Come Hell on High Waterby Jaynes
Not many men fall apart as hilariously as former national correspondent Gregory Jaynes--or as lyrically. The story of a man simultaneously circumnavigating the globe and chasing his own tail, Come Hell on High Water proves Sartre's dictum that hell really is other people. Excerpted in Esquire.
In the summer of 1995 Jaynes, a writer for Esquire and other magazines, turned 47, feeling "devalued, like a peso." Maybe it was a midlife crisis that set Jaynes in motion, or his feeling that becoming a grandfather, as he soon would, was "a little premature." In either event, suspecting a long sail might be the answer to what ailed him, he signed up for passage on a Russian icebreaker refitted for the tropics with a bulbous nose across her pointed bow. Venturing out of his vibrating cabin en route through the Caribbean and the Panama Canal to the Pacific, Jaynes sees "a ship full of comedy" at his disposal, but soon finds his shipmates for the most part humorless, the food "unremarkable to terrible." His favorite companions seem to be the officers, especially the captain, who is confessor and friend through Jaynes's eventual "mini nervous breakdown" in Papua New Guinea. The real trouble begins when Jaynes falls off the wagon between Christmas and New Year'sfrom Samoa, where his he-goat alter ego enjoys the favors of a prostitute, to Fiji, after which he retreats again into sobriety. Departing the ship for the day in the busy and dangerous port of New Caledonia, Jaynes realizes he's running from the very transport he ran away on. When his breakdown comes, it is mild, mercifully brief, really little more than an extended crying jagleaving Jaynes and the reader to wonder whether it even happened.
Arch, cynical, sullen indeed, Jaynes's salty conversation with himself is a comic, cautionary tale of the pitfalls of midlife sailing adventures.
- Farrar, Straus and Giroux
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- 5.76(w) x 8.56(h) x 1.06(d)
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September 18, 1995
New York City
I have come to the end of something in my life--the best way I can describe it is to say I feel devalued, like a peso--and I suspect a long sail, and undistracted time to ponder, might be the medicine to see me through. To that purpose, this morning I wrote a check for $10,708 and dropped it into the mail. For my trouble, I secured passage on a cargo ship that is to leave Liverpool, England, on the second of November, and circumnavigate the world, fetching up back in Antwerp, Belgium, early next spring. Tonight, I am out of sorts, wondering if I couldn't have managed to plot a less precipitous course.
This woolgathering is another symptom of some sort of shifting within me. With age I have become aware of a lifelong, nearly unconscious tendency to run when I am bothered. I don't even have to be cornered before I bolt, just mildly unhappy. I see it now as an almost constitutional recklessness. Up to now the unexamined exit has always been worth taking, to me. What's new, now, is the examination. It means I'm unsure of myself; I've lost confidence. Moreover, there are two barrels to this gun, both bearing the same shot. I suspect I am leaving because in my life I have become unsure of myself. And now I am unsure of leaving.
I can make it without brio; I'd be lost without nerve.
This morning I poked about the neighborhood on my way to the post office to send off the fare, stalling. Obviously, it is a lot of money and a substantial voyage, not the sort of thing to hurl yourself into entirely on impulse. The envelope, in an inside jacket pocket, seemed a hot brand against my breast, really. I couldn't stop myself thinking: A bold move or the removal of a fool? An old drunk romantic thing to do? Isn't this a pretty theatrical distance to go just to pout or to sulk or, for pity's sake, to see if my subtraction leaves a hole?
I walked the Upper West Side of Manhattan and read historical plaques I had not paid attention to in years, or never had. According to a sidewalk medallion at Eighty-fourth Street and Broadway, one block from where I live, Edgar Allan Poe wrote "The Raven" there on a chicken farm in 1844. Chicken. Raven. Shrewd substitution. No one expects a chicken at the door in the middle of the night. I turned east on West Eighty-sixth Street, or Isaac Bashevis Singer Boulevard. Singer said that even an idiot is a millionaire in emotion. It bucked me up to be reminded that this area has always sheltered writers, good and bad.
I'm a writer. I got into the trade because, early on, schoolteachers told me I had a knack for it. My own insecurity told me I was deft but dumb. Nevertheless, I became addicted to the praise. I had begun to earn my living as a boy police reporter on the morning paper in Memphis when, one midnight in 1967, I overheard four officers beating the dickens out of a suspect on the other side of the pressroom wall. I wrote this in the paper, and the four officers were suspended. It became a racial issue: cops white; victim black. Later in the year a Civil Service commission reinstated the cops. At the time, the city's Sanitation Department, which is to say the city's Negro garbagemen, was in contract negotiations. Dismissing the police-brutality charges was viewed by union leaders as one more intolerable racial slight on the part of the city. In time, the garbagemen went on strike. Their placards said: I AM A MAN. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., came to Memphis to lead them in a march.
The power of journalism seduced me evermore. It paid poorly in the minors, but I plugged away, and gradually I was able to move up to the Show: Miami; Atlanta; New York City. The New York Times. Time. Life. Africa. Asia. Europe. The Middle East. The Gulf War. The collapsing Soviet Union. Then one day in October 1991 I was taking a shower in Novgorod, Russia, one of those showers so icy they coax involuntary screams out of you, and I took an unexamined exit out of journalism to come back to America to find a better way. In time I gave up drinking, too, because I was brooding more than looking for a better way, and I thought, either way, brooding or looking, I could do it better without the alcohol that had besotted my brain for twenty years. After a year or so clean and sober, I found I had worked through my grief over the loss of liquor, but I was still pathetically hooked on praise. I returned to writing.
I went back to work about the same time George Foreman went back in the ring. (George and I are close in age. One time in Humble, Texas, when George was idle, he told me, "Them licks hurt." I asked him to describe to me what it felt like to be hit by, say, Muhammad Ali. George bent way back around himself and then delivered a haymaker, with a fist about the size of a soccer ball, that stopped just at the tip of my nose. Nothing fell out, but my sphincter shot open all the same.) I went off to Ho Chi Minh City for Time. The Great Sweet Potater gained the White House and I flew to Little Rock to prospect for Esquire. I was back in the game, but I never seemed to draw a hot hand anymore. And the dealers cut the praise so much with caveat it didn't get me high.
Ten minutes afoot today and I had passed three newsstands where my work was on prominent display. My name appears in a strong red font on the cover of the current Esquire. I am also the author of the cover story in this week's Time. It pleased me to see my words were still getting around, more or less (Time fussed with them, fluffed them, as you would a poodle, for show; Esquire whacked them in two, as if advised by Solomon that half a baby would do). But for some time I have felt uncertain about continuing to contribute at all. Time to go.
It feels like time to go for many reasons: shallow; deep; real; imagined; tiresome. I have a dresser drawer full of justifications, one to bolster any frame of mind. I have my ego to consider, for one thing. My ego has been suffering various slights, all of them about the size, and lingering nastiness, of a paper cut. And I'm not sure but my usefulness might be sluing into doubt.
Another concern is that my youth is leaving, and I am finding it painful to say goodbye. I live in fear that I will learn one morning soon that it is not the stair doing the creaking.
And I have snarly things in my head that are making me upset and petulant. Inarticulation about the subject is part of the reason for tearing off to think on it, I think. If I could satisfactorily explain or describe my distress there might be no point in disappearing. Look at it this way: if either of these acts attains the same result, which should a man commit: (1) pay ten grand to a shrink? (2) haul ass to Tahiti?
None but a moron would pick door number one.
I suspect my general symptoms are universal. Most men reach a period in which they have a sense they are faltering, misfiring, a period in which no one wants to toss them out, but no one wants to give them the keys to the store. A period in which their own ways of doing things, personal stamps that once gained them praise, now have to be altered to appease new demands. To accept modifications with stoical good grace gains a man the patronizing reputation of a "pro." To see change as purely arbitrary and protest it is to be categorized as being "too sensitive." The trick is to elude the sad-sack qualities: self-pity, snideness, a tendency to be arch. Either that or find something to do with your hands. But I've had to keep in mind there's not much call for yard work in Manhattan.
When the envelope bearing my check dropped, and the slot closed on the letter box, I seized on the idea of straightening a wire coat hanger and affixing chewing gum to one end, and seeing if I could master a smart retrieval. Much less embarrassing that way than to call up the shipping line and confess to cold feet. The panic passed in the bat of an eye, but it was very real, the panic.
* * *
September 19, 1995
New York City
I just shared a roasted chicken, some sweet bananas, and rice and beans with my friend Roy in a Brazilian restaurant on Broadway, and he said he could see a movie in my travel plan if I could put some nudity and some gunfire in it. Roy and I have taken to meeting for lunch occasionally here in the neighborhood, and I had brought the news of my imminent voyage as a centerpiece for our table. Roy's news was that he had successfully gained the sole screenwriting credit for a big-budget Hollywood comedy that will be released in a few months; that he had finished his column for a slick men's magazine on the grand opening of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, at which Roy's own band had performed; that he had not yet commenced to write of his recent travels in China; that he had just signed with a prestigious publisher to write a memoir of his childhood; that the son of a martyred President of the United States had asked him, Roy, to write for his, the son's, new magazine, and that Roy had negotiated triumphantly with the scion for a higher fee. My ripping change of life became less a centerpiece than a side salad, or a garnish--a bacon bit.
* * *
September 20, 1995
New York City
To the library. My branch, on Amsterdam Avenue between Eighty-first Street and Eighty-second, while my branch and proud of it, was little use to the aspiring sailor in me, except for the inspiring, crayoned poster on the wall that said: One Thing At A Time (You Can Do Everything). The thing I couldn't do at my branch was find any books by middle-aged men who'd chucked their everydayness and run off to sea.
I walked to Fifth Avenue and Forty-second Street, to the New York Public Library, home of the pride. I go here occasionally, like George Peppard in Breakfast at Tiffany's, to look myself up. Twenty years ago I published a book every bit as impudent, to say nothing of empty, as my head. It was a time when I believed too much introspection would destroy a man. In those days my idea of words to live by ran along the lines of: Never eat chili in a place called Stinky's. In those days I could hit bull's-eyes without taking aim. I had fathered early, married early. I dragged my young family from pillar to post while I taught myself a trade and chased recognition. By the time the successes amounted to anything, that marriage was over.
At the library today, in my chosen field, I was able to run a finger down the spines of Five Against the Sea and Twenty Years Before the Mast, down The Lonely Sea and the Sky (read it, once glimpsed the Gypsy Moth itself, outside the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich), and Sons of Sinbad. I had not only read A Night to Remember, by Walter Lord, the saga of "the ship that God himself couldn't sink," I had, in 1988, in Boston, interviewed the last living survivors of the Titanic. "You're smoking?" I shrieked to a ninety-year-old Englishman in the bar of the Ritz-Carlton. "I survived the Titanic," he wheezed, making me feel real small and backward.
More titles: The Mutiny on the Globe, The Voyage of the Mir-el-lah, The Wreck on the Half-Moon Reef, Collision Course, Altering Course, Nothing Can Go Wrong, Adrift, Posted Missing, and, praise one's lucky stars, Reaching Port. I lingered over a book subtitled Around the World in a Bad Mood, but the one that won my crown, though it had absolutely nothing to do with what I was up to, was Roots Schmoots: Journeys among Jews. I have not selected it for MY sea chest, but I shall always admire the title.
In all the New York library system, there were only two books that addressed the sort of mission I had set myself. One was John McPhee's Looking for a Ship, an account I had read of a forty-two-day run on an American cargo vessel down the west coast of South America, and the other was Christopher Buckley's Steaming to Bamboola, which I sat down and read on the spot. In Bamboola, the author caught a freighter out of Charleston, South Carolina, in 1979, and sailed to Bremerhaven, West Germany, then back to New Orleans. It occurred to me while reading that when Buckley wrote the book he was of an age (twenty-seven) when he could still swash, while I (forty-seven) am merely slinking out of town on old frequent-flier miles. The thought made me sigh, the only exclamation a civilized man should make in a public library.
In my careful (for me) thinking about reading matter to take along, I have decided to pass over Moby-Dick. The evidence reveals every writing mariner for the last century has cleaved to Herman Melville. Melville didn't just inform their work, he lent it granite (I was tempted to say "gravitas," but that one is so picked clean it begs to go under the plow). Melvilleans are everywhere. Melville is on the Internet (call it Ish-Mail). Not that Melville is not a siren to me, too; who wouldn't be seduced by the way Herman swans up the gangway? "... having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world."
Laying Melville aside, I will place in my luggage my own conceit. I have decided to pack War and Peace. I aim to read it. Indeed, if I accomplish nothing else in all this removal, I will have read War and Peace. Jimmy Carter once told me he read War and Peace when he was twelve. I felt like saying that if I had been stuck in a one-holer like Plains, Georgia, when I was twelve, I would have read it, too. But that would have been a nervous shot at wit and a lie to boot. I didn't have the discipline to read War and Peace when I was twelve. In fact, even as an idle mature man in the middle of the Atlantic, Caribbean, Pacific, Indian, and Mediterranean Oceans, as well as vast stretches of minor waters, I anticipate a struggle finishing War and Peace. For most of my life, I have devoted great sums of energy to avoiding reading War and Peace. The only critical area I can think of that may have gotten more of my energy was the ducking of the Jehovah's Witnesses at the door on hung-over Saturday mornings.
* * *
September 22, 1995
New York City
I am not examining it very carefully, but I am aware I am waking up these days feeling churlish, a direct manifestation of anxiety. By midmorning I am hoping to outrun the mood, as you would a mugger. Today I was sore about my good memory. It is mostly a burdensome possession. One has to grow very old or enter a coma or die to get shed of having Super Glue for a memory. It is true I do not have to use a bookmark, nor dog-ear a page, but I also remember everything a man needn't. Memory gives me such a short fuse with people who don't bother with it, as most people don't; nor should they. Much of life is trivial and should go behind you unremarked, shit through a goose. Now, that's a refreshing point of view, coming from an aspiring diarist.
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