You know on “The Wire,” how Lester just listens for those phone numbers to ping, and meanwhile builds dollhouse furniture? And Baltimore goes to hell all around him, and the hours watching screens and sifting through papers don’t fix the rottenness of the world, but damn he does a good job carving those little highboys? That’s my summer research program, only I’m not quite so cool and handsome and wise as Lester Freaman.
I know we’re the last people in western civilization to view the “The Wire.” Chris and I watched the first couple of seasons grumbling about how it’s really good but not the transcendent triumph people kept raving about, and then we got to the transcendent part at the end of season three, and season four is even better, except that it’s giving Chris flashbacks to those days of substitute teaching in New Jersey when clever students built flamethrowers and less clever ones smashed windows with each others’ bodies. I can’t stop thinking that this show is all about conducting research. They watch the movement of cargo containers on a cloned computer, waiting for one to blink out suspiciously. I troll through old editions of the T.S. Eliot newsletter hoping to find support for my argument, dreading to discover something that makes it wrong or pointless.
Of course, members of the Major Crimes Unit get to be half-bored, half-tortured by suspense together, sharing Chinese food. I sit alone in my home office, sit alone in my work office, or pace the library stacks alone, with an occasional lunch date or Facebook break. A colleague, a smart and productive researcher, told me once that she dreads the loneliness of summer work (as opposed to the harried teaching year, in which one is anything but solitary). July in a small academic town in Virginia is hot and empty. My kids are in camp, so I’d better build cases while I can, which means eight hours a day of reading and writing— a huge luxury many writers would kill for, but it is hard work and I understand why some people dislike it. This summer has been lonelier than most, as I try to figure out a new relationship to a work space now haunted by a man I have a bad history with. When I asked a supervisor some weeks back, “So you’re telling me that my only option is to hide in my office with my new minifridge?”, he said, “Yes.” Ever dutiful, I’ve been hiding and reading and writing in the company of my appliances. After each day’s late afternoon thunderstorm, I walk home to fire up, cook on, load, run, and gaze at more machines.
One essay I wrote this summer felt good and right and important; one I’m putting aside for the moment because it feels like I’m just making stuff up. Those are the Major Crimes, requiring police work of mixed quality. The poetry-furniture is a more quixotic enterprise. I wonder if Lester really sells those babies. Somewhere, I bet, he has a room full of pieces he couldn’t quite polish up convincingly. Rows of wee entertainment centers and elegant sofas with throw-pillow lozenges. Too-tidy desks and spidery chairs. I like making them, looking at them, dreaming up the next one; on many days this labor is much more satisfying than my casework. I can’t clean up Baltimore, at least this summer, but here’s my fantasy: every six inch doll who wants one, dammit, WILL have her fist-sized minifridge stocked with dreamy little baskets of paint-speck berries, and then she can close her door and watch YouTube if she pleases, pretending it’s research.
And then I’m going to Ireland on a vacation slash poetry pilgrimage, before the cathode rays and various other forces shrink me any further and I’m hopping across the keyboard to blog at gnat-frequency.