Here’s what I can see from my couch. A framed drawing that one of my daughters did when she was a kid. A yellow-orange dog dish that my dog Corduroy, who died 20 years ago in Lakewood, Ohio, used. (Sometimes I can be in another part of town as evening comes and I think I better get home to feed the dog. I still sometimes forget and swipe toast crumbs onto the floor thinking he’ll like them.) I can see a picture of my mother and a picture of my father with his father. There’s a big early childhood photo of me in an oval frame that my parents used to have hanging in the hallway of our big house by our bedrooms. Right next to me is a wood end table that was made in my father’s furniture factory. Off to my right is a framed copy of the first issue of a paper I started in Cleveland.
I can see hundreds of books and other framed things that matter to me. A color photo of my daughters in their pre-teen years on a bench by a Northern Michigan lake one summer. They each have some kind of tennis shirt on. Philip Roth’s books are on my shelf. So are Christmas cards with photos of grandchildren and nieces and nephews and their kids. That’s just some of the stuff.
In a small living space like a New York apartment, all your stuff is near you. You don’t have to walk down that long ago hallway in your parents’ home to see that picture of you. You don’t have to go in your office in the basement and turn on a light to see your newspaper framed. All your important things are right here in a room, or two. I like that. Your life’s always within reach. Things are not put away.
If you want to be in a bigger space, you go out for walk, or go in a big store, or to a museum, or sit in a park. You can go have a beer. When the weather gets nice at all, café tables show up and are filled quickly. I like the combination of inner and outer space. It’s a good balance.
The thrift stores I go to, like you do, have good books. The people that donated them ran out of room in their apartments. If they had a house, they’d hold on to them longer, maybe till they died.
“It has always been a happy thought to me that the creek runs on all night, new every minute, whether I wish it or know it or care, as a closed book on a shelf continues to whisper to itself its own inexhaustible tale.”
-- Annie Dillard, “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek”
This goes under the category ‘You Wouldn’t Think’: This hit me one day when I was sitting right here on the couch looking at the room. I could see the stove in the kitchen from where I sat. And I thought that it looks like stoves have always looked in my lifetime. The tea kettle looked the same as tea kettles have looked in my lifetime. So did the cupboards above the stove. I thought to myself, my mother’s been dead 40 years; I wonder what she wouldn’t recognize if she were looking at what I’m looking at. Picture frames were the same when she was around. So were the light switches and the light bulbs. The electrical outlets are exactly the same. So are the picture hooks. And the calendar. The clocks. The clock radio. Hangers. Button-down shirts. Pillows. Bathroom sinks. Pens and pencils. You still tie your sneakers the same way. If she went in the kitchen and looked in the fridge, milk cartons and butter sticks and pickle jars are just the same. Outside, cars, traffic lights, stop signs, neon signs in windows, door knobs, snow shovels are no different really. It seems impossible that so many things are almost exactly like they were. The computer in the other room she’d ask about and the laptop and the iPhone. And me, of course. I wouldn’t look the same.
I wish I had better light in my apartment. I need a light on to read. There are only two windows. The sun doesn’t hit them in a lively direct way. Windows are what you want in an apartment. The view out is only important when the realtor points it out or when you have a visitor. Day in day out, you don’t care about the view. You want light to come in to make your place look its best. You want your life illuminated.