The writer who came out from the cold: Zoe heller in America

SOME LOON has been calling me recently, promising to come round and inflict all manner of sexual humiliation upon my person. I've taken to screening my calls, but this hasn't put him off. Rather sweetly, he leaves messages. I'm not particularly sensitive about this sort of thing, but it does tend to put a crimp in an evening, coming back to find seven accounts of forthcoming violations on your answer machine. After I got burgled, a friend of mine bought me a flick-knife and told me to keep it under my mattress. I said that in the eventuality of a crazed robber (or any other variety of criminal) rushing into my apartment while I was lying in bed, I wasn't sure I would have the presence of mind to reach over, ferret out the knife and utter the appropriate menaces. 'Nah,' my friend said, 'it's when he leaps on top of you - that's when you reach for the knife and stick it in him - right under his ribs.' Oh. So no worries then.

I am writing this wearing an overcoat and a fur hat. In spite of these considerations I am barely staving off hypothermia. My fingers have turned a wonderful shade of lilac (it's hard to type with gloves on) and my nose is streaming. I was just on the phone with someone and they asked, 'What's that noise?' The noise was me, shivering. After a summer spent in an apartment without air conditioning, I have somehow managed to acquire a winter residence without central heating. Actually, that's not true. I do have central heating, it's just that there is no boiler to serve it. The boiler that currently provides my neighbour and me with hot water has the volume capacity of the average English potty. This means that when I go to take my morning shower, my neighbour - who is an early riser - has always used all the hot water. Or, more tantalisingly, he's used almost all the hot water - allowing me 50 deceptive seconds of warmth before the temperature turns icy.

I've phoned the construction manager of this godforsaken building a couple of times - asking him in a gruesomely polite way if there's any possibility that at some point in his very, very busy schedule, he might spare some of his very, very precious time to come and see about a new boiler. 'Christ, OK,' he always says - as if I was asking him for a pair of camiknickers or a diamond ring, and not a basic bloody human requirement. This construction manager is not one of nature's charmers. It took him about a fortnight to supply me with a key to my mailbox, and when at last he grudgingly handed it over, he acted like he'd had to hand-carve it himself.

This week, I have been trying to finish a long article - leaving my apartment only to replenish my stocks of cigarettes and Diet Coke. After a couple of days, I stopped washing, and instead of changing my clothes started adding new layers to the old ones - figuring that I'd rather be filthy than frozen. On good days I bullied myself into brushing my teeth.

Aside from that, the only grooming I allowed myself was the application of a hair lotion called Lucky Kentucky which was invented by a horse trainer and is meant to make hair grow at record speed. (I've decided to grow my hair again. My hope is that Lucky Kentucky will minimise that grim growing-out stage where you look like Ken Dodd.) On Wednesday, a messenger came to the door of my apartment building to deliver a package. As I was signing for it, it struck me that the messenger was looking at me a bit oddly. Then, on returning to my apartment, I caught sight of myself in a mirror. I was wearing an ex-boyfriend's pair of blue long johns (complete with genitals pouch); three rather grubby sweaters; a pair of red woolly socks - and the fur hat. In the course of my labours at the typewriter, I had pushed the hat up, and it was sitting very high on my head like some kind of de luxe tea-cosy. Horrible strands of Lucky Kentucky hair were straggling across my forehead. God, I was depressed. What does it say for your self-esteem when you're prepared to meet and greet members of the opposite sex wearing men's underwear and horse beauty products?

The messenger and the man in the deli who sells me the cigarettes and Diet Coke are the only direct human contact I've had for most of the week. What with the solitude and the cold, it's been a bit like participating in a cryogenics experiment. For a while I lost contact with society. I didn't know what the weather was like, and because I never turned the telly on - the possibility of being sucked in by Melrose Place was too great - I didn't know what was going on in the news. One time when the dirty phone caller checked in, I came close to asking him what the latest was in Haiti, but I stopped myself just in time. Very occasionally, I'd listen to the news radio station '10 10 Wins'. Their slogan is, 'You give us 22 minutes and we'll give you the world.' But actually this is hooey. You give them 22 minutes and they'll give you a load of crapola about the unhappy polar bear at the Bronx zoo, the latest hit-and-run in Astoria and the heroic paraplegic from Brooklyn who's just earned a pilot's certificate.

Thus, when I finally emerged into the world on Friday, it was like the Amazing Wolf Girl being introduced to civilisation for the first time. The sunlight dazzled me and the crowds on the street alarmed me. Down in the subway, I eavesdropped on a conversation and learnt that President Clinton had been in town that day, attending a meeting at the UN. 'I guess it's lonely being Number One,' a man was saying to his friend. 'Did you see him sitting all alone in that big limo? Geez, the poor guy can't even walk down the street and buy himself a jelly doughnut.' This inspired me. As soon as I'd handed in my article, I went out and bought the biggest, juiciest jelly doughnut I could find. Then I sat and ate it on the steps outside the New York Public Library in mid-town. A doughnut never tasted so sweet.

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