There’s so much to say about Jay. The author and teacher has written 22 books, including five prize-winning novels (The Stolen Jew, Before My Life Began, 1940,Poli: A Mexican Boy in Early Texas, and The American Sun & Wind Moving Picture Company), two prize-winning books of nonfiction (Imagining Robert, Transforming Madness), and four collections of award-winning stories.
Sitting Down With Jay
His stories and essays have appeared in many publications, including The New York Review of Books, The Atlantic Monthly, Psychiatric Services, Black Clock, Ploughshares, Sport, The American Scholar, GQ, Hadassah, and the New York Times. They’ve been reprinted in more than 50 anthologies, including Best American Short Stories and The O. Henry Prize Stories.Jay suggested that we explore the different relics, furniture, and symbols that each have their own story in his home. Jay’s childhood and adult life have been wracked with passion, genius, and madness (that condition we call mental illness) running through some close family members and friends. It all lives on, in some way, in the inanimate objects around him. Each photo captured by Sam C. Long occupies a space and a time both in the writer’s life and home.Jay now lives and writes in New York City, where he teaches in the Graduate Writing Program of the Columbia University School of the Arts.
“I believe I am the last resident in my building who has not converted the dumbwaiter into something else—shelves, storage cabinet, stacked washer-dryer space. The door still opens, and the dumbwaiter is still the original that ran to the basement (I’m on 6th floor), a crank, a bell (next to the door). When I first moved in, in 2000, I could put my head into the empty space and look to a skylight above the top of the eighth floor’s dumbwaiter space, but the apt above mine converted their dumbwaiter space a half dozen or so years ago. Again, as with the old Underwood, I like having pieces of the past—of a non-electric, mechanical world—around me.The photos on the door, top to bottom: me, Summer of 1942 or ’43, in Parksville. NY—upstate, about one and a half hours away, where my mother and her four sisters went for summers in what was called a cuchelain (Yiddish for ‘cook alone’). Each family had a small apartment, one or two rooms, and there was a communal kitchen. The husbands—my uncles—worked in the city (NY), and would come up for weekends.“Middle photo: my three children standing in front of our three-story gentle- man-farmer’s barn in North Hadley, Massachusetts, sum- mer of 1980. Left to right: Aaron, Miriam, Eli.“Bottom photo: Miriam, Eli, and me at the top of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, first week of 1999, and four weeks before I had an emer- gency quintuple bypass. I was able to walk all the way to the top of the Cathedral—528 steps—without a problem. Never had a heart attack even though only two percent of my three major coronary ar- teries were working at the time. ”Lucky me!￼
“My oak rolltop desk. I was teaching at Columbia in 1964, and saw some desks like this in the hallways. I inquired and was told that all the desks were being replaced by new banker-style desks. I called Buildings and Grounds and asked what they were doing with the old desks. The man in charge said that if I wanted one, I should send him a note, and I could take one away but that I had to provide the movers. I sent him a note, and rented a U-Haul.“The desk comes completely apart, all mortise and tendon the top, the two side file cabinets, the drawer between the file cabinets, the back, etc. No nails or screws. I stripped the parts, oiled them, put the desk back together. I found a student registration card, dated 1899, behind one of the drawers.“The stack of folders to the right and directly in front are for the book I’m at work on now. The stack of folders to the left are for a novel I completed this past fall. The folders on top of the desk have to do with projects old, new, incomplete, random, possible.”“I’d once talked with a woman I knew about travelling the world and asking people the ques- tion: ‘Where do you feel at home?’ And not specify- ing: ‘Do you mean city, do you mean in my home?’”￼“This is my beloved Underwood typewriter, which, according to its serial number, was made in 1926. I bought it about forty years ago, and wrote most of my books, articles, and screenplays on it before switching to a computer. I tried using an electric typewriter once, but I typed too fast for the little font-ball, which kept getting jammed. Also: I hum while I write, and its “key” (no pun) was not a key I could hum with, and distracted me.
“I loved the clackety-clack, the mechanics of it—changing margins, tab sets, fixing it, finding other Underwoods I could use for spare parts (I had four or five other upright Underwoods I left behind in Massachusetts when I moved back to NYC in 1999)—and its durability. It still works, and my grandkids love rolling paper into it, and typing on it.“Above it is a rotary phone I brought down with me from Massachusetts when I moved back to NYC. It still works. I had another earlier rotary model—from the thirties—but it has wandered off, alas.“Lots of family photos to the sides. The folders are filled with correspondence and family memorabilia (letters, old photos, documents), and also material from the sixties and seventies (posters, letters, correspondence, newspaper clippings) when I was active in the civil rights (CORE) and anti-war movements (Fifth Ave. Vietnam Peace Parade Committee).”
“Me at my desk, looking at several drawings I did when I was fourteen or fifteen years old, and working as a waiter at Camp Winsoki, in Renselaerville, N. Y. The drawing you can see is of Tony, who was the assistant to the head cook for the camp. Tony, the head cook, and the rest of the kitchen staff came from Puerto Rico, and the younger cooks, like Tony, often hung out with us (waiters and busboys). I had already given up my ambition to become an artist when I grew up, but still loved to draw, and liked to sketch portraits of friends.”