I'm on anisland 12 miles off the coast of Maine. It's morning. Overcast. Cool. Out mywindow, I can see the island's small yacht club-the numerous sailboats and thegray, old docks, alive in their subtle treading of water, resting on the chestof the tide, like my lady friend laying her head on my breast as I breathe.But so much for tender thoughts. How easily distracted is a man: a young girlon the docks just tossed her dark ponytail in a fetching way. My male eye takesher in. Evaluates. Salivates. She smiles. Beautiful. A comely, budding figure.She and several other young girls and boys seem to be involved in some kindof sailing class, getting their boats ready, following instructions, puttingon orange life preservers. The yachtclub has one main, brown-shingled building and on top, furling and unfurling,is the American flag, like a bed sheet, like a sail sheet. So there's a goodbreeze and it's low tide. I can see through the clear, lapping water to thebottom, a bottom littered with thousands of mussels. Another girl, a towhead,bends over in her khaki shorts. I like that. Farther out I see a red sailboat.It looks rather noble with its red belly. Through my window comes the smellof the ocean and the smell of gasoline from the motorboats. The odors of harborseverywhere. Romantic smells. The dark ponytailed girl is out in her boat. Setting off. She turns her head quickly to the right and left, trying to catch the wind.Back and forth goes the ponytail. In the far distance, I can see the dark greenand light green pine trees of another island. There are hundreds of islandsoff the coast of Maine. I didn't know this before. The class sails off to theright, out of my view. Goodbye sweet sailor. Young breasts bound in orange vests.Now an old, large schooner goes proudly by, its prow, like a regal chin, tilteda little upward.
So I'm deepin the heart of New England. A Jew out of water. It took me a few days to gethere. I'll start from the beginning.
My ladyfriend and I rented a car. I was behind the wheel first and we got caught ina downpour as we escaped the horrible greenhouse of New York. Later, I askedmy lady friend, looking for a compliment, what she thought of my driving andshe told me that I drove carefully, but too slowly. I found this to be emasculating.I have always taken pride in my driving. Drove a taxi for two years. Have drivenacross the U.S. twice. "The roads were wet," I said to her, fightingto get my balls back. I had been trained how to operate a car by my father,who had survived driving 80,000 miles a year for 30 years as a traveling salesmanand never had an accident. Driving for him was like a military operation: constantawareness of the enemy-other drivers, even those far ahead-and deep respectfor weather conditions. But my lady friend didn't acquiesce, the wet road argumentdidn't appease her. In her mind, I was a slow driver. I had to stay calm andknow that my manliness is not so fragile. I restrained from telling her thatI have numerous points for speeding violations.
Anyway,our first stop was a small town on the seacoast north of Boston. Updike country.In fact, we drove through Updike's town, Beverly Farms, and passed his driveway,which my lady friend pointed out. I peered down the leafy lane. Only saw a PrivateProperty sign. The house was set too far back. It was interesting to think thatUpdike was back there somewhere, writing his poems, his reviews, his books.This enormous WASP intellect tirelessly commenting on everything, and keeping pace with his female counterpart Oates and his Jewish counterpart Roth.
So whatwould it be like to have a brain like Updike's? The sheer volume of his workis astounding, and that's all I can really comment on since I've read but asmattering of his criticism and only one of his books, The Centaur, whichI liked very much, though I did read it years ago, and as I change personalitiesevery two years or so I'm not sure if my current self would like the book, butmy old self did, and I will trust my former self's judgment, which I happento have shared with Updike himself. About two years ago, in Brooklyn Heights,on a cool fall night, I saw Updike pushing a baby carriage, which held, I presumed,his grandchild. He was accompanied by his wife, and I followed this icon ofAmerican literature into a gourmet deli on Montague St. I thought I should talkto him, which is something I do whenever I chance across a famous writer onthe street: I make brazen yet banal approaches, saying something light and meaninglessabout the author's work-I can never come up with anything resembling an intelligentremark-and I have done this to Allen Ginsberg, Paul Auster, Dominick Dunne andRichard Ford. An unusual collection that.
Anyway,I followed Updike into the shop and his wife took charge of the carriage andUpdike was studying a refrigerator filled with cheeses. He was tall, gray-haired,wearing preppie clothes-corduroy pants, a sweater, a Patagonia jacket- and was sporting his famous profile. I sidled up next to him and said, "Sorry tobother you, but I just wanted to let you know that I loved The Centaur."
I knew thiswas a somewhat risky thing to say as The Centaur was one of his firstbooks, published in the very early 60s, before even the start of the Rabbitseries, and so there was the chance perhaps that he would think I was dismissinghis last nearly 40 years of output. But Updike smiled kindly at me, he knewI was being sincere, and he said, "I think I remember writing that one." And we both chuckled and then he continued along the row of cheeses. There wasnothing more for us to discuss, so I said, "Well, so long," and hegave me a nice little nod of his head and I got out of there, leaving him tohis shopping. It's not quite what Nicholson Baker might have done in the samecircumstance, but it wasn't bad-I can always say that I've met Updike.
So we drovethrough Beverly Farms and a few towns over we came to our friends' large andbeautiful oceanfront home. We took a late freezing swim, followed by a glorious,hot outdoor shower, and then we got dressed for dinner. As I combed my hairin the bathroom and kept it close to my scalp by rubbing in my special Frenchbrilliantine gel, I noticed that a disastrous haircut I received in May hadfinally begun to grow in. My fringe at the front of my head, which I comb back(which I must point out is not the universally despised combover, buta combback, though I will say that the combover is unfairly criticized; I know numerous older men who look perfectly attractive with combovers, in particularthis one Italian waiter in midtown who combs over one strand and I think hewouldn't be himself without that strand; so I now publicly take on a new role:defender of the combover!), is now almost long enough again to cover my baldspot in the middle of my head. But what is really nice is that the thin hairat the back of the head is also almost reaching the bald spot. So by utilizinga fringe-comb back and a Julius-Caesar-comb-forward, I nearly have completecoverage, which is quite a recovery from the scalping the barber gave me inMay. I specifically told him at that time not to cut my fringe, but he misunderstoodme and cut the thing in half, leaving me with a horribly exposed bald spot.But, as I've said, the fringe is healing, i.e., growing, and so I went downto dinner that night in Massachusetts feeling very good about myself.
It was apleasant meal of the ubiquitous salmon, and my lady friend and I played footsieunder the long table, straining, like ballet dancers, to reach each other'scalves. After coffee and dessert, I went and stood outside with my host on thelarge back porch and we took in the lights of the gigantic, hotel-sized mansionglittering down the beach a ways. "The money is so old around here,"he said, "that it's disintegrating."
"That'sa good line," I said. "I might have to use that."
We spentthe whole next day and night in Massachusetts, and then the following day, wegot back in the car and drove a few hours to an exclusive Maine beach community,a bit north of George Bush's Kennebunkport. We stayed with relatives of my ladyfriend and that night we went to a very fancy dinner party in an elegant home.It was right above a great tumble of those famous Maine, Winslow Homerish coastlinerocks, and the view of the Atlantic was glorious and uncluttered. And the people were straight out of Cheever central casting. The women were all handsome andtall and light-haired and tan. The men were thickset, strong-chinned and glitter-eyedwith drink, and they were like a military outfit: Each one was in a fresh, deep,dark blue blazer. But no ties. It was a laidback summer Saturday night dinneron the Fourth of July weekend. I too was in blue blazer, but not a sharp, pressedone like my fellow men. Mine was a crumpled but attractive Agnes B. linen blazerthat a French friend of mine pulled some strings to get at a great discount.So I was sort of all right in the blazer department, but my shoes were a bitof an embarrassment. All the men were in delicate Italian-looking loafers withno socks. I was in my cumbersome, better-suited for winter, hobnail-looking-and-needing-polishClarks. But the shoes, like my unshaved chin (the only one in the house), weren'ta complete disaster: I could afford to be eccentric in the shoe and shavingdepartments: I was a writer-practically an artist-in their midst, not one ofthem, but welcome.
We had drinksin a blustery wind on the outer deck, and then for dinner the party was dividedinto two tables, and my lady friend and I were put at different tables, as allcouples were separated this way. I was seated between two very nice women, whoquizzed me quite a lot about my writing. I gave them the titles of my booksand added, "They're each just out in paperback, should you want to pickthem up." The hostess overheard this and she said she'd buy both tomorrow,and I rather regretted this, thinking that she would be horrified, should sheread the books, that I had been let into her house and generously fed and welcomed.But I consoled myself with the hope that by the next day she'd probably forget.The women next to me questioned me further about my writing and I told themthat I pen a newspaper column.
"Aboutwhat?" asked the woman to my left.
"Myadventures, things I do," I said. "For example, last week I wroteabout-and I don't mean to disturb your dinners-ear candling, also called earconing, which I tried. It's where you put a candle in your ear and it helpsto clean the ear out." I didn't want to say the word wax, not wanting tobe too disgusting.
"Areyou pulling my leg?" asked the woman to my right.
"No.I'm not joking. It's an ancient ear-cleansing process," I said, addingthe ancientpart to lend the activity somedignity.
"Ican't believe we're talking about this here in Maine," she said, and shelaughed. I was making her feel naughty.
Then somehowit came up in our conversation that the rest of Maine does not like the communitywhere we were. "Why?" I asked.
"Becauseit's private," said the woman on my right, "and has this reputationof being this place where all the greedy Philadelphians and New Yorkers cameyears ago and took the most beautiful spot for themselves and didn't let anyoneelse in. Which used to be true. Like a New York co-op board... My husband isJewish and 20 years ago he never used to come to the parties."
"Someoneonce told me," I said, "that this part of Maine is often called Philadelphia-on-the-rocks."
The ladiesliked that line, and privately I thought to myself how all my adult life I findmyself at the epicenters of WASP culture. Princeton, Philadelphia, Palm Beach,Newport and the Upper East Side are all places where I've been and have mingledwith those whose families are listed in the Social Register. And in these circles,I'm often mistaken with my white eyebrows and mildly English appearance fora Bostonian Ames-a Brahminesque clan-when the fact of the matter is that Ameswas the actual name of my Jewish-Czechoslovakian-Kafkaesque forebears.
So havingstudied these people, America's WASPs, like an anthropologist, I can safelysay, that similar to the combover, they have an undeserved, unfair reputation.They are clannish, value their families and enjoy certain activities and rituals-in other words, they are like most groupings or tribes of people, neither betteror worse. And like gay men-another tribe-they seem to have a real talent forfinding some of America's most beautiful spots. And at one time, perhaps, theyerected barriers around themselves, but slowly these barriers are crumblingand others, like myself, are gaining access, which, in my opinion, is neithergood or bad. It's simply the nature of things. People stake a claim and eventuallyothers follow, no matter what.
And hereI am now-having left that Maine community the next day after the dinner party-onan island whose highest point, interestingly enough, is called Ames Nob. SoI guess I was meant to come here. The place has been waiting for me. It has my name.