PLATINUM COMMUTER: AN INTERVIEW WITH SAM MESSER
Adjunct Commuter Weekly: We’re here with Sam Messer, legendary adjunct commuter, on exits six of the Hutchinson, driving up to Yale, and we’re interviewing Sam in particular because for nine years he commuted from LA to Yale for an adjunct position. So we’re going to ask him a few questions about that experience, starting with the one people always ask me when I mention your story which is: how could you even afford the airfare?
Sam Messer: Airfares used to be pretty cheap, around $200. I think I started in ’94 or ’96, last century, so back then airfares were really cheap because planes were new. [Laughter.] And we’re also here with Laurel Sparks, who is probably a newbie commuter.
Laurel Sparks: No.
SM: No? [Laughter.] Well, how long have you been commuting?
LS: What, like ten years?
SM: Well, you’re kinda new. I’ve been doing it for 20. You’re halfway to [inaudible].
ACW: So, Sam, you used to fly in on the redeye, is that right?
SM: Yeah, what I used to do was I would teach on Mondays, which was good because Sunday was a cheaper—what are you doing, are you getting off?
ACW: Yeah, getting on 95.
SM: Oh…Sunday was cheaper. I used to take the earlier overnight to JFK, get a cab to Grand Central, get the eight o’clock train, and I’d be in New Haven by ten to teach at ten thirty. I did that for nine years and I was never late, I must say.
ACW: And what kinds of things would you do on the flight?
SM: Well, back then you could actually do lots of things on the airplane. I used to—not on the overnight, but on the way home, because I needed the light—I ised to do what my friend called photoplasms. I would take negatives and tape them to the window, and I would bring a little can of turpentine and an etching needle and a little paintbrush, and I would work into the negatives, draw on them. Then when I was at Yale I would pay a grad student to print them for me.
ACW: The idea that you could take a needle and turpentine on an airplane…
SM: Well it was also back in the day, I used to bring wet paintings—you could bring a lot of shit on the airplane, like enormous things, and nobody really would say anything.
ACW: And you were kind of a known element, kind of like TSA Green.
SM: Yeah, I got to know the stewardesses. This was before security really. And after 9/11 it was really easy to fly, actually, because flights were really cheap—nobody was going back and forth. Particularly, I flew American Airlines.
ACW: And did you get to meet, were there other people doing that same Sunday-Tuesday commute?
SM: I met a lot of travelling salesmen and women, who I felt really bad for. Because I was just doing it one semester a year for thirteen weeks, but they were doing it year in, year out all year. But I did get to become friends with certain people, I mean, not great friends, but we would see each other in like Dallas and maybe have the same flight together.
ACW: And did they see you as part of their tribe of commuters, or were you kind of the wacky cousin?
SM: More the wacky cousin. I wasn’t a real traveller like they were, and I was doing wacky things they didn’t understand. But yeah, they were nice.
ACW: So the other question people ask me when I tell them about this is, why would you do it? Wasn’t it just so grueling? I think most people would just be devastated, exhausted. But from what I understand, you kind of liked it.
SM: Well, yeah, I enjoyed it a lot. When I fist got it, I had applied for a full time job at Yale and I didn’t get it, which was the best thing ever. So they offered me a part time job, probably thinking I would never take it, because I was living in California. But I did take it! We had just moved to LA about five or six years before that and I was still not that happy about being in LA, so I loved coming to New York all the time. I would stay with a friend. So I would spend one night in New Haven because I taught all day, then I would teach a night class—I always taught this grad drawing class at night. Then I would go to New York the next day, spend day in New York and a night in New York, and then go back on Wednesday. So depending if you ask me of my wife how long…. I said I went back and forth every week. Eleanor would say that is “new history.”
ACW: What time was this night class?
SM: I usually started it at eight. Eight to eleven. Then we’d go out to a bar afterwards and draw each other. Back in that day it started as a portrait class. And I remember one person, I won’t mention her name, who tried to get me fired because she thought it was embarrassing that Yale offered a class in portraiture.
ACW: Well, if you’re not embarrassing Yale, you’re not doing it right.
ACW: Did the late night thing—was that something you had always done, or did that come partly out of your experience commuting?
SM: Well, it made sense to me because the job when I first took it was really just studio visits and offering a seminar. And I was on the LA timeframe, so I was always—well, it doesn’t matter, I’m always up anyways. I just thought it was a good time to have a class because it wasn’t conflicting with anything else.
ACW: And did your students know you were coming from such a great distance?
SM: Yeah, they obviously knew.
ACW: It’s kind of amazing that you never needed it as an excuse.
SM: No. I remember one time there was a snowstorm, and I flew in through Hartford and took the limo to New Haven, and everyone else coming from New York cancelled.
ACW: And then now you’re commuting from Brooklyn to New Haven, so your commuting streak is quite a long one.
SM: Yeah except now it’s all year, and to be honest it takes almost as long to get from Brooklyn to Yale. There’s not much difference, oddly enough.
ACW: So how long is your total streak, I’m wondering. Was that your first adjunct commute.
SM: When I first got out of grad school, I taught at Brown, and I taught a semester at MassArt in ’91, and then that was it until I taught at Yale. Now I’ve been teaching there since 94, so 20 years. Wow.
ACW: And we had talked about how you came from commuter culture anyways, your parents had commuted.
SM: Yeah , I grew up with two ideas, one was that I would never wear a tie, and the second was that I would never get on a train to work, because I grew up on Long Island and all the other parents—mostly, all the other fathers—would get on the train. My father actually had a vending machine business, so I grew up driving around the five boroughs fixing vending machines. And I’ve actually been on the move ever since. In those first years in LA, sometimes I would drive back. I would drive back and forth across the country at least twice a year, which I really loved doing. I do books on tape, and I’d read books that had been written in different parts of the country. You know, Lonesome Dove, in Texas—it was the opposite of a burden really. I got to see a lot.
ACW: I wonder what kind of audiobook territory we’re in now.
SM: Rick Moody! We’re actually getting close to by his home. Or actually we’re in Mamaroneck, so I would say The Great Gatsby; we could just go to the water here and look across.
ACW: And as kind of a platinum, or sterling, adjunct commuter, do you have any advice for up-and-coming, newly emerging adjunct commuters?
SM: Yeah. Get a real job.
Photoplasms sounds like a great idea. Very funny description about what he was bringing on the airplane, wet paintings….enormous things and no one would say anything.