When I first moved to NYC from North Carolina, I had to teach myself not to smile and nod at everyone I passed on the sidewalk. For months, all the faces I’d seen during the day flew past me again, and I’d smile and nod at each of them before I fell asleep. After fifteen years, if I was close to my apartment building, the chances were good I had met the person I was passing, so I smiled and nodded if I felt like it. I found NYC a warm and engaging place, magical and energizing. I was active physically—running and biking in the park, walking everywhere—and active culturally, I attended plays, movies, and art exhibits, usually on purpose, and kept abreast of all that was happening whether I had the time or money to see whatever was happening as it was happening. But it was important that I knew that it was happening, and that I intended to witness it before it was forgotten and lost. I had friends at work, friends in the neighborhood, and we saw each other whether we liked it or not. Old friends from North Carolina scattered all over town I met for drinks, or lunch, or dinner, on a steady basis, or once every few years, or just once, or at least made plans, or talked about making plans. I was invited to events and gatherings. I mostly didn’t go to these events, but it was enough to be invited. Working in the publishing industry, there were always book parties and readings, and sometimes actual party-parties that I wanted to be invited and intend to go but then not attend. I felt plugged in. I often stopped at the Bowery Hotel, or the Ace, to charge my phone. I ran along the East River to work and home four times a week, and walked the other days, which was my favorite half hour. I’d vary my route to pass different parts of Chinatown, or Little Italy, or the many micro-neighborhoods that populate downtown. I had a nice life. When my marriage ended abruptly after 15 years, and my ex- moved to Massachusetts with my kids, I quit my job, borrowed money from friends and family, and tried to build a new life in New England.
I left lower Manhattan for a garage apartment on a small farm along Route 113, knowing no one in New England, and barely began a career as a freelance writer with no savings, no freelance sea legs, no long list of editor contacts, no contracts to speak of, no steady paydays. I work as a live-in hired man for a young professional family. They are nice enough people. The man drives a Prius and runs a company that makes it easier for people to plan and purchase travel experiences on their phones. And the woman is an expert on psychological trauma at Harvard. Their two kids I pick up from soccer once a week, and that’s the extent of our interaction. There’s a barn full of chickens, and an asshole of a white rooster named Sunny, a cow and a bull in the meadow. The cow expecting a calf. The original part of the main house dates to the 17th century. The foundation of the garage is dated 1998, the last year of Seinfeld, with a previous family’s small handprints in the concrete. Yet, typical of New Englanders, the builders matched the architectural details, and used reclaimed wood, so the feel of the structure is very much of the colonial era that, for some reason, New Englanders fetishize to the point of caricature. The interior of the apartment is comfortable and airy, and very much of the Must-See TV era in its choice of countertop and cabinets, like the Seinfeld apartment, but the door pulls, and the window frames, the wide plank floors, all scream 1775. Despite the intense winters of New England, the new windows on the 1998 building are designed in the 1775 style, hand-crafted, using 18th-century tools, with rough carved wooden winter window frames stored in a crawl space, and wooden slots fitted for each, painted sad gray. Each frame is marked with chalk or tape indicating where it belongs. This is one of my tasks. To install the colonial windows in my 1998 replica out-building, and the main house as well. I talk about my divorce as I install the windows. The woman nods and pretends to listen but is wise not to answer anything I say, or I will keep talking. I also clean the giant barn that was brought down from somewhere in Maine. The previous owner owned horses. I noticed some of the old tack as I was mucking out the chicken shit.
Running along 113, which on this stretch is called Main Street, I decided my way out of this mess is to write a book about a huge swath of American culture from the post-war era onward to the present day, touching on ideas about fatherhood, and masculinity, class prejudice, and regionalism, racism, Southern-ness, the Folk Revival, Hollywood, McCarthyism, the American Dream. And this book would also be, most of all, about Andy Griffith. I’d use Andy’s life and career as a tether, to weigh myself to earth, to keep from floating into the stratosphere, from spinning out of our Andy Griffith-planet’s rotational gravity, and moving forever in space, never to be heard from again. And I’d meet people. I’d speak with people. I’d travel. I’d see the country. I’d make this new world in Massachusetts, where I knew no one at all, less lonely. And to help support this endeavor, to earn money, I’d find stories for magazines, profile some of the people I’d speak with, actors and directors, my new friends, I’d write about them for glossies and discuss their current film projects, and earn a nice freelance payday all while completing my big book about a huge swath of American culture in the post-war era. I’d turn in the book in nine months or a year, get paid, and write a new book proposal for my next book about some other quirky idea that I’d already mapped out.
Some schemes for books I came up with included A World History of Barbecue, or The Hotel Lobby Bars of Earth. I also have been writing children’s books with my kids. One called, The Adventures of Guh and Stick, after my oldest’s imaginary friends when he was in preschool. Stick is a tree monster. Guh is a robot. I can’t decide which book I want to do next. One of those. The Lobby Bars of Earth would take me to all the places I’ve always wanted to visit, and revisit some of my favorite bars, mostly back in NYC. But then again, world history—barbecue. Anyway, I’d spend the rest of my newly single life traveling and meeting people and writing books and magazine stories about them, when I wasn’t home taking care of my kids and being their father on the divided custody days. Days I’d had to fight for in court, the lawyers yelling at each other in the hallway. When my thoughts stopped racing even for a moment, I could still see the saliva streaming out of my ex-wife’s lawyer’s tiny mouth. Such a small man. A bully. He tried to break my hand when I met him, and had a penchant for kicking his foot up and pretending to tighten the shoelace on his small, shiny, black, pointed, derby shoes, positioned against my thigh, when I was sitting alone on a cold wooden bench in those awful halls. I hated him. I hated the whole ugly process. These were the images that glanced across my mind when I had moments to think about my Andy Griffith book. Andy Griffith was married three times and divorced twice. Maybe I’d write a book about divorce in America. What a racket it is. People mercilessly bilking the vulnerable and afraid. Either way, I need to finish my Andy Griffith book first before I can do anything else. I have a plan. A way forward. Running along 113 it is clear and in front of me. One step leading to the next.
Evan Dalton Smith’s first book of nonfiction, LOOKING FOR ANDY GRIFFITH, is forthcoming from UNC Press. He has published poetry and essays in Slate, Paris Review, Ploughshares, the LA Times, the LA Review of Books, and elsewhere. He currently lives on the North Shore of Massachusetts with his family. Find him online @evandaltonsmith.
Photo by Henry Collins Dean