Jonathan Ames Essay

The other night I had insomnia, and I lay there, bereft and despairing. Too tired to read, too tormented to sleep. Tormented by what exactly, I can’t tell you. It was just general 3 a.m. torment, of the kind Fitzgerald alluded to when he wrote “in a real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning.”

The next day—or rather, later that same day—attempting to revive myself, I went to my local café and purchased something called a “Red-Eye,” which is three parts American coffee and one part espresso. (On the periodic table, it might read AC3ES.)

I took it home with me, and after drinking this potion I experienced some kind of caffeinated psychotic break from reality. I suddenly looked about my apartment and realized that my denial as to the state in which I lived could no longer be denied. My domestic laziness, I decided, had reached catastrophic proportions.

Things stuffed in filing cabinets and closets and under chairs and the bed, it was a mess that could no longer be contained—I’ve been alive too long. But due to the deranging influence of the Red-Eye, I thought I might try to clean the place up.

Like an intrepid, though slightly manic, Arctic explorer, I began with the refrigerator. A recent female visitor to my apartment had casually mentioned to me that my icebox was “disgusting.” So I opened the door to that chilly closet and I gasped. It was like emerging from a coma after six years—the length of my tenure in this apartment—and seeing the world anew. And a very ugly world, at that!

The only object left uncorroded in my refrigerator was my Brita water jug. I couldn’t remember when I had last changed its filter, but, miraculously, I found the box with the extra filters in a dish cabinet and saw that I had scrawled on the box July 26, 2005 . That was about six months ago, but I now read on the side of the box that “for the average family” filters should be changed every two months. I rationalized that I was not the average family and so six months for one carbon filter probably wasn’t so bad. And wasn’t I away for two weeks in July? That had to count for something, giving the filter time off like that. Anyway, I promptly inserted a new filter and felt very good about myself.

Continuing my mission of renewal, I hastily grabbed a plastic bag and began to fill it with the contents of the refrigerator. When I had two bags loaded, I thought I should write down what I was throwing out as a sort of warning to my future self not to let this happen again.

So I emptied the bags onto my kitchen table, and here, listed chronologically and with commentary, is what I discovered:

1. Imported Non-Pareil Capers, circa 1998/’99, which were left behind by these two French girls who lived in this apartment from 1998 until I took over the place in September of 1999.

2. Grey Poupon Mustard, ca. 1998/’99. (French girls.)

3. Baby Sour Gherkins, ca. 1998/’99, with an expiration date reading: “Enjoy by 4/28/01.” (French girls.)

I went to the bathroom and threw some water on my face—that Red-Eye really had my nerves on edge.4. Roland Silverskin Anchovies, ca. 1998/99. This bottle of anchovies, I have to say, was rather unnerving. To think that those anchovies had once been alive, probably in about 1997, was a bit much, and the liquid they were encased in had the filmy complexion of formaldehyde. (French girls.)

5. Bainbridge Blackberry Jelly, ca. 2002, given to me in Memphis, Tenn., as part of my press packet when I was there covering, as a journalist, the Mike Tyson/Lennox Lewis fight.

6. Bainbridge Crisp Sweet Pickles, ca. 2002. (Press packet.)

7. Westbrae Natural Stoneground Mustard, expiration date 1/25/04, therefore probably purchased in 2002 or 2003.

8. Zinc throat spray, ca. 2003. I had the flu that year.

9. Echinacea, ca. 2003. (Same flu.)

10. Crazy Richard’s Chunky Peanut Butter, ca. 2003.

11. Muir Glen tomato sauce, expiration date: June 2004.

12. Tofu steak, ca. 2004. This was brought over by an ex-girlfriend and then never eaten and then never thrown away for sentimental reasons.

13. Briannas Vinaigrette dressing, ca. 2004. (Same failed relationship.)

14. Chewable acidophilus, ca. 2004. (Same failed relationship.)

15. Year-old, half-drunk bottle of Fiji Water.

16. Year-old, half-drunk bottle of Perrier.

17. Eight-month-old, half-drunk bottle of alcohol-free Martinelli’s.

18. High Lignan Flax Oil, expiration date May 23, 2005, purchased during a short-lived heath-kick sometime that year.

19. Two half-filled coffee-cups from the café, date of purchase unknown. I had intended to reheat them, probably only about four-months old.

20. A dozen three-month-old carrots, bought to save my eyes.

21. Three-month-old plastic container of olives. (Bought with the carrots.)


* * *

List completed, I went to put everything back in the plastic bags and spastically knocked to the ground the never-enjoyed, seven-year-old Baby Gherkins. The glass didn’t break, but the metal cap was so fragile and old that it split apart, and the Gherkins crawled out and at first I thought they were the anchovies—they seemed to be swimming—and I screamed like a schoolgirl and ran out of the room.

I went to the bathroom and threw some water on my face—that Red-Eye really had my nerves on edge.

I returned to the kitchen and with some napkins I cleaned up the Gherkins, but the black dirt on the napkins from my kitchen floor—the Gherkin-juice was acting like a cleaning agent—was wildly demoralizing.

Then I thought I should empty the old bottles so I could recycle them. I opened the Martinelli’s and the cap flew off with explosive force—the gas must have been building up for six months and there was a noise like an air gun—and I was shot in the middle of my forehead, right where my third eye should be, if I had one.

Having nearly blinded my spiritual eye I had reached my emotional tipping point, and took to my bed. The caffeine had run its course, and I passed out for two hours.

When I awoke, I was back to normal—that is to say I had no desire to do any more cleaning. But I was rather pleased with myself—I had an empty fridge! And it has stayed that way for several days now. I’m almost tempted to go buy some food, but it’s probably best to leave well enough alone.

The entire universe is moving toward a final state of total, absolute kippleization.

Like Dick, I am in firm agreement that everyone in the universe — including those of us on Earth — struggles, in varying degrees, with kipple. Who doesn’t have a medicine cabinet teeming with rusted nostril-hair clippers, congealed unguents and empty bottles of Motrin, or a bedside table drawer frothing with old, forlorn, hastily ripped condom wrappers, bar mitzvah yarmulkes and 13 tangled, airline-issued eye masks?

Actually, that’s my medicine cabinet and bedside table, but I know I’m not alone with this kind of accumulation of idiotic detritus. My problem is that in one’s never-ending battle with this perpetual accumulation of life’s silt, I am France, and kipple is Germany. But why? Why am I so feeble, louche and easily overrun? Why is my apartment the dominant organic life form and not me?

WELL, FIRST OF ALL, I LOVE BOOKS. Anthony Powell once titled one of his novels “Books Do Furnish a Room.” In my case, it’s more like “Books Do Overwhelm a Room.” I have a thousand or more novels and works of nonfiction, but not enough shelves, so I have uneven stacks of tomes everywhere, all teetering in an intoxicated manner. But I don’t care. I’m a middle-aged old fart who steadfastly refuses to ever read on an electronic device, if for no other reason than I’m a frightened, small-minded technophobe. Also, these gadgets are going to change the way novels are written and conceived, and I’m against change when it comes to things I do.

So books are the only form of kipple I’m not opposed to, though adding to the mix all the time, which can be quite guilt-inducing, are the 50 or so bound galleys I’m sent every year to write blurbs for. They’re usually striving first novels or memoirs, each author, with a book, sending out a sympathetic existential flare: I was here! Read me!

But I usually can’t because I’m too busy trying not to go insane, so I simply add these young books to the piles that surround me, like prison bars, penning me in but also keeping me safe from the coming bookless world.

SECOND, I’M PATHOLOGICALLY LAZY. I have a form of attention deficit disorder. I like to pay attention only to things I want to pay attention to, and cleaning my apartment does not fall into that category. Thus, I live like the Unabomber, but without his sense of purpose. I have, of course, made attempts every now and then to straighten up, but I approach it in the same manner as my taxes — something to be done only once a year, while screaming in confused agony like a cat in heat. 

As a result, the dirt in my apartment has been around for so long that it’sa kind of carpeting, and I breathe in more dust than a whole classroom of poor asthmatic children. Also, for over a decade I’ve never washed the yellowed Shrouds of Turin that cover my bedroom windows and pass for curtains. They are porous from age and let in so much cirrhotic light that I’m dependent on my knotted eye masks to sleep. When I do wake from my dusty, tormented six to eight hours, I bathe in my tub, which brings to mind that well-known phrase: pond scum.

  I do want to emphasize that while I may be filthy, I’m not materialistic. Almost all my furniture was found on the street a dozen years ago. I currently make a nice salary but still live like a feral graduate student. I hardly buy a thing.

So my apartment is not cluttered with possessions. It’s simply the garbage of life and the dirt of life — kipple in all its effluvial manifestations — that I can’t keep up with. But to write this piece, I had something of a minor breakthrough: I shifted the bulk of my kipple intothe small child’s room off my bedroom. This has cleared some sightlines and lessened the risk of a spontaneous fire.

THIRD, I’M HALF NUTS. I used to have seasonal affective disorder every February, but now I have it year-round. Most people like to call it depression, but I prefer a more old-fashioned diagnosis — I’m losing my mind.

We all have different internal compasses, and mine, for as long as I can remember, has listed toward sadness and despair, which can make it difficult to get out of bed. My main problem is with death. I don’t like it. I don’t like anything about it, and I don’t want anyone I love — or anyone I don’t love, and that certainly includes dogs, a species I’m very fond of — to die. I’ve been around for nearly five decades, but I still can’t accept the basic premise of life: it ends. Thus my apartment has come to reflect my mind, which is also kippled: I’m mired in the heartbreaks of the past; I’m confused and nuts in the present; and I dread the pain of the future, the coming losses.

So I just sit in my three-and-a-half small rooms, waiting for and fearing death, all the while allowing myself to be buried alive. I seem to have run out of dreams for myself.

LAST, I HAVE SEVERE OEDIPAL ISSUES. A long time ago, my mother chose my father over me, as well she should have, but twisted as I am in a classic Oedipal way, I’ve never gotten over it. At 47 years old, I’m still waiting — since 1982, the year I moved out — for my mother to come clean my room.

What I probably need to do is to fall in love with a Spanish woman so I can call her mamí and not feel self-conscious. It would also be helpful if this woman had old-fashioned values, wherein a man is allowed to do nothing in a domestic situation except make a mess and be fed. A high tolerance for self-indulgent melancholia would also be welcome.

But since such a winning combination of selfless and co-dependent traits is very hard to find in a woman (damn you, Dad!), I imagine I’ll be a stunted Grey Gardens bachelor drowning in kipple for years to come. But there is one positive in this mess about a mess: I’ll have plenty of books to help me pass the time.

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