I was walking back to my wretched and wonderful apartment on West 10th Street in the West Village from classes on Washington Square in 1987 when I saw a portable typewriter sitting on display in the front window of the neighborhood pawn shop. I had no money to speak of, having gotten to New York only a week before, and no job prospects yet. But it was a Royal typewriter that hooked into the bottom of its case (and could be unhooked by sliding two radial dials outward) and seemed like the kind of machine upon which great books were written.
I rented that first place without seeing it. I was writing sports for the Monterey Herald newspaper as an intern the year leading up to my departure for New York at the end of summer, and I couldn’t get away before I moved the 3,000 miles east. I relied on the kindness of the cousin of my grandmother who found the vacancy for me (I would later work for Ruth, briefly, proofreading copy for one of those magazine subscription companies that shows up on someone’s doorstep unannounced and gives a big prize away). I carried the typewriter up four flights, the narrow building didn’t have an elevator and set it up on a black, drop-leaf table that the previous tenant had left when she moved in with her boyfriend uptown. The typewriter stood up straight and black against the whiteness of the wall behind it. The wall was white now and had taken a week to get it thus.
When I first moved in a couple of weeks earlier, the small flat was the color of exploded eggplant. And there were hundreds of small nails penetrating the aubergined surface with no apparent purpose except the paranoid’s one where each nail is connected by string to its twin and forms, in the end, an arcane design answering life’s most intransigent and lingering questions. The floors tilted to the outside of the building so nothing round would stay still until it got to the outer wall including my oldest child, then a baby, who had been put on the floor to sleep and who we found in the morning with her face smushed up in the L of floor and wall, sound asleep). The toilet didn’t work right for the first year, either.
I was never a good typist, just barely passing that class in high school after the teacher, who repeatedly lay paper over my fingers so I couldn’t see the keyboard, gave me the pity grade. Not patient either, the rattletrap of manual keys conjoining awkwardly and frequently in the carriage and the inconsistent marking of ribbon ink on paper doomed my archetypal vision of the hard-bitten garret-dweller pounding away until As I Lay Dying’s words stood blocked-out and black against the luminous white borders. I did see Faulkner’s typewriter, thirty years later, on a tour of his estate, Rowan Oak, with a wonderful friend who knew of my affinity for that Southern genius. And while that picture reverberates in my mind, I was more taken by the scores of liquor labels that had been removed from bottles, dried, and tossed about various tables and countertops and breakfronts in the old house. I’ve moved nearly a dozen times since those days of my New York youth; the typewriter tags along still and currently resides in an attic in Pleasanton waiting for one with the requisite appreciation and skill.
I loved New York City when I was 22. The cacophony of the streets was as a string quartet, and the chaos became me. The West Village was much grimier then and had a lot more character than it did later. I rode the 1 train back down to the Christopher Street station after finishing a day with a sales rep a few years ago, and many of the old places were gone. The Chinese place at the corner, where I drank a perfect Tsingtao on an Indian Summer night with a girl I dated for a while and where the food was terrible, was a boutique selling clothes for rich people. The magazine shop was something else too, and the corners were cleared and clean and the guys selling tattered paperbacks out of a ratty cardboard box for a quarter each had been disappeared too. I’d buy a couple of books every week and read them up and down that goddamned glorious island on the train each day.
NYC is where I knew I wanted to be a writer. My typewriter failure notwithstanding, the idea (at least) of writing was always tucked away close by. New York was the center of the written word – every major publishing house, the New York Times, the Village Voice (I worked there briefly that first year in school, as an assistant to the woman who did book reviews). I’m not sure how words and New York became indistinguishable for me, how the great and muscular opening paragraphs of my favorite books seemed to condense off the wetted and filthy streets and hang there above the cracked asphalt like battle pennants, but the connection between the craft and the place has lost none of its resonance or power over all these intervening years.
I never expected to become a winemaker. I left California to go East to get away from the family business, in part. I worked at the family winery in San Jose as a kid doing the kinds of jobs that I loved, the menial work that lubricated, like grease and oil, the greater enterprise. I loved the warehouses, and the bottling lines, and being part of a team. I had no illusions about the future or about “running the company” one day. I worked there over the summer breaks and then returned effortlessly to school each fall.
By the time I was 17 and old enough to contemplate a future, I knew that I did not belong in that small plant, made smaller each year by encroaching houses and roads. Mirassou was (and is) the oldest winemaking family in the country, having made wine in San Jose six years before Abraham Lincoln was president. Many generations of the family were born, grew, and died on our little postage stamp of vineyard. I had to escape. I eventually did return to California though I thought I wouldn’t. I wanted my parents to have a chance to see their grandkids grow up a little before we went back to the other coast. For those who grew up on the East Coast and then spent some time in California, you know that you do not go back there.
I sold wine for several years and wasn’t good at it. The first time I made wine, though, I knew my life would never be the same. When I put the final period on my first book, I knew it would change again. Only after the second profound change can I understand how fundamentally the same these two acts are. The winemaker and writer are desperate to connect emotionally with other people, compelled to share some version of beauty with a sympathetic mind and palate.
Each book or blog post, or new Cabernet Franc release, is a cry out in the dark searching for an answering call. Those who are driven ever deeper into the exploration of great wine by successive experiences with wine’s sensuous flavors and textures or who are bereft when torn away from a great book are answering that lonely shout. The makers and the perceivers (one cannot exist without the other) are connected on some level that defies easy description and harkens back to the earliest moments of humanity.
Each of us who feels these things sits around that first fire, hip to hip, hypnotized by the rambunctious flames and by the riotous words that canonize the tribe’s daily struggle for growth and life. Each is bound to the other by the shared encounter, feels deeply the struggle of his tribe-mate – knows those to his own bones. Scientists can tell how early intoxicating beverages were consciously made by men and how early works of representative art adorned cave walls. These things have been with us from the beginning. They have signified, if not, created culture, and they have been shared – these feelings of the sublime, these atavistic ties – by thousands of successive generations of true believers. Every time we say yes to beauty, we are re-affirming our need for these first ties, these humanizing connections.
Making things of beauty – writing or great wine – is a selfish act. The shape of the work that comes into the writer’s mind, or the winemaker’s, is driven by a concentrated and solitary question for which the novel (or the Cabernet Franc) hopes to be the answer. When done properly, the only thing that abides is the uncovered, authentic, and irreproducible soul of the thing being made. The writer and winemaker work alone in solitude – pushing against the silence and the dark – to bring forth to the larger world ever more illumination from the things they are working on. The outside world is a figment, only conforming to the burgeoning shape that the artist’s work continually impresses upon it. The inside world, that liminal space in which the writer and winemaker reside, is singular and insular and forces energy toward the creation of things memorable, enlightening, and delicious.
The greatest winemakers and writers will always have an uncomfortable relationship with the outside world even while they are bound to it and compelled to ameliorate it. Both work from a position of weakness. Their lives are devoted to congealing half-formed insights and marshaling unruly nature into authentic representations of Beauty for the benefit of an audience they don’t know exists. They are wrenching from themselves – sometimes painfully – a sparkling and pure vision of personal truth with only the hope that it finds the rare mind and palate. What the winemaker and the writer want in exchange is the understanding (not of the effort, because many people who do not provide these kinds of gifts expend much physical effort in the doing of their jobs) of the animating vision and the shape that this kind of Beauty demands. To be understood is to be comrades-in-arms.
Because I am one of those, and you are one too (if you have read this far), the two of us are connected, to be sure, and we are joined also to every other one of like sensibility – all down the interminable line – who has ever pressed her lips to a glass, drunk, and come away ravished.