges flowers on a table. Inside, a printed inscription: Happy wishes to you, wife. It’s your birthday, and you know, you grow nearer and still dearer as the glad years come and go! Below that, his looping cursive: “For I love you, sweetheart, and have you with me always in my heart. Love, Phil.” It is the first time either of us has seen his handwriting, found any personal article of his.

On the left inside flap of the card, a woman’s face drawn in the shape of an apple puckers her lips and bats her lashes; a hat shaped like a green leaf sits on her head. At the top, Philip has penned the date: February 1, 1944.

They would have had the first two girls by then. My mother would come three years later, the final little one, the bean-faced runt. We know almost nothing of those years, the happy years. How they lived, what they did. We’ve seen a jerky, sped-up video taken from their honeymoon in St. Augustine, Nana in her fitted skirt-suits and dramatic heels, dark lipstick and coiffed black hair, waving on the boardwalk. Philip the quiet eye behind the lens, rarely figuring in the frame.

And he’s absent from many of the photos we find here, too, below the cards: Nana, posing in a fur coat and floppy cream hat in their backyard in Brooklyn, the neighbors’ row houses strung out like Chinese lanterns behind her. Nana, glamorous smile, tucked into his wallet.

But he does appear. We lightly touch the images of him now: here he is, squeezing into a photobooth, balancing Nana on his lap and flashing a pretty-boy grin; smoking a cigarette in a white suit, squinting in the sunlight; his dark, thick lashes and eyebrows, cupid’s bow lips. It’s never occurred to me before, but it’s obvious now, somehow: Philip was sweet.

The story, as told by my mother, goes like this: Philip came from an educated, wealthy Italian family, and Nana, though she’d once been offered a scholarship to Julliard as an opera singer, was a typist. Poor. Despite his family’s disapproval, they had the wedding – big, Catholic – the towering, cloying cake and heavy silk gown. They had the tropical honeymoon; they moved into a house and had the three girls. And then, eight years into the marriage, Philip got sick. A rare cancer in his retina. He was thirty-five when he died; my mother was two. If it’s nearby, she’ll refer to the only photo she has of them together; she is plunked in his lap on the beach, scrawny and scowling, and you can see in his eyes that he’s tired. The sand around them is a bleached white, the ocean a blanched grey. He is grimacing.

A month after Philip’s death, his father died, and his mother’s health plummeted. While she was bedridden (in the process of a two-month decline that would end in her death), her daughter, Philip’s sister, began to visit her. The family money to which Philip had claim had not been distributed to Nana yet, and Philip’s sister didn’t think it should be. ‘We barely know the woman,’ she reportedly told her mother, sitting by her bed and speaking in hushed tones. ‘How do we know she’ll look after those girls?’ (The information was passed on to Nana by the family’s housekeeper, who at one point promised to act as Nana’s witness in court, but rescinded when the family threatened to fire her.) The story is complicated, with many disappointments, but the short of it is, Nana never saw Philip’s inheritance. His mother changed the will to leave it in Philip’s sister’s name, and after that, all communication ended. Nana and the girls were set adrift.

Next in the pile is a hodgepodge of papers: a playbill from Radio City Music Hall (“Showcase!” trumpets the cover), a 1946 invoice for a refrigerator he must have bought her. Here is a little pencil case with his initials, PJB, doodled all over it, and here is his father’s death card, printed in Italian. We rifle through the last of these mementos and, satisfied we’ve explored them thoroughly, reassemble the attaché case and lay it aside.

The rest of the suitcase is less colorful; the emotional objects all seem to have been tucked away in the case, kept intact and protected, and what lies beneath are folders. Documents. We open the first folder, which is neatly organized, left side and right. The pages are thin, tissuey legal paper, and they seem to be correspondences, spanning years. I hand them over to Mia, restless before I’ve even begun, preferring to flip through the rest of the suitcase’s contents for more hidden treasures. So it is Mia who sits still and makes sense of them and says, after some time, “She wrote the President.”

Now this is interesting. Nana’s rages are legendary in our family. We know that she struggled financially after Philip died, relocating from Brooklyn to Catskill, where she supplemented his small veteran’s pension by working as a secretary and, at night, managing her parents’ bowling alley. We know she was stretched thin and felt chronically cheated from the life she should have had. We know that she was mentally ill, that she had what would today be diagnosed as bipolar disorder, but was then called “nervous breakdowns,” and was sporadically hospitalized for it. But writing the president is a new, iconic piece of evidence in the case of Nana. It is deliciously, tragically grandiose.

Mia reads:

November 14, 1961

The President
The Whitehouse
Washington, DC

My Dear Mr. President,

I am enclosing here within a copy of a letter, which I have directed to the honorable Abraham Ribicoff, and which is self-explanatory. Your intercession would be much appreciated. Thank you for your attention to this matter, which is of such extreme importance to myself and to my children.

We find the letter to Ribicoff (the name means nothing to me, woefully poor student of US history that I am, though I later identify him as Kennedy’s Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare), which is itself an introduction to prior correspondences. We see, digging through them, both those she enclosed for Ribicoff and other, earlier letters; how much time she must have dedicated to petitioning for benefits, how increasingly frustrated.

What begins in 1949, following Phillip’s death, as perfunctory withdrawals from his estate evolve into more carefully-worded pleas as her requests grow more frequent: “I’ve put off making this request hoping I would be able to manage without further withdrawals,” she writes to a Veterans Affairs attorney in 1950, “however my illness has precluded my working even part time, and I find I just cannot make ends meet on the small income I receive...Christmas is almost here, and although I cannot afford luxuries for the children, still, warm new clothing would go far in making it a happier time for them.”

Were they really so desperate? My mother has always been mute on the subject. Like a mole, she tunneled through her childhood cautiously, seeking comfort in dark, safe spaces (the bedroom she shared with her sisters, caves found under table tops and other sturdy furniture). Put another way, she doesn’t remember much from those years; she says she’s not sure that she imprinted memories as they were occurring; something about trauma and children, a handy defense mechanism some brains employ to protect their young owners.

Like rocks skittering down an embankment, a foothold lost, we read Nana’s situation go from tenuous to perilous. Following the annulment of a short-lived marriage in 1954 (Andrew the Greek, who was prone to jealous rages and smoked cigars with the windows rolled up), she attempts to get her widow’s benefits reinstated, but is only allotted a third of her previous payments.

In 1956, she goes through a disappointing exchange with the VA again, trying to establish the dates of Philip’s employment, which she believes should now, due to a law change, make her retroactively eligible for disability benefits. She is denied.

Her letter to Ribicoff five years later reveals an obsession with this perceived injustice: “Since 1956,” she writes, “I have been brooding over what I know is an unfair and arbitrary decision. The referee at the time of the hearing was extremely annoyed with me, because I had caused him to miss his commuting train due to a traffic situation which delayed me in reaching New York City from Catskill, NY, where I was then residing. I explained why I was late, but he was still upset about it...”

I imagine her sucking in air as she sits up straight to start typing, crossing her ankles and tucking them under her chair. Intent on making him see the gravity, the epic disaster, lurking in her petty details. She never received a response, of course.

As abruptly as Mia and I made our discovery, we reach the end. We have finished our excavation of the suitcase, and there is nothing left to sort through. We close it back up, and I carry it back to where I found it. We have taken from it several of Philip’s business cards, which we found in his wallet, the photobooth picture and white enamel necklaces we assume were Nana’s.

The next morning, I offer to show my mother the suitcase; she has never seen it, she says, and doesn’t know where it came from, and I imagine she’ll be eager. But she declines. Slouched in the kitchen watching the kettle for signs of steam, she looks tired.

I have less than an hour to catch my bus back to Brooklyn, and she thinks it’s all just too much to drudge up so quickly. I can understand that. But I was hoping for additional insight from her, an insider’s elaboration, and it’s clear, suddenly, that I won’t get it.

The accounts I’ve heard from my mother about her childhood are patchy at best, a half-made collage: bringing hot bags of donuts for the black boys who worked in the back of bowling alley retrieving and resetting pins; being pulled from bed and rained with slaps late at night by Nana when she didn’t clean the house; hiding under her bed in the morning because she was scared of the nuns at school, who used metal-edged rulers as punishment; her grandmother’s fried dough balls, drizzled in honey; buckets of thrashing eels for Christmas dinner. In her memories, it is mainly the scenery that is vivid.

I feel like I’ve inherited the same blindness. Holding Nana’s necklaces, it’s still hard to picture her. She remains a phantasm, the voluptuous dictator with tiny feet who smiled only in photos. I can easily conjure the traditional image I’ve had of her – Nana as The Great Potential Wasted, a singing voice that could shatter glass (supposedly), a whistle like a warbling songbird. But these are just family lore, old china patterns to stare at wistfully, fragments that helped me imagine where I came from.

It must have been hard, being a widow, and then a divorcee, in a small town like Catskill. If the nuns at school instructed the children not to play with my mother and her sisters, it must have been worse for Nana. I have never heard, for instance, a story involving one of her friends. To be proud is a hard thing, a pebble to suck on, but to be proud and powerless, proud and friendless, well.

Even so, she remained vain; always dressed up, matching hat and purse, marching to her job at her soon-to-be third husband’s office, marching to the bowling alley afterwards, and finally, well past midnight with swollen, pinched feet, home.

Cancer took her, finally; not in her eye, like Philip, but in her famous breasts. She was living in McLean, Virginia by then with her third husband. The house was modest but comfortable; a kidney-shaped pool in the backyard and astroturfed front steps. This husband was not faithful, but he loved her in his way. I would not, based on stories of their life together, describe her as happy at the end, but I would not call her unhappy either, not necessarily.

This petering out, this tapering of a tragic story to a moderately slim end, is for some reason hard to reconcile. As though it can’t be the whole story. As though the mundanity, the layered ordinariness of her final years is an injustice to her, that a Hollywood ending where she died destitute, alone, or made a breathtaking comeback, haloed in light and a final great love, would have been somehow better. Surely she thought the same, squirreling away her own scraps of the past, her thwarted future.

Instead of a righteous conclusion, we have mementos: her pill bottles and reading glasses, which were left by her husband in their medicine cabinet for decades after her death, even lasting through his next marriage; we find her forgotten suitcase and take from it photos and jewelry. After everything, what we are left with gnaws steadily away inside us, hiding but never dormant for long: the stubborn, impotent reluctance to let things go.

Saturday, December 19, 2009


“You should just say it’s your grandmother,” Marie says, leaning over the cubicle wall so that her perfume drifts down into our area and, beneath it, a whiff of the Capri she just smoked. She is speaking to Becca, whose aunt died last week, and who just discovered that the day she took off for the funeral didn’t fall under ‘bereavement’ time, was instead deducted by the company as a vacation day. Aunts, apparently, don’t count.

Becca is annoyed. She doesn’t want to have to use one of her paid vacation days, and she thinks it’s wrong that deaths of brothers-in-law (she keeps stressing the indignity of this) are somehow classified as greater losses than that of her father’s sister. She’s writing an email to Accounting.

“Should I talk to Eleanor before I send this?” she asks me. Eleanor is one of the principals, and Becca will need her approval to submit a petition to have her hours changed.

“Definitely,” I say, “She likes you. She’ll totally understand.”
Marie shrugs, walks off.


It’s early Monday morning, a few weeks after Becca’s aunt’s funeral, and I’m catching up on email. Because I wasn’t in on Friday, my inbox is spilling over, a daunting tower of unopened subject lines. I squint, frown.

Toni interrupts me. She bursts out of her glass-walled office, planting herself in front of my desk, cocking her hip out. Her wooden bracelets clink against each other. Her skin is gleaming, her teeth impossibly white as she flashes them. She is smooth and polished as a piece of obsidian.

“Friday was crazy, I’m telling you girl.” Someone sent her a box from Tiffany’s, and inside was a charm bracelet with the inscription, “Happy Birthday Beeyotch!” She didn’t know who it was from; she had no idea, isn’t that crazy?

Her enthusiasm is infectious; I find myself raising my eyebrows, giving a titillated smile; my emails can wait. Becca is nodding conspiratorially. Thursday night, she’d drunkenly kissed someone in front of the man she’s seeing, and so Friday for her was a march of penance via Blackberry messages. “It was a scene here,” Toni continues, “The bracelet, Becca, and then John Brill, it was insane.”

John Brill. John Brill was our coworker, our senior mechanical engineer. I scan my emails, and there it is, his eulogy. He passed away on Friday after a three-year struggle with bone marrow cancer. The last we’d seen him, a bit before Christmas, he’d been bald and frail, an ancient eagle, smiling sardonically as he filled his coffee in the kitchen. The bracelet, Becca and John Brill. Right.


In order to change her hours from PTO (Paid Time Off, which is the accounting category for vacation and sick days) to the desired funeral category, Becca will need to edit her timesheet, entering the number 50003.00 next to the 8 hours she wishes to change. 50003.00 stands for Bereavement, and also for Jury Duty.


I sound vapid when I advise Becca about obtaining Eleanor’s signature. I say words like ‘totally’ and ‘for sure.’ As if we are discussing whether the shoes she wants to buy are ‘okay’ or ‘hot.’ I should sound more somber, more respectful somehow. But how else are we to talk about it? What we are talking about, accounting and HR rules, are dry and flat as the stacks of forms that record them.

The company has to keep track of hours. I know that. Someone, at some point, has to make somehow-objective decisions regarding familial closeness, what will likely necessitate time off for mental health, and what is more...acceptable. Words like cost-effective and bottom line bob on the surface of my thoughts. But I wonder. Maybe the person who decided what merits the special bereavement category for time off did not particularly like his aunt, or know her. Uch, Aunt Lucy, he thought with a shudder. Mothballs and lipstick marks.


When Vincent, the managing principal of our company, was diagnosed with cancer earlier this year, we didn’t know. We still don’t know, officially, but have pieced his diagnosis together over the course of months, sifting through various bits of evidence and pasting them into a plausible shape.

He was here one week, and the next he was gone on a two-month hiatus, without access to email or phone. I had met with him just days before his departure and made plans for our meeting on Monday. It was strange, in retrospect, that he’d spoken of his involvement so convincingly. I re-read the email from Eleanor informing us of his absence, over and over.

After a couple weeks, people started murmuring. People whispered about brain cancer, mostly, but when he came back he still had a full, thick head of hair; so we decided that wasn’t it. We were half-baked detectives.


No one ever told us about John’s illness, either. He left in the beginning of the past summer to have “surgery on his knee,” and then he never came back – or at least, not fully, and not until winter.

We were assured during his absence that he’d be back soon, next month, which then changed to the following month when the promised month failed to materialize him, and I continued to track his accounts, updating his references and typing in his initials for him. “Updated 9/20/08, J. Brill.”

In October, he and his wife organized a benefit dinner to raise funds for their three children and the debt the family was accruing due to his hospital bills. There was a detailed, heart-stopping flyer with the specifics of his illness, an invitation to please attend and contribute, if possible. Almost no one in our company saw it. Vincent got it, but he never distributed it.

I finally received it the day of the event from an old coworker, who was wondering if I’d attend. That was how I found out the truth about what was happening to John. It was like stumbling upon a letter addressed to me, addressed to all of us, which had been squirreled away in a desk drawer. Holding it to the light and noticing how the seal had already been torn open.

I forwarded the invitation to a coworker or two. Would we go? Were we not supposed to? It was late to make arrangements in any case, and so we didn’t. I comforted myself with the lame hope that those who knew him better had been informed earlier, maybe (implausibly, I admit) by Vincent himself.

In the weeks that followed, I sat in Vincent’s office and watched him: busy, intent on his work, witty, stressed as usual. He seems like a good man, I thought. I pictured him with his family in Long Island on the weekends, sighing and pocketing his Blackberry and joining them by the pool. Smiling at his wife. Sweet smoke from the grill and a plate of upturned hamburger buns.


Vincent wrote the beautiful eulogy for John, the one I received in my inbox. As the head of our office, Vincent spent years working with John and held access to stories that many of us didn’t. In the eulogy, he referenced a joke John told him once, that his job was making him tear his hair out (he lost his hair to chemotherapy), and how it helped Vincent put his own troubles (cancer, I could hear the office collectively breathe) into perspective.

I wonder what that means. I wonder why he never gave us the opportunity to help John, if he felt so strongly.

Asking Vincent, of course, is out of the question; there are thick cords of privacy and policy and discretion here, growing up and up and into each other like vines absorbed by a tree trunk. Our office culture does not permit open dialogue between different seniority levels.


I decide Toni didn’t mean to dismiss the weight of John’s death by lumping it in with her Tiffany’s mystery and Becca’s relationship drama. Toni believes in God and God’s benevolence, and maybe she imagines John at peace now, with all his luxurious, silver hair back in place. Maybe death is not so terrifying to her.

Then again, Toni is the head of HR, and maybe she’s trained not to betray emotion so that we can enjoy a crisp, peaceful work environment. But that’s not the effect she has.


I was right. Eleanor does like Becca, and she does understand. She purses her lips with impatience while Becca describes the accounting policy, and waves a manicured hand. “That’s ridiculous – just give it to me, I’ll sign it.” Becca is relieved, and the thin thread of tension that’s been pulled between us all morning suddenly goes slack.


Becca never cries about her aunt in the office. She bickers with her brother about shiva, clucking like a mother whose patience is being tried. “No, Joel. Joel. You have to go. Yes, of course. Just be there.”

We sit next to each other, and so we have windows into each other’s worlds. We pretend not to eavesdrop when our phone conversations seem especially private, but it’s a farce, because when they’re light-hearted or gossip-based, we ask each other about them.

Obviously, I don’t ask Becca now.


The coffee machine hisses in the kitchen as it steams a single serving into someone’s mug. Becca’s phone chirps. I spill salad dressing on my chair and blot the stain with a napkin. The piles on my desk have been growing recently.

Becca signs her emails Kind Regards, and I sign mine Best Regards, Sincerely.

Song Writer at Home

This is the long version of the story on Larry Bonk I published in the Voice this summer:

"Song Writer at Home"

Larry Bonk has invited me over to his apartment, a rare occurrence in our friendship. He's slippery usually, hard to track down and slick with excuses when you finally manage to get him, but lately he's been downright accessible.

Until recently, he suffered from a writer’s block so systemic it dictated his life. He hid inside his apartment, disengaged from his friends, his career, and most of all, his music. Around the time we met in 2004, though, he'd been working obsessively on fifteen songs for two years, convinced he could create the perfect album. It never materialized; shortly after he relocated to New York to record, Larry's bandmate stole and pawned all of his equipment before fleeing the city. When Larry found out, he was so crushed that he destroyed their reels. After that, he produced virtually nothing for five years until January 1st, 2009, when he made a grandiose resolution: every day for the next year, he'd write and record a song. So far, he's made good on his pledge – over three hundred songs and counting.

The main reason he’s overcome his social reluctance this Sunday night is because I’ve expressed interest in his newest project, and Larry never, ever turns down press. I’m glad to have the excuse – in person he’s warm, charming, the guest celebrity who shows up late to parties and ends up holding court on the back deck till 4am, whose evasiveness makes his presence all the more desirable.

Things are going well for him so far; he’s been churning out haunting, lo-fi pop gems that belie the short amount of time he’s able to spend on them (he posts them daily to his website,, for free). He’s been featured on BBC and had two flippant-but-flattering features in wincingly ‘cool’ Vice Magazine, and as is typical with Larry some of his interviewers have become attached to him. He has a way of disarming people, sidestepping into their hearts after just a few conversations. Aly Carr, the host of an indie radio show, became so enamored she created an Another Day on Earth twitter page for him and bubbled over in emails to me about his honesty and soulfulness, his “creative, progressive and brave” music. Still, he’s struggling to keep up with his bills, and so there’s a subtle urgency to my visit; he’s got high hopes for this interview.

The sun is just setting when I arrive at his apartment, the basement of a brownstone in Park Slope. He opens the door fresh from the shower, damp and sockless, his dark hair frizzing into a shape not unlike a small shrub. A little self-conscious, he leads me down the dark hallway to his bedroom. It’s a windowless square, pretty dismal, littered with keyboards and guitars and flotsam – a worn sock here, a crumpled receipt there. His bed, which I sit on, is unmade and dotted with bits of dirt, as though he hasn’t thought to change the sheets in a while. The walls are plastered with topographic maps that are coming untaped, peeling and folding over one another like a shedding lizard skin.

He roots around in the corner, shrugging on a Michelin Man-style puffy parka that makes him look endearingly cartoonish in preparation for a trip to the bodega. Watching me scribble in my notebook, he rolls his eyes. “Oh geez,” he says, “is it depressing?”

When I first met Larry five years ago, he was still living in Tallahassee, Florida, writing music with his best friend Adam Perry. He’d played in bands before and achieved mild success in Plastic Mastery – a European tour, credibility in the (admittedly tiny) indie pop scene – but he had more lofty ambitions this time around. He and Adam were building a studio in what used to be a skate shop in downtown Tallahassee, dissatisfied with the spare bedroom that, up until then, they’d been renting as practice/recording space. Larry was amassing an ungodly amount of equipment with inheritance money he’d received after his grandmother’s recent death, and they’d run out of room for it all.

He and Adam were driving all over the country to score rare pieces, like an enormous mixing console they bought in Louisiana from Steely Dan/Doobie Brothers singer Michael McDonald (whom Larry never met, actually, because he passed out in the van and missed the transaction). After about a year and a half of acquiring and writing and playing, they had the beginnings of fifteen tracks recorded. Larry figured they were a little more than halfway there, and that as soon as the studio was done they would work in earnest to finish the songs. But over the course of just a few days, Adam announced he was moving to New York to live with his girlfriend, packed some bags and left Florida. The studio, which he and Larry had just finished building, sat unused.

Larry stewed for months. He couldn’t really finish the tracks without Adam, so the studio was defunct. Eventually, with Adam’s encouragement, he decided to move to New York, bringing a truck full of his best equipment and selling the rest to finance the trip. He decided they would find a studio in the city, barter the use of the equipment for recording time and finish the album there. And at first it all went fine; Larry’s aunt let him stay with her in New Jersey while he looked for work and got settled; Adam and some friends lent space in their apartments to house the equipment; he found a cooperative studio in Chinatown and planned to start moving everything over shortly. Then everything unraveled.

Adam had relapsed into a sizeable heroin addiction during their months apart and been secretly pawning Larry’s equipment to finance it ever since he arrived in New York. Because everyone knew they were working together, no one questioned Adam when he dropped in to pick up an instrument or two. No one knew there was anything strange happening at all until Larry stopped by one of the lofts and balked at the empty space. By that point, the damage was very thoroughly done; the only pieces remaining were the ones that had been too heavy to move, and Adam was gone, first to a halfway house upstate, then shipped up to rehab in Michigan by his parents, unreachable. Larry halfheartedly called some local pawnshops, but he never found the missing instruments.

The experience with Adam is still difficult for Larry to address. “So I found out I didn’t have any equipment anymore,” he says in summary, shifting uncomfortably. “Which, uh, obviously reneged the deal with [the studio in Chinatown], because there’s no reason for me to be there if I don’t have the equipment. So that went away, and that was also the end of the recording of that album, because it was half Adam’s... And then I couldn’t even think about it anymore. As a matter of fact, I threw most of the reels away and burned one of them. I just didn’t care. I knew I wasn’t going to finish it. I didn’t even listen to them.”

Still, he’s hesitant to classify it as a betrayal. He never pressed charges, and he and Adam have long since reconciled. Larry’s actually protective of Adam; he won’t tolerate any kind of talk he considers slanderous toward him. When pushed for a comment, he says, simply, “I’m really private, and he was the only person I let in for the music. And that’s kind of the reason that this [project] is the opposite, because I’m letting everyone in, warts and all, from the beginning.”

Today Adam is living in West Palm Beach, and says he’s been clean – finally, fully – for a year and a half; he’s finishing his BFA in painting and plans to teach art one day. For now, he’s working at Costco.

“I’d like to say that I wasn’t like an animal, but there I was, just like an animal,” he admits to me late one night, after one of his shifts. He says he’s been through years of therapy and treatment programs since then, and it shows in his language: “It was like air to breathe, so I needed it more than my relationship with Larry.” He wants to pay Larry back eventually. It is hard, he says, to pick up a guitar anymore, because it reminds him of what he stole.

No one, least of all Larry, understands fully why it took him so long to be able to make music again, or why New Year’s Day this year was the moment he chose to emerge from his shell. His friends have (not unjustly) tended to blame Adam, but Another Day on Earth illuminates an older, deeper issue – Larry has always been obsessive in ways that are difficult to maintain. Even when he was writing every day, he never knew when he was done with a song. In the span of an average night, he would sometimes write four new parts, each of which could conceivably work as the beginnings of new songs – great songs – but most of which were scrapped due to indecision.

It’s not that Larry’s music is inherently different or ‘evolved’ now; there is the same commingling of graceful sadness and relentlessly catchy hooks, as if Neil Young and an aging Brian Wilson sat down for dinner and Teenage Fanclub crashed in with a case of beer. It’s that forcing himself to publish imperfect songs on an unyielding schedule has had a galvanizing effect – he no longer second-guesses himself or makes excuses to avoid finishing a song (or creating in the first place).

He hasn’t really solved his inability to make final decisions but rather constructed a framework in which he doesn’t have to. He sings repeatedly about “growing sideways,” and maybe that’s what he’s doing: figuring out a system that works with his pathologies instead against them. “I’m not always brilliant enough to think of the right thing at the right time; some things need to gestate,” he says. “But it’s good because a lot of things I probably would have doubted away if I had time.” And it is a good thing, because some of my favorite songs on his site, like February 2nd’s “Seesaw Rhythm,” never would have been heard by anyone otherwise; he admits that it wasn’t finished when the clock struck midnight, and so he posted it even though his “musical carriage turned into a rotten ole pumpkin.”

Ultimately, he says that he’s not sure if the fifteen lost songs were really any better than what he’s produced since January; he just kept going over them again and again, never satisfied, too close to the material to have any objective sense of them.

Though he occasionally invites guest singers/collaborators, he works largely alone now, relying on guitar, keyboard, bass and a combination of electronic beats and loops. Sometimes he favors jangly guitar and fuzzy vocals, at other times blaring, drum-machine driven pop anthems; the common thread is his voice – honest, personal and humanist.

“I just can’t find the door,” he sings on January 14 in a twangy, ambling song called “We’re Just Floating Away.” “I don’t know what I want anymore/But I just know for sure /That I want it.../When I look at the mail in my box/Will I always rip it up?/But I want it.” (That last line isn’t analogy – I mailed him a full Metrocard once to help him out in a tight spot, but he didn’t know what it was, and so he never opened it.) He's singing about self-defeat, chronic little failures that he can't overcome despite his desire to, yet his tone is carefree. Larry loves to do this: temper dark revelations with nonchalance and humor. "I've thought of a couple of hazards regarding this project," he notes in the description below the song. "Deafness and obesity."

On January 23rd he describes what he calls a “sorta boring life” – his attempt to write about regular life, he tells me. “Fold up some clothes/And unfold other clothes/Now I’m home/They don’t smell clean…/Lying in bed I hear noises/But nothing’s going on/I have dreams I’m so glad that I’m home/But I don’t recall them.” There’s a quiet sadness humming along under the surface of these lyrics, in the chords and harmonies he chooses. Yet in describing this song, he writes, “A sorta boring life. There’s nothing really wrong with it. We can start a nice garden.” The tension between his admissions of loneliness and subsequent disavowal of his problems is what makes his work relatable – he’s simultaneously self-indulgent and self-effacing in a way that rings true to anyone who’s ever felt isolated or, well, depressed.

He’s not misanthropic, but he loves to poke fun at the futility of peoples’ efforts in life (mainly his own). In a photo accompanying his February 9th song “Traded in a dream for another dream,” a banner flaps against the side of a tract home (or modest community church – it’s hard to tell), proclaiming in proud letters, “The secret of happiness is t–”

The rest of the banner has been torn away.

Shortly after our initial interview, his roommates ask him to stop playing, and rather than compromise the project, he moves to a back room in a sympathetic friend’s apartment. At this point, aside from the ten hours or so he devotes daily to his music, he’s not working much; he squeaks by on a weekend gig installing computers at the UN and the occasional donation to his website. At times, the financial stress makes him deeply unhappy.

“This is my year to be a total scumbag,” he says to me late one night, absently stealing a sip of my tea. He wants to be sure I realize this, that I note it in my piece, as if it will absolve him of some perceived judgment for being so immersed, for skipping friends’ weddings because he can’t afford a weekend away. “When I finish this year, I’ll either somehow make ends meet making music, or just be a regular Joe with a regular job.”

He doesn’t meditate on the likelihood of the latter. Even though he wakes up miserable each morning with the day’s impossible deadline looming over his head, and ends the day manic, high from having created something (“it’s very bipolar,” he says), it may be the only system for him, someone who gravitates forever towards extremes. Everything exposed, or nothing at all. Every day, for a year.

He says it has a ring to it.