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Phillip Roth and Me: A Micro-Memoir

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This was originally told as a Twitter story. I've just removed the hashtags. It's 100 percent true.

1993

Just married. 25 years old. Move into pre-war on Upper West Side of NYC.

Get in elevator one night, with my wife, Amy, and standing there, looking every bit like himself, is...Phillip Roth.

Yep. Phillip Fucking Roth. And I can't help myself.

"Mr. Roth," I say as the elevator man puts the thing in gear, "Portnoy's Complaint is a very important book to me."

Well, my son, did it improve your character?" Roth asks as the elevator arrives at my floor.

I gesture towards Amy and, thinking myself clever say, "You'll have to ask her."

We step onto our floor. But just before the doors close, Roth leans out and says, "Well, it's not supposed to." And chuckles.

Leaving me to look like an idiot in front of my 21 year-old bride.

Turns out that Roth lives 10 floors above us.

Every morning on the subway to work back then (this is before I became a writer), I'd read. And I read two or three novels a week.

All sorts of shit.

One morning I was reading some sort of popular fiction. Real crap that I dug. And as I got to the front door I hesitated.

What if Roth saw the book? He'd think I was even more of a schmuck than he already did.

So I, in a fit of intellectual insecurity, left the book at home.

Of course, he wasn't in the elevator. And I had nothing to read all day.

Worse, The train home gets stuck en route and I have nothing to read for the 45 minutes we are stranded.

All I do is sit there and stew at myself-how can I be both so intellectually insecure and also so egotistical as to...

1) care what Roth thinks about what I read and 2) imagine that he would either notice or give a shit at all.

This was Phillip Goddamn Roth.

Why the fuck would he care what the kid in 5B was ingesting through the eyes?

And also, what were the fucking chances we would run into each other. I had still only seen him seven times total in the three years.

I resolve to read whatever the fuck I wanted from then on and to just generally calm the fuck down about all this crap.

So after that, I'd read whatever wherever.

Except. One morning I was carrying another popular novel. I got to the front door. Hesitated.

Remembered my promise to myself and kept moving.

The elevator door opened. In I walked. And standing there was the man himself.

I quickly leaned against the wall, sliding the book behind my leg.

But he noticed. Hard. "Eh, eh. Uh uh. What've you got there? What are you hiding?" said Roth.

"Um...this..." said I.

"Ah yes..." the great man said, already going into a strong Roman accent, "Mario Puzo..." and he rolls the R sound...

And smiling wide, he continues, "The Last Don, one of the greats..."

"Well, I'm just..."

"It's no use, young man. Curt here," and he points to the elevator man, "is on assignment. He keeps records for me.

No matter what you do, you can't hide! I always know what you're reading."

And then the elevator hits bottom, Roth gets out, and I am left standing there, all alone with Curt, feeling like a total ass.

I hear Roth laughing as he strolls the fuck out of the front door of the building, into his town car...

Leaving me standing in the lobby, not moving, book clenched so hard in my hand as to cause my fingers to hurt.