It is the week after Christmas. My mother and I have driven to my place in Brooklyn for a little extra family togetherness. Against my better judgment, I have agreed to put my mother up in my apartment, rather that stashing her in a hotel, the usual program when she comes to town for a visit. This is her first glimpse of my new Brooklyn digs: a bigger, shabbier apartment than the one I rented in Manhattan for a couple of years. My outer borough bachelor pad. My grungy castle. My down-at-the-heels domain.
She's not exactly pleased with what I've done with the place. She has -- surprise! -- her own ideas about how her adult son's apartment should look. She has sinister plans for my wall-to-wall collection of back issues of Sports Illustrated.
I'm not a guy who completely lacks a design sense. I know the difference between McCobb and Wakefield. For me, the word "Shaker" does not automatically imply that it's time to break out the vodka and vermouth. I purchased my first piece of antique furniture (a desk) when I was 20. I own a set of Michael Graves coasters.
But my tastes are not mom tastes. And to make matters worse, my mother -- a gentle woman on the verge of turning 60 -- is a decorator. She runs a small custom drapery business in West Virginia. She has yet to spot a swag, a tie-back, a bolt of flowery chintz or yardage of ornate damask that did not cry out to the inner Dixie Carter that rules her aesthetic soul.
My ideas about decor, by contrast, tend to treat golf clubs as furniture. A prospective diversity of indoor flora -- geraniums and ferns and aloe vera plants -- has by and large been reduced to a collection of forbidding cactuses. There are half a dozen remote controls hiding in the sofa's cracks, two-week-old copies of the New York Post heaped in tottering piles, partially read novels left open on every available surface, and credit-card receipts scattered about like pale yellow leaves.
Over my fireplace mantel hangs a pair of mounted deer antlers. My 2-foot-high fake Christmas tree, perked up by three lonely Christmas cards, carries no ornaments and is losing lights at a rate of about six per year. The objects in my apartment that aren't brown or black are orange.
I am a member of a entire subclass of not-so-young-anymore men, living in large cities, who are precariously close to being worrisome bachelors, problem sons, borderline lost causes. Our mothers lie awake at night wondering if good women are ever going to come along to reform us. They struggle to tolerate the hopeless tactics we employ to cozy up our dwellings. They'd prefer nuptials, but until that fateful day, an endless series of decorating tips will have to suffice.
"Those certainly are nice orange chairs," my mother says, meaning: "Why aren't you married yet?"
"Where did you find that?" my mother asks, gazing balefully at the General Electric wall clock that I spent three weeks hunting down in the junk shops of the Upper East Side. The subtext: "You'd better get rid of it if you ever want to get hitched."
Bachelor sons in their early 30s pose a maternal dilemma of unexamined proportions. We're too young to be completely written off, but too old to be parentally cajoled. Our mothers are compelled to resort to a kind of transparent code to improve and edify us. More often than not -- especially if mom cares about the arrangement of her surroundings, as mine does -- this code involves flooring, furniture, wallpaper, shelving, and most troubling of all, doodads, bibelots and tchotchkes: every mother's quick fix for a lamentable decor.
"Why don't you get some baskets for up there," my mother says optimistically one morning while sipping coffee from one of my numerous gimme mugs at my supercool chrome and warped-formica Salvation Army kitchen table, her consternation focused on the bare tops of my cabinets.
"I really never finished cleaning up there," I say, knowing full well that my cabinet tops could, two years after I signed the lease, still harbor rat skeletons or the corpses of cockroaches.
Baskets. Suggesting the purchase of decorative wicker is never a good move where the 30-something bachelor son is concerned. Pier 1 is for chicks. I prefer to shop for my housewares in Bay Ridge garages.
My mother pushes down on a wounded corner of my kitchen table. "You could fix this, you know."
I keep my mouth shut.
"Why don't I send you your great-grandmother's tea set?"
Suddenly, it's time for Mom to go home.
In my mind's eye, I sustain my own image of the perfect surroundings. Leather club chairs; a Stickley desk; a Frank sofa; wood blinds; vintage golf photographs; a stuffed fish or two; an enormous television accessorized with a powerful Playstation; a Francis!Francis! X1 espresso machine; a kitchen entirely outfitted in gleaming Sub-Zero and Viking and All-Clad; bookcases crammed with first editions; a custom-designed closet for my fly rod, golf clubs, tennis racket, basketball and skis; a temperature-controlled wine-rack; a shower with many, many directional jets. Threadbare Oriental and Turkish carpets. A huge bed swaddled in white. A display case for my extensive collection of French and Italian ashtrays. A wet bar. A speed bag.
In the restlessly nurturing mind's eye of my mother, there resides a vastly better lighted and less deliberately butch apartment that is organized to be shared with a member of the opposite sex. All emblems of masculinity are tidily concealed. The vacuum and the dustrag and the mop come out of hiding more often that once every three months. Living things grow and flourish, bud and flower. Wallpaper borders ring the rooms. There are pillows and fluffy miniature blankets. The feminizing touch is subtle but unmistakable.
Part of the curse of the meddling mom can be attributed to the rental apartments of the Northeast, which, regardless of widespread barely masked dilapidation, often retain enough of their fled former glory to give people ideas. Beneath those 11 layers of paint -- wainscotting! Under that encrustation of filth -- tilework! Visible through the accretions of crud -- great potential!
Since they can no longer effectively tinker with our personalities or psyches, the mothers of us soon to be middle-aged bachelors sublimate the urge into our apartments. They fantasize about blowing into town with swatches and paint chips and, through the whirlwind expenditure of maternal effort, transforming our sad surroundings into cheerful fiancee beacons. "Some mini blinds would look nice in here," they suggest, while in their hearts they know that if we don't gussy the joint up, no woman will ever have us.
"This place has great potential" -- the mom mantra, the semaphore of optimism. Potential, of course, means nothing to us. Scares us, in fact. It's just another word for commitment.
I'm not half as bad as some guys, with their duct-taped recliners and phones shaped like footballs, their seductive leather sectionals, their framed posters of Porsches and end tables constructed from beer-stained issues of Maxim. Their fragrant black bedding. The undying allegiance to the microwave oven and dinners that come in trays. Their mildew farms in the bathroom.
But I can't fully avoid being included in the woeful species. Most theoretically "masculine" decor -- the God-awful girlified arrangements that appear in decor magazines -- strikes me as hopeless. Where are the musty plaid sofas? I wonder when walking through Pottery Barn. Where are taxidermied squirrels? I ask myself on jaunts to Crate & Barrel. Couldn't House & Garden find a guy who owns bowling trophies? What of the cardboard shipping boxes innovatively employed as nightstands? The pride-of-place accorded to stereo equipment? The fridge stocked not with foie gras and Krug but Bud Lite and week-old pizza?
The truth is that the contemporary bachelor pad, in all its repulsive glory, is the final remaining challenge for the shelter industry, a holdout of willful tastelessness that professional decorators -- Mark Hampton wannabes and the editorial staff of Metropolitan Home -- would dearly love to stamp out.
Mothers are the advance men of this campaign. If they can't get grandchildren out of us, the least they can do is force us into accepting window treatments. In their advice, they mingle pity with undying sense that they can bring us around, that they can save us from ourselves.
We, of course, don't want to be saved. We just want to continue to eat dinner without napkins and sleep on the couch and wallow in vigorous bachelor ineligibility. Unfortunately, following the old adage that mothers raise their sons in the image of the men they wish they had married, our moms refuse to give up on us. We have become projects, discussed ruefully among other family members, tutted over in mutually concerned company. "If only he would throw away that Dallas Cowboys beanbag chair ..."
But there is an esthetic bravery in our refusal to be tamed, to become IKEA momma's boys. Proudly, we switch on ESPN beneath paintings of dogs playing poker and ease down into our swayback thrift-shop futons. We make the bed only when there's sex on the evening's menu. We might dwell alone forever in our scuzzy sacrosanct environs, but we'll never be conquered. In the end, we'll break our mothers' hearts, but a precious independence will stubbornly endure. Like cockroaches on the cabinet tops, we won't go away.