Extrapolation as an Art Form in the Lobby of the John Muir

Joshua Ferris

 

We open on Johnny Touchwood standing idle in his cap and overcoat in the doorway of the John Muir building. The John Muir is on Eighty-sixth Street just west of the Park. Johnny looks regal as a Cossack on horseback—even with his doughboy complexion and combover, his broken and rebroken schnoz. But let’s be honest—all the doormen look regal in that coat: red epaulets and five gold buttons. Different doormen, same coat. When not in use, that coat hangs limp from an empty rack in the boiler room, not far from where all the guys eat their deli sandwiches.

 

Johnny’s screenplay, or teleplay—or pilot, I suppose it’s called—was a ripoff of Downton Abbey set in Manhattan and featuring doormen and the residents they served.

When he told me this, I thought I was getting the doorman’s dream to write the Great American Pilot as the lawyer in apartment 8C might get Johnny’s Supreme Court dream, and the hedge fund manager his dream of becoming a bond trader.

But in fact, Johnny Touchwood had only one dream.

He badgered me to see Downton Abbey. I took in every episode in a three-day binge, reporting back that it was indeed addictive.

“You serious, Mr. Barnes? All six seasons in three days?”

“That’s right, Johnny,” I said. “What have you accomplished?”

That night, Lizzy and I escaped into the city. We returned late, and I lingered in the lobby while Lizzy rode the elevator up to bed. I told Johnny all about our soiree. I’d drunk half the world’s supply of a vintage Dom Perignon and made the acquaintance of a famous actress. Together in silence we chewed over her glamour. Then I forced one hundred dollars on him for having carried up, the week before, a crate of oranges from Tel Aviv and two royalty checks. He asked me to read his pilot.

Waking on the lobby bench the next morning, I found myself staring at the pale outline on the wall opposite where once hung a compelling still life of four nutty pears. I stood, said good morning to the day doorman (Carlos), and took the elevator up to bed.

 

In the early eighties, Johnny had had a promising boxing career. At thirteen, he knocked out sixteen-year-old Calvin Harris during a training match, causing such a stir in the gym that Boyd Bird, the trainer, looked up from his newspaper. Two years later, and with Bird now in his corner, Johnny knocked out Dennis “Blood” Rival in the New York Golden Gloves, becoming the youngest amateur boxer to have his picture taken with the mayor. Back-to-back championships followed. (Insert fight montage here.) In 1984, Johnny seemed to have met his match with Pablo Lark, a squat, baby-faced killer nicknamed Bam Bam for his left-hand jab. The two stayed locked in such vicious physical combat that, in photographs of the bout, their battered bodies look superimposed on one another, two parts of the same blob. The most memorable photograph, a washed-out black-and-white taken right after Bam Bam went down, shows Johnny snarling, beating his breast, as he turned toward the camera in the certainty of victory. Eight and a half minutes later, Bam Bam was declared dead, and Johnny Touchwood traded in his boxing gloves for those he wore late at night in the John Muir when he was waxing the marble floors and shining the brass fixtures.

“You see, Mr. Barnes, once you hurt a guy—”

“You mean kill him?”

“Hurt him, kill him. You don’t want nothing bad like that happening again, so you start pulling your punches, and that’s how you get hurt. You can never pull your punches, Mr. Barnes.”

“Not even to save a guy from dying?”

“Not if you want to stay alive yourself,” he said.

Just then the first of my guests arrived in the lobby. I handed them each a glittering mask on a long white stem and, pointing out the elevator, welcomed them to the party. I told Johnny to send up the rest, and to ignore any noise complaints from the neighbors.

 

“You can’t be honest with him,” Lizzy advised me.

I had just shared with her my low opinion of Johnny’s terrible pilot—his awful, amateur, illiterate, illegible television scribblings.

“Why not be honest?” I asked.

“Because it will devastate him.”

I had considered that. I also considered how little I wanted to be beaten to a pulp by the same man who killed Bam Bam Lark, if it turned out he had no real taste for criticism.

As a coward and a voyeur, I’ve been drawn to bloodsport all my life. I’m also a writer, and writers are obsessed with boxers for reasons we don’t often claim to understand. Here’s how I explained it one night to four gentlemen in black tie and the young Dior model in a strapless Marchesa: a writer spends an entire lifetime trying to claw through the shit to get at the truth, while it takes a boxer in the ring only eight and a half minutes.

“But he advised me personally never to pull any punches,” I said to Lizzy.

“Who did?”

“The doorman,” I said. “Johnny what’s-his-name.”

“Pull them anyway,” she said.

 

So I avoided him. But how do you avoid your doorman? The most you can do is stay off topic while you buy a little time. Looking down one day at the gold band on Johnny’s swollen finger, I said I saw he was a married man.

“Happily married, Mr. Barnes.”

“Any kids?”

“Of course the wife wants kids, Mr. Barnes, but I told her, I said, ‘Honey, no kids until I’m finished with this pilot.’ It’s my dream. I want to be a writer, like you. I want the chance to be famous, too. Everything else has got to wait. The wife’s got to wait.”

“You sure that’s wise, Johnny? You’re no spring chicken.”

“Tell me what I’m supposed to do, Mr. Barnes,” he said. “It’s my dream.”

I nodded, and looked away. “Do we have it?” I asked.

The cameraman looked up from the viewfinder. “I think that’s enough,” he said. He turned to the producer, who nodded.

“Great,” she said. “Let’s move on.”

It was a day-in-the-life-of-the-writer sort of thing; they were looking for some local color. They gathered up their equipment and we hit the streets. Johnny put his hands in his pockets and shuffled out into the doorway to watch the traffic go by. I turned back. “Hey, Johnny,” I hollered, “thanks!” He returned my wave with a little nod.

 

The first night we met Johnny, Lizzy jumped out into a terrible thunderstorm while I dismissed the driver. Torrents of rain were hitting the pavement like live sparks, and the few people caught out in it moved about in furtive little flashes. When I made it inside, I expected to find Lizzy shaking herself off, but was confronted instead by a large and lurching stranger in work grays unraveling the extension cord on the commercial floor polisher.

I happen to know that, at precisely two in the morning (as the soundtrack transitions into a melancholic jazz) the night doorman of the John Muir swaps out his corporate attire for a prisoner’s jumpsuit. Returning from the basement, he spends the next hour polishing the shabby lobby before the building’s early birds shuffle again across its marble floor. So here is our new night doorman, I thought to myself—and also that Lizzy and I had stayed out partying until morning once more.

As I swanned past him, loosening my tie, I wondered—should I introduce myself?

Another time. It was late, and I had to get to bed. Besides, with a new doorman, who can say what the protocol is?

It took me weeks to feel comfortable with Johnny as I came and went from the building. And even then it was a little weird, as no one had initiated a formal introduction.

 

It took Lizzy longer.

“What frightens you is just the man’s resting face,” I said to her. “What he has no more control over than how his toes arrange themselves on the other  end.”

“His face is just the half of it,” she said. “It’s his lurch I really don’t like.”

“That’s just his resting lurch,” I assured her. “Does he lurch?”

“The man scuttles over to the corner the minute I walk in and bares his fangs. That’s a hell of a thing in a doorman. I don’t want him around the kids.”

“They have to walk through the lobby, Lizzy. Or do you suggest the kids become shut-ins?”

“Shut-ins are preferable to unidentified human remains in the park.”

That was two weeks into Johnny’s tenure. What we discovered over the following year was the error of believing that only our most intimate relationships—husband and wife, parent and child—are capable of providing a comprehensive picture of another human being. Not so. It can be done with your doorman.

Johnny was a man of moods. Up, he was all hearty hellos. Down, he was as dour as a sack of potatoes in a damp storage room. He could hardly raise a mumble to those of us coming and going on those days.

But the days turned to weeks, and the weeks to months. Ironed out by the almanac, his moods became the man. Soon, he was just Johnny—moody, yes, and a simpleton, but an improvement in the end over Arthur and Carlos alike.

Arthur, the mid-shift man, had his apps and cigarettes, Carlos his bellhop cart. Who could use the bellhop cart, and when and for how long, were the by-laws of the lobby dearest to the daytime doorman’s heart. One Christmas  Eve, Lizzy made up a plate for poor Carlos with instructions that I should take    it down to him. When I stepped off the elevator, I found him consumed, like Kennedy during the missile crisis, by a dispute with some guests of 9B; they were requesting the bellhop cart to haul up some presents. Santa Claus has come early for Carlos this year, I thought to myself, as he weighed what to do with these hopeless strangers. I set the plate of cookies down on a phone book, frowned sympathetically at the family in limbo, and returned to a dessert wine and a  game of charades.

 

In 1912, the heir apparent to Downton Abbey is a lawyer from Manchester called Matthew Crowley. Crowley chafes against the customs of the aristocracy. When Molesley, his valet, attempts to help Crowley on with his cufflinks, Crowley objects. “Surely you have better things to do,” he says.

“This is my job, sir,” his wounded servant replies.

Crowley scoffs. “Seems a very silly occupation for a grown man,” he says.

Crowley has done the unspeakable: he has destroyed the fiction Molesley requires to go on believing that his life as a man is a useful thing.

I thought of that scene after reading Johnny’s pilot. I would not be able to give him my honest opinion. Sooner or later, I would have to lie.

 

One night, in bed early, I was chased awake by nightmares. I tried clearing my head by jumping rope in the kitchen but gave up when my downstairs neighbor banged again with his broom. I took the dog and a nightcap down to the lobby with me. “I haven’t had a chance to read your screenplay yet,” I lied to Johnny.

“I’ll be here when you do, Mr. Barnes,” he replied.

I tied Wolfer to the red leather bench. “Didion calls them pictures,” I said, lying down on the bench and resting my eyes. “As in, ‘John and I were staying at the Beverly Wilshire while we worked on a picture.’”

The next thing I knew, it was morning and Carlos was hovering over me  with his Starbucks, not-so-gently nudging my shoulder. I sat up and stared at the wall opposite where the still life had been.

“Whatever happened to that painting, Carlos?” I asked him. “The one with the pears.”

He declined to reply. Carlos—irked again. That’s when I noticed Wolfer.

“Wolfer! What on earth are you doing here?”

I picked up my barware and returned us both to the penthouse.

 

Weeks passed, months maybe. Moving through the lobby, I feigned illnesses and irritations, and I pretended more than once to be drunk.

It was the night of the awards show, after dancing and the afterparty, when the limo hired by the publisher had returned us to the penthouse, and I needed help with the swag bags, and Lizzy, in a fit of laughter, could hardly make it through the front door. Laden with bags, and suffering in silence our punch-drunk delight, Johnny came up in the elevator with us. He had to steady Lizzy while I fumbled for my keys. The nanny opened the door from within.

“Do you need anything more, Mr. Barnes?” Johnny asked, after unburdening himself in our foyer.

“No, thank you, Johnny. Goodnight.”

A minute later, I opened the door and stuck my head out. “Johnny,” I said.

He turned.

“Never pull punches—is that what you’re telling me?”

“Never,” he said.

“A word of advice, then,” I said. “Writing is hard. It takes years of frustration and failure, generally pays poorly, leaves you in a bad mood most days, and you’re awful at it. Take my advice and find a better way to enjoy your weekends.”

From deep inside the apartment, with colossally bad timing, Lizzy erupted  in another fit of laughter.

“You read my pilot?” he said.

“It’s no good,” I said. “Give your wife what she wants and start a family. Live your life. Do it well. It will be more rewarding than spending your spare time cracking pencils in half over a blank page.”

The elevator arrived. The doors opened. Johnny was staring just above my head, jingling the change in his pocket as the doors closed up again.

“Thank you, Mr. Barnes,” he said. “Thanks for your honesty.”

He was still staring into the distance as my door fell shut.

Two months later, on a sweltering June night, Johnny, drunk and (according to his wife) uncommunicative, climbed the fire escape to his roof and jumped off. Roll credits.

* * *

Another morning, clear as mud. The wingtips of my terry cloth robe dragged along the floorboards, collecting cobwebs and dust bunnies on my way to start the coffee. The clock on the kitchen wall stated plainly that it wasn’t morning at all, but two in the afternoon; the face leered at me as a human being never had. I took my coffee and Carlos’s pilot back to bed.

I could dimly recall a doorman named Johnny, a large man with an unsettling presence. But I hadn’t known that his name was Touchwood, nor that he was a boxer. I pulled jeans on under the robe and took the pages of his script down to the lobby.

Carlos stood with his back against the wall and was gently, rhythmically bouncing off of it, as school children will do when they’re trapped in a holding pattern. He straightened up at the sight of me. I handed his pages back to him and told him they were good.

“You mean it?”

“They do everything they’re supposed to do,” I said. “Congratulations.”

He beamed. He told me, not for the first time, of a connection he had through a friend of his to an agent in L.A. He hoped to engage her after he got my feedback.

“You like how it starts?”

“The big-shot writer in the penthouse apartment,” I said, “befriends the doorman-artist who takes a header in the end. Very melodramatic.”

Downton Abbey,” he said, “but with doormen.”

“I think it’s very good,” I said.

What, he wanted to know, would I change? Oh, here and there he might make a tweak or two, I said, but I meant it. He’d done well.

I was returning to the third floor when I swiveled around. “Carlos,” I said,“you know why I’m always falling asleep in the lobby?”

“Because you’re an alcoholic?”

“What?”

“Just kidding, Mr. Barnes. Tell me. Why you always falling asleep in my lobby?”

“Is that how you think of me, as you’ve written me? As a . . . grotesque?”

“Mr. Barnes,” he said, “I’m extrapolating. It’s fiction. You write fiction, you know how it works.”

I nodded. “Seems a very silly occupation for a grown man,” I said finally.

He laughed.

I didn’t return to my room after all. There was an old coatrack sitting empty in that lobby. I parked my robe there and walked out. Just around the corner, there was one of those old-school joints with low lighting and red stools. At four on the dot they started selling two-dollar whiskeys. Lizzy was gone. There were never any children. There were no swag bags or costume parties. I hadn’t written a book that connected with the public since 1984, the year Johnny Touchwood defeated Bam Bam Lark in the Golden Gloves. These days, I mostly just write reviews of affordable wines for the Wall Street Journal.