Not to overstate the obvious, but I am an old man. I stand before you as an old man and my oldness, most likely—or elderliness, is probably what I mean—is all that you see. Sure, you see me as the culmination of my work, as well, the things that I have done, or accomplished, over my prolific career. You have heard the many stories, too, no doubt, of my long, wild and somewhat troubled life.
But please indulge me, if you will. Tonight, for the first time, instead of reading from my latest work, I have brought in my box of notes. Although there are a few pieces of paper here, and receipts, most of all of these notes that I have before me, after a thirty year tenured position at Oberlin, the Ivy League of the Midwest, so-called [cough, clearing of his mucous-filled-sounding throat], are on napkins, as you will soon see [pulling some from the box now], from pizza places, coffee shops, convenience stores, subway sandwich shops.
This note here is written across Lady Gaga’s face, from an article in People magazine, while in the waiting room of my doctor’s office for a colonoscopy.
And this is on a paper towel from the restroom of the court, apparently—or so I scribbled on one end here—when my first wife and I filed for divorce [pausing to read from the note]. I recognize the first few lines for the story that I began here, even if I’m quite unsure at this remove about how that particular story ends. But that is not my concern. The story has been published elsewhere. The beginning—the inception of the idea itself—is what has long appealed to me. And appeals still.
And this long note here, written on toilet paper [pulling it delicately with two hands from the box], I remember well. It was from when I locked myself in the bathroom for three hours fearing my second wife’s plate-throwing tirade. I had a bottle in there with me, and from these notes—written on the whole roll of toilet of paper, finishing on the cardboard roll—I later published my story, “On the Outs,” in The New Yorker.
Some of my best poems started on bar napkins covered with Bloody Mary mix, from my morning trips to clear my head. And this one here [pulling it from the box], and here [pulling it, too, from the box], are time-stamped, as it were, to the later evening bar hours, brownish here and there from the whiskey.
I have a special fondness for these notes (more so, probably, than my own kids), although I’m not sure why. One thing I probably like about them is their texture and their texturizing quality, or how they texturized my life. I like their paperish vulnerability. I like how the older notes are yellowed with age and are most difficult to read.
To be sure, these are not mere notes for former (or even future) works-in-progress. Some of them are To Do lists that I’ve kept for nostalgic reasons, for their reminder of my once daily effort of fiercely pushing into and against this world. I also have a few love notes, like this one written here on the back of a grocery receipt [pausing to read], directed towards a Kaitlin, who refused, apparently, to return my calls. I cannot now remember this Kaitlin, but I have the note.
[Again with the cough and the clearing of mucous.]
I am an old man now. You see? You must all think I have senility and that I’ve forgotten that I’ve already mentioned that. You probably all see me as a sad and no more than lost and lonely old man. Am I grieving for a life that will soon be over? Probably not. Do I have any silly or naive notion that these notes will be collected, archived, enshrined? Of course not. I have probably close to five-thousand of them, or more, I would guess, and I will request that all of them be burned when I go. Throw them and me, as well, if it helps, on top of a pyre and burn us both.
There is one thing that troubles me, however, and it is the reason for my deviance in my approach tonight. I came across this napkin for the first time the other day when going through this box. Is it a bar napkin? [Holding it up to the audience.] Most likely so. But its whiteness, untainted by age, suggests that the drink has not yet arrived. It is still early in the evening.The napkin is empty as well, as perhaps you can see [again holding it up]—certainly, you there, in the front row can—but what might this mean? Why this one empty napkin in my box full of notes? What had I been trying, even if only silently, to say? Obviously, at this remove, I cannot know.
It is a little worn, wrinkled, as you perhaps can see as well [once again holding it up to the audience], which makes me love it more. Is this the napkin to be scribbled on in my dying hours? Of course not, no. Life is not like that. Life is not a bar napkin. Life is made on the bar napkin. That’s probably what I mean. But it is the message, haunting me in its invisibility, from this lone napkin, that now escapes me. Strangely, even more so, is that this napkin—the one free of language, of the words that fill our lives, the words that we live by and shape us—is the one I now value most. I’ve grown quite fond of it. Scribble on me, it seems to be saying. Scribble on me, and get on with it. It can taunt me like this, knowing full well, of course, that I will not. I cannot. I won’t.