Norman Mailer and Me
Norman Mailer was summering in Provincetown, on Cape Cod, and so was I. He had rented a big house on the beach with a sweeping view of the bay, and I was living in a tiny converted tool shed in a parking lot, two doors west and on the opposite side of the street. I did menial labor twelve hours per day to pay for my next year of college, the Beatles had just exploded across the TV landscape of America, and Norman was partying that summer, hard, late night after late, late night.
We’d often engage in the early morning on the sidewalk in front of his house, I walking towards the touristy core of the town to begin another long day of scraping peeling paint or scrubbing pots, and he leaning against his car. We’d meet in that early part of morning when the squawk of sea gulls is amplified by dawn quietude, and high-hanging fog reflects a silver sheen off the lapping waters of Provincetown Bay. And Norman would glare. Always. As I turned onto the sidewalk, he’d pick up the sound of my steps as they crunched out of the graveled parking lot, rotate his head in my direction, and glare, his eyes locking into mine and then holding firm while I approached and passed.
The first few times I disengaged and cast my focus along the narrow sidewalk ahead. My passage to town was half filled with Norman’s legs, which were bracing him against the car fender on which he leaned his rump, arms crossed across his crumpled sport shirt. Secondly, I tried holding his gaze, nodding, and offering a soft “morning” as I passed. But neither way did he acknowledge me, nor even shift his legs back to give me more space to pass. There was just his glare, intense and never wavering. Discomfit, I took to ignoring him those frequent mornings when he had posted himself on the sidewalk. It mattered not. He glared the same.
We had a mutual friend, and one afternoon I saw Norman and this friend walking towards me on the narrow sidewalk. They were talking with great animation and gesticulation. It happened that I had a message from someone to give to the friend, so I stopped them and delivered the message, then glanced at Norman. Glare, eyes locked into mine.
We had a second mutual friend – my summer girlfriend, his sometimes babysitter. It was from her that I had learned that Norman partied long, hard, and into the dawn. She lived in a house directly across the street from Norman, sharing rent with a group of other college co-eds. One evening, he knocked on her door just as we were ready to go out. “Something’s come up,” he said. “I need a babysitter. Can you do it?”, his tone polite, normal, friendly. She turned towards me behind her, apologizing that she needed the money, and Norman’s gaze followed hers to me. His face transformed. Glare. No mistaking it.
He moved away before Labor Day that year and his house stood empty. I stayed on to catch a last few paydays before my college started up again, and one soft, late summer morning, I walked around to the beach side of Norman’s house. From his deck, there was a wide panoramic view with the rising sun throwing colors on the gentle waves, the sound of water breaking on the beach pilings, a sailboat catching early breezes as its skipper tacked across the bay, and a setting moon faintly visible in the western sky.
I leaned against the deck railing and decided to be late for work that day, wondering why, with such a view, Norman had passed so many mornings on the other side of that house contemplating the sidewalk. I don’t know, and he’s dead, so I never will. But I saw his glare recently, in a TV documentary, a still photograph of his face staring into the camera as a narrator reviewed the turmoil and dissent of the Sixties. It was a photo from late in Norman’s life, the face wizened and leathery, heavy lines etched into the brow and cheeks from hard living. But the glare was there, deep, straight into the camera lens, and frozen now, reminding me of choices he made, that I’ve made, of how very differently we’ve lived our lives, and of how glad I am that I spent that morning on Norman’s deck.