Breaking Camp
On giving up my office.



By Nick Lyons | Once I received 47 phone calls in a day, which was not a freak. Toward the end there were no more than two or three. What happened was this: I had turned the affairs of my book-publishing company over to my son, gradually assigned to others most of the books I was handling, and then several years later we sold the business to a company with out-of-town offices. Though I stayed on, part-time, as a consultant, the New York office would soon be closed and it was clear that I should break camp, save or dispose of everything in my office, and work from my apartment uptown. At nearly 70, that was the sensible play. It was time.

There were now questions: What to do with my office rug and chairs, bookcases and desk, much of which I had lived with for decades. My wife loathed the metal desk with contact paper on its sides, pretending to be wood; I’d gotten it from a friend who’d stiffed me on a debt, and I’d rather gotten to thinking of it as an extension of hand and body. All the personal files? All the catalogs and photocopied manuscripts, the research books and stacks of index cards and magazines and random gifts? They’d overwhelm my children’s old room, which I’d taken when they’d left.

The philodendron in a brown pot had been in decline for three years, dying piecemeal despite my most loving ministrations—sure proof of my black thumb. Had I watered it enough or too much, sung to it too little? Given it too much sun? Though much diminished, it had two tentative growths and might be worth keeping. I packed my books and citations, photos of my children, and took all of the paintings down early, which left the walls barren, the pale drab green uglier than I’d ever noticed. I should have painted the room a bright white years earlier.

Had I assigned all of the manuscripts that were due in, explained to the authors in the great continuum of the publishing business why I would not be traveling with their books? Had I left clear messages for others? Had I given anyone too much work, left any litter unburied, put out the last embers of fires I’d lit?

I kept the desk, dumped the plant, left the bookcases, took only the files I needed, trashed most of the research stuff (since the others would all find what it all held on the Internet), and of course hauled my three typewriters home. It was the cessation of a process begun many years ago, the putting out of the last of a fire, watching the wood break down and lose its flame and grow merely red and then ashen. It was a cessation of subways and cabs, the joy of accepting and the raw need to reject, delays, crowds, complaints, people to fire or promote, people who loved or hated me for the right or wrong reasons, deadlines, arguments on policy or a paragraph or whether the book really needed an introduction or shrewder jacket, the butting of my will against the will and ego of others, and an end to a certain class of decisions, on words or images or people or expenditures, forever. I had spent more than 40 years in offices, which once, in college, I’d sworn would never imprison me, and now it was ending and there was so much I hadn’t done and so much I’d wanted to do in better ways, and I knew I’d never again see an office except from the other side of the desk. I had grown the little business and it had flourished, and I had made that room a place in which some happy work happened.

In the end, there was only my private phone to be disconnected. Should I leave a message on it—Nick is gone? Should I send out printed notices? I was shocked at how few people I needed to contact. I was struck dumb by the absolute sense, after so many years, that I was simply not needed and that was both terrifying and exhilarating.

Nick Lyons W’53 has been an English professor and book publisher. His latest book is Full Creel.

2003 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 09/02/03


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