first person

My Appetites

On eating and coping mechanisms, childhood and self-control, criticism, love, cancer, and pandemics.

Photo: Bobby Doherty for New York Magazine
Photo: Bobby Doherty for New York Magazine

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As soon as my wife and I started sheltering in place, I got concerned emails and queries on social media: “Jerry, how are you eating and drinking coffee during this?” I haven’t seen anyone else asked this. These queries were specific to me and my wife, Roberta Smith, also an art critic. We’ve made no secret of her battling cancer since 2014. Today she’s doing well on immunotherapy drugs, though she is in several high-risk categories for COVID-19 and our sheltering in place has a lot of moving parts. But people asked us about food and coffee for reasons other than these. Namely, that anyone who has ever heard about how we eat and drink thinks we are insane.

First, coffee. In normal times, every few nights I buy six large black deli coffees; three caffeinated and three decafs. I put them in the fridge. Each morning, I combine the two into a 7-Eleven Double Gulp cup, add ice, Lactaid, and stevia. I drink two a day, which I tell myself equals one big cup of coffee. We bought a dozen 7-Eleven cups and tops in 2017; we wash and reuse them; ditto four metal straws. Foodies and the art world are aghast when I post myself drinking these. I grew up in an art world where everyone drank this kind of coffee, but the world has changed, and I get it.

Neither of us really cooks. Roberta can but doesn’t; I can’t but do, in a manner of speaking. We rarely go out to eat. It takes too much time. We can’t plan it with two regular deadlines in the same house — two critics living on the manic edge while trying to write, daily battling the demons that tell every writer “You’re through; quit.” Honestly, being in public at all in those flaky states always seems hair-raising to me. We do go out for pizza slices on weekends, after galleries have closed and the openings are over and people are off to big dinners and after-parties. I haven’t gone to more than five sit-down art-world dinners in ten years. Instead, over slices on paper plates, we go over lists of things we’ve seen, what we missed, gossiping about which dealers wouldn’t leave us to look in peace (hi, Gavin, you know we adore you!) and scraping over each other’s wrong ideas about shows.

We don’t do takeout either. It just seems like an invitation to overeat, which is something I worry about constantly. I haven’t had a pancake, waffle, or piece of French toast in decades — afraid I’d instantly become addicted the same way I know if I took one puff of a cigarette, I’d start smoking again. I did this once in 1986, a month after Roberta and I met. I wanted to show her how cool I looked with a butt in my mouth. I took a drag, and as the smoke filled my lungs, I still remember thinking, I am going to dedicate the rest of my life to smoking. And so I did, for 18 months from that day, before going cold turkey. Do I sound like someone with food or possible substance-abuse issues? I do. But I’ve white-knuckled it this far.

Usually, about once a week at a nearby place called Agata & Valentina, I buy two large boxes of something called chicken paillard — which, now that I think about it, I’m not sure what that actually is. Premade pieces of non-breaded skinless chicken with a teriyaki-ish sauce. The chicken is stored in the fridge in Tupperware containers. We microwave one for lunch, one for dinner. Ditto bags of greens. I boil potatoes and steam Brussels sprouts or broccoli. For breakfast, it’s scrambled eggs and toast. I cook these. Other than snacks, fruit, sugar, carbo binges, and eating while going to galleries and museums, that’s it. I am a hunter-gatherer-microwaver providing for my wife, who is my eyes and mind. We got these lives and learned how to make them talk. We adapt to our environment with our shortcomings and survive.

At least, that’s how I see it. But I know that with food, as with everything else, I have acquired only partial self-knowledge. At different times, I think of myself as a glutton and an ascetic. I can see myself as a person of endless appetites and curiosity, who can imagine going everywhere and seeing everything and eating anything. But I can also straight-facedly say I have no interest in food or any kind of social life other than a monkish one. Barack Obama has talked about narrowing down his clothing — suits of one or two colors — so he didn’t have to think about anything when getting dressed. I get that — doing everything you can to open up time and space in your life for the things you really love. (Bernie Madoff, actually, got dressed the same way.) For me, that thing is looking at art and writing about it. Everything else feels like a wind blowing dead leaves away.

But narrowing and focusing also sound like lame productivity hacks, and I wonder whether Obama was fighting to bottle something up within himself — to continue living in denial and contradiction. Like me. I’ve made a place for myself in a world, the art world, that is both aesthetic and sensual, abstract and bodiless. I made that place for myself in it by being a puritan with an insane appetite for art. I no longer know which is the pathology and which is the coping mechanism.

Except for my closest friends, it will shock most to know that I am unimaginably bashful. Going out in public in anything but a crowd costs me emotionally. Sometimes I get antsy for days before a nothing event. I never pick up the phone when it rings. As soon as quarantine began, I started to dread someday having to go back into the world. This exile has been one of heaven for me — a version of life that I’ve dreamed of many times. To paraphrase the legendary Al Davis, ours is a tunnel life; we’re not really part of “society,” even if others see us this way.

Many say my coffee and food ritual is “disgusting.” Maybe it is. Roberta says, “Pleasure is an important form of knowledge.” And yet, by almost anyone’s standards but our own, we live almost at war against pleasure. But we’re happy with what we’ve made together. Could we have more pleasure? Sure. But not more time. For me, beauty is what works — the way an odd baseball swing produces a .300 hitter is beautiful, or how Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son is beautiful. Yes, it’s probably harder to eat in a pandemic when you can’t cook. But we don’t feel deprived eating food stored in Tupperware. So to all of you asking, we are eating fine, thank you very much!

Saltz and Roberta Smith at their dinner table in Connecticut. Photo: Self portrait by the subjects

So far, I’ve dodged the big question of why I eat the way I do. It’s not all speed, efficiency, and deadlines.

I was raised by animals. Or to eat like one. I grew up in a small apartment on the South Side of Chicago. My life was fine. I spent days gazing at dust motes in sunlight, flipping over on my back to pretend the ceiling was the floor, and feeling whole other worlds in these things — all like some happy domestic cat. When I was 7, my father made a lot of money from a handheld plastic invention called the Dexter Sewing Machine. You squeezed it, and it sewed and reattached buttons, mended seams, and the like. It was advertised in cheapo commercials late at night along with all the other handy gadgets that used to dot the air: the Veg-O-Matic, slicers-and-dicers, and others. I remember my father sitting at a card table lit by one lightbulb in our basement working on inventions for the rest of my life in our house. There were self-closing venetian blinds, an envelope licker, and others that never panned out.

During the day, he and his four brothers owned a woman’s lingerie company in Chicago called American Maid. I loved going to the office with curved desks and wet bars, watching the masterful old Jewish fabric cutters working with big scissors at enormous tables of satin and glimpsing models. It was an American Dream to me. With the money he made from the invention, our family of five moved to a Jewish suburb north of Chicago. There were brand-new homes and construction sites everywhere. I played baseball, ran around, played kick the can, rode my bike, and was happy. There was no art in my life whatsoever. I didn’t know what it was other than some smeary $20 fake French Impressionist paintings that hung in our living room and a faux-Brancusi bird shape on a Formica table in our rec room, where the TV was embedded in a bar and two Naugahyde Barca-loungers dominated the room. I remember an art-history book where — when my parents weren’t home — I’d search for nudes. That was art to me. I once masturbated to Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s 1862 The Turkish Bath. I loved my life.

Then the bottom fell out. When I was 10 years old, my mother drove me in her powder-blue Buick Wildcat to the Art Institute of Chicago. I loved looking out the window as we drove. I had never been to a museum before. I wandered around. Bored, I started looking back and forth at a colorful little diptych. The light in it was intense; the colors were like coral-reef fish. In the left panel, a man in a prison cell chatted through the bars with two friends outside his cell. In the next image, his head is on the ground; blood spurts everywhere from his neck, which is still sticking through the window; a swordsman holsters a huge blade with blood on it. (Decades later, I realized these were Giovanni di Paolo’s 15th-century depictions of the imprisonment and beheading of Saint John the Baptist.) Then it hit me: This painting was telling a story. I looked around and realized everything here was. I thought I could “hear” all these stories if I looked close enough. My mind was blown.

A month later, my mother committed suicide. The next day, my two brothers and I were dropped off at our house after Sunday school. On the way in, I saw lots of cars parked outside our house. That was strange; they weren’t there when we left. We walked into our rec room through the built-in garage, where I passed my mother’s blue car. My father was waiting just inside the door. He had never done this before. He sat us down in front of him on the ersatz modernist couch. He asked us how Sunday school was. Then he said, “Your mother has gone to live with the angels.” To me, the “angels” were a Los Angeles baseball team. I asked, “When is she coming back?” He said, “She’s not coming back.” I asked, “What will we do with her car?” He looked at me like there was something wrong with me.

As I walked upstairs, the sound of my shoes on the steps made me remember that as we were heading out that morning, I’d heard my father running down these same stairs saying something about a “relapse.” It terrified me. I made my way upstairs to my bedroom. I looked down from the third-floor landing and saw lots of old strangers in my living room. When they looked up at me, they all went silent. Like I was different. From that day forward, my mother was never mentioned again for the rest of my father’s life. Not once. All my memories of her except for the trip to the Art Institute — and one of her on that drive, saying, “We might not see each other again” — vanished. That was that. There was no funeral, no memorial service, no nothing. I went to school the next day.

My life had changed in an instant, but I didn’t know how, or why, let alone what happened. In my early 20s, when a friend of the family gravely talked about “the way your mother died,” I said, “What do you mean? How did she die?” All I knew at that point was what I’d been told, accidentally, at a birthday party as a kid. As I was drinking something out of a glass, someone mentioned something about “Jerry’s mother,” and out of nowhere I bit the glass and it broke. There was no injury, but I always wondered what happened in that moment. The woman was shocked that I’d never been told. She told me that my mother jumped out of a third-story window. That she thought she had “female problems.” She might have been in a hospital. That phrase and the word “relapse” have haunted me ever since. That’s still all I really know. That and the date: November 11, 1961. I called it “the upside-down year” because 1961 looks the same right side up as it does inverted and 11/11 of November 11 is a visual palindrome. The date mattered, not the event. My mind has thought in patterns, diagrams, systems, and internal nonoptical arrangements that subsume everything that might go into them ever since.

My life changed and didn’t change at all. Why don’t I feel anything?, I wondered. I can’t cry. Why should I cry? Nothing has happened. If nothing happened, why did everyone treat me differently? Parents were fidgety. So were teachers. My friends treated me differently, but I couldn’t say how; some stopped seeing me. No one was asking me to play baseball anymore. The girls in school fell silent around me. Were these “female problems”? I was alone. Over the course of a year, I became the worst student in school, started acting out with teachers. Something else was happening, though: I grew invisible antennae to tell myself what I was picking up. I was special, a hypersensitive social-insect empath who didn’t care about anyone, didn’t communicate but who sensed what everyone felt and thought. I was delusional. I was never sad about any of this. I decided that I had no emotions. I developed a protective grandiose mantra I’d chant to myself: “I am death.” It meant I was separate now, of another excluded order. Like I said, a delusional doormat who picked up modulations in the subatomic psychic field around me. Like many who live through trauma, all this was my normal, my story. You’ve got yours.

Two years later, unannounced, my father remarried and brought home his new wife, my new stepmother, and her two sons. One minute, I was the eldest of three boys; the next, I was a twin with an older brother and two younger ones. Having an older brother was bad; being a twin was worse. I felt a competition and comparison I’d never known before — the root of things I fight inside myself today, always judging if something is “fair.” Roberta always says, laughing, “Who said anything about fair?,” and my resentment melts. About a year or so later, my father pulled me out of school, and we went to a courthouse, where my stepmother adopted me (my father never adopted her sons), and we moved to a much bigger house in another suburb. No longer on my home turf, civil war broke out in my life.

Jerry Saltz (right) at about age 12 with his father, stepmother, brothers, and stepbrothers. Photo: Courtesy of the subject

My stepmother was a working-class Polish Catholic from Chicago’s South Side. My new brothers were what used to be called “greasers”: tough guys who picked fights, small-time troublemakers. When he was still in high school, my older stepbrother got a girl pregnant and had to marry her. They had a kid and lived a shitty life in an apartment in the city and had to drop out of high school. They later divorced. (All of this was a secret we were never to tell anyone.) The first night I slept in the same room with my new twin brother, Paul, as soon as the lights went out, he came over to me and said, “We’re sneaking out.” I had never done anything like this before. We crawled out of our second-story window and lowered ourselves to the ground. It was dark, thrilling, and quiet. He had tools, and we went around our silent suburb in the darkness dismantling street signs. After a couple of hours, we crawled back up the building and went to bed. He brought a sign home and stored it under his mattress.

The next morning, my father walked past our room and saw the sign sticking out from Paul’s mattress. He asked, “Where did that come from?” My heart pounded. And then a new paradigm formed. After a silence, Paul said, “I don’t know,” and stared at my father. I stared at Paul staring. My father stood still staring at us both, blinked, then glowered at us with a look I’d never seen before. He turned and left. This wasn’t in the Jewish-suburban playbook, but that’s the way it was from then on. I was on the other side of the law, living in two different houses under one roof. Enemies: parents versus children; children versus parents; brother versus brother. It was survival of the meanest. I survived.

My life jumped the track. Soon, I was riding bikes around with Paul, setting small leaf fires, smoking, climbing on people’s roofs, having the police called on us, fleeing, committing minor acts of vandalism. I never did another piece of homework in my life. I graduated at the bottom of my very large high-school class. There was never any talk of college in my house; I took the SAT by making geometric patterns in the answer slots. I developed chronic impetigo that made me scratch my scalp and forearms raw till they oozed clear liquid. I never saw a doctor for it. My stepmother said, “What a neurotic.”

Violence happened in that house, a lot. Not all-out physical violence, never sexual, but beatings, punishment, older brothers bullying and beating up younger brothers. About ten years ago, one of my younger brothers told me that once Paul and I hung him up by his hands with a rope from a pipe in our basement and just left him there. He hadn’t poured our Pepsi in the right way. My heart broke hearing this. I had no memory of it at all. I never knew I was being cruel too. It kills me to write that; my script said “I’m the good one,” the permanently aggrieved one with a chip on his shoulder. That persecuted fury was the fuel of my inner locomotive.

A two-foot leather strap hung on the refrigerator door. My stepmother got it from steel truckers from the mills in Gary, Indiana, and had it shaped to fit her hand for a better grip. It was used for strapping us. We would be told how many lashes we were getting, usually between five and ten; we bent over and they’d strap us. My heart grew cold, I turned mean. I scowled so hard at them during these sessions — making certain they never saw me crack or wince with pain and shame — that deep wrinkles mark my forehead to this day. Every time I look in the mirror, I see the ancient affront. It was chaos.

But I had a secret garden that redeemed me, a place I could always go to, one that in many ways pointed to ideal forms, beauty, narratives — eccentricity and imaginings leading out of the pandemonium I was in. Every morning on the way to high school, I took circuitous shortcuts, crawling through bushes, smelling dirt, and emerging in the backyards of almost a dozen different Frank Lloyd Wright homes. It was like some other god made these grand private palaces that were foyers of something enormous for me. This was in Oak Park, Illinois, where there are great clusters of brilliant Wright homes and numerous other Prairie School jewels. My high school was one of these. I remember gazing at these homes, imaging better, happy lives, ways of being, the ways things could look and be, other colors. I still take walks every day; now, as then, I talk to myself, telling myself elaborate stories weaving together constellations of as many facts as I can, getting lost in them, making them into new inner geographies and possible compasses. I kissed a girl once in one of these homes but was caught by her parents just as we started and was told to leave, so all of this has an odd erotics for me too. Meanwhile, I think I hated all men.

There was no learning in my house. Not even talk of it. Anything you knew you picked up on your own. This included cooking — which meant no cooking. I never had a meal with my parents. My parents had a separate entrance, a different dining and living room. We were never permitted to use the front door of my home. This suited us fine. We hated them; they hated us.

I have no memory of any hot cooked meals in our home. Cooking wasn’t something you did. There was only eating. Our refrigerator was stocked with Oscar Mayer bologna, corned beef, tongue, salami, and roast beef. There was mayonnaise, ketchup, peanut butter, and other things I don’t remember. We had a large shiny bread basket filled with Wonder Bread. This was home base for me. The pantry had cereal, cookies, and crackers. A snack for me was cutting off all the crusts of an entire loaf of white bread, wadding up the dough into a big ball, sitting in front of the TV, and eating it. I pretended I was a carp snipping and snapping at the ball till it was gone. Once a week, a Polish maid came in to clean the house and make a large pot of something called “grub” — a gray mealy mix of rice, lentils, peas, hamburger meat, and other stuff. It was placed in the fridge, and we heated it up anytime we wished. There were no dinner hours; we ate alone, with each other, at the table, in our rooms, in the basement, wherever. We never went out to dinner as a family. Paul would come down to the dining-room table wearing only tighty-whities, eat grub with his fingers while sitting on the back of the chair, drinking a beer, talking about getting stoned, and being racist. We all had do not disturb signs on our doors. So did my parents.

I stopped eating regular meals and only drank Coca-Cola. Going out to eat for me meant stopping at a McDonald’s and ordering a few containers of fries and eating them on the way home. Or I’d buy boxes of Wheat Thins and eat them by the baseball diamond near our house. None of this seemed strange to me. (I’m still addicted to Wheat Thins.) Before my father remarried, I was always the tallest person in my class, a good athlete and runner. I played football. I won at track and field as girls watched. I believe now that my growth was stunted in those years. Recently, I realized that I am short — I never grew an inch after ninth grade. By the time I was a senior, I weighed over 200 pounds. I worked at an ice-cream store and ate vats of vanilla ice cream. It never occurred to me that this and all the rest had anything to do with my weight. I never saw myself as “fat.” I was called “husky” and told myself it was because our high-school football team was called the Huskies. The night I graduated, I went home, handed my parents my diploma, retrieved two packed suitcases from under my bed, and moved into an apartment that my friends and I had secretly set up in the city. After that, I never had any real fights or a falling out with my parents. We all pretended everything was great. We acted that way for the rest of their lives.

It struck me as normal that I would go many years without seeing them. I don’t think I ever saw my stepbrothers more than a handful of times after that night. None of that part of my life had happened as far as I was concerned. A couple of years back, I Googled my stepbrothers after not thinking about them for decades. From what I could gather, at least one of them is dead. Paul had become a pothead in high school and never left his bedroom the last two years I lived in my parents’ home. He didn’t graduate with the rest of the class. I guess I won that battle.

That first summer out of that house was as huge in my life as the day I was told my mother was with the angels. I got a job in a paper-and-drafting-supply factory and worked as a doorman. I lost 70 pounds. I was free of everything that had happened in the past. All of that was forever behind me, dead.

In high school, I had noticed that the people having sex were either in theater or art. When I was 19, I chose art. It never helped me with sex, but I felt like a freedom machine. The next ten years were the best years of my life up to that point. I met hundreds of new people, hung out, made art, commenced a huge 25-year project to illustrate all 100 cantos of Dante’s Divine Comedy. My diet was a happy mix of diners and coffee shops, where my friends and I would eat and smoke and talk about art. I never shopped for or cooked food. Looking back, I don’t think I knew where the grocery store was.

Then, my long-silenced subterranean demons rose up and spoke to me all at once. I started having panic attacks. The first one was over breakfast, coffee, and cigarettes with friends at the corner diner.

These attacks made me afraid to be with anyone. Or go into public, or at least too far from home. I became all but cut off. As for eating, I had no kitchen, only a hot plate. I stopped going out to eat with friends. All my meals came from fast-food places and takeout — any place I could get into and out of quickly. It was a battle to get this done. I did it three times a day. All the rest of the time was spent trying to calm myself down. I took my pulse obsessively, counting my heartbeats. It was then that I stopped making art. Every second since then I’ve felt its absence. Still, I had to have a job, so I started working as a helper on local art-delivery trucks. I found that I could be in a confined space if the scenery around me was changing, and so, at the age of 30, I became a long-distance truck driver. I actually never had a driver’s license before that. I’d failed my driver test at the age of 16 — there was driver education in high school but no preparation at home for the test, no practice drives. My parents just said, “Go take the test. You need a license to work.” In my house, of course, failing the test didn’t mean not driving. I owned cars, drove them everywhere, without a license or insurance. I bought a 1961 English Sunbeam for $20 at the Luxembourg airport when I landed there from New York. I drove it as far as Switzerland, where the engine blew up inside an enormous tunnel under the Alps. I only knew forward and reverse. I drove the whole time in first gear. My girlfriend and I got out and hitchhiked to Communist Warsaw. A few years later, I blew the engine out of my big beautiful 1959 Chevrolet because I never replaced the oil. That girlfriend and I left the car on the road in Sault Sainte Marie, Michigan, and hitchhiked through Canada to New York and then back to Chicago. I mention this because it connects, I think, to cooking. No one ever showed me about how to use a stick shift or told me about changing engine oil. Since I didn’t know how to learn, I didn’t know how or what to ask.

Driving a truck was a romantic dream of mine. I would be a nomad, not connected to anyone, riding my own psychological wheels of fire, driving to Florida or Texas once a month for about 14 days with stories of the open road, truck stops, women, drugs, everything that would sound cool. Only none of that ever happened, so I never got to tell a single story. Instead, each day was the same as the last: Get up, order breakfast, grab a thermos of coffee and a jumbo bucket of Colonel Sanders’s chicken. Maybe some bags of chips or Fritos. I ate while driving all through the day, stopping only for gas and bathroom breaks, getting to a motel around 8 or 9 p.m. Zonked, I’d crash on the bed, buzzing. The chicken was on my night table and got me going in the morning. Food was fuel. I tried to eat in truck stops, bars, and restaurants along the way, tried to strike up friendly conversations with people, do what it looked like everyone else was doing. But I couldn’t meet anyone. Anything I said to anyone produced almost no reply, just looks. I sat in booths reading the only thing I ever read on the road, my atlas. Turns out maps are one of the systems I love getting lost in too. I can still tell you the distance between almost any two cities on the East Coast.

My dream version of the job was that I would sleep with a different woman in a different place every night. Here’s how that went: On the second-ever night of the job, I stayed at a motel off Route 95 outside Jacksonville, Florida. I put on a cowboy shirt to look for women at the bar, left my room, stood on the second-floor balcony, and had a cigarette while looking at the broken asphalt and weeds of the rear parking lot. A young woman was standing about 20 feet to my left. After a minute or two, she looked over at me and asked for a cigarette. I walked over, and she said, “You want a date.” All the blood left my face — and my penis, probably. I stared at her for a minute and then heard my mouth say in a much higher voice than normal, “Nooooooo, ma’am!” I ran back into my room! Freaked out! “Oh my God! It just happened! And I blew it! Crap!” With my back leaning against that motel-room door, I resolved never to do that again; from now on, I would only say “Yes.” But the lords of trucking knew what I was made of. I never met, spoke to, or slept with a woman in the entire time I drove trucks. Boy, though, could I drive! Six hundred miles or more at a clip. Back then, I couldn’t go much over 65 mph.

I don’t want to give the wrong impression about what I was carrying. I wasn’t delivering steel, meat, or plywood. I wasn’t driving an 18-wheeler, either. I’m Jewish; I delivered art and drove a ten-wheeler. My CB handle was the Jewish Cowboy. I’d get on the CB and say “Shalom, partner” and try to make conversation. They had me marked as much as the women I saw in the bars. No one ever responded on the CB. Not once. Mostly they talked about cops and spewed racist shit. I felt like I was listening in on my stepmother and brothers again.

Did I see America? Not really, unless you count either side of all the interstates in the Lower 48. I was pretty switched off. Manic. I had no curiosity. I drove only from point A to point B. I never took side roads, had an afternoon off, did any sightseeing, detoured to see anything or even take in a scenic overlook. It didn’t occur to me. Except once, in Arizona: I drove about an hour north of the highway to the Grand Canyon. I parked the truck and walked to the canyon ledge. I thought, Cool. People didn’t carry cameras back then. I got back in the truck and on the road. Another time, in Miami, I threw out my back lifting crates of Carl Andre steel plates. I got so sunburned so often that, today, I have pre-cancers on the top of my head from years spent under the Texas and Florida sun. If you want romantic stories of the road or tales of what that life was like there, I don’t have them.

Worse, I was so mad at the world for not giving me a living that I was abusive with the cargo. I didn’t secure the art; a lot got banged up. If someone asked me how something was damaged, I’d learned from Paul to go stone cold and lie. “Who, me? It must have been that way when I picked it up. You got insurance?” Sometimes I’d just throw stuff in the truck and cover it with blankets with no strapping at all. In the end, I was fired. Which was fine. I knew, at that point, I had to get back into the art world somehow, but I also knew I couldn’t return to being an artist. Then I ruled out being a curator because I knew I didn’t want to do everything artists told me to do. I eliminated being an art adviser because I don’t know anything about money. I toyed with being a dealer until it dawned on me that I had no money and no idea how to open and run a real business. I decided to become an art critic. I had never written a word in my life and had barely read any criticism at all. As anyone who has ever written anything knows, writing is really, really hard! It still is to me. But I had to get out of the trucks and anything on earth would have been better than what I was living.

Photo: Bobby Doherty.
Saltz’s coffee routine. Photo: Bobby Doherty.

Now that I was saying I was an art critic (it still feels exotic to say) when I was back in New York between trips, I started meeting new people, tried going to parties and being with others in restaurants. I remember starting to feel part of the world again by the simple ritual of eating in public. I was taking baby social steps. Somehow I understood that nothing I was doing could be a mistake because at least I was trying to do something. The painter Eric Fischl did me two big favors. First, he asked me to help him with a book about artists’ ideas for the best assignments for young art students and conduct the interviews. The other massive thing he did for me was getting me a job as a driver for a wealthy Texas collector. I’d drive her around in her garaged Mercedes to New York galleries and whatnot once a month for a few days when she was in town. I was paid $1,000 a month. I would blast the radio when she left the car; I used her car phone, a brand-new electronic device, and accidentally rang up a bill of over $1,500; I took the car to the Hamptons without her permission to go to the beach, and someone bashed into it when it was in the parking lot. I had it fixed before she came back. And once, without knowing that my life’s whole destiny was in the car, I picked up Roberta and took her and the collector to a Broadway play. Roberta tells me she remembers thinking how “cute” the driver’s neck looked.

In between limo stints, I was back in the trucks. Depressed. But that’s where I taught myself to be a critic. I bought stacks of the art-world school paper, Artforum magazine. I would read them at night in the motel rooms, over my chicken barrel. The problem was I never understood a word of what I read, and everyone seemed to be quoting the same 15 or 20 theoreticians that I hadn’t read, or they were reviewing one another’s shows and writing in each other’s catalogues. Not only did I feel like an outsider; I felt like an idiot. I was also trying to hang out with some of these people. But even though we were around the same age, I was sort of an odd duck to them. I thought I was a “loser.” But I knew I wanted to write about art that I was seeing in the present and didn’t want to have to read all those books that all those critics were always referencing. I was 40 years old! I didn’t have 20 years to go read all the theory. My reading skills weren’t up to it anyway. One summer, I tried to read some of the standard texts of the time. I don’t think I retained a single thing. It was like people writing about a toothache who never mentioned teeth.

Then two beautiful things happened. The first was being ushered into what was then one of the great art salons in the world, the huge loft of curator-seer-gallerist Clarissa Dalrymple, one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. It cast magic that her loft had once been home to 1970s art-world legend Gordon Matta-Clark. Also, the Paula Cooper Gallery was then in the same building. I was in the right place at the right time. Several nights a week, Clarissa cooked huge amounts of food, placed platters on tables, and invited 15, 20, 30 or more people into her home. She was insatiable, curious, and brilliant. I met everyone there. To my memory, there were famous people like Jasper Johns, Joan Jonas, Alex Katz, and Brice Marden. Mostly it was all the unknown people who’d go on to become the art world of the 1990s. Among the many I recall there were Damien Hirst, Sir Nicholas Serota, Sadie Coles, John Currin, Chris Ofili (one night I watched him painting outside Gavin Brown’s storefront gallery for his show there the next day), Cecily Brown, Matthew Barney, David Zwirner, Anton Kern, Peter Doig, Maurizio Cattelan, the people who founded Frieze magazine, the editors of Artforum, independent curators from everywhere, Jeff Koons, and many others.

At the same time I got fired from the trucks, I talked my way into teaching at three schools. I would fly to RISD in Providence, teach two classes, go to the airport, fly to Chicago, wake up the next morning and teach all day in Chicago, go to the airport, fly to New York, get up the next day and teach at SVA. Soon I was making as many as 100 studio visits a year and had scores of visiting critic gigs all over the country. In the meantime, I was scrounging just enough of my savings to also take myself to places like the Venice Biennale and Documenta. John Cage said, “Always be around,” and I was. All that allowed me to finally see the sun.

That, of course, is Roberta. When I met her, I had not really started writing reviews. I was sponging up all this new information, going everywhere, doing anything I could — all to get back into the world I wanted to be in, looking for ways to have some sort of a role here and be a part of something I knew was in the offing. Roberta had recently been fired from the Village Voice. She wasn’t writing anywhere. She was going out with a guy in Japan. I knew of her but had never read her work. I asked her to write the essay for a crapola book I was doing at the time. It was like two orphans found one another. Really, we were never not together again — from that moment to this. (Except when I had to throw a fit about her also wanting to see the Japanese guy.) When we fell in love, she was pretty clear about not wanting to be with another critic. Her attitude was like what Roger Angell said to other baseball writers: “Leave it all to me.” By the time I finally got the job she’d once had at the Voice, she was writing for the Times. She started reading my work. After going through a batch of pieces, she walked into my office and put a stack of my reviews down on my desk. I thought she was going to praise me. Instead she said, “If you don’t get better, I’m going to kill myself!” That put the fear of God into me fast. I learned on the job — like all people. After Roberta cut through my laziness, I started writing the best I could in my own idiot voice, the way I talk and think, saying what I actually saw, making judgments and trying to back them up. And I saved Roberta’s life — and my own. She still bristles when we’re in galleries and sees me wanting to write on certain shows. She’ll say, “This is my show. I want to write on it.” Here’s a secret: I always agree. I love my work madly — even when I hate it. But let’s be honest: Who would you rather write on your work if it was between Roberta and me?

My phone rang at 2 p.m. on Monday, October 13, 2014, as I emerged from the 79th Street subway station on the way to pick up Roberta from a doctor’s visit before a preview of a new show at the Met. It was Roberta. She paused and only said, “We need to talk. Meet me on Park and 81st Street.” I seemed to know right then what the next six years might look like. Something inside me recomposed impalpable pulses of fiery desire and resolve to meet whatever was required of me. I can do this, I thought.

Roberta had been diagnosed with uterine cancer. Everything changed, and nothing changed. Except what changed. She has had three big operations, two recurrences, and one near-cataclysmic extended emergency hospital stay. She is doing well under treatment today. We have gone through cancer without ever looking up or Googling her disease. We never ask questions about “the odds,” “chances,” “prognosis,” or the future. I do not think that this amounts to denial and incuriosity. Rather, I would say that instead of crawling down a million digital self-help wormholes or fielding offers of kale diets, we threw everything we had at finding a doctor we trusted, then treated him like a field general sending us to the front, into war. Dr. Sabbatini told us where to go, what to do, how to act. We followed orders. I stopped taking notes after another doctor looked at me and said, “I see. You are trying to maintain control by taking notes.” I’m not telling others to follow this example, but I think this was the best decision I ever made; it left all of our energies and focus for the nonstop tasks at hand.

Those tasks multiplied. And we found a way to deal with them together. As Roberta woke up in the middle of a November night from her first major surgery and I told her that her tumor was malignant, we swore to one another that whatever comes, we would “write our way through this.” We knew that art and writing about it had gotten us to this point and that it could be what got us past it. We spent the rest of that dark night talking about the connection between Matisse’s late paper cut-outs and how Donald Judd uses color in his last works. It saved us that night. It saves us today. If you were to be a fly on the wall of our house, you wouldn’t know we live with cancer 24/7 except on the pressured days we go to doctors, have tests, scans, and the like. We had built a fortress of work so total even cancer couldn’t get it, not really.

The day before I brought Roberta home from her first surgery, I went to Walmart and bought something I’d never used before in my life: a microwave oven. I put it on my shoulders and walked home. Our diet stayed pretty much the same, but our prep time of 15 minutes of steaming everything was reduced to about 90 seconds. We loved this; it streamlines our looking and writing time even more. (We have still never used our antique dishwasher or had anyone to our home for a prepared meal.) Even this diet changed, however, after Roberta’s second big surgery, which was followed by months of chemo and a harrowing 14 days in the hospital. Our restricted diet became more restricted. We were told to serve only the mildest, blandest foods; the color white was favored. This suited us fine. Potatoes, white bread, simple white-meat chicken, white rice, and the like with a sprinkling of greens. We’ve since added more greens and other meats. But microwaving it all from our already prepared food has allowed us both to “write our way through this.”

We’re lucky now. We’re self-isolating two hours north of New York, in Northwest Connecticut, in a home we rent year-round from a close friend. Getting Roberta up to Connecticut has always been like pulling teeth; she only likes going places if going there is a lot of looking at art involved and the space can be reached by public transportation.

For weeks leading up to leaving, I began to see the same American unraveling as most saw. I kept nudging Roberta. She kept telling me to get a grip and reminded me that it was our “job” to stay in New York and pay attention to what art and artists were doing. Two weeks before we left, another patient forwarded me a doctor’s email that essentially said the city is berserk with coronavirus; get her out of the city. Now! I showed Roberta the email; she wanted to keep going until no galleries were open. That happened. She and I were together in Chelsea late one March Friday afternoon as the very last galleries, already run by skeleton crews, shuttered their doors — some probably forever. I even stooped to the argument they say you automatically lose if you raise it; I used the word “Nazis.” Finally and reluctantly, she called a handful of galleries to make sure we weren’t leaving anyone on the so-called battlefield. All reported closing. We packed and left late that night.

Which brings us back to eating. The Greek definition of catastrophe is an “overturning,” an end to the status quo. The order that has been overturned in this crisis is not in the way Roberta and I eat or shop. It is how everyone else does these things. Now, everyone shops for three meals a day, seven days a week, with only the occasional takeout to break the monotony. My shopping routine is the exact same as it ever was — except for swapping out the NYC chicken paillard for our local whole roasted chickens, frozen hot dogs, hamburger meat, and occasional pieces of baked salmon. I get our coffee from the local gas station. I do all shopping and errands; Roberta hasn’t been more than five miles from this home.

But going to the grocery store now is like a journey under the volcano. On cold Connecticut days, I see the steam of my breath and others intermingling, I hear the beating of my own heart, thinking of this meshwork of air, our every respiration a risk. I sense solitude of self in every eye. We’re all in this together — but alone, facial expression disappeared beneath homemade or fancy face masks. The ways we used to communicate across space are gone. Uncertainty and disjunction reign. It reminds me of my life after my mother left.

I feel a witheredness of spirit in public, not any shared yearning to be among one another. Time turns staccato; little actions feel big; large ones aren’t taken lightly; everything comes with a residuum of doubt. This is how socializing has always felt to me, but now I see what that looks like in other people, too. Movement is awkward, hesitant. This is our sleepwalking universe of death at the grocery store. It’s a psychic sorcery where imaginary spells dwell and questions linger: “Did that person cough? Why isn’t she wearing a mask? That older man is walking too close to people. Are you my enemy? Am I yours?” My voice is theirs. We are cobras coiling through aisles, allowing space for the other. Unsure, we stop, eye one another. I turn, that person walks the other direction. Someone in a line snaps at the person behind them, “I’m not done. Get back.” We wonder, Are my consecutive days of seclusion undone by this package of green beans? Everything intensifies. Every errand is apocalyptic. I’ve never remembered everything on any trip — I neglect stops, forget items, have to double back, and often decide I can’t mentally make another stop. My new internal software hasn’t reprogrammed and retrofitted my external hardware how to do this yet.

At the checkout yesterday, I was bagging my groceries, trying to see over my mask and through my perpetually fogged glasses, when my gloved hand bumped the gloved hand of the checkout woman. We both froze; terrified, angry at the other, startled, sad, we said nothing. Don’t tell me that you are my angel of death?

Amid this “overturning,” I lose my defensiveness and embarrassment about the way I eat. I am no longer overcompensating with excuses, self-pity, guardedness. In this terrible pause, I can say that — as someone who didn’t find writing until he was 40 years old and then always felt frantic, out of time, and at the end of the line — I took my limitations and pared my life down to art, work, and Roberta. I couldn’t be happier.

*This article appears in the May 11, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!