Land in the Sky: Dwelling Anew

Last Christmas Eve down at Pandora’s Tavern, while everybody else was watching a bowl game on the bar’s big screen, I found myself re-reading some Heidegger. One does things like that down at Pandora’s Tavern. I first read this philosopher in the early 80s, under what might be called peculiar conditions. You could say that reading philosophy under peculiar conditions only serves to thicken the peculiarities, and you’d be right. Even under the most normal of circumstances, all it takes is a few minutes of casual browsing in a volume of philosophy—and everything takes an odd turn. But what did I know, I was a young, enthusiastic scholar pursuing my studies in the wild woolly-wags of eastern Maine, far removed from the lures of Wall Street where some of my old chums were already raking in the big bucks and had not yet been busted for insider trading.

In one of his less formidable essays, Heidegger makes a distinction between “building” and “dwelling.” Not all buildings, says the philosopher, are dwellings. “Bridges and hangars, stadiums and power stations are buildings but not dwellings.” That may seem pretty obvious. But when it comes to philosophy, the obvious is preferable to having a ding an sich shoved in your face. Anyway, by Heidegger’s lights the house I grew up in in suburban North Jersey counted as a dwelling. That’s because my family actually lived there. Whereas the nearby Pulaski Skyway—though certainly a building in the technical sense—was no dwelling. Nor was the giant stadium they built in the Hackensack Meadows, which opened in 1976 (the year I graduated from high school) and has since been torn down. Nor was the big mall— put up on what had been the wooded edge of our town—a dwelling, though it now teeters on the verge of bankruptcy and may soon be shuttered and become a haunted house of sorts.

To complete this picture, it should be noted that, in the New Jersey landscape of my youth, genuine dwellings were rapidly giving way to mere buildings—to the point where a peculiar kind of human-fashioned wilderness emerged, one distinguished by car dealerships, fast food joints, gardening centers, Kinney Shoes, pawn shops, dry cleaners, National Guard armories, bowling alleys, Entenmann’s outlets, lumber yards, drive-in theaters, donut shops, Robert Hall, and pet stores. And that’s just a partial inventory of the terrain. Yes, a peculiar kind of wilderness, which—in keeping with Federal law—is a place “where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” I for one could not remain in New Jersey, so I lit out, as soon as I could, for the wilds of eastern Maine, where I misspent what was left of my youth.

And that’s where I first read Heidegger. The peculiar conditions were these.

I was a struggling graduate student in literature. The monthly stipend I received was just enough to cover the rent for my cheap digs, the cases of ramen noodles and beer that provided my sustenance, and the gas for my 1973 VW Beetle, which more often than not was out of commission so I mostly didn’t have to worry about filling the tank. I was assigned an office, which I shared with three other people. It was located on the fourth floor of what was then called the English-Math Building. A large portion of this unattractive structure remained unfinished on the inside because the university ran out of money to finish the project, so the place felt more like a parking garage or roller rink than an ivory tower. By no means would this echo of a Bauhaus blunder ever be considered a dwelling in the Heideggerian sense. Hell, it didn’t even have a proper name.

As fate would have it, I was forced one day to abandon my meager lodgings—in a snug trailer in a vintage mobile home park out near the town dump—due to a flea infestation. Having nowhere else to go, I moved—temporarily, or so I told myself—into my office in the English-Math Building. All my books were already there and a padded bench dragged in from the hallway provided a fine place to lay out a sleeping bag each night. My officemates didn’t mind. Nor did the kindly department secretary, who brought me coffee each morning and let me keep my beer in the department refrigerator. And my various friends, who were dwelling under more secure circumstances, regularly invited me over to their places for a meal and a shower. In the evenings, after the last classes were dismissed, a tomblike quiet would descend upon the English-Math Building, which proved a perfect environment for getting some serious reading done—reading that included works by Heidegger. Because rent was no longer a worry, I had more money than ever before. I was able to buy more books, including nice hardbound editions of Walden and The Maine Woods, both published by Princeton. I soon realized that I actually enjoyed living in my office. Things were simple and complete. The English-Math Building—at least my little corner of it—had become a dwelling. My dwelling.

I did harbor a few doubts about this place—this situation—that I was now calling home. After all, what kind of person lives in his office? (Think Bartleby, or Ted Kaczynski, or a Washington politician.) What would people think? What if I took ill and needed to be confined to bed? More than anything else, I worried about becoming lonely. Happily, those doubts were driven out when I discovered that another grad student—in math—had also moved into his office, on the same floor as me but on the other side of the building. I was no longer alone! I stopped by one evening to introduce myself—“Hi, I’m your neighbor from down the hall”—and he invited me in. Unlike my office, which indeed looked like an office because I rolled up and put away my sleeping bag each morning, this guy’s looked like somebody lived there. He had a big cushy chair, a gray tufted-back sofa sleeper with a couple kilim throw pillows, a girlfriend’s painting hanging on the wall, a color TV, a fancy microwave, and a hot-plate. The shelves around the room were packed not with books but canned goods. It was the most posh graduate student dwelling I had ever seen. And it got me to thinking, maybe I should spruce up my place.

Alas, that never happened. A few nights later I was at my desk, working late as usual, when a disruption occurred. I always left the door open so the night janitor wouldn’t be surprised to find somebody in there. When he made his rounds, I’d chat with him as he’d empty the trash buckets, then we’d bid each other a neighborly goodnight. Once he had passed through, I knew it would be safe to unroll the sleeping bag and bed down. On that night, the janitor had already made his rounds. I was just about to call it quits, when this great commotion erupted out in the hall. I heard the bang of the stairwell door bursting open, then the clomping of boots on the tile floor. I looked up from my desk to see a line of campus policemen charging past my door and down the hall. Whatever could be the matter? A few minutes later they filed back the way they had come, but now escorting my neighbor—in handcuffs. The cops never even bothered to peek in on what I was doing, but my neighbor did. The look on his face said: “Get the hell outta here, buddy, as fast as you can!”

And I did. I grabbed my sleeping bag, headed out into the snow, and trudged off to a friend’s—a grad student in geology—who was living in a homemade teepee deep in the university forest. I stayed with him till things cooled off back at the English-Math Building. Then I resumed my cozy office dwelling. I figured if I continued to live in such a way as not to call undue attention to myself, I’d be okay. And I was. But I never saw that math grad student again. When I stopped by to see how he had fared with the cops, I found his office stripped bare. Empty. As if nobody had ever dwelled there. It was forlorn as an abandoned mental hospital.

As for me, I continued to dwell in my own office for another couple months—till I somehow contracted salmonella and had to go in to the hospital for a few days. After that I didn’t go back to my office. I moved on to other lodgings—and many others in the years since. Yet each time learning how to dwell anew.