I first met Perkus Tooth in an office. Not an office where he worked, though I was confused about this at the time. (Which is itself hardly an uncommon situation, for me.) his was in the headquarters of the Criterion Collection, on Fifty-Second Street and Third Avenue, on a weekday afternoon at the end of summer. I'd gone there to record a series of voice- overs for one of Criterion's high- end DVD reissues, a "lost" 1950s film noir called The City Is a Maze. My role was to play the voice of that film's director, the late émigré auteur Von Tropen Zollner. I would read a series of statements culled from Zollner's interviews and articles, as part of a supplemental documentary being prepared by the curatorial geniuses at Criterion, a couple of whom I'd met at a dinner party.
In drawing me into the project they'd supplied me with a batch of research materials, which I'd browsed unsystematically, as well as a working version of their reconstruction of the film, in order for me to glean what the excitement was about. It was the first I'd heard of Zollner, so this was hardly a labor of passion. But the enthusiasm of buffs is infectious, and I liked the movie. I no longer considered myself a working actor. This was the only sort of stuff I did anymore, riding the exhaust of my former and vanishing celebrity, the smoky half- life of a child star. An eccentric favor, really. And I was curious to see the inside of Criterion's operation. This was the first week of Septemberthe city's back- to- school mood always inspired me to find something to do with my idle hands. In those days, with Janice far away, I lived too much on the surface of things, parties, gossip, assignations in which I was the go- between or vicarious friend. Workplaces fascinated me, the zones where Manhattan's veneer gave way to the practical world.
I recorded Zollner's words in a sound chamber in the technical swing of Criterion's crowded, ramshackle offices. In the room outside the chamber, where the soundman sat giving me cues through a headset, a restorer also sat peering at a screen and guiding a cursor with a mouse, diligently erasing celluloid scratches and blots, frame by digital frame, from the bare bodies of hippies cavorting in a mud puddle. I was told he was restoring I Am Curious (Yellow). Afterward I was retrieved by the producer who'd enlisted me, Susan Eldred. It had been Susan and her colleague I'd met at the dinner partyunguarded, embracing people with a passion for a world of cinematic minutiae, for whom I'd felt an instantaneous affection. Susan led me to her office, a cavern with one paltry window and shelves stacked with VHS tapes, more lost films petitioning for Criterion's rescue.
Susan shared her office, it appeared. Not with the colleague from the party, but another person. He sat beneath the straining shelves, notebook in hand, gaze distant. It seemed too small an office to share. The glamour of Criterion's brand wasn't matched by these scenes of thrift and improvisation I'd gathered in my behind- the- scenes glimpse, but why should it have been? No sooner did Susan introduce me to Perkus Tooth and give me an invoice to sign than she was called away for some consultation elsewhere.
He was, that first time, lapsed into what I would soon learn to call one of his "ellipsistic" moods. Perkus Tooth himself later supplied that descriptive word: ellipsistic, derived from ellipsis. A species of blank interval, a nod or fugue in which he was neither depressed nor undepressed, not struggling to finish a thought nor to begin one. Merely between. Pause button pushed. I certainly stared. With Tooth's turtle posture and the utter slackness of his being, his receding hairline and antique manner of dress trim- tapered suit, ferociously wrinkled silk with the shine worn off, moldering tennis shoesI could have taken him for elderly. When he stirred, his hand brushing the open notebook page as if taking dictation with an invisible pen, and I read his pale, adolescent features, I guessed he was in his fiftiesstill a decade wrong, though Perkus Tooth had been out of the sunlight for a while. He was in his early forties, barely older than me. I'd mistaken him for old because I'd taken him for important. He now looked up and I saw one undisciplined hazel eye wander, under its calf lid, toward his nose. That eye wanted to cross, to discredit Perkus Tooth's whole sober aura with a comic jape. His other eye ignored the gambit, trained on me.
Excerpted from Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem Copyright © 2009 by Jonathan Lethem. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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