Sun 25 Apr 2010
Next week, I’m taking my dog and heading to northern Michigan, a chilly land of tall pine trees, cottages by the water, and tall friendly people, or as I like to think of it: Sweden II. I’ll be spending three weeks cut off from the world in a rustic cabin, feeding the stove with wood and getting started on my next novel, Kingdom. Solitude, dark woods, morning mist on the lake… it will be oh-so “writerly,” in a Hollywood sort of way.
I’m especially looking forward to the quiet, because one of my favorite places to work in DC—the second floor of the local Starbucks, a lofted space in a beautifully restored old building—has become almost unusable over the past few months… ever since the “crazy guy” arrived. I’ll call him Bob. Bob arrives at Starbucks as soon as it opens and stays until it is closed. He is there seven days a week. And to be clear, Bob is not crazy like the “wild and crazy guy” played by Steve Martin on Saturday Night Live. Bob appears to suffer from schizophrenia. Like John Forbes Nash, Jr. (the subject of A Beautiful Mind), Bob sees people who are not really there, and he carries on lengthy, very loud conversations with them. These conversations mostly consist of angry, profanity-laden attacks on the wide variety of people and institutions who have conspired to ruin his life: the government that first refused to let him kill the people he knew needed to be killed (Bob was, or believes he was, a contract killer for the CIA) and then betrayed him and left him to die in a foreign country; the companies—Microsoft and Apple most prominently—that stole his patents; the bookstores that refused to carry the book he wrote; even the Obama administration, which refuses to heed his sage advice. A sample: Bob flips open the paper and sees a story about bin Laden. His eyes widen. He shouts: “They should have killed that fucker! They should have let me kill that fucker when I had the chance.” (Waits for a response from invisible friend.) “No! I told you! I told you! I had him in the crosshairs. I could have taken bin Laden down.” (Waits for another response.) “Look, it’s all in my book. Didn’t you read the book?” If I were a character from one of my novels (all set in the Middle Ages), I would probably think that Bob was either possessed by or communicating with devilish spirits.
However, I like to think of myself as (if only slightly) more enlightened than that. I realize that Bob is suffering from a mental disorder, and I don’t want to make him seem like a bad guy. He’s actually rather congenial when he’s not talking to invisible people. And he’s smart. In his rants he displays an impressive knowledge of politics, world events, and business. That said, he is more than a little distracting. All his talk of murders and conspiracies can make it hard to focus on the murders and conspiracies I’m trying to write about in my novels.
So I’ve been faced with something of a moral dilemma. On the one hand, every time I go to Starbucks—which is less and less often of late—I sincerely hope that Bob will not be there, that he will have found some other place to haunt. On the other hand, I can’t bring myself to complain about Bob to the management. After all, he needs the Starbucks a lot more than I do. There are other coffee shops where I can write, but how many places welcome a schizophrenic guy who carries on a non-stop, profanity-laced dialogue with an invisible friend? I’m just glad that Bob found a welcoming place where he can get out of the weather and get some coffee. On the rare occasions when he stops talking and curls up into a chair to sleep, Bob looks downright happy. I wouldn’t want to take that away from him.
And so I’m off to Michigan, to fulfill another stereotype by writing in a lakeside cabin in the woods. I know it’s trite, but what can I say? It’s a good place to write. And the only crazy person I have to deal with there is me.
Next week: Californication (on what it’s really like to be a novelist)