A month later, I went to New York City for a memorial service for my editor at Harper Collins, Robert Jones, an extraordinary person, an old soul if you believe in that sort of thing, highly evolved and deeply compassionate, who had truly devoted himself to his writers, to nurturing their talent and bringing out the very best in them. He was the editor every writer dreams for. Robert had touched many people in the New York publishing and literary community, and the turnout at the University Club was perhaps a thousand strong. Devastated author after author of Robert’s recalled his incredibly supportive marginal notes: “Exquisite !” “I’m blown away !” “How did you ever come up with such a beautiful sentence? ” One of his colleagues quoted the columnist Cindy Adams, who wrote at the death of Liberace, “How do you type a tear? ”
Robert was the third important person in my life who had died since March. Two of them were only in their forties—Robert was 49– and I was still grieving for my father, whom I’d lost the year before. Death was abroad, closer to me than it had ever been to me. (Except for my own brush with it in Peru in l977, when I very nearly died of blackwater fever.) I could hear the lacerating Ray Charles voice of the blind Reverend Gary Davis, my guitar teacher and guru in the sixties, singing his haunting song, “Death don’t have no mercy in this land,” as if he were still here and had not died twenty years ago. LINK TO ETHNOMUSICOLOGY
It had been many months since I’d been to New York City. I am “not a pavement person,” as Georgia O’Keefe described herself, and I have always had a love-hate relationship with the place. I had just ended, in July, a very well-paid but singularly unproductive six-year relationship with Vanity Fair, and I was down on everything it stood for and glorified, its celebration of hyperconsumption and the decadent lifestyles of the superrich. There was no place for me there any more, for the kind of the writing I do. Long foreign stories had zero appeal to the current zeitgeist. So I wrote the editor, Graydon Carter, two perhaps too caustic e-mails outlining the issues I had with what he was doing to the magazine, and he didn’t want to deal with it and basically told me to seek employment elsewhere. My wife thought I had taken leave of my senses for thus kissing off two thirds of my income and an enviable and prestigious position at the pinnacle of journalism in terms of pay and prestige, and maybe I had. But it was worth it. I was no longer a servant of the media. No longer did I cringe every time I passed a real-estate sign in Montreal that said VENDU !