It would pain us, years ago, not to touch one another. In Key West, maybe a couple months after we met, Louisa and I celebrated an early-love sort of holiday—you know, the eight-week anniversary of the first French kiss, or something blissful like that—with a dinner at the now-defunct Cafe des Artistes on Duval St. Atypical for me, I remember little about the actual food, though snapshots of warm foie gras, port wine reductions, diver scallops and saffron decorate the memory, accurate or not. More than anything, I remember the size of the table, a massive dark wooden number, way too big for a two-top, Louisa and I perched at opposite ends. It took our full wingspans to reach one another across that expanse, surely dodging fresh flower, the vase that held it, and burning candle. All for a mere brushing of the fingertips, an actual, if chemical, recharging of our batteries, our blind feet searching in vain in the gulf beneath the white linen tablecloth.

It was a window table, and I remember looking through it at her standing in streetlight on the sidewalk, enjoying her mid-meal cigarette, her blonde hair glowing orange in the night. Somehow, even though it was Key West, and probably at least 70-degrees, I impose, in memory, snowfall on this scene—some dramatic anomaly, some fictional meteorological introspection, the kind of nostalgia that, for a Midwestern boy, can only reside in light ice falling beneath the orange pool of a streetlamp, smoke pouring from the lips of an early lover in the dark, through a restaurant window, at a too-big table pushing flutes of hazel champagne into the air.

Often, it’s still like this—how we’re driven by the need to touch, how our memories are inflamed sometimes by this lack, the distance we must breach. Here, on the other side of the Zócalo tracks, there is no distance at all to breach; we are wallpaper-glued together and we cling to one another not out of need, but incidentally. Actually, we cling to a whole bunch of people, the streets jammed with the chaos of familiarity—the kind that represents a close-knit neighborhood. Really close—like someone’s-knee-in-another’s-tailbone close. I think of my ancestors in the Jewish ghettoes of Poland, the wild social structures and hierarchies within. Here, in Mexico, land of living ghosts, I commune with them. Some apparitional great-aunt with ham-hock arms juggles pierogies, catching them in her mouth before they fall. Her smile bears the sheen of sour cream, bridging Poland and Mexico with a single ingredient. I want to wrap my arm around this burly ghost, sway, gather the streets into a frenzied We Are the World.

But all we can do is succumb to the rhythm, decide not to fight the current. My great-aunt’s ghost fades into the multitude. In these streets, the Cafe des Artistes two-top would be ground to sand. The undertow carries us into Tamale Alley, literally an entire street lined with outdoor food-stalls, each of them peddling their unique takes on the corn-husked delight, not a single one stuffed with huitlacoche. When we ask for it, utter those four corn-smutty syllables, we are, each time without fail, greeted with wrinkled foreheads and dismissive waves. We are obviously absurd foreigners, belted with occasional bursts of tamale steam as the vendors lift the tin lids of their water baths. Crowds of mid-day eaters huddle six-deep, eating together in front of the stand from which they bought their food, pulling bits of golden cornmeal stuffed with mole negro chicken, carnitas in salsa verde, whitefish in mole amarillo, from the corn husks wrapped in greasy crinkling waxpaper, laughing, arguing, working things out. One portion of the alley prepares only mole negro, another the amarillo, another the verde. Tamale Alley has cliques, cornmeal turf wars.

Cars, bikes, mopeds, garbage trucks, skinny shirtless guys hauling cardboard boxes on dollies cascade around the standing diners, swinging wide to avoid them, snaking sidewalk and street, wherever there’s a breathe-hole, a crack of space through which to push. No table gulfs here. No place to put your elbows except against your ribcage, your wrists doing the all the work, fingers pulling strings of meat from the husk, dripping with psychedelic sauces. The smells of garlic and diesel commingle overhead.

Commingling beneath, Louisa and I push to the front of a tamale stand, dare not ask for huitlacoche. Deep in her handbag, our stone knife is surely twitching, longing to halve some brave foodstuff. From a fat old woman we purchase two mole negro tamales. An old sinewy man in a dirty Chicago Cubs baseball cap begs two pesos from us for a tamale of his own. And we dine together silently, the three of us wrapped in crowd on the street. Louisa croons. The old man smacks his lips. I save my energy for the unwrapping of the corn husk, wet with a tawny grease that runs along my wrists as I lift the pillow of cornmeal to my mouth. It gives easily to my teeth, bursts with an outer earthiness—the smells of the Midwest, drives along the farm roads of Central Illinois, Indiana, the sun reflecting from armies of silos. But inside, it’s all Mexico, the molasses sap of the mole negro, penetrating as fresh oil, tar, all sweet burn and toast, the threads of chicken soaked with the charred sauce, lingering flavors of grassy chile, sesame, almond, raisin, cinnamon, chocolate. This is a tamale to span the length of all meals—it is amuse bouche and appetizer and entree and dessert. It is a four-hour meal at a giant table, and your lover pulling the last drag from her last cigarette beneath some final moon. In this tamale, the swings of Buffalo Grove’s Tartan Park regress, go squeakless again, and the tornado slide cleans itself of the old purple of all childhood blood. In this firecracker mole negro parents live forever.

With one hand, I snake Louisa’s thigh. With the other, I raise the tamale to my mouth for a second bite, wondering what this one will evoke. Louisa, nearly finished already, throws her head backward and knocks the old man’s Cubs hat to the asphalt.

What would you most like to be asked?

That, to me, is the perfect opening question to any interview.  I wish more people would ask me about my writing process, rather than just about the content of my books.  I certainly don’t mind being an advocate for bipolar disorder, but I consider myself a writer first.

 

Okay, fine.  Where are you at this very moment, as you write this interview?

The same place I always write at — a little café in Beverly Hills called Le Pain Quotidien.  I find I write better out of the house, away from tempting distractions.  They let me sit here and scribble for hours, just me and a latte and a cup of gazpacho.  I’m so grateful to the café I mention it in the acknowledgements of my last book.  Come to think of it, I also referred to it in the epilogue of my first book.  I’m a café junkie, I guess.

 

It’s a pretty crowded place.  Isn’t it too noisy to write?

I wear earplugs, plus they always play classical music, which doesn’t bother me.  I have a certain rhythm in my head when I write, and classical doesn’t interfere with that.  Rock and jazz and more contemporary types of music, especially anything with lyrics, totally wreck my pacing.  Some people’s voices, if they’re too loud and nasal, also derail me.  Since when did it become okay to shout in public?  I think everybody should whisper — the world would be a much nicer place, full of secrets.

 

So the café gave birth to two books.  What are they about?

The Dark Side of Innocence:  Growing Up Bipolar is a childhood memoir about what it was like to grow up with a disease that at that time had no name.  I had no diagnosis, I just knew that there was something very, very wrong with me.  The book starts with a suicide attempt when I was seven years old, and continues with my increasing struggles with mood swings, alcohol, cutting and other self-destructive behaviors.  It ends when I’m eighteen years old, on my way to college.  I had gained a certain amount of insight by then, and was sure I was leaving all my problems behind me — which of course, I didn’t.

Manic:  A Memoir covers my adult life with bipolar disorder.  I describe how I managed to be a successful entertainment attorney, representing the likes of Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones and major motion picture studios, while secretly battling this devastating illness.  I also examine the impact of the illness — and my secrecy — on my relationships with various men.  I like to say that Manic was written from the inside out:  I tried to give the reader a visceral sense of what it’s really like to be bipolar.

 

Are you manic right now?

Nobody ever asks me that, although I think they secretly want to.  I suspect they’re afraid of insulting me.  The answer is no, I’m not manic at this time.  You would know if I was:  I’d be writing so fast there’d be no time for punctuation or grammar.  When you’re manic, you have to get your thoughts out of your head THIS VERY MINUTE, or you feel like you’ll explode.  Although I get an awful lot down on the page when I’m manic, I later discover that most of it is gibberish.

 

Do you think there’s a reason that you’re bipolar?

You mean like a higher purpose, a destiny?  At the risk of sounding pretentious, absolutely.  I attempted suicide on a grand scale on a number of occasions.  I never should have survived, never in a million years.  I think there has to be a reason why I’m still alive.  I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s to tell my story and allow others to learn from it, and to feel less alone.  It’s possible that I’m deluding myself, but I rather like this delusion, so I’m sticking with it.

 

 

Unable to face the word count needed for today I head up to the local café. I hitch the dog to a post. Enter. Faces look up. I head for the counter only to find that it’s not my usual barista-the-writer. But the waiter-who-paints is there, so I give him my order. I count out some change. We share a joke about a centenary coin celebrating the anniversary of the Australian Taxation Office. It’s a twenty-cent piece. I stand to one side and wait for my coffee. I pretend not to notice a man at a wall table staring at me. His grin is ironic and toxically cool. I hide behind smeared glasses.  The man stands up and comes to pay. Points to my necklace and says loudly something I don’t follow. It’s too early for this. The café is already packed and noisy and besides, my ears are blocked from the waxy plugs I have to stuff in them at home to block out the building noise next door. A cross and a gun, the man says louder still, pointing at my necklace. Ignoring the Tiffany heart dangling there somewhere. I’m totally disorientated. I don’t have the personality to deal with this. Not first thing in the morning. Not ever. I feel logey from that extra dose of valerian I took last night. And the wine. I will never make today’s word count. What is it? Two thousand. Three? I defensively finger the cross. Religion? He yells. Rock n roll, I want to shout but don’t. Why should I? It’s not like he cares.

I cover my panic with a helpless smirk. Rest one hand on the counter to steady myself. Undaunted and in my face, he points  to the little silver gun. What is he on? You planning to shoot someone, he says, haha. Clamping his hand over mine.

Faaaaaaark.

The warm blood of a total stranger. Nails me to the spot. I look around but no one is finding this as menacingly banal as I am.  Mushrooms on sour dough toast, lattes, cell phones. Outside the plate glass, the dog lifts his muzzle and narrows his eyes at a very so-so new day. Trucks roar past. The stranger’s hand is sweaty on mine. His eyes are spinning in his head. From caffeine? Intoxicating indifference? Loneliness? His hand on mine, clamping us both to the counter. He says, I’m backing away slowly. Goofy smile, pivoting in cartoon fashion around our joint hands. Don’t shoot.

This dance of dunces. I am cowering, so determinedly devoid of personality that in the end, he stops. I feel sorry for him. I’m not the only one who didn’t need this. Whatever he wanted, I wasn’t it. Cool? Count me out. A good-sported foil for his two-dimensional japery? Come on. What writer worth her salt is a good sport? He removes his hand. Which unleashes something in me. Pity, maybe. My daughter gave it to me, I offer. Your dog? He says, a flash of irritation—or self-knowledge—surfacing in his empty eyes. But even that retreats. The cross, I said, not caring to compete with the clatter. He’s rifling through his wallet. And the gun? he asked, stifling a yawn. My hand flies to it, flashback to the untellable moment of acquiring it. The Browning? I say. And because he’s already turned away, I add, I gave that to myself.