Adaptive Reuse

A Manhattan author's second act in the North Country

Before moving to the Adirondacks I lived for fifteen years in New York City, in a tiny one-bedroom apartment, five flights above the street. I slept in the day and at night worked as a paramedic, living from check to check, always a month behind in the rent. My wife was in college, and we ordered takeout every night, the noodle house around the corner, dining in our bed that filled the room—the best meals of our lives. Then I wrote a book, Bringing Out the Dead. It was adapted for a film, giving me more money than I earned in eleven years as a paramedic. I quit my job to write full time, moved to a highrise with an elevator and laundry, a doorman to carry my groceries. We threw out our old apart­ment, clothes, books, the bed, and bought only new. We had babies, one then another, new worlds, and now, look­ing back on that time, it’s a wonder how I survived.

The apartment overlooked the Hudson River, and I’d sit by the window watching the water and the cars going back and forth over the bridge, the tiny people on sidewalks below me heading to work. For two years I didn’t type, not a word. It was the Sahara Desert of writer’s blocks, the Himalayas. I tried everything, the long walks at night, the writing in coffee shops at all hours, in parks and churches and Chinese restaurants. I drank voluminous­ly, enough for several authors, scribbling novels on cocktail nap­kins and bar bills, pages of forgotten meals.

All my life I wanted to write. That’s why I became a paramedic, twenty-one years old, because I thought it would teach me the things every writer needs to know, the living and dying at the heart of every novel I loved. In my first book I wrote the stories I thought no one else could have written, of the lives I’d seen thrown away, of the too quickly forgotten. Now I felt myself disappearing, the movie finished, the book high on a shelf.

An old friend of mine then, a poet paramedic, had just returned from an artists’ and writers’ retreat in Blue Moun­tain Lake. A beautiful place, she said, where she’d done some of the best work in her life, I applied to the Blue Mountain Center and was accepted and spent a month in a writer’s cabin there, ten steps from the lake, and wrote more than I’d done in the previous half-year. I returned to the Adirondacks in December, taking my family with me—one month in an empty house on Schroon Lake, and again the writing came quick, like I might have burst from not writing enough.

And there was this sense each time I came up here of a door shutting behind me. It happened about a mile or two after leaving the North way, on that section of road where the trees move in, the hills threaten to block out the sun. A feeling of my life dividing, one in New York, one Up North, and every day I stayed the more apparent it be­came—that the person I’d left behind had been lying to me for some time, telling me that my life and writing could function only in the city; I was a cog, made for Manhat­tan, a gear that once turned was unfit anywhere else.

In fifteen years I’d been outside that metro area no more than a dozen times. I’d seen the West and New England, south to Florida, but coming to the Adirondacks was for me like arriving in another country, like putting the kids in the car and driving to Fiji. There was something differ­ent about these hills, hard to keep still, the end­lessly shifting combinations of light and shadow, in the water and sky, the rocks and leaves, mountains appearing to move as I moved around them, bulging, then sagging, sliding over one another, summits given, then taken away. And the way everything man-made, even the houses, appeared to have been dragged here from another part of the state, or else broken down in transit, their owners standing outside, hands on hips, as if waiting for the sig­nal to move again.

It was January when we decided to move north. I re­member the day, the end of our stay on Schroon Lake, a foot of new snow in the woods, white garlands. We’d been in the Adirondacks a month, the fridge full, the children playing nonviolently by the fire. My book was nearly fin­ished, the work going so well I dreaded going home, and suddenly I turned to my wife and said, Wouldn’t it be great to live here? Without hesitating she said, Yes, let’s live here. I hadn’t expected that. We never agreed so easily. She was an architect, used to working with steel and brick; she was terrified of the woods. It’ll be good for the kids, she said.

We bought the first house we saw, a ranch on a hill over­looking the Hudson. The same river we’d been looking at in Manhattan, only a thousand times smaller. We thought it was the perfect place, a dream house, and when we moved in five months later both of us agreed—we must have been dreaming when we bought it. The snow that decorated the place so perfectly in January had melted, making it look thirty years older, falling down in sev­eral spots, much of it broken. Was it that much different than when we first saw it? I can’t say. Clearly, though, we had changed, the difference between visiting the Adiron­dacks and living here.

On our first day the moving truck came up our driveway and broke through our telephone line and was quickly hung up on a tree, an anchor-sized limb jammed into the side of the trailer. We had no tools to cut the branch (in the city we called the super for problems like this), so I drove down to the hardware store in town to buy a saw. There was one on the wall. I took it down. The man behind the count­er shook his head. You don’t want that, he said, that’s twen­ty-three dollars. I looked at the saw; it appeared to be up to the job. I suspected he wanted to sell me something more expensive. This is fine, I said, I’m in a hurry. Again, he shook his head, It’s too much money. I looked at the saw, then the wall. But I really want to buy it, I said. He asked me several questions about what I needed the saw for and what I did for a living. We talked a long time. He seemed genuinely fascinated with me, a man who’d pay twenty-three dollars for a saw.

The shower head broke off the next day, and later that week the stove blew up. Then the water superintendent called, warning us not to drink from the tap for a few days. We lived at the end of the pipe, he said, where things tend to back up. It was a rough neighborhood, the end of the pipe: all night long the animals hanging out in our back­yard, wild cries like I’d never heard before. One sounded exactly like a child screaming for help. My wife and I sat up in the dark, whispering to each other, What the hell was that? Outside our window we heard stories of fear and hunger, rape and murder. Every once in a while my neighbor down the hill would open his door and yell, “Shut up!” and fire a few rounds into the woods.

Our cat was thrilled by these noises. He’d stay up all night crying, begging us to let him out, until finally we relented. He never came back. We put up pictures around town, the bulletin boards already full of hopeless odds: firehouse raffles, casino trips, pictures of other lost pets. We searched the woods around our house until the flies drove us in, making me wonder if perhaps the flies had taken the cat. I drove an ambulance for eleven years in New York City, thought I’d seen everything, but my experiences there in no way prepared me for what those flies could do, the bloody moonscape of my son’s neck at the end of May.

Our house had a large porch that seemed like the logical place for me to write. I put a desk in the corner, over­looking the river, but soon discovered that the porch also looked over most of the things in the house that needed fix­ing. When things broke I put them on the porch. It was quickly filling up with junk. I bought an old truck to start mov­ing some of it out, but the truck soon broke down and became more junk. A few weeks later I couldn’t reach my desk, now looking over a rusted truck and several pieces of broken plumbing (they didn’t fit on the porch). We surren­dered then and spent all of our savings, to fix the house and the truck and take away the junk.

The novel I was writing, Crumbtown, was about a bank robber who has his life turned into a movie and he’s fighting to get his life back. In the end he will rob the movie based upon his life, and lead a chase that takes him far upstate, to a concrete bunker deep in the woods, where he’ll seal himself off from the world. All I wanted was a quiet place to finish this book, my deadline just months away. There was an old motel in the middle of town, The Alpine, with a For Sale sign out front and on the door to the office another sign that said Self-Service. Keys are in doors. Leave with money on desk when done. Inside the office was a list of prices, the cheapest rooms downstairs. I took number fifteen in the basement and closed the curtains and stared at the wall. I’d written in some of the prettiest spaces in the Adirondacks, now I was writing in one of the dark­est, exactly the kind of room my bank robber would have taken. We stayed there all summer, that bank robber and me, to the end of the book, where he finally surrenders.

I thought I’d hand the finished manuscript to the editor myself, make a celebration out of it, see New York City for the first time since I left. The car wasn’t working so I had to take the truck—an ’86 Dodge with a 318 engine and a Meyer plow—that had broken down so many times I’d fall­en in love with it. I set off first thing in the morning, a five-hour trip, but by Saratoga a dark coughing started in the engine, louder every minute. By Manhattan the noise had risen to a roar that on Broadway turned the heads of even the most hardened New Yorkers. I seem to remember mothers grabbing their children, con­struction workers covering their ears. It’s hard to say what was real, my head so full of fumes from the engine, my face bright red and pulsing. I had a very nice lunch with the editor but couldn’t tell what we ate, and I remember even less of the ride back. One stop at a garage just outside the city, my head reeling. The mechanic dithered out from under the truck. Five hundred dollars, he said. That’s too much, I replied. I’ll try to get it home. You’ll never survive, he insisted. You’re gonna get fumigated.

I drove as fast as the truck would go, windows open, the radio blaring ike a siren, until I couldn’t go any far-tier. I stopped at a garage in Glens “alls where the mechanic said he ould fix it for $250. Encouraged by ic fifty-percent drop in price and the jw minutes of fresh air, I decided to o on, fifty miles home, where I slept ke a pine floor.

In the morning I brought the truck to Jack’s place, a few miles up the road. Jack is a specialist in keeping old vehicles going, and after looking under the hood he walked over to me, shaking his head, The part costs $180, he said, but you don’t want that. I don’t? No, you don’t, because I’m going to make you the part myself.

While Jack created, I looked around the yard, one of the most im­pressive collections of junk I’ve ever seen, in one of the prettiest valleys. A little while later Jack pulled the truck out and handed me the key. The bill was forty dollars.

The cough in the engine returned the following week, but in the many months since, I have to admit, it has­n’t gotten any worse. Like my porch, which seems to have sagged all it will this year, and the retaining wall of my driveway that bulges but refuses to break. I will wait, content to let things depreciate. I’ve started anoth­er book, writing in the Johnsburg Vol­unteer Emergency Squad building, where I can also respond to 911 am­bulance calls. It’s an hour to the hos­pital from here, and in exchange for taking someone in I almost always re­ceive a story in return, usually about the values of different things. I’m working four jobs now, just in case—writer, teacher, paramedic, and ski patroller at Gore Mountain. It seems like every day I learn another use for something. Because what’s new is almost always too expensive, espe­cially considering how much I get for free: the view from my backyard down the river, a day’s hike with my sons, the cries of coyotes outside my window. After two years I can still see the old mountains in a new light, and when I look at myself in the mirror now, nearly forty, I wonder, Maybe, if just for a while, this is as old as I’ll get.

Joe Connelly is the author of Bring­ing Out the Dead (Knopf, 1998) and Crumbtown (Knopf, 2003). He lives in North Creek with his wife and two sons


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