Navigating a Book Launch and a Family Wedding: A Week in the Life of Sam Ross
Author: Edit Team
February 24, 2019
“It’s still ten days before the official release date, but my books are going to be for sale for the first time, so I’m excited. Is that why the skin on my arms and chest has broken out into something positively biblical?”
“The Banal and the Profane” is a monthly Lambda Literary column in which we lift the veil on both the writerly life and the publishing industry. In each installment, we ask a different LGBTQ writer, or LGBTQ person of interest in the book industry, to guide us through a week in their lives.
This month’s column comes to us from poet Sam Ross.
Sam Ross is the author of Company, selected by Carl Phillips for the Four Way Books Levis Prize in Poetry.
I wake up earlier than usual excited to begin the first day of teaching a poetry workshop. Last week I was talking about wanting to teach again, then an acquaintance posted something on social media about a class in need of a last minute teacher. Half an hour later, I was signed up. I’d say this shows the power of verbalization, but I’ve been verbalizing wanting a house and a boatload of cash for a while now, yet I still live with three roommates above an only recently shuttered poultry slaughterhouse (I love it).
I average three and a half espressos a day. I use a little Delonghi machine, a Krups grinder, and lately I’ve been buying beans from the Gimme on Lorimer. They’re delicious, but chemically potent. They rile me up. I had been brewing shots of canned ground Lavazza and drinking those straight, but the new beans guys need some medium to take the edge off. I steal some oat milk from the fridge, make a mental note about that, have two sips of a latte, and leave the rest on my desk for later. That’s breakfast.
Ride the L to Union Square and swing by Staples. An adult white woman is sprawled across the steps of the park alternately dragging on a cigarette and taking long swigs of a bottle of electric fuchsia Vitamin Water (dragon fruit?). The weather is bright and nearly balmy. Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)” blares loudly from a speaker hidden somewhere in the folds of her coat. She looks both haggard and radiant in the morning light. Nothing but respect for my president, as they say.
I head uptown reading the juicy takedown of Daniel Mallory in this week’s New Yorker. All of my suspicions are confirmed about the rich and conventionally attractive. Compulsive liars, every single one. The age of the scammer goes on.
I’m back in Brooklyn and I swing by the good deli for a sandwich and some raw spinach, which I eat like chips. My dietary philosophy revolves around washing whatever thing I’m eating (tacos, dumplings, General Tso’s chicken, etc.) down with raw leafy greens or uncooked root vegetables. Balance, you know.
I need to start work on the freelance consulting that is my bread and butter, but I’m sleepy so I drink the rest of my desk latte then head for a workout at my spot in Bushwick, a gym that is so no-frills the stairway was recently smeared in an alarming amount of human fecal matter. Like, an alarming amount.
Back from working out and begin working on working.
I crush a dried árbol chile and make a snack of that and some tuna filets in olive oil spread on crispy lavash. I’m a sucker for this tuna, and I have to be careful or I’ll eat the whole jar.
I eat the whole jar.
I have taken the hands that crushed the chile and touched my stomach, which is now red and burning.
Wake up groggy. I took a Benadryl last night while reading Howard’s End (“Haven’t we all to struggle against life’s daily greyness, against pettiness, against mechanical cheerfulness, against suspicion?”). Mrs. Wilcox has died, and the remaining Wilcoxes have ignored her dying wish because it was written in pencil. I make a latte.
Still groggy, I head the gym. I use a fitness app called Gay Gym Rat (just kidding, it’s called FitBod). My friend recommended it to me. It designs a new workout for you every day, which helps stave off boredom. I had quit the gym a couple years ago after moving away from Prospect Heights, and I would work out by running over to the Lower East Side or doing laps and intervals at the track in McCarren park, lifting weights at home. Then they shut down the track to redo the grass or something, and it was closed for months so finally I just said screw it. Screw it.
I walk home from the gym listening to a podcast of Monica Youn reading her poem “Study of Two Figures (Pasiphaë/Sado),” enrapt. I pick up a heavy breakfast wrap from the deli and make a fresh shot of espresso. Groggy no more, I get to work.
A helicopter hovers in the sky near my apartment, wasp-like, filling me with rage.
I’m giving my first reading tonight from my new book Company at the Greenlight Poetry Salon with my friend Morgan Parker and other poets I admire and would like to impress: Donika Kelly and José Olivarez. It’s still ten days before the official release date, but my books are going to be for sale for the first time, so I’m excited. Is that why the skin on my arms and chest has broken out into something positively biblical? This happens, like, annually, and goes away in a week or so. I don’t seem to get colds anymore, just this thing. One of the body’s many reactions. I still have a small biopsy scar from the last breakout. Benign! Negative! I really liked my dermatologist then. Her eyelashes were like the velvety antennas of a hoard of soft black moths, and we had both just returned from Miami.
I’m headed to Ireland tomorrow with my parents for a cousin’s wedding. My mom was raised outside of Dublin, and I’ve visited family there since I was a baby. She moved to the states after meeting my dad in a Forster-esque plot. And here I am: a dummy with a rash!
I finish up work and grab the bus from Williamsburg to the Greenlight store in Prospect Lefferts Gardens, picking out what to read on the way and fielding some messages from sweethearts offering congratulations about the book and event.
Well, that was fun. Donika, José, and Morgan were stellar, the crowd was enthusiastic and alive, and now I’m fielding friends, giving hugs. A buddy of mine tries to steal my thunder by telling me he’s going to have a baby—a girl—but it won’t work! I sign some books, then a bunch of us head out to grab a celebratory bite at Parkside. Someone asks why we aren’t going to Risbo’s. Because Risbo’s is closed! But there’s a back room at Parkside where our friends have a great set up, cocktails start coming, and my friend Nalini is the exact right person to be charge of ordering for the table. I get a Manhattan that arrives in a large glass decanter filled with smoke which is passed around and huffed like a woodsy bottle of poppers. I tell a long, graphic story about New Years Eve, which I spent with friends at a now-shuttered club in Ridgewood.
After dinner, a few of us join Morgan at her brother’s apartment around the corner for a nightcap. I tell the story again.
I receive a work-related email that kills last night’s afterglow and sets me up for a stressful day. On top of that, I left my personal copy of my book at the store last night, along with a rubber stamp and goldenrod inkpad I bought from Casey’s on east 11th in the village, that dark little wonderland. After trying to strategize damage control for work, I ride the L to the Q and swing by the store. The book is found, but the stamp is not. Last night’s euphoria has crashed into a post-bliss funk. I stress eat three chicken strips with Bayou Buffalo Sauce at Popeye’s. All the spinach in the world can’t save me now. Screw it.
I work, pack, and head out to the airport (L to A to Airtrain; I like to avoid paying for airport taxis if I’m not in a rush). I pick up a salad in Terminal 4, having not eaten a vegetable all day.
At the gate, I’m typing furiously (a cliché; revise to: energetically? with gusto? screw it). I begin to wonder where my parents are. Ensconced in a private lounge? I send a text—turns out they don’t fly out until tomorrow. What is this astrological fuckery? I breathe. My splotchy arms, lost stamp, and failure to plan aren’t real problems. I realize that it will be really good to have an extra day in Dublin by myself, since my parents want me to do the majority of left-side-of-the-road driving, and the last time that happened I didn’t speak to my father for a month. Not a relaxed passenger, him. This way I don’t have to chauffeur first thing off the plane.
What I really want to do is get a drink. What I do is get on the plane. To the motherland.
The morning is bright and gold and shining wet from what the cab driver tells me was a night of driving rain. I get a room at a hotel on St. Stephen’s Green. They’re undergoing construction so the rate is cheaper than usual—and includes a bottle of wine! The Renovation Package, they call it.
I drop my bags and send a message to an old grad school buddy from Columbia who moved to Dublin a few years ago. I hear back quickly, and we make plans to meet up in the evening. I’m looking forward to hearing what he’s been up to. Against my better judgment, I take a two hour nap, have a hell of a time waking up, run a lukewarm bath, send some emails for work and head out.
The Dublin evening smells like stone and smoke and rain. The city has changed so much since I was a kid, but to me that perfume seems constant. Crossing St. Stephen’s Green, I take Francis Street up to Thomas, where I meet my friend Arthur at a pub playing 80s art school music (my kind of place). I point to the hardware and plumbing store across the street: my grandfather’s old business. Arthur’s girlfriend, an accomplished glass artist, joins us and soon enough we’re all merrily shouting. After a couple hours we head out to another bar, crossing the River Liffey, the streets wet and alive with the warm glow of sodium lamps. The owner cum bartender lives above the pub and buzzes customers in one by one as they arrive. We settle in, and one Guinness somehow turns to eight. Arthur shows me a new poem on his phone that makes the hairs on my arm stand up. Dear, sweet Arthur!
We part in the street, the rain softly begun. I am proud of myself for remembering my room number, which is not written on the key. The angels lead me safely to bed.
I wake up and stumble downstairs to eat a full Irish breakfast in hopes of staving off a hangover, then take a taxi to the airport to meet my parents. We pick up a car to drive from Dublin to County Tipperary.
It is a long way to Tipperary!
We arrive at the wedding venue, gnosh on some sandwiches, a pot of strong tea, two white wines for my mom and me. I head to my room and crash until evening.
I meet up again with everyone for pre-wedding drinks and catch up with my cousins.
In the morning, I take a long walk on a road that leads me past cow pastures, the distinct acrid smell of their dung mixing with the sweetness of the grass and the rain, something familiar there. A whole field of them, the beautiful beasts of all shades, staring straight at me. We stand like that for awhile. I think of Lydia Davis. The clouds roll in on the walk back. It rains again.
Next, a full, lovely wedding day. One of my cousins reads Frank O’Hara’s “Having a Coke with You” during the service, not an uncommon poem to hear at an American wedding, I think, but it caused a bit of a sensation. After the service, a woman asked what I thought. I replied that my cousin read it very well, that it’s an allusive poem so a little tricky, but I like it. I did not use the words gay or iconic. I ask for her opinion.
“Well, it’s all right if you’ve got your toes in the sand at the beach, but I didn’t think it was quite appropriate for a cathedral!”
Everyone’s a critic, but I wouldn’t have called the local town church a cathedral.
The rest of the afternoon is a blur of cocktails, toasts, general exuberance. My night ends around midnight after servers distribute paper cones of chips and Irish sausages. I’m going to need all my wits driving my parents through the Wicklow pass tomorrow. The others are up until all hours. Mazel to the happy couple!
My parents and I follow my aunt and uncle through the mountains to their house in the east for a night. The drive is long and treacherous. My father gamely tries to be a better passenger than last time (“don’t you think I’m doing better in this regard I try to do better,” is a line in Ellen Bryant Voigt’s poem “Headwaters,” but don’t you sometimes feel like asking someone to try harder).
We arrive just as it’s dark, and I settle down over a few beers before dinner and show my parents some pictures of last week’s protest at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn. Reports had emerged that prisoners had been without power and heat for weeks, possibly longer. My dad says that it’s good that I went, that when the state imprisons someone they take full responsibility for their lives, that abdicating this responsibility is a deep moral failure, that this is an idea reflected by the beadsmen in the Faerie Queen, one of whom is specifically tasked with helping prisoners.
I remember watching a commercial on Irish television for electric blankets when I was small. A car turns down narrow roads, headlights cutting through the darkening blue night. The driver arrives to his nan, a pot of tea, and a Beldrey’s Single Electric Under Blanket. Tonight, I sleep in a warm bed.
Our last day, the longest drive yet, we head to Northern Ireland to visit my great aunt, a ninety-five year old original who lives on a horse farm she has been building up since moving back to Ireland from Scotland a few years ago. Several people at the wedding heard we were making the trek. “She’s a bit of a hard one, don’t get your feelings hurt if she doesn’t like you” was the general vibe, but I have no expectations, and I’ve never been to the North. My mom tries to see her once a year, they’re close, and I’m excited to meet her. Thankfully for me, I’ve found an auxiliary cable which lets me play some music from my phone as we (read: I) make the long drive. Mom really likes the new Robyn record; it’s a little loud for Dad, but he says nothing, which I take as love.
We have lunch by the sea in Newcastle.
My great aunt has two fat terriers that waddle out of her house as we pull up. She had another but he got old and was shot, as is her custom. She looks like my grandfather as I remember him, which is, I now realize, what I may look like if I meet an old age. We talk over tea. She suffers no fools, runs her own ship, smiles a lot. I love her.
We drive back to Dublin (another harrowing experience, but we emerge the stronger for it; all for one, one for all) to the house where my mom grew up, and which I’ve stayed in since I was a baby. It holds a special place in my imagination. As in Forster: “Houses are alive. No?” Years ago, a large highway was built not far from the front yard. You can’t see it, it’s blocked by trees, but the air is now filled with the high-pitched, insectan whine of many new cars speeding up the M1 at all hours, a sound that still jars me. It’s a little sad, but only a little, since I’m still lucky enough to be here in real life, or to have the memory at all.
It’s my last night before flying back.
A snowstorm in New York has delayed the flight by a couple hours. Tomorrow evening, as I ride the A train from the Howard Beach stop at JFK back into Brooklyn, a man will lay a paper napkin on the empty seat between us. He’ll peel an orange and place the fragrant shards of rind atop the pale square, building a graceful little nest, before taking careful, juicy bites of his snack, an act of attention that strikes me as rare and which won’t go wasted on me—which is why I’m telling you about it.