It’s been kind of tough for me in New York since coming here in December, a rough introduction (owing in part, but only in part, to unrelenting ‘polar vortex’ winter) to living and working in this city of cities. And I don’t love it here to begin with; didn’t come here in pursuit of any New York dream; have a hard time, really, understanding why so many see this ‘here’ as a destination of choice. My failure to be attracted to the great metropolis is something I guess I’ll have more to say about in time. At the moment, though, I’ve got to share a sort of ‘New York, new normal’ incident that I’d have to be a pretty hard case not to get a kick out of or feel some gratitude for, three months in.
This last week one of my assignments has been to an insulation job, remedial work on a house the company renovated when still only newly into the ‘builder’ side of design-build. The homeowners aren’t around this month, so we were cleared to go in and make some mess for a few days. We’re working throughout the house — every room on an exterior wall.
One little back room at the top of the house was occupied when I came to the job. I encountered the occupant when I knocked on its door while going through the place looking for the guy from our company I was supposed to meet to set up the job with. The door opened just enough for the fellow inside, a bearded Asian man in glasses, to direct me to find my co-worker, and immediately closed again. I didn’t see what he was up to in there.
My co-worker told me a bit later that the space was an office and would be in use, off and on, while we were working. I was surprised, then, when I had to go in and check the room out after its occupant had left for the afternoon, to see not a computer desk, but an inexpensive melamine drawing table and little adjacent drawer stand, in an otherwise almost completely unfurnished room. Four bare white walls and a drawing table: my first thought was that this was an architect doing something independent on a small scale, on the side maybe, working from his laptop. But there was no architect clutter about. Then I saw the brush, a dip pen, india ink, and I realized I’d run into a cartoonist or comics artist of some kind. What kind of cartoonist works in a room with nothing at all on the walls, though? There was nothing in process on the board, just a binder (closed) and legal pad. I decided this was probably somebody with a real job somewhere who’d arranged with a friend to keep an unused room set up for his attempt at the great American graphic novel in off hours — until I noticed that the binder had ‘OPTIC NERVE’ penciled on the spine.
That rang a bell: I knew it was a title I’d come across. Couldn’t place it — but could certainly google it on my phone, which I didn’t put off doing. Both of you, my regular readers, will imagine how my curiosity was wound up at this point. I found that the Asian man in glasses here was undoubtedly Adrian Tomine — a name I knew vaguely. I’d never read his comics, I was pretty sure. I’d definitely noticed those New Yorker covers, on the other hand. Chances were, I’d looked into him online at some point. But what could anybody doing New Yorker work have going on in a tiny, weirdly spare space like this?
Difficulties with work and with New York living generally were displaced suddenly (not to say put out of mind altogether). How strange to go to work and find myself unexpectedly in care of studio space for an illustrator of this guy’s reputation. Yet how little strange, seemingly, in a place of Brooklyn’s reputation (as documented in Tomine’s own covers, in fact): I mean, hey, why not, right? And yet how funny, again — particularly that it should be me, someone who’s given a good deal of attention and effort to design and illustration, and who ended up in New York for reasons entirely unrelated.
At home, I took a little time to acquaint, or reacquaint, myself with Tomine further. I saw that I’d evidently listened to his interview with Terry Gross at some point, probably via the web, deliberately, not the radio. There are other interviews, naturally — ones I certainly hadn’t read. (This one in The Believer looks good, though I’ve still only glanced at it.) I found that he’d been a guest (with Françoise Mouly!) at SPX in 2012, the year after my one occasion to attend.
I did get a chance to chat with him in the next day or two — a little awkwardly and not at any length. He’s a nice guy, and (like me) preoccupied with getting his work taken care of rather than talking about it, as far as I can tell. The twenty-something in me, I told him, has all sorts of questions about what he does. But the twenty-something isn’t the person who’s landed in New York.