The Mezzanine

Nicholson Baker

I was surprised – more than surprised – to think that after almost two years my right and left shoelaces could fail less than two days apart. Apparently my shoe-tying routine was so unvarying and robotic that over those hundreds of mornings I had inflicted identical levels of wear on both laces.

And this was when I realized abruptly that as of that minute (impossible to say exactly which minute), I had finished with whatever large-scale growth I was going to have as a human being, and that I was now permanently arrested at an intermediate stage of personal development. I did not move or flinch or make any outward sign. Actually, once the first shock of raw surprise had passed, the feeling was not unpleasant. I was set: I was the sort of person who said "actually" too much. I was the sort of person who stood in a subway car and thought about buttering toast—buttering raisin toast, even: when the high, crisp scrape of the butter "knife is muted by occasional contact with the soft, heat-blimped forms of the raisins, and when if you cut across a raisin, it will sometimes fall right out, still intact though dented, as you lift the slice. I was the sort of person whose biggest discoveries were likely to be tricks to applying toiletries while fully dressed. I was a man, but I was not nearly the magnitude of man I had hoped I might be.

Otis, Montgomery, and Westinghouse had not meant for you to falter after a step or two on their machines and finally halt, arriving at the top later than you would had you briskly mounted a fixed, unelectrified flight. They would never have devoted fortunes of development money and man-years of mechanical ingenuity in order to construct a machine possessing all the external characteristics of a regular set of stairs, including individual steps, a practicable grade, and a shiny banister, just so that healthy people like me could stand in states of suspended animation, our eyes in test patterns of vacancy, until we were deposited on the upper level.

People seemed so alike when you imagined their daily schedules, or watched them walk toward the revolving door (as Dave, Sue, and Steve, not noticing me, were doing now), yet if you imagined a detailed thought-frequency chart compiled for each of them, and you tried comparing one chart with another, you would feel suddenly as if you were comparing beings as different from each other as an extension cord and a grape-leaf roll.