A True Mirror’s reflection depicts a person as they are seen by others. It’s a curious novelty. Stand in front of one and you see yourself, your true self, staring back. Too worried about what it would reveal, I myself have never viewed one.
The closest I have come to having this experience, to accepting that my image is unoriginal, that my struggles are a common denominator for many people I may never meet, was when I first read The Tender Bar by J.R. Moehringer. It thrilled me to see someone succeed at what I longed to do, but it haunted me knowing it had all been done before.
To realize we are not wholly alone is in part why many of us read. We feel closer to the author and closer to ourselves. But compare yourself too much to someone and you run the risk of feeling envious, perhaps jealous and defeated. Caught between warring anxieties as I waited to hear back about a job at the New York Times, a premature and unfounded sense of failure inhabited me. This was about the same time I started reading Moehringer’s 2006 memoir. The book might as well have been a roadmap for what would soon be my career. He was a young man (I was 23) from a broken Long Island home (Manhattan) who attended Yale (art school, then Columbia) and later gets a job as a News Assistant (√) at the Times (√).
On top of it all, I’ve for many years found myself running to bars for comfort, much like Moehringer did at my age. Friends were found amidst poor faces checked with the bristles of a five o’clock shadow. Relief flowed unimpeded by time or worry from bottles and cold taps. Nothing outside the curvature of the bar existed beyond faulty memory, a drinker’s haze. The bar itself was not an addiction so much as it was a prescriptive measure. Time repaired itself, and gone with it whatever pain. In this way I connected with Moehringer, and to a book that could have been an unauthorized biography of me, which soothed me like the worn stools of a tired bar.
In 1972, eighteen years before I was born, Moehringer was seven and living in a Cape Cod with a sagging roof and eleven family members. This was his grandpa’s house at 646 Plandome Road, in Manhasset. His father manifested as “The Voice” on the radio, a broadcaster in Manhattan, a short train ride from where young Moehringer was raised. Moehringer had his mother, who faced financial woes and did all she could to raise him on a tight budget in a blue collar town. And he had the bar. At the center of his memoir is Dickens (later Publicans), a bar like many across America: a haunt where we go when we need something but aren’t sure what that is, or, when we get lost, to find our way.
Histrionics born from a youth of drinking aside, he wanted an ordered life. He writes, “I loved how the Times made life appear containable. It satisfied my mania for order, for a world separated into black and white. It slotted all the madness into seventy pages of six skinny columns.” I couldn’t have agreed more.
When I got the job offer for the Times, not long after finishing the book, I hugged my mother tighter than I had before, feeling proud to have made her proud. The hug announced my own ascendance into adulthood, as did Moehringer’s own employment at the Times, if ever there existed a hierarchy of wisdom attached to age like mileage.
Later, I found my way to Columbia for graduate studies. It must have worked, this reading about the lives of great men. Still at both institutions I found myself wondering one thing, a sentiment Moehringer echoed throughout his memoir: Did I deserve a spot in either hallowed institution?
Self-consciousness made me ask the wrong questions. What I needed to ask, and where no one was available to guide me, was whether I found myself in a place right for me, not for my imagined heroes. My resume and career trajectory—salad days to ivory tower to ivy hall—seemed to trump my intuition. And my intuition begged me to follow against the grain. Except I didn’t listen. The Voice inside me was not my own.
There is an inherent comfort in learning about the path others trod towards their own dreams. Feelings of inadequacy through comparison could have, and perhaps did sometimes, become nightmarish. Hope remained in the small victories—the one article published, the M.F.A. acceptance letter, the query response from a literary agent. But the more I read about other writers making their way through youth—Pete Hamill, David Vann, Jay McInerney—, including Moehringer, the more I came to understand there was no way to predict what path or promises lay ahead. That loss of control was devastating. I wish I’d stuck with just this one book, and not explored the stories of others who I wished to emulate. It would have made things simpler. I would not have clung to them as buoys through the storm of my early twenties, believing in these men and their journeys. I even reached out to them. But like the young Moehringer, I could not find a masculine world of which to be a part. I even once wrote to Moehringer, and still I await his response.
Still, for a while Moehringer’s book and the bars we both love offered respite in which I sought answers. And perhaps some day he’ll write me. I imagine him saying, There is no answer. But the pursuit of one is sublime.
Kenneth R. Rosen works and writes for the New York Times. Twitter: @kenneth_rosen