If you’re a great writer, you have to have a few lost years. I am not a great writer, but I’m a GOOD writer. So I have one lost year.
My lost year is 1994. Here’s how it came about. When I first moved into the building on Main Street in Bridgehampton to make it the offices for this newspaper, it was 1971 and I had working for me a general manager named Eric Cohen. Eric, who is still a friend of mine, had a hobby. He made wooden furniture in his basement. “You ought to have bookshelves up in the executive offices,” he said one day, referring to the two rooms on the second floor.
And so he built custom made bookcases to fit, and we carted them up when he was done, painted them white and screwed them into the walls.
At that time, and continuing on to this past month, I have used a particular hard cover red 6 x 9 date book to keep track of appointments as I make my rounds. These books cover exactly one year and have one day for each page, and upon each page I scribble all sorts of notes. Then in October, I order a new one, which arrives in November, always in time for January first. It’s nice to have a completely fresh, blank book to start things out for the upcoming year.
As for the old date books, I save them. On rare occasion, I might need the name and phone number of some long-ago business associate, and so I get the particular year where I think it is and I flip through it to find it. I keep my date books, now 39 of them, all in a row, on the top shelf of one of my bookcases, way up high. I think in 39 years I have had an occasion to access them, uh, twice.
Sometime this past September was one of those times. I was looking to find the name and phone number of somebody I had met briefly in either 1995 or 1996, and I had gotten on a chair to reach up there and in doing so pushed against 1994. It slid backwards and then disappeared. You could hear it go.
What had happened, and we determined this by removing all the remaining diaries from atop the bookcase, getting a small pocket mirror and holding it up there with a flashlight trained on it, was that, over the years, the wood that Eric Cohen had used to make it had warped and pulled away from the wall about an inch, just large enough for a diary to slide down behind.
You could see it down there, by bouncing the flashlight beam off the mirror in a certain way. 1994 was about halfway down, wedged in, its gold lettering indicating the year clearly visible.
“What kind of wood did you use to make my bookcases?’’ I asked Eric on the phone later that day.
“Pine,’’ he said. “Why?’’
“One of them warped. A book fell down and wedged behind it. How long is your guarantee.’’
“Dan, it’s been 40 years.’’
We tried everything to get 1994 out. You could reach down behind the bookcase from above if somebody lifted you up and held you so you could get your forearm down. You’d roll up your sleeve. You touched the book. And because your forearm widened the gap to get down there, the book dropped down another four inches.
I actually went around the office later that day, looking for someone, anyone, who had arms at least a foot longer than mine and skinny enough so as not to upset the applecart behind the bookcase. We have 35 people working here. But there were none with those qualifications.
We tried a coat hanger and we did succeed in getting it under the book, but it couldn’t budge it before it bent. We had other people, particularly males, who felt they could get it out. One of them, quite pathetically I thought, believed he could get it out with a rope with a lasso on the end. We tried tongs, giant scissors, pliers, garden tools, even the kind of tool that grocers use to get cereal boxes off shelves up high. Nothing worked. The real problem was that there was only 10 inches between the top of the bookcase and the ceiling in which to do whatever you were going to do. Also, it was really, really wedged in back there.
Of course, I did know that I could buy an electric skill saw and, by making tapping noises, locate the book and cut out a piece of the back panel to set 1994 free. But that would leave, after a repair, a big rectangular scar in the back panel and you couldn’t have that. You could also tear the whole bookcase down to get it. But I didn’t think it has to come to that.
I’d come to work every morning, and I’d look at that spot on the bookcase and know what is behind there and I’d think someday, somehow, somebody is going to think of something to get that book out. I mean in recent years we have invented the iPod, discovered a new planet, we’ve even announced—well the Chinese have—that they are going back to the moon. How hard can this be? I live in hope.
In the meantime, I did a very dangerous, very courageous thing. Without taking any other action whatsoever, I returned my remaining 39 volumes to the top of the bookcase and just set them, very carefully, knowing what’s back there behind them, in a row at the front edge of that top shelf just in front of where they had been before. I’d just have to be very, very careful if I need to reference something in one again, which maybe will happen perhaps in 2017.
In the meantime, I lamented my lost year. I know what happened just leading up to it. Here are handwritten entries from the last few days of 1993.
!! T1000 universal AC adapter. Shut down hot tub.
Merrill Lynch papers. Keypad 6260 on garage (It sticks, press hard)
Wait 10 seconds in house on kitchen. Pat.
Plant tree. 800-443-6184. Call Femll. Write “Why Interest rates go up.’’
And here are some entries from the first few days of 1995.
Wilbur. Call Joe Heller. Transcribe Loida Lewis. Betty
Sherrill. Potter Crolius 203-221-2707 Action Media, former
ed of Golf Mag. Big Apple Circus. Part #P000117430 $30.
Call Jerry re: lunch tomorrow? Melanie Wells. McWhinnie.
Get hotel suite in Orlando. 3 nights $75.
But as for 1994, it comes up blank. I know Bill Clinton was President, and I think it was before Monica Lewinski but after Paula Jones. I also think that was the year Ira Rennert bought the 67 acre potato farm in Sagaponack where he built his 110,000 square foot mansion. And I thought for a while that this was the year I went to the Albuquerque Balloon Festival in October, but when I went to check I found it in the 1996 diary.
ome day, archaeologists will come upon what had once been the Dan’s Papers building in Bridgehampton (we moved out of it for larger quarters in Southampton this past January) and will find, behind that bookcase, my lost year. It will, perhaps, be a find. On the order of the discovery of a recent handwritten score of music by Beethoven found in a closet in Bavaria. Or the discovery of giant mammoth tusks in Greenland.
Every writer has a lost year. 1994 was mine.