On a bright, zero-degree morning last month, as I was happily making my bed in the attic of friends in Brooklyn, I thought with a shudder of Ignác Hrubý. Being a houseguest is one of my joys. It combines security and adventure, familiarity and independence. Having houseguests used to be a joy, too. Until Iggy’s visit.
I had never met him. He was a Czech exile who wrote articles for a magazine I worked for in my twenties. In middle age, he lived a life more like that of his contemporaries’ children. Unmarried, unattached, poor as a church mouse. Moving from various short-term rentals to stints on colleagues’ couches. Writing bilious manifestos. I had to edit them, toning down his passions (“the time-serving buffoon and dilettante Joe Smith” was usually better rendered as “Joe Smith”) and then seeing if there was any logic or narrative underneath. Sometimes there was, sometimes there wasn’t.
When my boss, Andrew, passed along these changes, Iggy would explode, accusing me of “cowardice and unconscionable dereliction” and urging that I be fired. I was surprised, then, when one Monday morning Andrew told me Iggy was coming to town and had no place to stay. Could I put him up?
“Doesn’t he usually stay with you?” I asked.
“Mmm. Ellen says it’s not a good week.”
“Didn’t he use to stay with Greg and Sarah Johnson?”
Andrew mumbled something and looked at the bookshelves.
I called the Johnsons. I heard Greg’s wife howl in the background: “Don’t do it!” and (oddly, it seemed) “The chicken salad!”
“Sarah won’t have him in the house,” Greg said. As he hung up, she was yelling, “Tell him about the chicken salad!”
My apartment was cramped, but it had a convertible futon couch in the living room. The refrigerator was full of hot dogs and the freezer of vodka— both of them recommended by their cheapness and versatility. You could eat hot dogs on a bun, chop them into rice or ramen noodles, or drop them into a pot of canned chili. They improved everything. Vodka was the same way. You could drink it with quinine water in the evening or with Diet Coke as a morning pick-me-up, or pour it into a bottle of apple juice and take it to work. Iggy’s case that I be fired was not altogether a weak one.
It was 2:30 a.m. when Iggy arrived, in the company of the infuriated front-desk lady. He had a garbage bag half-full of books and clothes (but not deodorant or toothpaste, one inferred). He said he wanted a sandwich to take to bed. We had hot dogs, I told him. He could boil one and eat it with vodka. He said no. His nightly sandwich had become a habit. He’d be up all night without one. So out we walked, past the glowering front-desk lady, to an all-night market in a slum a mile away. At the deli counter, he said, almost in a rapturous whisper: “Give me a chicken-salad sandwich!”
He wasn’t kidding about taking these things to bed. They were less a meal than a companion. Every night he would buy one, unwrap it, and lay it on the futon beside him. By morning, half the sandwich would have been kneaded into the sheets by the thrashing of his shoulders and elbows, knees and bum, and the other half would be on the black sweatshirt he never changed.
Iggy made himself at home. He was thrilled to see my stereo. By the end of the second night he had stripped all the knobs. Adjusting the volume, the balance, the bass would ever after require pliers and clamps. The third night he played (and stacked on the gritty floor, and stepped on) the Sinatra records—real vinyl ones—my parents had bought for each other when dating. Sleepless and pacing at 3:30 a.m. on the fourth night, he pulled the whole stereo system off the bookshelf by the headphone cord, shattering the turntable and (when the headphones pulled free) sending the full loudness of the music pouring down the halls (“I’ve been a puppet! a pauper! a pirate! a poet!” I heard as I sprang awake), occasioning ringing phones, banging on the door, and another visit from the front-desk lady.
Iggy’s behavior was probably not the only reason I got evicted from the apartment a few weeks later. It all worked out for the best, anyway. I moved into a new apartment with my smashed-up stereo and my shrunken record collection. I met my wife. With her help I regained my gift for hospitality. Now old friends come to see us all the time. There is a good, cheap hotel just down the street.