The Diary

May 9, 2014 6:32 pm

The Diary: Joshua Ferris

The novelist on America’s gun laws and the unnerving power of New York’s doormen
An illustration of guns by Shonagh Rae©Shonagh Rae

Bad news for America from the state of Georgia, where Governor Nathan Deal last month signed a law easing restrictions on gun owners. You might think we’d be heading in the other direction – after 453 shooting victims in Chicago alone this year – but, instead, thanks to gun-rights activists and their political tools, we have the appropriately Orwellian “Safe Carry Protection Act of 2014”. The new law will allow licensed gun owners to take their weapons into some bars, churches, school zones, government buildings and certain parts of airports. I don’t know how to make sense of this or spin it in some positive way. We’ve gone mad, and hallucinations loop through the zombie corpus of our once-great nation of nutjobs who can be stopped by armed Georgians in airport bars. We’re inventing the enemy – a national pastime since 9/11, and a favoured tactic among fear-mongers bending the state to their will.

To unpack a little of this for myself last week I turned to narrative, which I tend to do, and read Son of a Gun, a memoir by Justin St Germain, which was published last year to little notice but has since won the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers award.

The book is a son’s account of how his mother was murdered by her fifth husband, a former police officer in Tombstone, Arizona, and a disquisition on the bloody intersection of three deadly forces: angry men, domestic violence and the ready availability of handguns. Despite its right to be so, it’s no screed. St Germain admits to still owning guns long after his mother is shot by the one given to her by his brother. St Germain is wary, he writes, of the violent potential of his fellow citizen: “[My friends] don’t believe in the man at the door,” he writes, chillingly, “I do. I’ve met him.”

Haunted, damaged and searching for answers, he’s writing of the despair that laws such as the Georgia one will inflict on other sons in other tragedies. The only solace remaining to St Germain is the writer’s: he can bring his mom back to troubled, exuberant life in the pages of his book.

. . .

I recently moved back to the city after six years in upstate New York. My family and I took an apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, that burg of wide avenues, of dowagers and doormen.

I’ve never lived in a building with a doorman. It unnerves me. When I enter the lobby, do I say hello and goodbye to the doorman? Or does that annoy him? I’m deeply committed to not annoying my doorman but I also don’t want to appear rude. So I say hello and goodbye no matter how often I come and go, and how engaged the doorman’s return replies are; and I require my four-year-old, for whom rudeness is a way of life, to do the same. Is this appropriate? For all I know, the city’s doormen might be gathered in a break room right now howling with laughter at Mr Overeager.

But there’s also this: because I’m a writer who works from home and keeps odd hours, I wonder if the doorman, provided he’s paying the least attention to me, wonders what I do for a living. The building’s other residents, while not exactly Gordon Gekko, have that distinct air of the expense report vibing from their gunmetal suits and cellphone monologues. Meanwhile, here’s me heading out at eight for coffee, at noon for lunch, at three for a run, and at seven for drinks, arriving back home some nights at three in the morning, carrying a collection of poems and an orchid stolen off a banquet table.

“What do you do?” I picture the doorman asking me, silently, in his head. As I return after a run, sweaty and with that night’s bottle of wine in hand: “What do you do?” When I don’t leave for four days straight and then drift out in my sweatpants to return five minutes later with a newspaper and a jar of pickles: “What do you do?” When I loiter outside the door to glimpse a little sun and then return inside: “What do you do?” When I leave with a jump rope at midday: “Seriously, man, what do you do?”

One day they’ll discover I don’t belong here and kick me out. Until then I’ll have to listen to my doorman ask me from inside his head every time I come and go: “What do you do?”

. . .

I was in Brooklyn over the weekend visiting my brother. As I walked down Court Street, I came upon a man standing against the wall of a pastry shop. He suddenly reared back as if drunk, slamming cartoonishly hard – there was an audible smack – against the wall, which sent him to the ground more or less at my feet. It was like a joke, the street choreography of some prankster. Firmly back in New Yorker mode, at first I thought of this as just another inconvenience to ignore, until I realised he was no drunk. He was having a seizure.

The city encourages you to be indifferent and anonymous until something greater than the city, some countervailing force of the mightier universe, demands you act in conspicuous ways. The guy was black, older, with a salt-and-pepper beard, and when he fell to the ground he hit his head and rolled towards the kerb. His body shook rapidly, and I remembered, as a kid, seeing a grown-up having a seizure and being scared out of my mind, certain I was in the presence of death.

The forces that shook the man’s body made his head pound against the pavement. I quickly got down on my hands and knees and cupped the back of his head with my hands. He was bleeding from the head, his eyes reared back in their white, white sockets and he was spitting foam. I turned to one of the others who’d gathered around us and instructed him to call an ambulance. I continued to cushion the man’s head and talked to him, offering reassurances I wasn’t sure he could hear, and before long the ambulance arrived. Paramedics got out, asked questions, and put the man on a gurney. Another two minutes and he was gone.

 

I was thanked by another man at the scene but I was sure I didn’t deserve thanks. I had acted on instinct, and lacked pretty much all expertise. I was just a hand between the man’s head and the hard ground, which I’m convinced most people would have been if put by accident in a similar situation.

I resumed walking. A block later, though the man was long gone, and the crowd had dispersed, and I had been redelivered to the anonymous indifference of the city, I still felt the warmth from his head in my hand.

Joshua Ferris’s new novel, ‘To Rise Again at a Decent Hour’ (Little, Brown), is published next week in the US and next month in the UK

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