WHERE I WRITE #5: Please Continue The Story

By

I am looking at the things on my Ikea desk surrounding my 2007 Dell Computer that I am typing on. What I see from left to right: Jan/Feb issue of Poets And Writer’s Magazine. The inspiration issue. Smith Corona electric typewriter. A mug with a green monster on it saying, “Gimme Coffee” holding a spoon and the last of vanilla ice cream. A small ob white tampon. A red flower barrette. Car keys. Gold bangle. Cherry Chapstick. Pregnancy test. A bottle of antibiotics. Yoga schedule. Deodorant cap. Omega Teen Camp Staff Handbook. Rape, A Love Story, by Joyce Carole Oates. I AM GOING TO CLONE MYSELF THEN KILL THE CLONE AND EAT IT by Sam Pink. White Swan, Black Swan, by Adrienne Sharp. And The Heart Says Whatever by Emily Gould. Troubling Love by Elana Ferrante. ROOM by Emma Donoghue. The Brooklyn Follies by Paul Auster. The Compulsion To Create: Women Writers and Their Demon Lovers. Glimmer Train Stories. The Secret Lives Of People In Love by Simon Van Booy. An unopened king size pack of Hot Tamales. A letter from a boy in Brooklyn explaining why he is angry with me. A small colored cloth bag holding three worry dolls. Four candles. A 200-page draft of a book typed on a typewriter from a friend in Tennessee. A cup holding two pairs of scissors, pens, and a toothbrush. Three Hershey kisses. Four unopened letters from Bank Of America. My red journal that I record my dreams and food consumption in. A stack of cds–Sublime is on top. A rejection letter from The Sun Magazine. Pink gloves. Excedrin.

This is how I have been writing for the past month or so. This is how I’ve always lived. My mother says I thrive in chaos. Karen Kingston, author of Clear Your Clutter with FENG SHUI, (the book is on the floor) says to calculate the percentage area of naked desk you can actually see. I say, I am writing everyday.

***

When I was twenty and my brother was twenty-three, I moved in with him. He lived smack in the center of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. A tiny railroad apartment with roommates. It was June of 2006. Sitting at a coffee shop that has since closed, I said to my brother:

“Sometimes I think I want to be a writer.”

“Yep. You definitely do.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Because you talk about it a lot.”

“I do?”

“Yeah. So write everyday, and you’ll be one.”

***

That night my brother put his typewriter on the radiator cover that we used as a shelf-like table in the bathroom. I didn’t know it was a radiator cover when I brought it in from the street corner and painted it yellow. He sat the typewriter at the edge, to face the toilet, and in black Sharpie, he neatly wrote: “Please Continue The Story.”

We wrote things back and forth there, for the better part of a year, along with anyone else that entered the apartment.  I kept every paper of the words we wrote during that time. I didn’t have a computer, so besides the beloved typewriter, I wrote longhand in journals my mother collaged for me. I wrote at bars and cafes and on the 1 train to 66th street where I worked and I wrote in the break room or a bench outside on my lunch breaks. I bought a black journal at The Strand where my brother worked that said STRAND NEW YORK CITY 18 Miles Of Books and I can’t open it now without feeling like crying. My mom made me a wooden journal. I bought journals from people selling their stuff on Bedford Avenue. I bought journals at the Artist And Flea Market on North Sixth Street. I’ve never trusted people completely who don’t write in journals. Or cry at West Side Story. Or say a form of “bless you” when hearing someone sneeze. But I will let the latter two slide if the person is an avid journal-writer.

I signed up for an eight-week creative writing class offered at Gotham Writer’s Workshop with Sarah Grace Mccandless. It’s amusing to me now that I signed up for a class without having a computer. I wanted to write so I signed up for the class. The computer and the when and where didn’t phase me. I wasn’t afraid.  It’s fascinating the way we adapt to what we have. I marched proudly to class on Saturday mornings. I handed in my assignments handwritten.

My brother decided to leave New York for Berlin and I endured the first of more broken hearts that would happen in New York City. I wrote him a page a day on the typewriter through the winter until spring, punched holes in the papers and put them in a three-ring binder. The morning he left I gave him the binder. I moved the typewriter to the table a few days later.

***

I moved to 156 India Street in Greenpoint, Brooklyn with my best friend. I signed up for memoir one class at Gotham, taught by Katherine Dykstra. On the first day of class, Katherine explained we’d be handing in fifteen page pieces and bringing one for everyone in the class. I raised my hand. “What if you don’t have a computer?” Silence. Then she told me to figure it out. (If you’re wondering why I never considered buying a computer—it’s because I moved to New York with two dollars and worked at a little café and then worked retail and don’t have parents that have money to give me so my money was going towards my $600 rent and PBRs and journals and bagels.)

I wrote my piece for class about the characters I’d met through The Strand Bookstore. I wrote it in my journal in a bunch of different vignettes. I transcribed it at the computer at my job. I worked at a fine jewelry store on Greenwich Avenue between Charles and Perry Streets. My boss allowed me to stay after hours to use the computer and lock up whenever I was done. I pulled the gate down and kept the lights low. There wasn’t much music on the work computer’s iTunes, save a ton of Weezer. In the dark, the jewelry store was where I experienced my first writer’s high. When I walked to the subway near midnight I felt a buzz I’d never felt before but wanted to keep feeling for the rest of my life.

On my days off, I spent my time at the Greenpoint Library on Norman Street to do my class assignments and write. I loved it there. I felt purposeful. Drinking coffee and writing until I was hyper and had to poop. I had to make the most of my time because you could only get a forty-five minute slot, and after 2pm, the school kids came in and dominated, making it impossible to concentrate. I signed up for a YMCA membership while our toilet at the apartment wasn’t working for a week. I used the elliptical and wrote a story in my head about a head on car accident I’d had. I remember thinking it was so great—the gift of being able to write in your very own head. I power-walked home and wrote down my sentences.

For my birthday, my boss bought me a computer. My friend and I had no Internet and used blue Christmas lights for lights making our ConEd bill sometimes as low as seven dollars. I came home drunk and eager and wrote, sitting by the window with my computer on my lap and my legs on a chair. I loved the light in there. We’d painted the walls turquoise and coral and there were art supplies and yellow and purple curtains. On May 17th, 2008, I came home from work in the evening to find the apartment condemned. The Department of Buildings checked the structural stability on a wall following a complaint of: “BUILDING/SHAKING/VIBRATING/STABILITY AFFECTED.” On the door was a piece of paper on the door reading:

HAZARDOUS: FAILURE TO MAINTAIN EXTERIOR BUILDING WALL. DEFECT IS: REAR WALL IS ROTTED, DEFECTIVE AND PULLING AWAY FROM WOOD FRAME. FIRE ESCAPE IS IN DANGER DUE TO AFFECTED REAR WALL AND COULD DISLODGE IF USED.

The cop told me to pack a bag and leave. The electricity was gone and the other tenants evacuated to Red Cross. I said I would stay with friends. He said I was to come back in the morning for my hour slot to move out. I grabbed my Strand story. Baby carrots. The Days Run Over The Hill Like Wild Horses. My journal and my blue flash drive. I had to change my tampon and I asked the cop if I could use his flashlight. In the bathroom I was laughing, it was so surreal, and I was writing sentences in my head. I felt light. It was getting warm outside; I was a writer, my apartment crumbled, I could do anything. My father came down in the morning to help me pack and load his Saab up with my stuff. I handed him my blue flash drive. “This is my life,” I told him, “Please hold onto it for me.” He laughed like I was being dramatic. But it was my being.

I was homeless for four nights. On the first night I went to a bar and met my friend Skye who told me, “Take the most fucked up notes you can.”

***

I moved in with a friend in Washington Heights on 181st Street and Audubon Avenue. My dad mailed me my flash drive. I lost the plastic cap and I left it on my windowsill all summer and eventually the metal curved upwards and when I’d put it into my computer it was unreadable. I still have it.  I wrote in my twin bed. I felt like a human. There was an Internet connection. I wasn’t used to it. It distracted me. I’d ask people, “How do you write when you have Internet at the same time? How do you not just watch porn and masturbate instead?” I signed up for memoir two at Gotham with Cheryl Burke and wrote a twenty-page story called “Fragments Of A Homeless Person.”

***

I moved to Inwood, even further up on the island—207th Street—the very last stop on the A train. I painted my room yellow. I still worked in the West Village so this gave me the opportunity to write on the train. I made a deal with myself that I couldn’t stop writing during the hour subway ride. When you live on the last stop, you are guaranteed to get a seat on the subway and make yourself comfortable. There was no excuse not to write. Some people, my brother for example, will only write in a certain kind of pen. He knows the numbers on the pen. Me? I’ll write with lipstick. I remember writing in Sharpie one morning and it smelled and the woman next to me sniffed around and made a show of being annoyed. I remember eating with my hands out of my Tupperware of rice and writing with purple eyeliner.

***

My friend and I were doing lines of cocaine and oxy-contin and throwing a purple three-pound weight back and forth and accidentally hit my computer. It worked fine for a week and then would not turn on again.

I still had the “Please Continue The Story” typewriter. The keys stuck and the words would only type in the middle of the sheet. It looked interesting. My lover called them my “paper strips.” I started taking myself seriously. I had a routine. I went hiking in the Inwood forest for an hour, then I went to the Inwood library and read Italo Calvino and Raymond Carver and Jean Paul Satre for an hour and then home to my yellow bedroom and smoked my roommate’s TOP Tobacco and pounded the keys.

***

I moved upstate and brought my computer to be fixed at a place called Jonathan’s.

But while my computer was getting fixed I went to Berlin to visit my brother for a few days and my brother convinced me to stay. I stayed without my computer and wrote in journals. Berlin was where I experienced a bout of hopelessness. I felt ugly, unloved, un-liked, and unproductive. I slept and when I wasn’t sleeping I was writing about being ugly at the kitchen table.

***

I moved to Seattle because I wanted to see what I could produce if I were alone. I read a sentence somewhere where a woman wrote, “I wanted to see what I wanted to do when I woke up in the morning.” Yes, I thought. I knew I wanted to write, but perhaps I was double-checking. I only knew one person in Seattle—my artistic and even-tempered Aunt. Jonathan’s fixed my computer and I brought it and for the first month I subletted a room from a religious folk singer in Beacon Hill and I wrote like crazy in his bed. Then I moved into a condo in Belltown. I was lonely. I had no furniture for months but I had my first mattress that wasn’t a twin. I wrote in bed. I wrote standing at the kitchen counter. I wrote on the beige carpeted floor. The Internet connection was shady. It drove me nuts because of my loneliness but it was a good thing. I wrote.

I found a desk on the street. It was a kid’s school desk and was missing one leg. I was still in that New York mode of desperation where you take home anything you find. I carried it home to my Aunt’s house. I was dying for a desk. I couldn’t wait. I’ll just prop it up against the wall tonight and write all night, I thought while I walked, with my heart rate getting faster. “We can do better than that,” my Aunt said when she saw it. I put it back on the street. I looked at it for what she saw it as and felt embarrassed.

I moved to Ballard, a safe and pretty neighborhood that people like to call the first borough of Seattle. I had a bedroom in a house with two guys and a girl. I painted my room blue because I’d read that blue makes you the most creative and less hungry since there is no blue food. I found another desk. It had a bookshelf on the bottom and both its legs. I carried it home. A few days later I found a retro orange rolling char. I found a groove in Seattle. I don’t know if it was the overcast weather or not knowing anyone, but Seattle did wonderful things for my writing. I was a nanny and had the freedom of writing in my head all day while watching cartoons. I could walk to the computer and type in my Gmail drafts if I had an idea. I worked nine to five and then hopped on my seafoam green bike to the library. I stayed there until they closed and then went to 711 for a few 7.8% Pacific Northwest beers to bring back to my desk where I wore my big headphones and wrote until three in the morning. Seattle has been the only place I could sit in coffee shops and make magic happen. Some Saturdays, I sat in Cupcake Royale on Market Street from nine to five. I masturbated in the bathroom for release. Towards the end of my Seattle year, during late summer, I got depressed and obsessed. I wanted to go back to New York. My hours were cut. I had a yeast infection. I slept with my laptop. I dreamt in narratives. I rarely left my bed. But I wrote like a motherfucker there, sweating under that white down comforter printed with yellow birds. I recorded my stories into mp3s and listened to them over and over. I started to feel self-conscious about how much time I spent writing in my room. My roommates thought I was weird. They didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I only left my room to go to the bathroom to pee. And I had to pee all the time because of all my beer. I started peeing in my room. I peed into mugs and carried them in the morning to the kitchen. I wasn’t healthy. But I was writing.

***

I moved back to Brooklyn and lived in Bushwick. I shared a two-bedroom apartment with three smokers. The girls shared a bedroom and the boys shared a bedroom. I took a one on one course with Melissa Febos who lived a few subway stops away.  The boy I lived with fell in love with me and I fell in love with him because his dad died. Then I realized that that isn’t love; it’s compassion. The boy in love tried hard to understand my need for writing. He bribed me with words of living together in a nicer place, where I would have my own desk. He said this during sex and I had an orgasm when he talked about the desk. I wasn’t attracted to him. I was attracted to the desk. It was too cold to write on the roof so I sometimes brought my computer and a pillow to the platform at the top of the stairs by the door to the roof and wrote.

I started to panic. I panicked from my lack of creation. Of course I was writing. But not as much I wanted to. I wanted to write every second of every day. I wanted the impossible. I wanted to live up to my potential. I didn’t want to go to bars. I didn’t want a boyfriend. I didn’t want to waitress. I panicked when I did things other than writing. I panicked in bars. I panicked while waitressing. I woke up with dread deep in my belly. I worked the brunch shift on Saturdays and Sundays and I took the L train to the G train to Clinton-Hill early, with an hour to kill. I couldn’t write at the apartment. As a friend put it, “It looked like Bosnia in there.” So I’d sit in a diner and have a coffee and write. Or with a bagel on the curb of the sidewalk. Or on the bench outside the Laundromat.

I suffered while waitressing. I suffered, the customers suffered, the cooks suffered, we all suffered. Because I sucked. I could not concentrate. I was writing in my head and it made my face stone faced. I used to be an engaging waitress. Friendly. Thoughtful.  Now I’d ask, “What would you guys like to drink?” and then stop listening. I simply didn’t care. I didn’t want to be there and everyone knew it. I was so distracted. I would get struck with inspiration and write all over my arms and on guest checks and shove them into the pockets of my jeans.

I love Brooklyn like I love my own breath on days I am glad to be alive. But I wasn’t in love with the boy in Bushwick and I couldn’t stand not having my own room or time to think my own thoughts or any flat surface to write on.

***

I moved to Hudson, New York, and in with my father. He helped me set up a desk by the window. My chaotic desk. The feedback to my writing has a constant thread. The same words are used over and again: Frenetic. Gritty. Honest. Anxious. Manic. I know my writing will probably come out that way no matter where I write it. But I also know I should clean and organize my desk. My brother lives in Istanbul now and teaches English. Since he left New York on the last day of April, four years ago, he only comes back for short stays. The “Please Continue The Story” typewriter eventually shit the bed.  I’ve never seen a typewriter in anyone else’s bathroom since and I miss my brother some days worse than others but rarely does a day go by that I do not write.


Chloe Caldwell is the author of the essay collection "Legs Get Led Astray" (Future Tense Books). Her non-fiction can be found on The Nervous Breakdown, Freerange Nonfiction, Mr. Beller's Neighborhood, and The Rumpus. She lives in upstate New York. You can learn more at www.chloecaldwell.com. More from this author →