As soon as my wife and I started sheltering in place, I got concerned emails and queries on social media: “Jerry, how are you eating and drinking coffee during this?” I haven’t seen anyone else asked this. These queries were specific to me and my wife, Roberta Smith, also an art critic. We’ve made no secret of her battling cancer since 2014. Today she’s doing well on immunotherapy drugs, though she is in several high-risk categories for COVID-19 and our sheltering in place has a lot of moving parts. But people asked us about food and coffee for reasons other than these. Namely, that anyone who has ever heard about how we eat and drink thinks we are insane.
First, coffee. In normal times, every few nights I buy six large black deli coffees; three caffeinated and three decafs. I put them in the fridge. Each morning, I combine the two into a 7-Eleven Double Gulp cup, add ice, Lactaid, and stevia. I drink two a day, which I tell myself equals one big cup of coffee. We bought a dozen 7-Eleven cups and tops in 2017; we wash and reuse them; ditto four metal straws. Foodies and the art world are aghast when I post myself drinking these. I grew up in an art world where everyone drank this kind of coffee, but the world has changed, and I get it.
Neither of us really cooks. Roberta can but doesn’t; I can’t but do, in a manner of speaking. We rarely go out to eat. It takes too much time. We can’t plan it with two regular deadlines in the same house—two critics living on the manic edge while trying to write, daily battling the demons that tell every writer “You’re through; quit.” Honestly, being in public at all in those flaky states always seems hair-raising to me. We do go out for pizza slices on weekends, after galleries have closed and the openings are over and people are off to big dinners and after-parties. I haven’t gone to more than five sit-down art-world dinners in ten years. Instead, over slices on paper plates, we go over lists of things we’ve seen, what we missed, gossiping about which dealers wouldn’t leave us to look in peace (hi, Gavin, you know we adore you!) and scraping over each other’s wrong ideas about shows.
We don’t do takeout either. It just seems like an invitation to overeat, which is something I worry about constantly. I haven’t had a pancake, waffle, or piece of French toast in decades—afraid I’d instantly become addicted the same way I know if I took one puff of a cigarette, I’d start smoking again. I did this once in 1986, a month after Roberta and I met. I wanted to show her how cool I looked with a butt in my mouth. I took a drag, and as the smoke-filled my lungs, I still remember thinking, I am going to dedicate the rest of my life to smoking. And so I did, for 18 months from that day, before going cold turkey. Do I sound like someone with food or possible substance-abuse issues? I do. But I’ve white-knuckled it this far.
Usually, about once a week at a nearby place called Agata & Valentina, I buy two large boxes of something called chicken paillard—which, now that I think about it, I’m not sure what that actually is. Premade pieces of non-breaded skinless chicken with a teriyaki-ish sauce. The chicken is stored in the fridge in Tupperware containers. We microwave one for lunch, one for dinner. Ditto bags of greens. I boil potatoes and steam Brussels sprouts or broccoli. For breakfast, it’s scrambled eggs and toast. I cook these. Other than snacks, fruit, sugar, carbo binges, and eating while going to galleries and museums, that’s it. I am a hunter-gatherer- microwaver providing for my wife, who is my eyes and mind. We got these lives and learned how to make them talk. We adapt to our environment with our shortcomings and survive.
At least, that’s how I see it. But I know that with food, as with everything else, I have acquired only partial self-knowledge. At different times, I think of myself as a glutton and an ascetic. I can see myself as a person of endless appetites and curiosity, who can imagine going everywhere and seeing everything and eating anything. But I can also straight-facedly say I have no interest in food or any kind of social life other than a monkish one. Barack Obama has talked about narrowing down his clothing—suits of one or two colors—so he didn’t have to think about anything when getting dressed. I get that—doing everything you can to open up time and space in your life for the things you really love. (Bernie Madoff, actually, got dressed the same way.) For me, that thing is looking at art and writing about it. Everything else feels like a wind blowing dead leaves away.
But narrowing and focusing also sound like lame productivity hacks, and I wonder whether Obama was fighting to bottle something up within himself—to continue living in denial and contradiction. Like me. I’ve made a place for myself in a world, the art world, that is both aesthetic and sensual, abstract, and bodiless. I made that place for myself in it by being a puritan with an insane appetite for art. I no longer know which is the pathology and which is the coping mechanism.
Except for my closest friends, it will shock most to know that I am unimaginably bashful. Going out in public in anything but a crowd costs me emotionally. Sometimes I get antsy for days before a nothing event. I never pick up the phone when it rings. As soon as quarantine began, I started to dread someday having to go back into the world. This exile has been one of heaven for me—a version of life that I’ve dreamed of many times. To paraphrase the legendary Al Davis, ours is a tunnel life; we’re not really part of “society,” even if others see us this way.
Many say my coffee and food ritual is “disgusting.” Maybe it is. Roberta says, “Pleasure is an important form of knowledge.” And yet, by almost anyone’s standards but our own, we live almost at war against pleasure. But we’re happy with what we’ve made together. Could we have more pleasure? Sure. But not more time. For me, beauty is what works—the way an odd baseball swing produces a .300 hitter is beautiful, or how Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son is beautiful. Yes, it’s probably harder to eat in a pandemic when you can’t cook. But we don’t feel deprived eating food stored in Tupperware. So to all of you asking, we are eating fine, thank you very much!
SO FAR, I’VE DODGED the big question of why I eat the way I do. It’s not all speed, efficiency, and deadlines.
I was raised by animals. Or to eat like one. I grew up in a small apartment on the South Side of Chicago. My life was fine. I spent days gazing at dust motes in sunlight, flipping over on my back to pretend the ceiling was the floor, and feeling whole other worlds in these things—all like some happy domestic cat. When I was 7, my father made a lot of money from a handheld plastic invention called the Dexter Sewing Machine. You squeezed it, and it sewed and reattached buttons, mended seams, and the like. It was advertised in cheapo commercials late at night along with all the other handy gadgets that used to dot the air: the Veg-OMatic, slicers-and-dicers, and others. I remember my father sitting at a card table lit by one lightbulb in our basement working on inventions for the rest of my life in our house. There were self-closing venetian blinds, an envelope licker, and others that never panned out.
During the day, he and his four brothers owned a woman’s lingerie company in Chicago called American Maid. I loved going to the office with curved desks and wet bars, watching the masterful old Jewish fabric cutters working with big scissors at enormous tables of satin and glimpsing models. It was an American Dream to me. With the money he made from the invention, our family of five moved to a Jewish suburb north of Chicago. There were brand-new homes and construction sites everywhere. I played baseball, ran around, played kick the can, rode my bike, and was happy. There was no art in my life whatsoever. I didn’t know what it was other than some smeary $20 fake French Impressionist paintings that hung in our living room and a fauxBrancusi bird shape on a Formica table in our rec room, where the TV was embedded in a bar and two Naugahyde Barca loungers dominated the room. I remember an art history book where—when my parents weren’t home—I’d search for nudes. That was art to me. I once masturbated to JeanAuguste-Dominique Ingres’s 1862 The Turkish Bath. I loved my life.
Then the bottom fell out. When I was 10 years old, my mother drove me in her powder-blue Buick Wildcat to the Art Institute of Chicago. I loved looking out the window as we drove. I had never been to a museum before. I wandered around. Bored, I started looking back and forth at a colorful little diptych. The light in it was intense; the colors were like coral-reef fish. In the left panel, a man in a prison cell chatted through the bars with two friends outside his cell. In the next image, his head is on the ground; blood spurts everywhere from his neck, which is still sticking through the window; a swordsman holsters a huge blade with blood on it. (Decades later, I realized these were Giovanni di Paolo’s 15th-century depictions of the imprisonment and beheading of Saint John the Baptist.) Then it hit me: This painting was telling a story. I looked around and realized everything here was. I thought I could “hear” all these stories if I looked close enough. My mind was blown.
A month later, my mother committed suicide. The next day, my two brothers and I were dropped off at our house after Sunday school. On the way in, I saw lots of cars parked outside our house. That was strange; they weren’t there when we left. We walked into our rec room through the built-in garage, where I passed my mother’s blue car. My father was waiting just inside the door. He had never done this before. He sat us down in front of him on the ersatz modernist couch. He asked us how Sunday school was. Then he said, “Your mother has gone to live with the angels.” To me, the “angels” were a Los Angeles baseball team. I asked, “When is she coming back?” He said, “She’s not coming back.” I asked, “What will we do with her car?” He looked at me like there was something wrong with me.
As I walked upstairs, the sound of my shoes on the steps made me remember that as we were heading out that morning, I’d heard my father running down these same stairs saying something about a “relapse.” It terrified me. I made my way upstairs to my bedroom. I looked down from the third-floor landing and saw lots of old strangers in my living room. When they looked up at me, they all went silent. Like I was different. From that day forward, my mother was never mentioned again for the rest of my father’s life. Not once. All my memories of her except for the trip to the Art Institute—and one of her on that drive, saying, “We might not see each other again”—vanished. That was that. There was no funeral, no memorial service, no nothing. I went to school the next day.
My life had changed in an instant, but I didn’t know how, or why, let alone what happened. In my early 20s, when a friend of the family gravely talked about “the way your mother died,” I said, “What do you mean? How did she die?” All I knew at that point was what I’d been told, accidentally, at a birthday party as a kid. As I was drinking something out of a glass, someone mentioned something about “Jerry’s mother,” and out of nowhere I bit the glass and it broke. There was no injury, but I always wondered what happened in that moment. The woman was shocked that I’d never been told. She told me that my mother jumped out of a third-story window. That she thought she had “female problems.” She might have been in a hospital. That phrase and the word “relapse” have haunted me ever since. That’s still all I really know. That and the date: November 11, 1961. I called it “the upside-down year” because 1961 looks the same right side up as it does inverted and 11/11 of November 11 is a visual palindrome. The date mattered, not the event. My mind has thought in patterns, diagrams, systems, and internal nonoptical arrangements that subsume everything that might go into them ever since.
My life changed and didn’t change at all. Why don’t I feel anything?, I wondered. I can’t cry. Why should I cry? Nothing has happened. If nothing happened, why did everyone treat me differently? Parents were fidgety. So were teachers. My friends treated me differently, but I couldn’t say how; some stopped seeing me. No one was asking me to play baseball anymore. The girls in school fell silent around me. Were these “female problems”? I was alone. Over the course of a year, I became the worst student in school, started acting out with teachers. Something else was happening, though: I grew invisible antennae to tell myself what I was picking up. I was special, a hypersensitive social-insect empath who didn’t care about anyone, didn’t communicate but who sensed what everyone felt and thought. I was delusional. I was never sad about any of this. I decided that I had no emotions. I developed a protective grandiose mantra I’d chant to myself: “I am death.” It meant I was separate now, of another excluded order. Like I said, a delusional doormat who picked up modulations in the subatomic psychic field around me. Like many who live through trauma, all this was my normal, my story. You’ve got yours.
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May 11–24, 2020