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  • Some Notes on Success
  • Daniel Torday (bio)

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[End Page 34]

What did it mean to be twenty-four? I would like to know how I would have defined success. I know what I desired: to be a rock star and a twenty-four-year-old novelist, in that order. But success is not simply the fulfillment of desire, and I was not yet a rock star or a [End Page 35] novelist. I was, after all, twenty-four. I was an editor at a national magazine and a bluegrass mandolin player, both of which were like what I desired, and not. I was living in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, and working in Midtown Manhattan. I was full of ambition. I had not the slightest inkling of how to get what I wanted.

In the midst of all this yearning, one afternoon the redheaded fiddler from the bluegrass band I was playing in called the Nokia cell phone I’d recently capitulated to. Something unfathomably wonderful had happened. A national television commercial, for Folgers coffee, was to be shot in New York. She was a finalist for the starring role. It had come down to her and a fiddler/actor in Los Angeles.

“And it pays,” she said.

I was walking down Montague Street in Brooklyn Heights, where the ailanthus trees dropped oval leaves green like money and where I sometimes desired up at the clean facades of the brownstones everywhere I looked. I imagined the happy, successful people amid their safe, calm accomplishment. At Middagh Street was a plaque on a brick corner building, four stories of perfect, straight clean lines, announcing that W. H. Auden had lived there. Often I would walk from there to the Promenade, where Norman Mailer owned a duplex in one building—there was one brown wood protuberance in particular that someone told me was his. Maybe it was. Maybe his was nearby, or hundreds of yards away. A duplex on the Promenade; a room on the fourth floor on Middagh Street—what did it matter? I wanted any of those spoils from letters or music so I could move out of the loud, smoky, party-hosting apartment on St. Felix Street where I lived with six roommates. The idea of a family, a career, wasn’t even a whisper of a thought. Our band had been getting by on Sunday brunches at a DUMBO restaurant called Superfine that had gained mention in The New Yorker. That was not success, but it was redolent of it.

“It pays,” Redheaded Fiddler said again, not realizing I’d been dreaming, thinking instead that I just hadn’t heard her.

I asked her how much.

“Like, really pays,” she said. “With residuals it can be thirty grand a year. More.”

“Thirty thousand dollars.”

“A year. Multiple years if they renew.”

Multiple years. I had no idea what a residual was, but the tips of my fingers surged with intemperate jealousy. Our redheaded fiddler would [End Page 36] have this commercial. The rest of us would have wedding gigs, Sunday brunches, day jobs, don’t quit your. Maybe if we were lucky, sometimes she would buy a round of drinks. See her on the TV in a bar and point her out: She’s in my band.

Then the next week came something else. The people shooting the commercial wanted a whole bluegrass band, not just a fiddler. Would we be up for auditioning? Would we ever.

Two weeks later we were in an airy Midtown loft being outfitted for the commercial. By whatever the opposite of luck is, while the band got the job, the redheaded fiddler hadn’t landed it. It went to the LA fiddler. So we would back this new fiddler. We hadn’t even known how to audition, so we had just played our instruments loud and hard. We found ourselves wanted, desired even. This was not success, exactly—it was a success, which I assumed was the beginning of success. Success, I guessed then, was maybe inductive: a success, then another, sometime thereafter a mode of being. I could not yet allow myself to think of the...


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