the contextual life

thoughts without borders

New York State of Mind: A Meaningful Life by L.J. Davis

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A Meaningful LifePublished in 1971, A Meaningful Life by Brooklyn writer L.J. Davis is a dark comedy and cautionary tale.

Lowell Lake, thirty years old, wakes up one morning to find himself in personal crisis, disinterested in his job and living in Manhattan, a city where he never intended to be. Suddenly, he’s aware of his surroundings and questions the direction his life has taken, retracing his steps to figure out how he came to be where he is.

Sophomore year at Stanford, while earning a degree in English (“It had always been his best subject and it didn’t commit him to do anything specific later in life”), he met Betty, a Jewish girl from Flatbush, Brooklyn. They liked each other well enough and although he began to have doubts as the day got closer they were married two days after graduation. The plan was to move to Berkeley where Lowell was to attend a university on scholarship but after he plays a joke on his wife everything goes terribly wrong.

”I thought we were going to Berkeley,” his wife had said nine years ago, her voice coming to him down the corridor of years as clearly as if she had spoken to him only a moment before. It was the instant his life had suddenly poised itself on an idle remark, and the hinge of fate had opened—a small moment, an utterly insignificant fragment of time that could have passed as swiftly as turning a page in a book, but instead it had changed his life forever. “Didn’t you say we were going to Berkeley?” she asked anxiously. …

He could still hear the voice, he could still see the room, he could still smell the old green overstuffed chair he’d been sitting in. “Maybe not,” he said. He was only teasing. Berkeley was definitely the place they were going, and the idea of going to New York instead had just sort of wandered into his mind a moment ago like a stray insect. No doubt it would have perished there at once if he hadn’t spoken it aloud. Now it was out in the open, and God help them all.

And so, they sealed their future plans on his poor judgment and her spite. “You’re going to hate it there,” his wife warned. After goodbyes to their classmates the two drove cross-country to begin their new life, settling into a small apartment on the Upper West Side. Lowell, after a failed attempt at writing a novel, decided to take a position as Managing Eaditor at a “second-rate plumbing-trade weekly.”

Now thirty, feeling as if his life were meaningless, Lowell recalls reading about young creative types buying and fixing up houses in Brooklyn slums, areas that were once home to wealthy government officials but are now in the midst of decay.

With urban renewal in mind and their entire savings on the table, Lowell sets out to buy a house in the outer borough. What he finds, and ultimately winds up with, is a comically dilapidated townhouse. The current residents are questionable, no doubt a few squatters in the bunch. As Lowell tours the building, the descriptions are so vivid that any reader with the slightest knowledge of city life will be able to conjure the smells.

A door was thrown open at the foot of the stairs, a dim rectangle of light in the impenetrable tissue of the darkness, and although Lowell was still unable to see where to put his feet, he could now see where he was going. The knowledge made him feel better, but not for long. A great warm wave of new horrible odors, both different in degree and intensity from the old horrible odors that he’d almost gotten used to, rolled up over him and nearly knocked him flat. It was like the first whiff of the atmosphere of some alien planet: heavy, warm, barely breathable, seemingly compounded of urine and stale oatmeal in equal measure.

After throwing himself into renovating the newly purchased and swiftly vacated house, deciding to do a bulk of the work himself, Lowell experiences a sense of renewal as well.

He was suddenly famous. In a building where he had labored five days a week for nine years without a single person asking him what he did, he suddenly found himself cloaked in a highly conspicuous new identity: he became known as the Guy Who Moved to Bedford-Stuyvesant.

He hadn’t moved yet and it wasn’t Bedford-Stuyvesant but that didn’t matter. He was finally doing something with his life, he was industrious.

While A Meaningful Life raises interesting and important questions about city life—gentrification, poverty, and the rise of Brooklyn’s prominence and formidability over the years—Lowell’s story offers a reminder to live deliberately and make good decisions, a powerful message that often bears repeating.

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Written by Gabrielle

July 9, 2013 at 6:56 am

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