Sometimes I still dream of Merrimac Street, and the loft where I spent the darkest years of my alcoholic drinking, where I first experienced the deep, deep loneliness that formed me, where I got sober. The windows that gave upon the Lindemann Mental Health Center, a fortress-like nuthouse. The bathroom, with its bare hanging light bulb and communal sink, that served the whole welfare-hotel fifth floor.

I slept on a mattress surrounded by bookcases filled with books owned by the gay couple who’d moved to Nashville–Matthew was an old friend–and bequeathed me the loft. Those books kept me company: Lawrence Durrell (“Somewhere between Calabria and Corfu, the blue really begins”…), Somerset Maugham (“Were the pearls real?” “If I had a pretty little wife I shouldn`t let her spend a year in New York while I stayed at Kobe”), W.B. Yeats (“When you are old and gray and full of sleep/And nodding by the fire, take down this book”….).  Frank O’Hara. Diane Arbus. Brassaï’s The Secret Paris of the 30’s and that photo of the “eccentric” woman in the bar I was afraid I’d someday become. Cavafy, with his theme of “fatalistic existential nostalgia.”


Fatalistic existential nostalgia has always been a theme for me as well. For a long time, I thought I might have made a mistake moving to the West Coast. All these years later, I know I have two places to love.

And as St. Augustine said: “Keep going along the road, never satisified. If you stop, you die.”


You said: “I’ll go to another country, go to another shore,
find another city better than this one.
Whatever I try to do is fated to turn out wrong
and my heart lies buried like something dead.
How long can I let my mind moulder in this place?
Wherever I turn, wherever I look,
I see the black ruins of my life, here,
where I’ve spent so many years, wasted them, destroyed them totally.”

You won’t find a new country, won’t find another shore.
This city will always pursue you.
You’ll walk the same streets, grow old
in the same neighborhoods, turn gray in these same houses.
You’ll always end up in this city. Don’t hope for things elsewhere:
there’s no ship for you, there’s no road.
Now that you’ve wasted your life here, in this small corner,
you’ve destroyed it everywhere in the world.



13 Replies to “THE CITY: CAVAFY”

  1. I need to send this poem to every friend who thinks he can escape himself elsewhere. The last two lines are especially sobering.

    On another note, how I'd love to do the time-capsule thing and visit Cavafy's Alexandria . . .

  2. Hey, the Erich Lindemann! I know that "fortress-like nuthouse" very well (alas, from the inside). Architecture at its finest. Not!

  3. Anonymous says: Reply

    Wow….now that's a solid negative outlook….Hi Heather..wishing you well and an acceptable view of things…xxjk

  4. Bill–I was just pricing fights to Cairo (though of course Egypt wouldn't be the same now)…

    Dylan–someone who has actually been at the Lindemann Center! I would have checked myself in if I'd had the money…

    and Joe!! ! I might have to (re-)run my pheasant-hunting in Minnesota Dale Quinn piece. That should cheer us all up! or maybe some Neuterberg jokes…wishing you well also–I'm now in your own beautiful "city" of Silver Lake…xx…

    1. 11625640af says: Reply

      Initiated many alcoholic blackouts next door at 119 Merrimac in the early 1970’s but have been sober since 1975. 119 Merrimac was a somewhat notorious specialized drinking spot back when Boston was still real.

      1. HEATHER KING says: Reply

        Ha oh totally. I meandered down to 119 in my bathrobe a few times, late afternoon, and sat at the bar for a couple of bracers before I started readying myself for yet another debauched night at the Beacon Hill Pub and Sullivan’s. Immortalized as best I could 121 and my life there in Parched–I can still smell the stairwell–wet dog, piss, human despair…At the same time, exactly, Boston was real and I lived, breathed, and in my way loved it. The Red Line coming over the Charles late at night. Buzzy’s Roast Beef. The North End when if you were with friends who knew somebody you could stay after hours at the cafes for shots of sambucca…I’ve been back a few times in recent years and could barely recognize the old West End. Sober since 1975–splendid. ’87 for me–eternally grateful–for all of it….

        1. Peter Raynes says: Reply

          The aroma of stale beer mixed with urine is one of my fondest memories of my times at 119 Merrimac. However my attempts at romanticizing my drinking days pales in comparison to “the human despair” as you so perfectly put it. I managed to get sober due to an AA group up on Beacon Hill. Although I followed hardly any of the suggestions of the program, I found myself not wanting to let down the members who were so kind in trying to keep me from my next drink. It has been 46 years since my last drink and I will be forever grateful. Just as an aside although I have been a “fallen Catholic” since 1967, I find myself being happy for you with your faith. Best to you.

          1. HEATHER KING says:

            Yeah, Peter, that’ll do it–kindness…I’m so glad those Beacon Hill people gathered round…such a mystery, to me anyway, how, when, and why any of us get sober. That mystery and gratitude led me to Christ–and have kept me there. Thanks for being happy for me though that was not the place for you…You seem to have found your own way and your own peace–wonderful.

  5. The Portugese have a word for that bittersweet longing: "saudade."
    There are times in your life that weren't very happy, but you were young then, and through the haze of alcohol and heartbreak, there was still that overwhelming sense of place, even of living as if you were a character and someone's sad novel.
    I'm glad I've finished reading that particular book, but I too like to take it down from time to time and rifle through it.
    And you know that "eccentric" lady is a drag queen, don't you?

  6. Yeah, someone pointed out this morning that that might be the case…no wonder I was afraid I'd turn into that "lady!"…I actually don't feel the need or urge to shut the door on the past…I don't live in those days anymore but they did form me, and I think Cavafy, for all the darkness of the poem, gets at something very deep about the human condition and our perpetually unrequited longing for home…and our longing to be fully at home with ourselves…

  7. Anonymous says: Reply

    Trugding the long long long road to….finding

  8. Hi Heather,

    This is my first post on your blog — been lurking around after reading "Redeemed", which I adored. As a child of alcoholics (with the normal palette of issues that designation implies) who is now going through the RCIA process in NYC, there was so much I connected with in your writing. More specifics on that later; today I needed to comment because I loved the Cavafy and felt compelled to share my favorite of his:


    When you set out on your journey to Ithaca,
    pray that the road is long,
    full of adventure, full of knowledge.
    The Lestrygonians and the Cyclops,
    the angry Poseidon — do not fear them:
    You will never find such as these on your path,
    if your thoughts remain lofty, if a fine
    emotion touches your spirit and your body.
    The Lestrygonians and the Cyclops,
    the fierce Poseidon you will never encounter,
    if you do not carry them within your soul,
    if your soul does not set them up before you.

    Pray that the road is long.
    That the summer mornings are many, when,
    with such pleasure, with such joy
    you will enter ports seen for the first time;
    stop at Phoenician markets,
    and purchase fine merchandise,
    mother-of-pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
    and sensual perfumes of all kinds,
    as many sensual perfumes as you can;
    visit many Egyptian cities,
    to learn and learn from scholars.

    Always keep Ithaca in your mind.
    To arrive there is your ultimate goal.
    But do not hurry the voyage at all.
    It is better to let it last for many years;
    and to anchor at the island when you are old,
    rich with all you have gained on the way,
    not expecting that Ithaca will offer you riches.

    Ithaca has given you the beautiful voyage.
    Without her you would have never set out on the road.
    She has nothing more to give you.

    And if you find her poor, Ithaca has not deceived you.
    Wise as you have become, with so much experience,
    you must already have understood what Ithacas mean.


    To everyone, an Ithaca!
    Hope you're having a terrific weekend!

  9. Stephen, thank you! I love that this is a kind of companion piece to The City–which, to me, is not devoid of hope, or willfully pessimistic, but rather says in so many words (along with T.S. Eliot): Wait without hope. Because we hope for the wrong things…I'm also struck by Cavafy's observation that Ithaca has nothing more to give. Just so with people, places, things, alcoholic parents, spouses, friends…they lit the fire, mostly of pain, that set our faces to the journey…after that, it's up to us…anyway, alcoholism and Christ are my two abiding passions–I went through RCIA and came into the Church in 1996…so welcome…thank you…