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Entries in new york (31)


In Which Malcolm Lowry Despised New York

Substance Abuse


Malcolm Lowry's biggest bout of binge drinking began when his suitcases were lost en route to New York in 1954. His wife Margerie was used to dealing with his inebriation; his other caretaker in the city was David Markson, a young novelist who had written a critical appreciation of Lowry's 1947 novel Under the Volcano. Markson later wrote,

The man could not shave himself. In lieu of a belt, he knotted a rope or a discarded necktie around his waist. Mornings, he needed two or three ounces of gin in his orange juice if he was to steady his hand to eat the breakfast that would very likely prove his only meal of the day. Thereafter a diminishing yellow tint in the glass might belie the fact that now he was drinking the gin neat, which he did for as many hours as it took him to. Ultimately he would collapse sometimes sensible enough of his condition to lurch toward a bed, though more often he would crash down into a chair, and once it was across my phonograph.

During a subsequent party held in his honor, Lowry pre-gamed by drinking a bottle of shaving lotion. Markson recalled that during the event "suddenly, cupping his hand to his mouth, he began to make sounds that can only be called beeps."

Lowry's favorite drink was a constantly evolving subject. He was not a mean drunk, particularly, although he was always careless. His constitution was actually state-of-the-art to be able to absorb the kind of damage he inflicted on it and survive. He saw drinking not as an art, or a path to understanding, but an inescapable part of his daily existence. Once Markson opened his eyes in the morning to find Lowry leering, "Do you have the decency to offer me a drink?"

Lowry and Aiken in Spain 1932Through Malcolm Lowry's life, people were always trying to get him clean. If they liked his writing, they were far more inclined to put up with his behavior, which perhaps seems obvious, but the one thing really has little to do with the other. 

When he first arrived in the United States to stay with Conrad Aiken, he carried only a ukelele and a bunch of notebooks.

with conrad aiken 1931

He absolutely despised New York. He wrote,

In my experience odi et amo that particular city it favors brief and furious outbursts, but not the long haul. Moreover for all its drama and existential fury, or perhaps because of it, it's a city where it can be remarkably hard or so it seems to me to get on the right side of one's despair.

Acapulco in march of 1946

In his drunken state, he often wrote letters. He would usually start penning screeds to his friends, agents and publishers just when he had approached rock bottom, so they took on something of a desperate tone. Writing to his agent in 1967, he managed, "Please don't say I'm a shit...for not writing more when you have dealt so kindly with me. It's just that my mind won't work. I am having a lot to contend with right now."

Lowry believed that versions of mescal he imbibed might provoke useful hallucinations, although in reality he was making a common error. The drink had nothing to do with mescaline. 

He was capable of getting in any amount of trouble while under the influence. On occasion he would drink himself under so badly that he resorted to asking witnesses if he had been violated sexually. But for the most part his tolerance was high enough that he did not black out completely.

February 1946

It seems stupid, in writing about Malcolm Lowry, to wonder why he drank so often and so much. Yet in his case, alcoholism constituted such a destructive act it almost demands an answer to a silly question.

Douglas Day wrote in his biography of Lowry that "Orally fixated types are prone to excessive drinking. Sons of austere and autocratic father are apt to express their rebellion against that parent by drinking. Guilt and fear, of sexual origin, are likely to express themselves in drinking. Reaction against a rigidly authoritarian religious upbringing may manifest itself in drinking."

March 1947

Day continues, explaining that "Lowry drank not so much because he chose to, as because he had to: from one source or another, he had acquired, by the age of eighteen, enough guilt — sexual and otherwise — and resentment and insecurity to have made it almost impossible for him to be anything but an alcoholic. He must have been an utterly miserable young man."

what became the Calle Nicaragua in "Under the Volcano"

The protagonist of Lowry's most famous work, Under the Volcano, spends about two-thirds of the novel under the influence. Even the book's most dedicated admirers seem to grow tired of this. The Consul's intoxication, at some point, ceases to be charming. He drinks primarily because he is lonely, but also because he is is afraid of sex, other people and the possibility he may be attracted to men.

Of the book Lowry argued that it was "designed, counterdesigned and interwelded that it could be read an indefinite number of times and still not have yielded all its meanings or its drama or its poetry." If only this did not sound like an excuse for his life rather than a strength of his literature.

Ellen Copperfield is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in San Francisco. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She last wrote in these pages about Simone de Beauvoir.

"That Old Manhattan" - Julian Velard (mp3)

"New York, I Love It When You're Mean" - Julian Velard (mp3)


In Which She Appeared To Be There For The Fight

Mal de Mar


Midwest summers in my grandparents house were hot and leaden with the smell of perfumed soaps and car oil. It was summer when Mom told me of her younger brother Ben’s death and handed me a photo from the mantelpiece. It was encased in a frame, and inside was a tiny unfamiliar body with hands smaller than my eight year old mitts. “It was a farming accident. Your grandmother never recovered,” she told me. We didn’t speak of him, or my grandmother, again. Idle after university I began to resist this falling away. I hungered for a history proven elusive with a ferocity that perhaps matched my grandmother’s hunger to disappear.

I imagined my grandparents’ world mirroring the seasoned black and white photos on our mantelpiece. The light hit sternly from above, giving them a ghostly hollow cheeked conviction. My mother rarely told stories of their lives, sound bites not to be elicited like announcements made over an airport loudspeaker. Their history felt fragile to me even as a child.

I followed my grandmother to New York; I imagined Pakistani cab drivers struggling to understand her sharp Norwegian consonants. It was here that I found myself, with a question more profound than its answer: a shoddy apartment in Bedford-Stuyvesant, trying to piece together an old narrative in a city pulsing with forward momentum. It was 2011; I was broke, aimless and lonely.

I had picked up a job at a bar in the East Village. Our busy season was ending with the dying of summer, as was my patience for sleeveless regulars. It was here I met Sophie. She came in for a job application but was quickly engaged in a fatal shouting match with the owner Lucia. Despite a crumpled resume in her hand, she seemed to be there for the fight. She plopped down in front of me and casually tossed peanuts into her mouth. Pulling me in by the shoulder, she whispered, “Don’t worry, I always carry a gun.” It’s laughably absurd in retrospect, but irony had died with the Bush era, so I said nothing and watched her kick a chair over on her way out.

Much later Sophie told me she dreamt about that day. Throwing back the rest of the peanuts she had taken me by the hand. The back patio opened up into an endless beach and we ran through a landmine field of cruddy drunk kids sprawled on the sand. Together we blew away in an overturned beach umbrella. We shared that desire to take sail; I was searching for something, while she was hoping to lose herself. From that first meeting I recall her tiny hands, fingernails filled with dirt, as though she clawed her way out of bed each morning with orphic desperation. I was not alone in my desire for her. She seemed destined for a great story, the femme fatale caged on the island of sirens.

My love of her was amorphous. I straddled a tightrope of detachment and lonely urges of wanting to belong. I needed her most when New York felt very far from the Midwest. I remember my mother calling me from the road. Her sister had skipped town leaving her five kids in a series of destructive events. She had gone to help out in her absence. I knew she wouldn’t tell those kids the truth. These secrets live behind her smoke colored eyes. “The rain is coming down hard now honey, I’m going to have to let you go,” she said. I knew she was crying. She dropped off the line.

I had forgotten where I was going; I dialed Sophie’s number. Ben’s death seemed to surface like a toxic oil spill. Without a sound, the tragedy had seeped into the drinking water of the whole family.

I chose to stay in New York through what I think of in hindsight as the lonely years. One year became two. I was still on the hunt for my grandmother’s story, imbued by a tragedy I wanted desperately to understand. Sophie and I would walk through her old neighborhood breathing life into corner stores and old shoe repairmen who might have once shared her space. I was unhappy and empty-handed, but Sophie seemed to tolerate my quiet spells, if not feast on my despondency.

We began moving in the same circles, her role in them much more glamorous than mine. My last spring in New York, though I did not know it yet, was anachronistic, marking the end of so many things. On this particular night I found myself at a going away party, an occasion that turned me into a cool spectator of my own sensations. I watched myself make grand plans I knew would never be kept, trips to places like Geneva for jazz, Brazil for some party. Youth afforded us these fantasies; we seemed to have all the time in the world to break them.

Sophie arrived with Martine, her boyfriend du jour. I thought of all her boyfriends this way, a sarcasm truly born from a jealous longing. It was the kind of evening you could feel; change hung in the air like words unsaid. At the time it felt like a beginning, but it is always harder to sense the ends of things. 

I had been skirting around the party all night, my third eye on the comedy show Martine and Sophie were putting on. Martine would make a crude joke and Sophie would double over or throw her head back- the mating dance. I hated this party. I lost sight of them and slipped to the bathroom locking the door behind me. I fell against it, closing my eyes against my reflection. I felt suffocated. Every time I retold the narrative of my life, I changed. I was whirling fast, falling away from anything that I knew, from the girl I was when I moved here. Leaving this party was my only option. I opened the door and ran straight into Sophie. Her pupils were dilated and sweat collected on her hairline. She cornered me in the bathroom doorway.

“You’re in love with me,” her lip snarled back in a mock smile. “You are tragically trapped, admit it.” She loved that word, spitting it out: tragic.

I had told her once that she was robbing it of its theatrical qualities. “This isn’t all a fucking act?” she had replied.

In the doorway, Sophie kept speaking, but I felt a strange quiet cloak us. Tiny flecks of dust floated between us, illuminated by the ambient light coming from the open door behind me. The patina warped her voice.

I saw myself, years later recalling this moment, predicting its nostalgic powers. My pretend future self couldn’t remember any of the words she spoke, but through the dust I could acutely see tiny drops of perspiration delicately balanced on her raised collarbone. They were lined up like dominoes, waiting for the impetus to join forces and take the great plunge to the floor.

We stopped speaking after that night. I didn’t feel resentment, and remember that moment as the critical push. I left New York a month later.

A few weeks ago I received a surprisingly early morning phone call from an old New York friend Dan. Sophie had died. “She had leukemia. I thought you should know,” Dan said. There was silence on the line. “She always cared for you.”

We look for a history to call our own; we try and cling to something bigger than the life in front of us. Bigger than pulling on a short skirt for a shift at an East Village bar, bigger than waking up to 6 a.m. to sunlight stealing through the blinds of a stranger’s apartment, bigger than the mingling smell of urine and seaweed salad at the bottom of the subway stairs. We risk forgetting that we are floating through our own story.

Maureen O'Brien is a contributor to This Recording. This is her first appearance in these pages. She is a writer living in New York. She twitters here and you can find her blog here.

Photographs by Thomas Bollier.


In Which We Will Advise You On This Location

A Few Things You Need To Know About Living In New York


Living in New York? Me too. Here is a pocket list of information that may aid you in your quest to take a bite out of the big apple.

Good luck.

Things you will spend money on



Things you won't spend money on


Things you will accumulate

Cheap umbrellas

Plastic cutlery

Tote bags

Things you will not have inside your apartment

Clean towels

A kitchen counter


Interesting-shaped windows

by leeah joo

Subway etiquette #1

Don't trim your nails on the subway.

Social warning #1

Low-income smokers in New York spend 25 percent of their income on cigarettes. Try to quit smoking.

by Leeah Joo

Taxi cabs

Why are you taking a cab? The subway is faster and cheaper.

But okay. The main thing to remember with cabs is this: after you hail your cab, be sure to climb inside before directing the driver to your destination, especially if you are going to a different borough. If you stand outside and meekly suggest your outer-borough destination, the driver will simply shake his head and drive off.

This is crazy. You're a paying customer! You should not need to audition for a cab. It is also unlawful: drivers can be fined $500 for refusing to ferry customers from one part of the city to another part of the city. So get in the cab first and then tell the driver where you want to go.

Do not undertip.

Common sights you will see

Squashed rat

Bottle filled with pee

Mysteriously tiny drug bag (why is it so small?)

by Leeah Joo

Social warning #2

Melodrama wrapped in sophistication is still melodrama.

Social warning #3

Your crackpot radar needs to grow exquisitely refined. This applies to strangers, obviously, but it also applies to acquaintances. Living in any large city means that your social circle grows exponentially, which in turn brings about a statistical increase in the likelihood of encountering iffy types.

Designer juice

Don’t be ridiculous. Unless you are pulling in more than 500K after taxes, you do not have $10 to spend on a bottle of juice.

Subway etiquette #2

SCENE: A man leans against a subway pole on a crowded 2 train at 4 p.m.

Woman: This pole isn’t for you to lean on. It’s for people to hold on to.

Man: Is there a sign that says that? You see a sign?

Woman: I don’t HAVE to. It’s a crowded train. Stand up like a man.

Man: Woman, don’t loud-talk me.



God, don't let this happen to you. Avoid leaning on the pole.

by Leeah Joo

Subway etiquette #3

Situation: A train pulls into the station. It is packed except for one car, which is curiously empty. Do not board the empty car. It is empty because something truly terrible has happened there.

Social warning #4

Learn to say "no".

Molly Young is the senior contributor to This Recording. You can find her Twitter here and her tumblr here. She writes for GQ and New York magazine.

Paintings by Leeah Joo.

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"Body Touch" - Machinedrum (mp3)