The writer Isaac fitzgerald was driving through a parking lot on a summer day when he looked up to find a plane falling from the sky. “Jesus fucking Christ! ” he is crying. (“Excuse my language,” he added primitively.) It was a small plane with blue propellers, but at that point it looked most like a leaf falling end to end. After a sickening interval – that time when very divergent futures have not yet branched off – the stunt plane has finally recovered. He flew forward. Then it started a series of even more torturous jumps and twists.
It was a fitting metaphor for the year he and many of us had just lived: unpredictable, surreal, plunging, soaring. As an essayist and editor, Fitzgerald has long been something of a genius bartender of the literary internet – an avuncular, alcoholic presence with a killer taste in the books. Over the past 18 months, that reputation had only grown: Fitzgerald had published a bestselling children’s book, completed a collection of essays, and maintained a semi-regular segment of book recommendations on the Today spectacle. But he had also experienced a painful breakup with his fiancee, writer Alice Sola Kim, and survived a plague.
Last summer, prompted by a health alert on his iPhone indicating how sedentary he was getting, Fitzgerald set a goal of walking 20,000 steps, or about ten miles, per day. (Fitzgerald, who has no children and lowered his cost of living to become what he calls a “time millionaire,” could afford that luxury.) It worked wonders. His mind was sharper. His body changed shape in a way that pleased him. His world has grown and the veil of the pandemic seemed to be lifting.
He gradually ventured further and further from home. He walked (and skated) seven miles from Brooklyn to Manhattan. He walked through a cemetery. He walked to a wreck. He began documenting these walks, first on Twitter, then in a weekly Substack newsletter titled Get rid of. (Slogan: “It was difficult. Let’s go for a walk.”)
In the canon of contemporary writers who write about walking (Rebecca Solnit, Will Self, Frédéric Gros, Teju Cole, Garnette Cadogan), Fitzgerald is unusually down to earth. His approach is relaxed, not dogmatic. He does not wax like the Baudelairean flaneur or the Elkinian flaneuse. He does not participate in psychogeographic games. He often stops for a beer in random bars; he will stop to admire a gravestone in the shape of a grizzly bear and ask himself, “Is it wrong to think of a gravestone as sexy?” In other words, he’s not trapped in his own head. It is, for him, the goal of the march. “For me, it’s the opposite of sitting in your bed staring at the ceiling, thinking about a million things,” he said.
Fitzgerald also began to hang out with friends, many of whom are famous writers: Marlon james, Susan choi, Saeed Jones, Josh Gondelman. On a walk, with the novelist Raven Leilani, she described how, that same year, she lost her father and brother and published a bestselling novel. “It was love at first sight,” Leilani told Fitzgerald. ” ‘How are you?’ seemed like the most ridiculous question. No one was telling the real answer. And when you can’t give the real answer, you feel isolated.
Last July, Fitzgerald embarked on his longest pandemic walk to date: a two-day walk along the length of Fire Island. Although we never met, he agreed to let me follow. Planning to camp on the beach, Fitzgerald carried a bike bag and, inside, a $ 5 plastic tarp, knife, and old hammock.
We started our walk at the foot of the Robert Moses Bridge. After jumping into the cold, choppy sea, we turned east, following the waterline, where the sand was firmest. The sky took on the color of the hulls, and a light rain began to fall. We stopped at a lighthouse, where Fitzgerald listened with interest as an old man spent 20 minutes describing the operation of the lantern lens. To every person we passed, Fitzgerald would ask, “How are we?” (Still this strangely inclusive formulation: How? ‘Or’ What we Make?)
In Kismet, we stopped for lunch at a bar with Frankie Valli playing on the jukebox. Fitzgerald was still wet with rain. His shoes were filled with sand. He ate a bad lobster roll and drank two beers. “I’m so happy right now,” he said.
Fitzgerald’s life hasn’t always been so carefree. As a child, he lived in a homeless shelter and then in low-income apartments in south Boston before he and his mother moved to “a little gray drafty farmhouse” in rural Massachusetts. Her father was rarely there, and her mother, “hollowed out by loneliness”, once attempted to kill herself. Fitzgerald started dropping acid at the age of 12; at age 15, he and his friends formed a fight club. (This period of his life is recounted in his next collection of essays, Dust bag, Massachusetts.) After college, he held a series of odd jobs, including as a bartender in a biker bar, “the world’s worst sushi chef”, body man for Congressman and role model for Kink .com. He chose to be radically open, unlike many of the adults he grew up around. “I knew I didn’t want to be a bitter, crazy person all the time,” he said.
Fitzgerald wandered the book world one day in 2006 when, after moving to San Francisco, he volunteered for a storytelling workshop at 826 Valencia, the nonprofit co-founded by Dave Eggers. . He eventually became the editor of The Rumpus, an online literary magazine, where he edited Cheryl Strayed’s “Dear Sugar” column and Roxane Gay’s early essays. Fitzgerald’s success at Rumpus led him to become the first publisher of BuzzFeed Books, which brought him to New York. Shortly after being hired, Fitzgerald announced that BuzzFeed Books would only post positive reviews – “Why waste your breath talking about something?” He said, prompting a scathing scolding from Tom Scocca in a Gawker play called “On Smarm”. (Fitzgerald, true to himself, declined to talk about Scocca. “I think this play is really good!” He told me.)
That afternoon, a severe thunderstorm broke out. In desperation, we hid under the eaves of a cabin run by the Appalachian Mountain Club. Inside was a group of people playing Scrabble. “We’re not supposed to let you in because of COVID,” a woman said as the rain lashed at us. “Everything is fine, my daughter!” Fitzgerald said. “No sweating!” The rain continued unabated, so we abandoned our camping plans, opting instead for a cheap hotel in the city. We ended the night in a dive bar, where Fitzgerald stayed late, drinking pink sparkling cocktails and chatting with strangers.
The next day the sky cleared up. While driving through the community of Seaview, we came across an old man pushing a dog in a stroller. ” How are we ? Fitzgerald asked.
“I’m lost,” the man said in a troubled tone.
” What are you looking for ? “
“I do not know.”
Fitzgerald asked for the man’s name and the dog’s name, and stayed by his side until he found his way home.
Strayed describes a phenomenon she calls “life at the speed of the foot”. It is the act of moving slowly enough that random entanglements can occur with people and places. Walking, seen from this perspective, is both liberating and community-based, two qualities that have been lacking in recent times. Fitzgerald’s newsletter – his whole way of being in the world, in fact – is an ode to walking in pace.
On our walk, Fitzgerald finally reached Cherry Grove. The goal had been to reach the Pines, but it was still raining, and with a smile and a shrug, he decided to cut the trip short. Coming out of a bad year is a smooth endeavor – there is no definite end. He gave me a hug, then rushed over to grab the ferry, the sand still sticking to the back of his legs.