"An Editorial Life" by Peter Weissman

(***Prefatory Note:  I've read every word Peter Weissman has published.  Well, at least every word of the two books he's published and some of the material he's generously allowed me to present here in my blog, further stand-alone pieces to be included in his novel-in-progress, True Stories: A Nonfiction Novel.  "An Editorial Life" is unlike any story of Weissman's I've read.  From my perspective, it's the starkest and most powerfully poignant piece he's authored.  So much of "An Editorial Life" strikes close to home for me, and I think it will for many.  Weissman knows exactly what to leave in his true stories, and what to leave out -- an intuitive talent that can't be taught.  That's why his stories, regardless whether you identify strongly with them -- as I do with this one -- stay with you.  They resonate with universal fictive truths.  I look forward to being haunted by Peter Weissman's true fictions for a long time to come.***)



       AN EDITORIAL LIFE 





Every two weeks or so I’d take the subway into the city to drop off an edited manuscript at the publishing house and pick up my next assignment. After spending so much time in the apartment, it was a sensory trip, the scenery in all its ordinariness a fascination. The curiously muted sounds of people moving on the sidewalks The pedestrian streets of the urban village of Greenpoint, tires rolling past on pavement, subway stairs leading to the tunnel world underground, then screeching metal and a rumbling, swaying passage in a fluorescent lit container ... emerging to walk again, on wider, busier streets, small crowds gathered at corners waiting for the DON’T WALK sign to change to WALK; Manhattan.


The publisher occupied several floors in a high rise building, and I’d amble into the lobby and take one of the elevators, until a bomb threat somewhere in the city added a layer of security, which meant waiting in line to open my knapsack for inspection and explaining my business before they let me pass. Then up the elevator to a smaller lobby, decorated with splayed book covers on the walls and bound books exhibited in cases. By the bomb threat era, the receptionist, recognizing me, waved me into a corridor that led to another corridor and the editing department, with its partitions and desks and editors working on marked-up manuscripts like the one I’d brought.


Like me, they worked alone, but also together in their separate cubicles, often blowing off steam like those who work in tandem, usually professional observations—phrases and clauses, commas and semicolons, dashes and ellipses, and other arcana I now appreciated, having graduated from proofreading to copyediting; not looking for mistakes others had missed, but responsible for the changes a proofer would have to catch. But I was still new at it, and with a lot to learn, listened avidly to the shop talk while in that knowledgeable hive.


Was which always preceded by a comma?


“Cite an example,” a cubicle editor might reply, pausing over his or her own manuscript.


“‘A journey through the wilderness, which will take most of the summer.’”


“Since it could also be ‘that will take most of the summer,’ it’s not a restrictive clause, so it doesn’t need a comma.”


“Oh, I disagree,” a third person might say. “I’ve never encountered a ‘which’ clause that didn’t read better with a preceding comma.”


“Unless you’re English.”


“Well, we’re not, are we?”

I didn’t do crossword puzzles or play Scrabble, but language puzzles and solutions turned me on. As did those interludes among the editors, which was a mental oasis for a solitary freelancer. So I’d linger awhile after delivering the manuscript to the copy chief, who sat in a larger cubicle up front, hoping she’d have another job I could take home. And if he was in his cubicle, I’d drop in on my mentor, Allan LeBlanc.


Seeing me, Allan would lean back in his swivel chair and link his hands behind his head, an invitation to sit down in the chair next to his desk. Often, I had a question about something I’d come across in a recent manuscript, which Allan more often than had anticipated. Taking Xerox copies from a drawer, he’d lay them out on the desk and show me sentences highlighted with a yellow marker, his comments in felt tip pen in the margins.


“If a character pointedly repeats a word another character already used,” I once said, “would you emphasize the word with quote marks or italics?”


“How would you express sarcasm?” he replied in his Socratic style, clearly knowing the answer.


Which was annoying; as if he were talking to a child. But then, Allan had a superiority complex with everyone, so I’d brush his manner aside and, in this case, said, “You’re saying it shouldn’t be italics ... ”


He grinned, proud of his student. “Right. It shouldn’t. But why not?”


“Well ... I can guess, but why not just tell me.”


He leaned forward, excited; language and usage turned him on. “With sarcasm—or irony or mimicry—the word or phrase is not merely stressed, but inflected.” 


“That makes sense ... ”


“But if I’d said the word ‘sarcasm’ ... ”


“It would be inflected, because you’re quoting it ... ”


Initially, given his elegant appearance in three-piece-suit and silk tie, I found it odd that Allan was comfortable with me. After all, he was quick to pass judgment on clashing colors, food other editors ate at lunch, movies they liked, just about anything concerning taste and style. Then I realized decided that he liked playing Henry Higgins, to my Eliza Doolittle, that my scruffiness brought out the missionary in him.


Before leaving, I’d check back with Joanne Farrell, the copy chief, who by then might have found a manuscript for me. Nick, who’d been freelancing for years, had persuaded her to give me a set of galleys, so we had him in common. But he and I had fallen out, so it was tricky for a while, until she picked up on my reticence and then brought him up sideways. “Nick’s still proofreading, you know,” she’d say, “but I don’t know how much longer he can do it. The company’s cutting back on proofing again. I wish he’d listen and switch to copyediting.”


As if I might have an influence on him, if we ever ran into each other.


She had a good head on her shoulders, and a good heart, and everyone liked her, though she could be tough, especially when errors showed up in books that proofreaders or copyeditors should have caught. Even before that most serious outcome, when someone turned in a flawed manuscript or set of galleys, she’d sent them to Allan’s cubicle to be disciplined. Unless they’d bungled more than one job, in which case she was the one to tell them they were through.


                                   *                            *                              *

The walk to the subway, the mirrored windows of the fluorescent train rumbling through a dark tunnel, the Manhattan office workers at choke point intersections, waiting for the light to change, lining up at take-out counters; the bimonthly trip had almost become routine. I opened my knapsack and passed inspection in the lobby, took the elevator to the familiar floor, walked up one corridor and down another, entered the editing department—and knew right away that something was wrong. It was quiet, no grammatical queries or repartee in the partitioned room. But more than that, there was a gravitas to the silence, and no one looking up from their desktops to greet me.


I hesitated at the opening to Allan’s cubicle, saw he wasn’t there just as Joanne called out from up front in a strained voice not like her at all. Right away, I assumed I’d screwed something up, and then the copy chief was telling me about as I approached her desk, blurting out details I couldn’t follow, or perhaps was too surprised to believe.


“ ... because someone smelled gas,” she said, looking up at me, and before I could respond, added, “They found an uncashed check on the table for three hundred dollars! Can you imagine that?” her voice rising, almost hysterical. “What kind of person leaves a check sitting on the kitchen table for two weeks?”


It didn’t make sense to me, the whole thing about the check, now that I understood. Or thought I did. “Allan killed himself?” I asked.


“No,” Joanne said, “he tried and failed,” as if the failure were as bad as the attempt.


Allan, who’d done something unforgivable. I was still trying to wrap my head around it, in that tense room permeated by his absence. Peripherally, the editors in their cubicles were burrowing into sentences, looking for mistakes, trying to escape their distress, for how could they possibly concentrate.


While at her own desk Joanne went on angrily, furious at Allan, whose name was not Allan LeBlanc, she declared, as they all were led by him to believe, but Allan Levine. Nor had he been born in Paris, France, but in Forest Hills, Queens, or gone to the Sorbonne. No, he’d gone to Hunter College! And his parents were not emigré university professors, they worked for the city.


I’d never seen her so overwrought, and it diminished her. Because what difference didn’t any of this make? Which I’d known nothing about, as I stood there as her anger washed past me, picturing Allan as I knew him, in suit and tie, in love with language, taking me under his wing, tutoring me. Allan who’d tried to kill himself.


When Joanne paused, I asked, “Where is he now?”


Bellevue, she replied; the mental hospital. And then, as if she’d split in two, another, more familiar Joanne added, “You should visit him. Allan liked you.”


                                    *                         *                         *


I didn’t go there right away.


Maybe, though the details about Allan’s dual identity it struck me as irrelevant when I heard them, it bothered me afterward. That, unsure about who he was, who exactly would I be visiting? And then, fed up with myself for procrastinating, I finally went to Bellevue to visit him.


It was on First Avenue, in a hospital district near Twenty-third Street. Standing in front of the institutional, grim-looking building set behind a wrought-iron fence topped with spear points, I thought, Frankenstein; not the book, the movie, which had frightened me as a boy. But the sprawling, chaotic lobby inside was no more ominous than an airplane terminal, people coming and going, lining up at the information desk, seeking the bank of elevators on either side that would take them to the correct floor. Worried-looking family members stood in huddles amidst the chaos or sat on benches along the walls, nestling or barking at children, an occasional doctor in a white coat impatiently pushing through.

In the smaller lobby of the ward upstairs, an orderly at a desk told me to sit down. The waiting room was empty; I was the only one there. Allan appeared a few minutes later, shuffling out of double doors wearing slippers and a blue hospital gown.


I stood up as he approached, said, “So here you are!” to make light of the situation, and perhaps compensate for the lack of his usual energy with my own.


He smiled at that, said, “Yes, you found me,” low key, sardonic, which in fact put me at ease. I knew this Allan.


But while following him through the double doors into a wide, tile hallway, the loose ties in back of his gown fluttered open, the stripe of flesh showing the crack in his ass disturbing. Allan, who always wore three-piece suits ...


We walked side by side down the tile hallway, though I followed his lead, into a lounge with vinyl coated couches and chairs and formica tables. A television set was bolted to a wall, none of the scattered patients paying it any attention. They were scattered about the spartan room, sitting, except for a thin man in an open terry-cloth robe wandering around the perimeter. Allan led me to a table where two men were playing chess. They looked up when he introduced me, nodded and went back to their game.


Why had he brought me there? To show me his world, I surmised. And why should that be surprising? Allan had always been in a social setting, part of a wider world. I was the solitary one.


On our way out, Allan detoured across toward a tall, lanky figure who sat on one of the tables—insouciantly, it seemed—his slippered feet on a chair.


“Ted,” Allan said as we approached, speaking to both of us, calling him out and introducing me at the same time.


Ted’s lips creased in an amused grin.


“Finally,” Allan said to him, “I have a visitor. This is my friend Peter.”


Was I his friend? It surprised me that he thought so.


Ted nodded, said, “I had a visitor once,” and grinned again.


“Ted’s been here longer than anyone,” Allan said to me. “But then, you never know. People come and go all the time.”


Ted lost interest then, shrugged, looked away.


We moved out of the lounge, down the hallway to Allan’s room, which he told me he’d shared with someone who left the day before; two beds, more plastic chairs, another television bolted to the wall, a dresser. I moved to the iron mesh window and looked out at another facility, yellow brick walls, a gravel rooftop, a slash of the East River visible through a break between buildings.


“You’re the only one who visited,” Allan said when I turned back, sitting casually on the bed. “I’d say ‘so far,’ but it’s been a while. It seems I’m persona non grata.”


He was of course referring to the editors, his bullpen colleagues; Joanne most of all. He’d always spoke with varying degrees of amusement to everyone else, but pnly with admiration when he mentioned her.

I wondered if he had any friends outside of work, had always assumed he was gay, because of his effervescence, his obsession with eating right, the pride he took in his physical condition. He once told me he went to the gym three times a week, “because if you don’t stay in shape, no one pays attention to you.” But I’d never seen him outside of work and didn’t know anything about it.


“Joanne was upset,” I said, turning from the window, and saw sorrow flicker across his face. “Everyone was,” I added.


“That’s what happens when you try to kill yourself,” he said lightly. “Also, you lose your job.”


I hadn’t known that.


We talked about freelancing then, and I offered to introduce him to people I knew at another company where I did occasional work, though Allan had a lot more contacts than I did. Or at least dropped the names of people at different publishing houses.


After a while a man in a suit appeared at the open door. Allan stood up from the bed to greet him and introduce me; his psychologist, who assessed me with curiosity.


“I know Allan from work,” I said, to answer what seemed an unasked question.


He nodded, reassured, then asked, “Would you mind if I ask you some questions?”


“About what?” I replied, uncertain, perhaps annoyed.


“About Allan, of course,” he said, and looking at him: “Would that be all right with you, Allan?”
“Sure,” he replied, and left the room.


“What do you want to know?” I asked, feigning affability.


He wanted to know how long we’d known each other, whether I knew any of Allan’s friends, whether he often appeared anxious or depressed, and answered him briefly, which is not like me at all, eliciting a pursed lip reaction. As if I were on trial. He didn’t ask about Allan’s false identity, which, it occurred to me might have been useful to him. But that wasn’t my concern. Allan was my friend, after all. He’d said so. So I owed it to him to keep his secrets.


                            *                           *                            *


I saw Allan again few weeks after he was released. He’d given me his number, which was unlisted, and I asked if he wanted to go to a meeting of a freelance organization I’d joined. He was freelancing himself by then, getting work from other publishing houses.


He was in good spirits, neatly dressed, in sweater and stacks instead of suit and tie, enjoyed playing a word game that ended the meeting, but was subdued afterward as we looked for a place to eat. He was picky about it, rejected a half dozen places after we checked menus taped to windows, finally agreed to go into a health food restaurant.


As we ate, I asked if he missed the company of other editors.


“It’s not so bad,” he said, “working alone, though I would prefer being in-house,” and shrugged. “I put out a few feelers but haven’t had any luck so far.”


Not long afterward when I went to pick up work, Joanne told me he’d overdosed on tranquilizers. 



~~~~~~~~~


I've had the privilege of posting three other stories by Peter Weissman over the past two years.  If after reading "An Editorial Life" you'd like to read more of Weissman's exceptional work (and how can you not want to read more after reading that one?), I've linked below the previous stories that have been published here in the Forum.


"Club Manhattan" ... from the forthcoming metamemoir, True Stories: A Nonfiction Novel, expected publication -- 2012.

"Racetrack Meditation" ... from Weissman's second metamemoir, Digging Deeper: A Memoir of the Seventies (2010).

"Rehabilitation" ... chapter one from Digging Deeper.  Buy the Book.

And don't forget where Peter Weissman's captivating and confabulated journey began in 2006, in his debut metamemoir,  I Think, Therefore Who Am I? - Memoir of a Psychedelic Year.


Thank you, Peter!