I'm on an island 12 miles off the coast of Maine. It's morning. Overcast. Cool. Out my window, I can see the island's small yacht club?the numerous sailboats and the gray, old docks, alive in their subtle treading of water, resting on the chest of 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 girl on the docks just tossed her dark ponytail in a fetching way. My male eye takes her in. Evaluates. Salivates. She smiles. Beautiful. A comely, budding figure. She and several other young girls and boys seem to be involved in some kind of sailing class, getting their boats ready, following instructions, puttingon orange life preservers. The yacht club 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 good breeze and it's low tide. I can see through the clear, lapping water to the bottom, 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 smell of the ocean and the smell of gasoline from the motorboats. The odors of harbors everywhere. 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 green and light green pine trees of another island. There are hundreds of islands off the coast of Maine. I didn't know this before. The class sails off to the right, 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, tilted a little upward.
So I'm deep in the heart of New England. A Jew out of water. It took me a few days to get here. I'll start from the beginning.
My lady friend and I rented a car. I was behind the wheel first and we got caught in a downpour as we escaped the horrible greenhouse of New York. Later, I asked my lady friend, looking for a compliment, what she thought of my driving and she 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 driven across the U.S. twice. "The roads were wet," I said to her, fighting to 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 salesman and never had an accident. Driving for him was like a military operation: constant awareness of the enemy?other drivers, even those far ahead?and deep respect for weather conditions. But my lady friend didn't acquiesce, the wet road argument didn't appease her. In her mind, I was a slow driver. I had to stay calm and know that my manliness is not so fragile. I restrained from telling her that I 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 Private Property sign. The house was set too far back. It was interesting to think that Updike 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 what would it be like to have a brain like Updike's? The sheer volume of his work is astounding, and that's all I can really comment on since I've read but a smattering of his criticism and only one of his books, The Centaur, which I liked very much, though I did read it years ago, and as I change personalities every two years or so I'm not sure if my current self would like the book, but my old self did, and I will trust my former self's judgment, which I happen to 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 of American literature into a gourmet deli on Montague St. I thought I should talk to him, which is something I do whenever I chance across a famous writer on the street: I make brazen yet banal approaches, saying something light and meaningless about the author's work?I can never come up with anything resembling an intelligent remark?and I have done this to Allen Ginsberg, Paul Auster, Dominick Dunne and Richard Ford. An unusual collection that.
Anyway, I followed Updike into the shop and his wife took charge of the carriage and Updike 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 to bother you, but I just wanted to let you know that I loved The Centaur."
I knew this was a somewhat risky thing to say as The Centaur was one of his first books, published in the very early 60s, before even the start of the Rabbit series, and so there was the chance perhaps that he would think I was dismissing his last nearly 40 years of output. But Updike smiled kindly at me, he knew I 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 was nothing more for us to discuss, so I said, "Well, so long," and he gave me a nice little nod of his head and I got out of there, leaving him to his shopping. It's not quite what Nicholson Baker might have done in the same circumstance, but it wasn't bad?I can always say that I've met Updike.
So we drove through Beverly Farms and a few towns over we came to our friends' large and beautiful 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 hair in the bathroom and kept it close to my scalp by rubbing in my special French brilliantine gel, I noticed that a disastrous haircut I received in May had finally 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, but a combback, though I will say that the combover is unfairly criticized; I know numerous older men who look perfectly attractive with combovers, in particular this one Italian waiter in midtown who combs over one strand and I think he wouldn'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 bald spot in the middle of my head. But what is really nice is that the thin hair at the back of the head is also almost reaching the bald spot. So by utilizing a fringe-comb back and a Julius-Caesar-comb-forward, I nearly have complete coverage, which is quite a recovery from the scalping the barber gave me in May. I specifically told him at that time not to cut my fringe, but he misunderstood me 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 down to dinner that night in Massachusetts feeling very good about myself.
It was a pleasant meal of the ubiquitous salmon, and my lady friend and I played footsie under the long table, straining, like ballet dancers, to reach each other's calves. After coffee and dessert, I went and stood outside with my host on the large back porch and we took in the lights of the gigantic, hotel-sized mansion glittering down the beach a ways. "The money is so old around here," he said, "that it's disintegrating."
"That's a good line," I said. "I might have to use that."
We spent the whole next day and night in Massachusetts, and then the following day, we got 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 lady friend 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 coastline rocks, 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 and tall and light-haired and tan. The men were thickset, strong-chinned and glitter-eyed with 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 dinner on the Fourth of July weekend. I too was in blue blazer, but not a sharp, pressed one like my fellow men. Mine was a crumpled but attractive Agnes B. linen blazer that 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 bit of an embarrassment. All the men were in delicate Italian-looking loafers with no socks. I was in my cumbersome, better-suited for winter, hobnail-looking-and-needing-polish Clarks. But the shoes, like my unshaved chin (the only one in the house), weren't a complete disaster: I could afford to be eccentric in the shoe and shaving departments: I was a writer?practically an artist?in their midst, not one of them, but welcome.
We had drinks in a blustery wind on the outer deck, and then for dinner the party was divided into two tables, and my lady friend and I were put at different tables, as all couples were separated this way. I was seated between two very nice women, who quizzed me quite a lot about my writing. I gave them the titles of my books and added, "They're each just out in paperback, should you want to pick them 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 she read 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 them that I pen a newspaper column.
"About what?" asked the woman to my left.
"My adventures, things I do," I said. "For example, last week I wrote about?and I don't mean to disturb your dinners?ear candling, also called ear coning, which I tried. It's where you put a candle in your ear and it helps to clean the ear out." I didn't want to say the word wax, not wanting to be too disgusting.
"Are you pulling my leg?" asked the woman to my right.
"No. I'm not joking. It's an ancient ear-cleansing process," I said, adding the ancient part to lend the activity some dignity.
"I can't believe we're talking about this here in Maine," she said, and she laughed. I was making her feel naughty.
Then somehow it came up in our conversation that the rest of Maine does not like the community where we were. "Why?" I asked.
"Because it's private," said the woman on my right, "and has this reputation of being this place where all the greedy Philadelphians and New Yorkers came years ago and took the most beautiful spot for themselves and didn't let anyone else in. Which used to be true. Like a New York co-op board... My husband is Jewish and 20 years ago he never used to come to the parties."
"Someone once told me," I said, "that this part of Maine is often called Philadelphia-on-the-rocks."
The ladies liked that line, and privately I thought to myself how all my adult life I find myself 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 mingled with 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 for a Bostonian Ames?a Brahminesque clan?when the fact of the matter is that Ames was the actual name of my Jewish-Czechoslovakian-Kafkaesque forebears.
So having studied these people, America's WASPs, like an anthropologist, I can safely say, 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 better or worse. And like gay men?another tribe?they seem to have a real talent for finding some of America's most beautiful spots. And at one time, perhaps, they erected barriers around themselves, but slowly these barriers are crumbling and others, like myself, are gaining access, which, in my opinion, is neither good or bad. It's simply the nature of things. People stake a claim and eventually others follow, no matter what.
And here I am now?having left that Maine community the next day after the dinner party?on an island whose highest point, interestingly enough, is called Ames Nob. So I guess I was meant to come here. The place has been waiting for me. It has my name.