As I mentioned yesterday, I lived in this Upper West Side neighborhood 10 years ago, moved to a different part of the city, and came back last November. For years while I was a student at Columbia, I had a small studio on 114th Street, and I used to go to Papyrus, a nice little bookstore on the corner of 114th and Broadway, at least once a day. I hadn't visited the store since I returned to the neighborhood, but last night I strolled in. The same friendly West Indian guy who had been working there 10 years ago was behind the cash register. He recognized me and smiled. "What's up?" he said. "You've been on vacation?"
Now that would have been a pretty long vacation, unless he was just being polite and really meant to say, "Have you been in an institution?" or something like that. But customers are not people, really. They're from another civilization and culture; they appear, they want, they go away.
I know because among the 40 or so jobs I had when I was younger, one was as a salesmanin the men's clothing section of a department store. You wouldn't believe the riot of appetite you meet in that kind of situation. I was a sensitive kid, and sometimes I got flustered. One Saturday afternoon,I was using chalk to mark alterations on a pair of pants that a customer had tried on to be fitted, and my hand slipped as I was attending to the crotch. He flew into a rage and started chasing me. Hechased me through every department in the store. The world is a hard place. I had other tense, work-related moments. Working as a golf caddy and accidentally locking myself in an outhouse for four hours was also stressful. But I found the pants incident more troubling since it had to do with interpersonal relations.
In short, I thought I could see things from the West Indian guy's perspective. One day I was trying to get 10 percent off the Penguin edition of Heraclitus: Fragments because some symptom of social decline had folded down a corner of the cover, and then here I was again, 10 years later, probably to ask for another discount. But if he really did think I'd been wading around in Aruba for just over a decade, I understand. What do you do when you bump into proof of the passage of time? Every day I walk by some of the same people I used to see when I lived here in my former life. Pieces from my past, like bits of dreams that suddenly surface into your consciousness and then sink back into the ocean of unremembered feelings. All those buried weighty feelings are what make a living human body so dense. You feel it as a brief shock when you put your arms around someone for the first time. It's always a surprise when you realize how much people have inside them.
Encountering unmet but familiar people from my past, I don't wish to admit to myself how much I want to feel that I've grown but not changed. I want to feel that I've amplified, enriched, expanded (spiritually speaking) myself, but that I'm still, essentially, me. On the other hand, someone once said that a person of character continues to make the same mistakes. So if we do have character, then we haven't grown because growing means not making the same mistakes. And if we have grown, then we don't have character; we're fluid and malleable. Plasticity and instability on one side; stasis and solidity on the other. This is why I've been obsessed with acting and actors since I was a kid. Actors blend plasticity and stasis. They inhabit other people's lives and assimilate new fragments of experience while remaining essentially the same person.
I am writing two books (one after the other), and one of them is a meditation or, rather, a reverie, about acting. My mother, when she was young, wanted to be an actress and got into Lee Strasberg's Actors Studio, where she found herself in a class with Brando. Alas, my grandfather, a gambler and sort of rogue, who kept mistresses more by the force of his personality than through any material contribution to the women he attracted, told my mother that actresses were loose women. And so came the end of my mother's theatrical ambitions. Formally, that is. Needless to say, many of the women in my grandfather's life were actresses.
Maybe character is fate, as Heraclitus said, or maybe chance rules our days. But something keeps bringing me together with people in theater and film. The other night, I walked into a dinner party and found a well-known actress whom I hadn't seen in almost 20 years. I'd tutored her when she was 17, when I was in graduate school, living right up here, in the studio on 114th Street. She recognized me right away, never mind whether I've changed or grown, and it made me feel, happily and foolishly, that time did not eat everything on its plate. She asked me to call, and maybe I will. But I hesitate. I remember something else Heraclitus said, which is that you can't put your foot in a stream in the same place twice. This makes me wonder whether Heraclitus actually was a man of character. It's hard to say what kind of person he was. He has come down to us only in fragments.
Lee Siegel is a contributing editor of the New Republic and Harper's, a contributing writer for the Los Angeles Times Book Review, and the recipient of the 2002 National Magazine Award for Reviews and Criticism. He is at work on a book about New York.