I spent this past weekend in New York. I visited the room in which Toole lived while he attended Columbia University. The trip offered me insight into his time in New York in the late 50s and early 60s. I saw the view he had from his dorm window and I strolled the tranquil Columbia campus, forgetting I was in Manhattan. And it became clear, after reviewing his transcripts how Toole began to veer from the often seeming inanity of graduate studies towards a more “authentic” literary life as fiction writer.
I also took a stroll around Hunter College and got some pictures of the exterior of the house he moved to on the East Side, the same place he began drafting the character that would become Ignatius Reilly. It was one of those moments where Toole’s letters came alive to me.
But perhaps the most intriguing event I experienced seemed beyond coincidence. However it will likely not make it into this biography. So I share it with you here…
After seeing the room in which he stayed at Columbia, my wife and I got a bite to eat at a Greek restaurant. Being the end of term it was almost empty and we overheard the mixed conversations of two parties. The two men behind us were smug religious scholars who discussed Saint Ignatius and how one of the scholars had found the “key” to the moral dilemma of the modern age. The couple behind them talking in a loud New Jersey accent discussed the marvel of caffeinated vitamin-enriched water: “I’m tellin ya I feel betta in da mornin wid just some nutrients and a pick-me-up. Cawfee got nut’n on dis watta stuff.” I couldn’t help but smile. It was the kind of moment Toole would have relished.