Cover image: Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Luncheon of the Boating Party (detail, 1881)
Midway along the road of life,
I found myself within a shadowy forest,
For I had lost my way.
never takes notes in a restaurant. That’s one of his cardinal rules:
Never take notes. He’s worried that if he were seen taking notes
he’d be identified as a reviewer, and it’s important to him that he not
be identified. He’s also a little worried that if he were identified as a reviewer there would be some kind of scene, a row.
He knows that that’s not likely to happen, but still it does worry
him at times. Worries aside, he enjoys feeling that he’s not himself
when he’s reviewing. He signs his reviews B. W. Beath, a short version
of Bertram W. Beath, an anagram of his own name, Matthew Barber.
No more than five or six people in the world know that Matthew is B. W.
Beath, and there’s no reason why anyone who doesn’t already know would
connect a toy company executive with a restaurant reviewer. He’s
rather proud of his pseudonym; there is no apparent connection with his
own name, but, if he chose to, he could easily demonstrate their correspondence.
The assumed identity, the disguise, is part of the
pleasure. He has a theory that most of us are in disguise much of
the time, a theory not original with him, but one he came to independently
and therefore feels a proprietary affection for. His version goes
“We spend much of our time not as our true selves,
but disguised—to suit our occupations, or to appear to be the people our
friends or relatives or spouses or lovers expect us to be, or to appear
to be what we wish we were. The last is the important one,
because when we disguise ourselves as what we want to be, we’re
doing it to hide what we think we are.”
He uses himself as an example: “I used to be a fat
boy. Really I’m still a fat boy, but now I’m a fat boy disguised
as a fairly slim, fairly good looking, not-yet-middle-aged man, an interesting
man, if you took the time to get to know him.” For quite a while
now he has been working to perfect this disguise. Currently he’s
concerned that he has been a little too subtle about it, that the disguise
errs on the side of anonymity, so he has been trying to make himself a
little more noticeable, to bring the inner, interesting man a little closer
to the surface. He has begun to dress with a certain flair.
He still buys his suits and shirts at a conservative shop—a department
store, to tell the truth—but he’s buying his socks and ties at a little
place with marble floors and brass doors, where everything is imported,
up-to-the-minute, and breathtakingly expensive. He doesn’t buy anything
that really stands out, only things that are a little out of sync with
his conservative suits. The combination is intended to make him look
a little out of the ordinary, but the other day the worrisome thought struck
him that he might be making himself look even less remarkable than
before, that the new mix of dull and chic had made him more generalized,
spread him out all over the culture: a graying toy designer, moonlighting
as a restaurant reviewer, in a conservative suit with an interesting Italian
tie and startling socks, at heart still a fat boy, a suffering fat boy,
for all fat boys suffer, are made to suffer, tormented by slim boys,
teased and tormented by girls.
Sometimes Matthew uses the routine about disguises
at cocktail parties or dinners, including the part about his having been
a fat boy, but omitting the business about his still being a suffering
fat boy at heart. He keeps a great deal to himself. He doesn’t
want to seem to be whining.
When he was concocting anagrammatic pseudonyms,
he came up with two women’s names: Beth W. A. Bertram and Martha T. Webber.
At first he was strongly attracted to them, but eventually he decided against
them. For one thing, although he might have been better concealed
behind a woman’s name, he wasn’t comfortable hiding behind a woman’s skirts.
It made him feel like a sissy, reminded him of the time in the sixth grade
when he let his mother break up a fight he was losing. For another,
he couldn’t seem to make himself sound like Beth or Martha, but he found
that he sounded exactly like Bertram W. Beath on the first try, and his,
or their, reviews were a success from the start. Matthew has
been reviewing as B. W. Beath for a couple of years now. He thinks
of his alter ego as “BW,” what BW’s friends would call him if he were able
to have friends, which he can’t, because he must remain concealed.
When Matthew’s out doing a review, he’s disguised as B. W. Beath, the well-known
restaurant reviewer, almost a celebrity, who, because he must not be recognized
as a celebrated restaurant reviewer, is disguised as Matthew Barber, a
nearly anonymous man, a stand-in, a shell who lends BW a pseudonym to use
when he makes his reservations, who is disguised as BW, and so on, round
and round in a circuit of disguise, each self concealing another, each
hiding within another. It’s an idea that Matthew enjoys playing with,
as he does with the notion of BW as an older brother, whose background
is identical to Matthew’s, but who is more worldly, whose tastes are so
sophisticated that he can find the shortcoming in any experience.
Sometimes Matthew has the feeling that BW is watching him, as if Matthew
were his creation, not the other way around, watching his performance from
an elevated position, a superior point of view, judging Matthew, reviewing
him, looking for his shortcomings. BW probably takes notes.
He doesn’t have to worry; he knows that no one can see him. He’s
MATTHEW ARRIVES HOME from work in a terrible mood. Christmas
is coming, and it makes him nervous, even more nervous than it makes most
people, because it’s the time of year when all his ideas are put to the
test. He’s vice-president for new product development at Manning
& Rafter Toys, where he is sometimes referred to, even to his face,
as Vice-President for Sensible Toys. Every year, before the year
is out, he must present his proposals for next year’s line. The time
for that ordeal is only a couple of weeks away, and Matthew fears it.
He spent the afternoon in toy stores, checking to see how the toys he championed
last year are doing, and they don’t seem to be doing well.
Tonight he’ll be reviewing the Alley View Grill.
He knows he shouldn’t arrive in a bad mood. The wise thing to do
would be to shower and change his clothes right away. That really
would be the wise thing to do. Fresh clothes, a shave—that might
change his outlook. Instead he makes a drink, a martini, a Bombay
martini. He sits in his living room with the lights out and drinks
his drink and just looks out over the city for a while.
He has a beautiful view. It was the reason
he bought this apartment. His living room looks out over the poorest
sections of the city. He knows nothing about these areas at first
hand; the newspapers tell him that black people live there, the illiteracy
rate is high, children sell crack from their front steps, banks try to
avoid writing mortgages there, many of the adults are unemployed or have
jobs that don’t pay well—food-service jobs, for instance—but from his living
room it looks beautiful. The buildings are old, many of them brick
Victorian town houses, and their roofscape is charming, by day or by night,
but especially at sunset, when the red sun makes the red brick glow.
A woman once told Matthew that it reminded her of Paris. He’d like
to get Liz, his ex-wife, up here to take a look at the view sometime.
He’s sure she still thinks of him as Mr. Suburbanite, still the man he
was until she left him fourteen months ago, but this apartment would be
quite an eye-opener for her, a penthouse, the best apartment in
the whole building, with lots of glass, a Parisian view. The building
is new. It “wraps traditional elegance in a contemporary package,”
according to the sales brochure. That’s me, thinks Matthew. Traditional
elegance in snazzy socks. Everything in the apartment is black
or white or glass or chrome. Matthew sits here at night with jazz
playing and he feels like Fred Astaire in an old movie. Liz would
be amazed to find him living here. She’d be amazed.
The apartment isn’t perfect. There’s a mysterious
odor. The black lacquer cabinets that lined one wall have been moved
to the opposite wall, in front of another bunch of black lacquer cabinets,
the dining table has been pushed against them, and a hole, about three
feet long and a foot high, has been cut in the wall so that workers can
search for the source of this offensive odor.
Sitting there, looking out, he can’t stop thinking
about the toy stores, where his offspring seemed to sit forlornly on the
shelves, as unwanted as ugly orphans. He can’t understand why parents
are so stupid about the toys they buy for their children, why they buy
the junk they do, especially those video games, why they don’t buy toys
that do something more than just shut the kids up for a while, why they
don’t buy sensible toys, like the building sets he dreamed about
when he was a boy. He once suggested that Manning & Rafter use
guilt in their advertising, but the suggestion was taken as a joke and
he laughed along with everyone else.
Matthew lets himself start feeling blue, encourages himself to feel blue. He hasn’t done this to himself for quite a
while, but he’s a past master. He cultivated this kind of self-abuse
in high school, when he used to sit in the dark, evening after evening,
listening to jazz and learning to feel blue. He got good at it, and
he thinks the skill served him well in college. He felt intimidated
by his roommates because he didn’t seem to have any talents that measured
up to theirs. He began to brood. His roommates would come home
from the library late at night and find him sitting in the dark, in a corner,
listening to jazz and brooding. They began to think that he was deeply
troubled, possibly dangerous. He enjoyed something like respect for
this moodiness. He has brought with him from that period a bittersweet
affection for the big, breathy saxophones of Coleman Hawkins, Chu Berry,
and Ben Webster.
He’s finished his drink. He hops up and dresses
in a hurry. He’s a little late.
IN THE HALL, when he presses the elevator button nothing happens.
He’s not surprised. Among the “world-class luxury amenities” in the
building are elevators that haven’t worked right for months. Every
morning two representatives of the elevator manufacturer arrive, disable
one of the elevators, and begin leafing through an enormous repair manual.
Because they work in the building every day, they’ve come to seem
like part of the regular staff. They greet Matthew when he passes
them in the morning, and Matthew smiles and says “Good morning” to them.
Often they’re still working when he comes home at night, still turning
the pages of the manual. Matthew smiles, nods, and says hello.
He never criticizes them. He doesn’t want to cause trouble, to seem
to be complaining, doesn’t want them to think that he thinks they’re doing
anything less than the best they can, because he knows that it’s important
not to offend tradespeople when they’re working for you, lest they give
up on you, but he can’t help asking himself where on earth the elevator
company got these clowns. Are they men who actually know how to fix
elevators, or were they sent here for on-the-job training? Every
evening, when they leave scratching their heads, the super announces, “So
ends another episode in the Adventures of the Hardy Boys and Their Amazing
Electric Elevator.” Matthew sketched an idea for a toy elevator that
breaks. It would come with a troubleshooting manual, spare parts,
and tools. He suggested that this launch a series: washing machines,
cars, television sets, anything that breaks. The proposal was greeted
at Manning & Rafter with a silence that Matthew took for repressed
amusement. Even while he was presenting the idea he realized that
it was too blue-collar to sell today. He was living in the past.
At last the elevator bell begins to bing.
The left car is coming up, but from somewhere far below the alarm bell
from the right car begins to sound. Then Matthew hears a small voice
calling “Hello?” in the apologetic tone that people who, like Matthew,
don’t want to cause any trouble use when they find themselves in trouble. There is a long pause. “Hello?” There is another
long pause. “Is anyone there? Can someone get me out of here?”
More ringing of the alarm bell. The left car arrives. It comes
up to Matthew’s floor, hesitates for a second, and then heads down again,
without ever opening its doors. He considers giving up. He
thinks of going back into the apartment, calling Belinda, explaining that
it’s impossible for him to leave the building because the elevator isn’t
safe, heating up a goat-cheese pizza that he has tucked away in the back
of the freezer for an emergency like this, opening a bottle of wine, putting
on one of his Coleman Hawkins tapes, and phoning the girls down the hall
to see if one of them wants to come to dinner, any one. It sounds
like a great plan for about a minute, but then he remembers that he’s too
old to interest the girls down the hall. Besides, the elevator comes
back up, and the doors open. He takes it as a sign.