Congratulations on your recent induction into the New Jersey Hall of Fame. You are much more closely identified with New York City. Is it possible that you construed the honor as an insult?
No. It’s more like the first time that anyone in New Jersey has liked me. I was constantly getting kicked out of New Jersey.
Kicked out, meaning your high school experience? What happened there?
I was suspended from Morristown High School specifically for sneaking out of pep rallies. We would have pep rallies every Friday before the football game and twice on Saturdays. I hated sports and I hated pep rallies. Football is still beyond my cognitive abilities. So is algebra, which I failed six times.
Did you hate growing up in New Jersey?
Morristown was a really great place to be a little kid. It was beautiful then… Then, it was a small town more than it was a suburb, which is a big difference in the feeling of a place. It was like living in a Hallmark card. Plus, it was extremely safe. We were never told any dangers lurked anywhere. I had a happy childhood. Apparently, I am the only person in the country that had a happy childhood. I was not a happy teenager. From the age of 13, I was plotting to get to New York.
How much did you know about the city?
Always on my birthday I would ask to go to New York. I was obsessed with MOMA.
New Jersey didn’t provide as much in the way of cutting-edge art, I guess.
Growing up in Morristown, I felt I was related to George Washington. Every public space, like public school classrooms and the post office and courtrooms, had to have a prominent picture of George Washington because of the town’s Revolutionary War role. There was a zoning law then that all the facades of every building had to reflect the architecture of the 18th century.
Not exactly MOMA, then.
No. But there were two movie theaters in town, and it cost only 35 cents if you were under 12. And I loved the library.
I understand that you’re quarantining in your New York apartment with books, riding out the pandemic.
That is exactly what I’m doing. Before the virus, for my entire life, I dreamed of lying on the sofa and reading from Friday to Monday, without ever leaving the apartment. I did not expect to be given six months to do this.
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Did it turn out to be a good thing?
Financially, it’s a very bad thing. If you could get paid for lying on the sofa and reading, I would be the richest person in the world. But mostly the way I make money is flying around the country speaking, which I can’t do now, because theaters are closed.
How are you making money, then?
I’m not. I’m living off my life savings, which I expected to last the rest of my life, not starting now.
You just turned 70. How was that?
Very bad. Anyone who tells you something different is lying. When people say, “How are you?” now, you’re supposed to say, “I’m great, I’m fine, I don’t have the virus.” I’m happy I didn’t get it, but other than that, it’s horrible being 70. People say, “You know, it’s better than the alternative,” which is death. But I would like another choice, please.