The army ants died in the Natural History  Museum last week before I had an opportunity to see them. This has happened before. For whatever reason, each time the army ants are introduced into the museum they seem to succumb to a mysterious plague that carries them off within twenty-four hours. Entomologists are at a loss to explain this phenomenon, but they remain hopeful that at least one generation of these ants will endure long enough for a public display. Army ants have an undeservedly bad reputation; contrary to popular belief they are not rapacious but are rather highly discriminatory in their choice of food, their diet consisting primarily of other insects. I would never have gone to the museum if it weren't for the prospect of seeing the ants. I hadn't been there for years.   This is what I recall from an excursion made there long ago: a picture, hazy indeed, of a youngster (who must be me ) roaming about dark claustrophobic halls, a transistor radio held up to his ear. This transistor conveyed a recorded narrative meant to alert the attentive listener to the importance of what he was seeing. However, I remember never being able to match up what was on the tape to what was in front of me.  There I was gaping up at the hulking remains of some antediluvian creature while all the time an insistent tinny voice continued to discuss Navajo basket weaving. I looked about me helplessly -- not a Navajo basket in sight. The recollection of such needless confusion, and even worse, of unrelieved boredom had kept me away all these years.I went to the museum with a friend of mine, an acquaintance, a young woman strangely excited by the idea of seeing a colony of army ants; as she was so expectant she was that much more disappointed to learn of their collective demise.

I met this young woman in a bar located a block from where I live. Hundreds of unread books like the shelves above the bar. People used to tell me that the movers and intellectuals of the Upper West Side always gathered here. While once I thought this was possible I no longer believe it. Most of the clientele exude a kind of melancholia.   They look vastly depleted, their lives seem to hover on the edge of boredom.  It is far more difficult for them to keep alive than they might have imagined.   Some are teachers and bankers, others are computer programmers, junior executives or secretaries.  Some are plain out of work.

Army ants are welcomed by villagers in Ecuador, anthropologists have discovered. The villagers simply leave their houses for a few days, abandoning them to the columns of army ants which proceed to devour all the insects they can find in their path.  An interesting and economical form of pest control. 

The women come in groups to this bar but the men are more often alone. On Friday evenings they all stand together packed between the bar and the oak- en partition that conceals the dining area. Intimacy is forced on everyone be- cause of the lack of space; embarrassment must give way to something like un­easy chatter and eventually to the exchange of vital statistics. If a conver­sation goes well for maybe ten or fifteen minutes the man will feel free to ask the woman for her telephone number. Generally shy, I am wary of going up to somebody and introducing myself. Nonetheless, if I notice a girl alone staring at me with curious intensity I feel practically obliged to strike up a conversation. It was in this way that I met my sometime friend. Attractive without being especially desirable, she had fashionably long hair (dark) and a sensibly proportioned body. A certain hardness both of spirit and expression was evident, particularly in her calculated gaze. She was the sort of young woman that I was accustomed to seeing on the Upper West Side; for some reason you didn't find them so very often cross town. We talked in a desultory fashion without the formality of trading either names or aspirations. From the outset she was honest about what she was doing in this bar.   She said she was waiting for the man she loved (her head kept turning, her neck craning dramatically, as she scrutinized the patrons who entered ). She did not believe he was going to show up. He was a bartender at a nearby tavern, she said. Tonight he was off. Still she did not think he would come for her. She excused herself now and then to go to the phone booth and try calling him. Her coins kept coming back. 

Hundreds of thousands of these army ants, always the female ones, spread out in search of food.    They may cover as much as a hundred yards a day in their travels.  Scouts similarly reconnoiter in all directions; as soon as they manage to locate their prey they hasten back to their col­umn to inform the others of their discovery. 

Finally broaching the subject, she asked me what I did."I work for a business magazine putting together news releases, preparing extracts from stockholder reports." "Is it interesting work?"   "No• ..Now tell me what you do ." She refused, saying that she was too embarrassed.  That wasn't surprising. Everyone in this place suffered from embarrassment. It was the atmosphere, I suppose. "Oh, come on. You can tell me," I urged, really curious by now. Sighing, she relented. She told me she worked in an information booth in the middle of Grand Central Station, directing the bewildered and the lost to their proper destinations."What's so wrong with that?"'She didn't reply but looked at me as if I should know. Naturally she had no intention of doing this sort of work for the rest of her life.   She hoped to become an actress, a painter, a sculptor, a writer, I forget which, but she was taking classes: The New School, City College, The School for Visual Arts, NYU.   One of those , maybe all of them.  She was taking dancing lessons too -- ballet and belly dancing.     She promised that she would do a belly dance for me.   She said she possessed an enviable collection of anklets, bracelets and hand clicks which were meant to clink in unison as she writhed about, but she hadn't gotten it so they would.  One day, she said, she would have everything coordinated.

As soon as the ants have found their prey they begin marking out a path back to the column; what they do is to discharge a certain chemical from their abdomens along the way. 

She thought she was too short though actually she was average in height. When she was still a teenager she barely measured five feet, she said, but once she'd entered college she gained another four and a half inches, a spurt as dramatic as it was unexpected. But she had never adjusted to the idea that she was no longer short and so she continued to rely on ugly, gaudy platform shoes to keep her aloft.   Sometimes she stood as tall as me with them on. Inevitably she gave me her name.   It was Andrea. That was all -- just Andrea. One night shortly after our initial meeting I happened to mention the arrival of the army ants at the Natural History Museum. "I'd like to go," she said. "I'm free on Sunday. We can go then if you want." I was pleasantly surprised; I had just been making conversation, I never considered inviting her to see them with me. But as I said once we arrived there, Andrea' s counterpart in the museum's information booth, a pale college grad, told us that the army ants had died earlier in the week. We walked through the museum anyway, but neither of us were very interested in what we were seeing.   Besides we went through the rooms at such a remarkable clip that the only thing I remember is a blur of impres­sions -- Olmec heads and millions of dinosaur bones, African chants (taped ) and stuffed Kenyan elephants, samples of quartz and dead carrier pigeons poised forever in mid-flight.   It wasn't so different from my first trip to the museum except that now I had a companion.  

Returning from the prey, the scout begins running up and down the column, touching the other ants with her antennae and her body. This form of communication is surprisingly effective, perhaps more so than any system man could ever devise, and it is almost instantaneous in  eliciting a response.

 

 

Afterwards we returned to the bar -- it was always the same one of course -- and ordered cocktails. She refused to accompany me to dinner. She didn't say as much but I guessed that she was afraid that her mysterious friend might come in her absence.  She didn't want to take any chances. In fact, he did show up. "He's here," she whispered. I strained to see but I could not distinguish the man she was pointing out from among the others  clustered down at the other end of the bar."Why don 't you go over and talk to him?" I asked. "He's with somebody else. That girl there. The redhead. "

While I was still unsure of which one he was, I did spot a redhead, a striking woman whose presence obviously animated the men about her. So we sat together, Andrea and I, as she continued her unhappy vigil. To her right, a man was trying to pick her up; he did not seem aware of me. He was balding fast, his stomach bulged hideously, his wide blue tie -- on which a single peacock strutted -- flapped listlessly as he moved, and he moved with big expansive gestures. A smile came on to his face and never left. Good dental work. He said he was a famous illustrator though he neglected to say of what. He drew an incomprehensible sketch on a moist napkin for An­drea whose expression of confirmed boredom changed slowly to one of resig­nation and then to some scant interest. "You want to go somewhere else?" he asked, convinced already that she would say yes. She did not reject his proposition as I had suspected. She turned coy instead. "Where? What do you have in mind?""Oh, I figured • ••My place." "Well, I'd prefer to go someplace where there are lots of people." "Hmm. Well, I tell you I often have lots of people coming to my apartment. Like Grand Central Station sometimes. "She winced but let it go. She fell silent. "Well, whaddya say?"

"I don 't think so." He and I both detected the uncertainty in her voice but he wasn't discouraged.   "Look," he said, "it doesn't have to be my apartment. There's a nice club near here. It's quiet and cozy. We could go there, listen to some jazz, have a drink. Talk." More amenable to this suggestion, she agreed. "OK, I don't want to take too long though." She made it  sound like an unpleasant but necessary business appointment. But he didn't seem to mind.Andrea bade me good night and went off with her illustrator, making a great show of it. She stopped before she got to the door and had her new friend light her cigarette.   I assumed that she wanted to impress her estranged boyfriend at the other end of the bar but I doubt that he noticed cared if he did. I wasn't sure. I still didn't know which one he was.

Thirty seconds is all it takes before the ants react. They are im­mediately diverted from the column to begin following the scented trail that will guide them to their sustenance. In the first minute up to one hundred ants are conscripted in this enterprise. Then if these ants locate the prey of their own, they, too, return to the column and recruit followers.I remained at the bar, sleepless and inert.

Within twenty minutes or so Andrea returned to the bar. She was by herself. "He was an ass," she declared and sat down . I didn't press her for details, I didn't want to know.She resumed her staring. She concentrated as much on the redhead as on any man in her company. "I know that girl he's with," she said bitterly. "She's no great shakes. I've met her, I've talked to her. She hasn't got anything really."I was not about to dispute her. Still I suggested that it was doing her no good sitting there glaring. But she had heard this all before and paid me no attention .I couldn't stand it any longer . If she wasn't staring then she brooded. She remembered me only when she needed somebody to light her cigarettes. I finally got tired of her and left.    She gave me a fragile, helpless smile.  What can I do? she seemed to be saying. What can I do?

Army ants rely on numbers to overwhelm their prey. They only measure one third of an inch; the insects they consume are very often much larger, a wasp for instance. Without such an efficient method of procuring food, entomologists say, the army ants would starve.

I sometimes check the information booths in Grand Central to see if I can find Andrea.   She is never there. I just ask for Andrea because I never learned her last name.  But nobody seems to know her.  "Personnel changes rapidly here," I'm told. 

Sometimes I go back to the bar and at hours when I used to be sure of finding her . But she isn't there either . The bar­tender says he knows her. "The blonde, I remember," he tells me. "That's a different Andrea from the one I'm looking for," I say and then drink my beer in silence.I would like to find her, though, because I understand that a whole new contingent of army ants is to go on exhibit in the Natural History Museum very shortly and I think she will be interested. Maybe this time they'll remain alive long enough to be seen by the public , It would cheer her up a little, I think, for Andrea to have something else to look at other than her old boyfriend. But I can't say that my search for her is particularly intensive; I can't bring myself to try very hard.  There are too many other girls like Andrea, more easily found, who sit in darkened bars waiting for some mysterious man to snatch them up.  Still, I suspect none of them will take to the idea of army ants the way that Andrea did.

 

 

 

 

Posted
AuthorLeslie Horvitz

New York celebrates beauty and vigor; beauty salons, cosmeticians and health clubs (not to mention plastic surgeons) do a thriving business by playing on the fear of growing old. Baby boomers are in the vanguard, determined to beat back the encroachments of time by any means possible, regardless of expense. In New York it can be difficult to grow old gracefully. It becomes even more difficult if you lack resources, family or close friends. Yes, there are social services available and Meals-on-Wheels which provides food to the homebound. But for tens of thousands of aged people in New York survival is contingent on rent regulations. Because many of them are living in the same apartment that they’ve occupied for many years their rents are virtually frozen at rates that prevailed decades before. Once they die – and apart from retirement in Florida that’s the only way they’re likely to leave – their apartments will revert to market rents. Needless to say, many landlords eagerly await that eventuality, a situation that may call to mind the macabre image of vultures waiting to pounce. What strikes such terror in the young is seeing their future in the faces of the old. It is one thing to endure the vicissitudes of the city when you’re in your twenties or thirties, it’s quite another to do so when you’re in your seventies, confronting mortality alone in the same one-bedroom apartment you’ve lived in for years.

            No one wants to grow old alone, of course, but inevitably it happens. Illness steals away a spouse or partner; a grown child moves away and rarely calls. Friends die or leave for warmer climes.

            But like most New Yorkers who manage to stick it out in the city for many years, the aged who live here are a tough breed, their steely resolve often belying the frailty of their bodies. Of course, that resolve can also come across as sheer stubbornness. And because the city doesn’t allow the luxury of segregation the generations are frequently thrown together.

            Several years ago I moved into an apartment on West 20th Street in Chelsea, at a time before the district was considered chic or desirable. The newly renovated apartment offered enough space for my needs but it also offered a dispiriting view of an ugly courtyard hidden from the sun by surrounding buildings. As a result it was necessary to keep the lights on throughout the day.

            There were only two apartments on each floor. I met my neighbor as I was moving in. A thin, shrunken woman who looked to be in her seventies opened the door of 3F and called out a cheerful greeting. I must come over for a drink as soon as I was finished moving in, she said. Her name was Shirley Sanko.

Her invitation to join her for a drink after I’d moved in was only the first of many. She drank scotch but felt guilty enough about her habit to keep the booze hidden. (Hidden from whom it was hard to say since she seldom had visitors.) But if she could coax me to join her she would happily bring it out. It wasn't my company she sought so much as it was a pretext to have a drink herself.

It was obvious that she was eager for company. Because of a debilitating stroke that had left her with a pronounced limp she stayed put in her apartment, leaving only when she had a doctor’s appointment. Her husband, Leo, a painter, had died six years before. She’d never gotten over his loss. He’d keeled over of a heart attack one winter day. She blamed his death on the landlord because he’d failed to provide enough heat. They’d had no children. She occupied herself watching television. Mrs. Sanko had no books, there weren’t even any magazines. The only reading material in evidence was a copy of TV Guide.

A home attendant contracted by the city would come around in the mornings to help out. These home attendants never stayed long because Mrs. Sanko was constantly accusing them of taking her money or of being so stupid that they couldn't even find a simple item like an ice cream pop at the A&P. She suffered from a bad ulcer as well as residual complications from the stroke which accounted for her obsession with ice cream pops. She had little appetite and when she did eat she preferred pizza, roast beef sandwiches or ribs from the Chinese takeout place on 21st Street. She barely touched the wholesome dishes Meals on Wheels brought her. She didn’t care that pizza and ribs might be detrimental to her health.

Sometimes you were her 'pal' or her best friend. Sometimes, if you hadn't been attentive enough – because you’d failed to call her every day, for instance -- you were 'one of them.' "I won't call you anymore, I don't want to bother you," she'd say, making no effort to conceal her irritation. Then the next morning she’d call as if nothing had happened. She smoked fiendishly in defiance of her doctor’s advice, ordering a couple of packs of Kent 100's at a time. "I'm a smoker!" she would declare. She would also say, almost boasting, "I'm a cripple!" That was what she’d shout down to a caller on the street who refused to walk up the two flights to see her.

Mrs. Sanko was incredibly suspicious. She kept her door bolted and double-locked. She was often on the phone to her state assemblyman to complain about noise. She routinely harassed the managing agent Melinda, complaining of problems in the apartment for which she was paying seventy dollars a month. (But this was an old tenement and her bathroom was located in the corridor.) The lock on her window didn't work; there was a leak in the ceiling from upstairs; there were bugs; there was a smell of gas. For months she fought to have a buzzer installed. When it finally was put in, she insisted that it didn't work and rather than use it she continued to shout downstairs to find out the identity of her visitor.

She had to call on the police to expel a home attendant she didn't like. (Why the attendant didn't leave on her own is something she never explained.) She'd smell something burning and became convinced that the building was on fire. Strange people would knock on her door or present an unnamed threat. The fire escape was falling in, the building itself was crumbling. (There was some truth to this, too.) Often things happened at times when no one else was around to witness them.

She didn’t have many friends. For the few friends she did have she was an endless source of frustration. They were unable to convince her to get out more. "People want to fix me up with men,” she’d say derisively. There was a local social club where she could meet others her age, especially of the opposite sex. She was having none of it. “I'm afraid of AIDS,” she’d say. “Anyway I had my man and he's gone."

Often she'd station herself by the window and watch people go by on the street. If she spied me trying to slip out the front door she'd call out, "What happened to you?" Then she’d ask me to get her some pizza or cigarettes. "I'm the mayor of 20th Street," she would say. Famous people -- Mayor LaGuardia, various actors and actresses -- used to stop by. Nowadays things were changing too rapidly. People were moving in and out of the building and she had no idea who they were. She lived in constant fear. The fear was not always unwarranted. Once she let two men in who claimed that the managing agent had sent them to install new windows. One man kept talking to her in the kitchen while his companion pretended to be measuring the windows. When they left she found that two hundred dollars was missing from a drawer. She was suspicious of everybody but the people she should have been. She said she wanted to move. She said she might like to go into a nursing home. She would call and plead for people to keep in touch. Everybody she knew -- relatives, friends, acquaintances -- suffered bad luck. They all seemed to have lost something: their leg, their memory, their life. Disaster always seemed to strike her. She'd adopted the persona of the old, helpless, dependent woman. Her life had stopped with Leo’s death.

One day very early in December, the latest home attendant was unable to gain entry to Mrs. Sanko's apartment. Evidently she waited a day before notifying the managing agent. Melinda summoned the police at ten the following morning. Two youthful-looking officers from the 13th Precinct a block away responded: one with a red moustache named Cooper and the other a pretty, dark-haired Italian named Diane. Unable to elicit any response and finding the door locked, they went out on the fire escape and broke in, kicking in one pane. They found Mrs. Sanko dead on the floor of the bedroom, dressed in pajamas and a red robe. She seemed to have been trying to grasp hold of the bed to pull herself up when her heart gave out. Someone from EMS was summoned to confirm the death, a formality. Two detectives appeared. They took in the scene but saw nothing that would cause them to think that the death was due to anything other than natural causes, and quickly left. Then two representatives of the Medical Examiner's Office came by. The one who seemed to be in charge was a diminutive Chinese man who spoke with heavily accented English and asked if she'd been taking any medication. No one knew. Cooper and Diane began to search for names and numbers of relatives. They’d been informed that Mrs. Sanko had two nephews in Brooklyn. Address books were found, with lots of names in both, but there was no telling who these people were or what relationship they might have had with the deceased. A wagon -- as the M.E. mortuary vans are called -- was ordered.

 


After a while a sergeant appeared. He asked me to act as a witness while Cooper and Diane searched the apartment for valuables, credit cards, bank books, stock certificates and cash, which would be vouchered and turned over to the precinct house. "This is the worst part of our job," Cooper said, referring to the distasteful task of rummaging through a person's past.

Mrs. Sanko kept a lot of papers. Cooper turned up a divorce agreement between her and her first husband, Kalinsky, whom few people knew that she had, as well as fifty dollars in cash, some gold and tarnished silver rings, and a couple of necklaces.

Eventually the sergeant left. So did Cooper, leaving Diane to wait until the wagon arrived. Once it did, she had instructions to seal the apartment so that the owner or manager or anybody else couldn't slip in and make off with any possessions, not that there would have been much to take. Even several hours after her death, no family members had been located although the police had made several calls trying to find the nephews listed in her address books. In any case, it wasn't up to the officers on the scene to call the relatives. That was up to the detectives.

As we waited, Diane told me a little about her life. She hadn’t always wanted to be a cop, she said. She used to work as an art director for an ad agency but had grown tired of it. A friend suggested she try out for the police. She didn't take the suggestion seriously. On the day of the police exam she got on the train to Manhattan as she did every day, to go to work at the ad agency. But before she reached her stop she decided that she had nothing to lose, switched trains and went back to Brooklyn where the exam was being given. She took it and to her surprise was admitted. Her parents didn't know she'd become a cop until six months had gone by and even then they only found out accidentally because a friend called them, trying to locate her. "I went to see them late in the evening when I knew they were tired so it would be easier." Her parents have grown to accept what she was doing so long as they were assured she was safe.

Diane spoke in phrases and fragments, rarely in complete sentences, the words tumbling out at breakneck speed. "I get used to answering people who call out 'Yo!' to me." She realized that she was often speaking too fast or using too many big words for people to understand her -- and that included other cops. She regarded her gun as a 'charm.' She had drawn it only when obliged to enter apartments where she suspected a burglar was hiding. "I'd be stupid not to." But she'd never fired her gun and hoped never to have to. Even so, she was often in dangerous situations. Just the other day, she told me, an eleven-year-old emotionally disturbed girl had pulled a butcher knife on her and said, "I come from another galaxy and my mission on this planet is to kill you and your partner." Diane succeeded in calming the girl and persuading her to put the knife away. Diane told the girl that if she hadn't obeyed she wouldn't have hesitated to shoot her even if she was only eleven. When the father appeared on the scene he acknowledged that his daughter had been having some problems as if this wasn’t already quite apparent. Told that the girl had threatened two officers with a butcher knife, he was unfazed. "She did that to me too," he said. He explained that he'd had six children and that all of them had suffered mental problems. Two were institutionalized. Another two, he said, had 'grown out of it,' presumably meaning their insanity.

As the afternoon wore on, Diane mused about the woman lying on the floor. She admitted that she wasn't married, but she said that seeing something like this -- a lonely old woman dying this way -- made her think that maybe she should. "Who have you got if you don't have your family?"

The wagon still hadn’t come. It was now after four in the afternoon. Diane told another story.

Not long ago, she said, she’d answered a complaint at an apartment where a woman in her eighties was living with her son who was in his forties. Both mother and son were mentally retarded. What really struck Diane was how filthy the apartment was. It didn't appear as if either mother or son had ventured outside in many years. The walls were crawling with roaches but they didn't seem to notice or care. "You don't know how lucky you are sometimes," Diane said.

The whole while Mrs. Sanklo’s door, so long shut and bolted against the world, stood open. Suddenly we looked up to find a man of about forty-five, wearing glasses and an expensive gray winter coat, standing in the doorway. "What's going on here?" he asked in bewilderment. Diane explained. He looked shaken but managed to retain his composure.

It turned out that the man was one of the missing nephews. He was an executive at a printing company located a few blocks away. He said that he was the only relation who was usually in the city and so it was up to him to check up on his aunt. The last time he’d spoke to her was two days ago. They’d had an argument. It wasn’t surprising; in my brief acquaintance with her she argued with everyone she knew. "I nearly lost my voice shouting," he admitted. The argument was over her treatment of the home attendants. "If you keep on firing them," he’d told her, "they won't have any one left to send you." He'd stopped by to give money to her for the weekend. He was dismayed to learn that he couldn't take control of the apartment or its effects. "I just paid the rent for December."

Nonetheless, procedures have to be followed. He began to leaf through the Yellow Pages looking for a funeral home. He said that his aunt had expressed a desire to be cremated like her late husband Leo. As he went into the bedroom to call the funeral home and to cancel the wagon (since the funeral home would handle the disposition of the body), his eyes teared up and his voice quavered. "I don't know why," he said, as if apologizing for the tears. It was hard to say whether he was embarrassed about displaying his sorrow or was simply astonished that his aunt’s death had touched him so much. Understandably, he was a little rattled by the proximity of Shirley’s body lying on the floor. "She had her good points," he said, "but the worst thing was her mouth." All the money she had, aside from what he contributed, came from Social Security payments. She used to be an excellent typist, he went on, but that ended with her marriage. The painters union that Leo had belonged to was corrupt, riddled with organized crime influence. So she never received any pension from them. "They gave her a few hundred dollars for his funeral, that's all."

Diane announced that her shift was finished. I was sorry to see her go. I would, of course, never see her again. She was relieved by a young Hispanic cop. By this time the wagon had been called off. The nephew said that someone from the funeral home was checking with the M.E.'s Office to make sure that it was all right to come for the body. He wanted no autopsy.

Asked his aunt's age, the nephew said that he couldn't be exactly certain but he believed she must have been in her mid-sixties. I was astonished. She looked decades older. The stroke might have had aged her, but in some way I suspected that after Leo’s death she’d given up and become old without bothering to wait for years to pass.

About an hour later representatives of the funeral home showed up and at last removed Shirley Sanko’s body. The police placed a seal on the door: “These Premises Have Been Sealed By The N.Y.C. Police Dept. Pursuant To Section 435, Administrative Code. All Persons Are Forbidden To Enter Unless Authorized By The Police Dept. Or Public Administrator.”

I remembered that on those few occasions when Mrs. Sanko had a few people over on the same day -- a workman repairing a door, a visitor slipping her a bottle of scotch, a home attendant she'd end up berating for incompetence -- she'd say, "I had a full house today." On this particular Friday she had the fullest house she had ever had.




Posted
AuthorLeslie Horvitz

It's no wonder that so many physicians have taken on a second career as novelists -- the drama they witness and the variety of people they come into contact with on a regular basis make for too many good stories to pass up. (Somerset Maugham was a doctor before he became a playwright, novelist and short story writer; he was a spy as well but that's another story.)  A subset of physician/writers -- medical suspense novelists -- gathered last week at ThrillerFest, an annual gathering held at the Grand Hyatt in New York.
As someone who's written several medical suspense novels myself, I thought I'd cover it.  Is the Medical Thriller in Need of Life Support?

Posted
AuthorLeslie Horvitz

Scientists at Harvard Medical School had the audacity to think that they could beat nature at its own game and improve on photosynthesis by making it more efficient. They not only succeeded, but showed that their method could convert sunlight directly into  biofuel. Read the my article on the SEED conference last month in Digital Journal.


Posted
AuthorLeslie Horvitz

It turns out that by interfering with the body's natural clock (circadian rhythms), jet lag can contribute to weight gain.  What Mice Tell Us about Jet Lag.  Scientists found this out by conducting a stomach-turning experiment. Several of my articles reporting on the Synthetic Biology: Engineering Evolution & Design (SEED) conference last month have been published in Digital Journal.


Posted
AuthorLeslie Horvitz

I covered the Synthetic Biology: Engineering, Evolution & Design (SEED) conference earlier this month in Boston for Digital Journal.  
My interest stems from my novel SynBio, published last year.

Two reports have appeared so far and I will post a few more in the coming week.

Scientists are now investigating the possibility of turning bacteria into 'computers' to use as therapeutics and diagnostics:  
Why Scientists are Trying to Reboot the Gut


A second report focused on Monsanto's efforts to use synthetic biology (which combines biology with engineering techniques) to replace natural soybean oil with a substitute for omega-3 oil, which is essential for health and mainly available from seafood. The idea is to find a sustainable, land-based alternative especially since stocks of fish are already being depleted. Of course, with anything having to do with Monsanto, the experimental work has already come under fire from critics -- and there are a lot of them. You can read about it here:  
Soybeans Seen as a New Source of Omega-3, Sparing Fish

Posted
AuthorLeslie Horvitz
CategoriesScience

Failure – unalloyed, inexorable failure – is difficult to swallow but it is also impossible to overlook. In few places is failure more brutal, more acutely felt, than in New York. Yet failure in this city has a way of concealing itself and in some cases can assume the guise of success.

Outright failure can serve as a corrective, a signal (or hammer blow on the head), which lets you know that you are possibly heading in the wrong direction and might wish to rethink your course. If you have your heart set on something – landing a part in a play, publishing a novel – it usually requires repeated blows, one more crushing than the last, before you throw in the towel. Some people never do, of course.

Failure is a loaded word. What constitutes failure is often in the eye of the beholder; someone who appears to be a failure to the rest of the world may not feel like a failure at all and in any case, the ability to handle and overcome failure is considered a crucial measure of character. By the same token, a person who is perceived to be staggeringly successful may deep down feel like an imposter, unworthy of the fortune that has been bestowed on him. All that said, it may be instructive to examine some of the forms that failure – or a frustrating lack of sustained success -- can assume in a city which puts so much stock on image. Someone who is a “failure” can by a bit of legerdemain and a sense of style transform himself into a person who, because everyone thinks he’s on top of his game, actually is.

There are stories -- or cautionary tales – about writers who persevere and triumph over nearly insurmountable odds. I once attended a party thrown by a freelance magazine writer who’d papered the walls of her apartment (including her bathroom) with literally hundreds of rejection letters she’d received over the years. But she wasn’t commemorating her repeated failure to get published; she’d thrown the party to celebrate the sale of a story to a periodical for a good deal of money. Such an ostentatious display of failure as she put on is something that can be indulged in only by someone who has achieved a certain level of success. You can see this same phenomenon on a larger scale in Silicon Valley where failure has become a badge of honor (at least in retrospect) and youthful CEOs of aborted start-ups boast of how many millions they burned through.

Because New York is such a magnet for talent from all over the world the competition is especially daunting. All the same, if you do have talent – or you manage to get your foot in the right door (obviously not the same thing) – you may eventually get lucky. Your short story or poem is accepted by Ploughshares or the Paris Review. Your book finds an agent or a publisher. A small film producer pays you $5000 for a six-month option on your novel. Anyone can be forgiven for construing such a break, especially coming after a long, dry spell, as a sign that the gates have at long last swung open. The way is clear. Bigger, better deals are sure to follow.  Hollywood will come calling. Maitre d’s at trendy restaurants will know your name.

This is where it gets tricky. Drug dealers will hook future customers by initially providing them with free samples. A little success acts in much the same way (even if it usually doesn’t run the risk of imprisonment); a little success acts like an intoxicant. Once you have a taste of it you want more. Those who would have given up are seduced into thinking that they can actually make a go of it, after all. It is stunning, not to say disheartening, to discover that the initial success doesn’t invariably lead to more and greater successes. Actors understand this dilemma all too well. An actress I knew struggled valiantly to get work; she studied acting and regularly lined up for auditions. She eked out a living as a coat check girl in an uptown restaurant and later traveled around the country as a model for car shows where she was expected to look pretty while expounding on automotive innovation, a subject she knew next to nothing about. It’s likely that she would have given up on an acting career altogether if it weren’t for the fact that from time to time she would be offered a part – a job with a summer stock or dinner theater company. These gigs paid little, just enough to settle a few bills before the next ones came due, but nonetheless they made her feel that things were finally coming together for her.

Eventually she reached the conclusion that a life as an actor was too erratic to build a career on and she switched to…writing. It wasn’t that she didn’t have the talent to be writer. On the contrary, she was a very good writer. At first she decided to try her hand at a romance novel, figuring that a genre novel would be a good way to break into the business. (Filmmakers starting out use the same approach when they make low-budget horror flicks.) She familiarized herself with varieties of the genre and then went ahead and tried to write one herself, choosing to use a formula based on ‘The Second Chance at Love Series’ if I remember correctly. The manuscript was rejected, not because it was poorly written but because it was too well written, too “literary” for readers of the series. Undeterred, she scraped together the funds to attend a graduate writing program on the west coast. A surprising number of students in her class would go on to write critically acclaimed bestsellers that commanded significant advances. But my friend didn’t do so badly. Within a couple of years of earning her Masters she found a top New York agent and sold her first book, a literary novel, for a modest advance. The novel was accorded a warm reception from critics, but it didn‘t fly off the shelves. There was some talk of a movie option but nothing came of it. Her agent, a tough-minded woman lacking the patient or interest in nurturing budding talent, dropped her. Several years had to pass before my friend was able to sell her second novel. This one was about a subject she knew well: struggling young actors trying to make it in New York. Again the book was greeted enthusiastically by reviewers but again its sales were hardly exceptional. In other words, her writing career had followed much the same trajectory as her acting career had, tantalizing her with the promise of success, confirming her obvious talent, but without giving her the wherewithal to pursue her art and find the audience she deserved. Can this be called failure? Is the glass half empty or half full?


There is another kind of failure – the failure to live up to early success. This is in a sense a problem of timing. Back in the mid-seventies a playwright – let’s call him Nelson Mathis – made a big splash with a two hander that ran for several months in an Off-Off-Broadway theater in downtown Manhattan. Nelson was reaping tens of thousands of dollars a week. A big bear of a man, he looked more like a logger or longshoreman than a playwright, which only enhanced his image. He seemed determined to spend money as fast as he was making it – faster actually. In those days the ingestion of cocaine, washed down with expensive champagne, was an effective way to go about this. Nelson hired a limo on a daily basis and would invite friends – and he had more of them all the time -- from his local watering hole to accompany him on rides around town although eventually he ran out of destinations and friends.

I ran into him many years later. At the time he was living in upstate New York in a kind of exile. New York simply presented too many temptations, he said, some of which were potentially lethal.  “I made a million dollars in six weeks,” he recalls of the period when his play was a hot ticket. He still sounded astonished by his good fortune. He subsequently won an Emmy for writing an episode of St. Elsewhere. But he admitted that he seldom wrote plays at all anymore. Instead he churned out short stories – slices of life he called them. He said that he’d amassed two or three hundred of them, all written by hand. “I need to find a typist.” No one else has ever laid eyes on these stories. It didn’t seem as if he was in any rush to show them, either. It seemed to me that Nelson was still competing against his younger self and falling farther and farther behind.

There’s another type of failure, one which can also masquerade as success. It’s what happens when a would-be novelist puts his way his manuscript and decides to take a “real” job – he goes into advertising or law, or does another type of writing altogether, working for trade magazines, for instance, or pounding out thrillers. His heart isn’t in the endeavor he chooses, but he does well at it; he makes a good living that enables him to buy a nice house and put his kids through college. To the outside world he’s an undisputed success, but inside maybe he feels that he hasn’t lived up to his ideal. He has let down his dream. Maybe he would never be any good as a novelist or short story writer, but he’ll never know. That manuscript he started but never finished, or finished but never tried to sell, lies buried in his bottom drawer or forgotten on his hard drive. It’s the embodiment of a secret self that will never have the chance to see the light of day and a repository of the hopes of a life that will never be lived.


Posted
AuthorLeslie Horvitz

To come to New York City for the first time armed with a name, a number, an address…but not just any name, number or address. The prospective contact will only count if it also holds the promise of gaining entrée to a world you hope to enter, publishing, say, or the editorial department of a Conde Nast magazine. If you have the name of such a contact in your possession before you climb off the bus or the train you could be forgiven for thinking that you’re already ahead of the game.

 

Many years ago when I arrived in New York with a couple of suitcases and two hundred dollars in cash  I had the name of just such a contact, a correspondent for a prestigious weekly whom I will call Tessa Vaughan. She had published three well-received books including the biography of a controversial poet. She was married to a noted professor and lived in a vast apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan with a commanding view of Central Park.

 

My father had known her father in the city where we’d both been raised. That was our only link. Over the phone Tessa was surprisingly receptive and proposed that we get together the following week. At the time I’d been in the city for only a couple of months and had just found an apartment on West 95th Street and Amsterdam. My landlord, an elderly Romanian émigré, rented it to me for $140 per month and another $5 for utilities. This was in an era when it was possible to live, though by no means prosper, on $10,000 a year. The apartment left much to be desired. In the winter frigid air seeped in, rendering the lone radiator utterly ineffectual; in the summer, in the absence of an air conditioner, the heat turned the air into glue and made sleep impossible. The apartment overlooked the world’s ugliest playground which consisted of swings and jungle Jims. There was no grass, just asphalt and cement. This playground was meant for children living in a housing project across the way, but they never seemed to use it. From time to time, though, gangs of bored teenagers would pass through the playground and if the impulse seized them, they’d pick up some stones and fling them at my window. The window was high enough up to challenge them while sufficiently within range to offer a reasonable chance of hitting it. They succeed three times, sending shards of glass flying in all directions. Luckily, the only injury was to the window. I moved out after a year. A friend was vacating his small apartment in The Village and I took over the lease.

 

Living in The Village had been my dream for years. It was the destination to which writers had gravitated for years – Edith Wharton, Henry James, Malcolm Cowley, Allen Ginsburg, W.H. Auden, Edna St. Vincent Millet, Patricia Highsmith. But that was when writers like artists and musicians could afford The Village. They can’t anymore.  But this was the Seventies – “Ford to New York: Drop Dead” days – when you a good, tasty lunch at a reputable midtown restaurant might run you seven or eight dollars. Forty dollars could go a long way unless someone mugged you before you spent it. There was a lot of that in those days, too.

 

But I was under the thrall of the romantic illusion. The artist in the garret is one of those enduring myths that continue to exert a perverse hold on the imagination. In the abstract, of course, the idea of a struggling artist is one thing; the trouble starts when you actually have to live like one. At first, because you believe that you are not doomed to spend the rest of your time in such reduced circumstances – that this is only a rite of passage before you achieve your ambition -- the difficulties and privation can be borne tolerably well. If you’re young and you have friends to call on if you need to unburden your soul – and those friends are pretty much in the same boat you are – the inconvenience can even seem like an adventure. For a time anyway.

 

In the initial pages of his novel “Sophie’s Choice,” William Styron deftly captures the loneliness and longing of a would-be writer in the person of the author’s fictional alter ego Stingo. Shortly after arriving in New York, Stingo finds a job at thinly fictionalized McGraw-Hill (where Styron worked) reviewing badly written submissions that will never see the light of day. He rents a dingy one-room Village apartment in the University Residence Club, whose guests were all men “mostly middle-aged or older Village drifters whose nest stop downward was skid row.”

Each night he returns home – he refers to it as a “cubicle” --with his daily ration of three warm bottles of Rheingold. (Refrigeration being more of a luxury in the postwar years when the novel is set.) He doesn’t have to look far for the life he’s yearning for. It’s right there outside his window, which reveals “an enchanted garden” adjoining a house fronting West 4th Street. The owners of the house and the garden are a dazzling couple -- “a youngish tweedy man whom I fantasized as a rising star at The New Yorker or Harper’s and his lively and astonishingly well-proportioned blond wife.” Stingo dubs them the Winston Hunnicutts, a name he thinks appropriate to their patrician good looks. Tormented by “unwanted solitude,” Stingo sits at the window, enviously observing the Hunnicutts hosting glamorous garden parties. “There in the golden dusk of Manhattan in an atmosphere of culture and unassertive affluence from which I knew I would forever be excluded, a soiree would be commencing…”


Life for Stingo begins looking up, however, when he befriends an older editor at McGraw-Hill, a failed writer who sees in Stingo’s youth the potential he once had but never realized, and takes him under his wing.


Most newcomers to the city, it is true, don’t know an established, well-connected muse or mentor who can show them the ropes, introduce them to the right people and usher them into an “enchanted garden” filled with famous and desirable people. There are exceptions; of course; some have worked as interns at law schools or brokerage houses the previous summer or know somebody who is now running a division of Warner Brothers they attended Groton or Boston Latin or Dalton with. Or else their father knows someone at CBS who knows someone at Random House who just happens to be looking for an assistant. In the best of circumstances you may find a patron who is plugged in and willing to launch you on your career.


I do not know whether I expected Tessa Vaughan to fulfill such a role exactly, certainly not at first, but for a time I thought she might provide me with an entrée into a world that I’d read and fantasized about but hadn’t  a clue how to penetrate.  Indeed, our first meeting at a coffee shop went better than I dared expect. Tessa was a savvy, intense, dark-haired woman for whom ideas mattered a great deal. She was one of those rare people who know how to listen, which is one of the reasons why she was such a good journalist. That is to say, she made you feel as if your words counted – a rarity in this day and age -- though whether she was actually interested in hearing about my modest accomplishments, or was simply eager to give me that impression. In any case, what could I say that would interest her? All of her friends were important people; they’d written novels and produced network TV shows and reported on events in dangerous corners of the world. Everybody she knew moved in rarefied circles; their books and plays were prominently reviewed in The Times and optioned for film rights. Somehow, between writing cogent, exhaustively researched pieces on the burning issues of the day for one of the most prestigious magazines in the country, she still found time to raise a small child and carry on a complicated dispute with her coop board.


At one point during our conversation Tessa brought up the name of a sharp, funny novelist she knew. Would I like to meet her? Of course, I said. Tessa told me that she’d arrange a dinner the following week.  I felt as though the doors to some exclusive club were being flung open for me and all that remained was for me to walk through them.


The promised dinner did in fact take place; that much I remember, but what was said at that dinner has long since slipped from memory and in any case, mattered less than the intoxication of simply being invited to a dinner party with people of such accomplishment. I allowed myself to think that I was accepted, quite oblivious of the fact that every strata of Manhattan society has its own rules and etiquette, with unfathomable hierarchies where many pitfalls await the naïve, the unwary and the presumptuous. My place at the table was far more provisional than I could have expected because I had no experience in this world.


I felt obligated to contribute to the discussion, to justify my presence so that I would be asked back. It’s possible that I talked too much or said the wrong thing, or committed some faux pas of which I was not remotely aware. 


There was, however, no sign then or for some time afterwards that I might have violated some unstated rule or simply worn out my welcome. On the contrary, Tessa even offered to submit a novella of mine to the fiction editor at her magazine, a gesture so flattering that I didn’t hold it against her for failing to follow up on it. (Needless to say, it was rejected without a word of explanation.)  She continued to extend invitations, too. .Would I like to meet friends of hers from Texas who would be in town the following week? Would I be interested in meeting an attractive young woman of her acquaintance? Would I be available for lunch next week? This was no problem. I was always available for lunch.


But it became increasingly difficult to get through to her to confirm that any of these events were on. My calls were seldom returned. And when I did succeed in reaching her some crisis always seemed to be brewing. “I can’t talk now,” she’d snap, “The stove just exploded.” Or her child was sick. Or she was flying out the door or was leaving for Paris – “call me in two weeks.” Once she promised to call back in five minutes. I waited, staring with mounting frustration at the silent phone. She never did call -- not that day or the next. But why would she keep asking me to call or suggest getting together if she didn’t mean it? I made excuses for her; she was busy, she had pressing deadlines to meet and family obligations and a baby and an exploding stove and that business with the coop board, a conflict that seemed as interminable as the Hundred Years War.


This went on for several months. One day I called her and for once she answered. I told her that I was going to London for a couple of weeks on vacation, and knowing that she’d been based as a correspondent there some years before, I was hoping she might suggest some people I could look up. Tessa assured me that she’d compile a list of names for me. She gave me every reason to believe that she would be able to put me in contact with a number of brilliant, creative and well-placed individuals, the kind of people she’d hung out with and reported on.


Two days before I was to leave for London, though, the list still hadn’t come. Tessa said she couldn’t understand what had happened to it. Her letter must have gone astray in the mail, she said. But not to worry, she would give me the names and numbers over the phone. Once again I had the sense that I was imposing on her even though as far as I could see, I was only taking her up on her offer. When she came back on the line she apologized, saying that she could only find one name because she’d been unable to find the address book with all the London numbers in it.


I was disappointed – and naturally suspicious. Why only one name and why was it the name of this particular friend? I phoned the woman when I got to London and then traveled some distance on the Underground to meet her at her flat. She turned out to be an older woman who wore her unhappiness openly and drank too much. Yes, she said, she’d met Tessa on occasion but the two hardly knew each other and hadn’t been in contact for ages.  I sensed that it was Tessa’s way of sending me a message. And the message could be summed up easily: Don’t bother me.


I saw Tessa only once afterwards; she was with her husband, descending the stairs at Lincoln Center after a screening at the New York Film Festival. It was an awkward encounter of careful nods and forced smiles. Not a word passed between us.

Which was worse? I wondered Never to have been invited to the garden party or being invited once and then not being asked back? Was it better to get your foot in the door before it slams in your face and leaves you with bruised toes? I’ve never been able to decide. I had been permitted a glimpse of a world that I had come to New York to find; if I wanted to get back to it then I realized that I would have to enter by another door and reach that door by traveling down a different path.


Posted
AuthorLeslie Horvitz