Monday, August 5, 2013

One Two

Dave and I were married late (he was 39, I was 37) and plus I already had a kid from a virgin birth, okay, not really but I’d never been married because I’d waited until I found a gardener (I like tomatoes) who reads. And neither had he. Been married before. We were late bloomers but then we bloomed.

So a cogent thing about Dave is that he’s walked the Appalachian Trail twice, though never all at once. The AT is over 2000 miles long which means he’s walked over 4000 miles of it and also he’s walked every bit of it at one point or another. He’s lived out on the trail for three months at a time, a couple of times. He’s like, you know, a trail expert. He has feelings about the fact that he never made an actual what they call “through hike” but I, having met a couple of people who have actually done through hikes, do not share those feelings. Through hikers seem a strange breed to me: driven and sort of martial-minded and not entirely suited to the suburbs, which is after all, where we live.

On our honeymoon, almost twenty years ago, we walked a bit on the AT so he could show me how it looked. It looked lovely. We went to Max Patch, which is a bald (which means a mountain top on which no trees grow making for those soul-filling, waves-of-blue-mountains views) and we hiked for a couple of hours in the deep woods (us and a bunch of boy scouts).

But I’d always wanted more.

It’s not that I’m a hiker-type. I’m a couch potato, like, maybe the grandmother of all couch potatoes. I’m the opposite of in-shape. Also, I’m not outdoorsy. I like the idea of the out of doors more than the out of doors itself. I don’t like heat nor can I bear mosquitoes. (You see why I needed someone to grow my tomatoes for me.) I like the idea of farm-life, I like the picture of picnics, I like the image of the trail. The real thing often proves too violent or buzzy or strenuous. (I hope I have proven here that I know how lame I am.)

This is not to say that I haven’t paid a few dues. For four years out of college I lived without running water in a little house on a hill in the middle of tobacco fields. There’d been a pump when I first moved in but a big Black Snake took up residence on the pump itself, nightmarishly filigreed around the handle and the spout, and then when he left, the pump just gave up the ghost. (Maybe the snake had been holding it together.) But I lived there nonetheless, toting water in from town to wash my dishes, bathing in the shower room of the university at which I worked. (This was in a time before key cards, when you could just walk in and wave hey to the towel guy. Times have changed.)

So as I say, I’d wanted more of the AT than those few honeymoon hours, sweet as they were.

Maybe it was because, due to the fact that Dave and I were an older bride ‘n groom, we’d learned to live pretty well without each other and continued to do so even after we were married. We often vacation without each other: he hates the beach, he hates cities, I like both. Anyhow, maybe I wanted the AT because I felt like it was time we did something together for a change.

Or maybe it was all about me. As I recall, I meant to go hiking with or without him, though now—having done it—I laugh at my own hubris. But what I mean is that I feel myself getting older (as Bilbo Baggins put it, I’m beginning to feel like butter scraped over too much bread) and I knew I’d better get while the getting was good. I’ve always had my share of physical strength; as I feel it wane, I regret its passing.

Or maybe it was for the worst of reasons: because Dave drives me crazy sometimes. He lives entirely in the present which I’m sure is awesome if you’re on a mountain top staring at the insides of your eyelids. But say you’re married? And your kids need summer camp plans? And college funds? And there’s a weird spot on the ceiling which what is it? And if we put one more thing in the attic it’s going to collapse the ceiling which maybe that has something to do with the spot? Well, maybe a little bit of planning ahead isn’t such a bad thing. Which means that after years of knowing—like just Knowing in my Bones—that he was thinking, “mmm, some day I’m going to walk on the Appalachian Trail once again tra la la la la,” I was feeling frustrated in a decidedly un-live-and-let-live way. So I decided, Man, if you’re not going to make it actually happen than I am. You can thank me later, bud.

Or maybe it was for the best of reasons. That being that even such as I—out-of-shape, self-indulgent, hyper-critical, hypocritical—heard the siren-song of the big trees and wanted, above all things, to answer. I believe that barring mano a mano violence and starvation and greed and Republican politics, why, there’s nothing a good long walk in the woods can’t cure. My soul hungered for the dark forest and I wished to feed it.

So there we were, walking together. It was so physically taxing for me that I feared my heart might explode in my chest. It’s all about the one foot in front of another, the great trudge, the uphill, the downhill, except that you’re wearing a pack filled with food and stove and sleeping pad and clothes and sleeping bag and toilet paper and a book and your various pairs of spectacles and water bottles with water in them. One nalgene water bottle, filled, weighs four pounds. I hadn’t worked as hard or hurt so much since I had a couple of babies without anesthesia. I climbed and panted and thought about the novel The Orphan Master’s Son and the author’s superb ability to describe pain and then, when the second hour of climbing turned into the third hour, I stopped thinking and just let myself feel—like a baby feels what’s around it—and I realized I was as close to a be-here-now moment as I’d ever get. (How can it help but occur: maybe all that time he spent on the trail schooled Dave in his talent for living in the present.)

The world fell away the way it does when you’re in the middle of a birth or a death. The hours stretched and contracted at once. It felt like forever. It felt like the blink of God’s eye, not that I believe in God.

And here I must come clean. Our hike was, in fact, sort of like the blink of an eye. We walked 30 miles only. We spend three nights out. But it’s funny, isn’t it, how something so comparatively small as three days can feel like something so much larger.

Here’s how large it looms, for me:

In order to protect our packs from the rain, we draped our ponchos over the frames sort of like giant capes. Our packs were old and thus without the fancy new-fangled internal frame hoolimagooley and thus, when the ponchos hung from the metal frames and cascaded down our backs, we looked gigantic—as big and broad as any brown bear. And there I was, walking behind Dave, so that when I looked up from the trail floor, all I could see of him were his sturdy calves sticking out from underneath this downright edifice of blue. And he went one two one two walking along. It’s usually I who lead: I’m faster, I have a better sense of direction, I have more of that urgent snap snap thing about me. But in this case, it was he who lead and I who followed and it was beautiful to me.

And the landscape: the variety, the variousness.

We zig-zagged up the sides of mountain, on trails that fell away precipitously on one side and angled up steep on the other; we walked through patches of red poisonous-looking mushrooms; we walked through dripping dark tunnels of rhododendron, no sky visible.

Walking through a vast patch of stinging nettle and jewelweed (Dave pointed out how the latter provides the salve for the smarts of the former), I was called to mind of my first sight of the River Jordan, just a skinny little thing after all, despite its heavy rep. Same with the AT. Lots of lore, plenty of hype, but here just the merest tiny path, overgrown almost to invisibility.
We walked through sunny meadows spangled with gnats; we clambered over boulders slick with moss; we sloshed and sloshed. It rained while we were out on the trail, to the point that the Little Laurel Creek—after which one of our shelters was named-- overran its banks and drowned the farmlands at the feet of the mountains. I heard about that flooding as national news on NPR when we came home. And that’s a thing I learned about the Appalachian Trail, or I guess, any mountain trail—it goes up and then it goes down, so if it rains, you’re going to walk in a stream. Ain’t no way around it.

At one point, it began to rain so hard— such a heavy downpour—that Dave just stopped walking—and so I did too. I watched him figure out which way the wind blew and then turn and stand with his back to it—and so I did too. And we stood there in the blowing rain and looked out—sometimes I would sneak a look up at him and there he was, still there, stoic, waiting—and I considered the wetness and the dripping and then, in what can only be considered the epiphany of a town-girl in the woods, I remembered something. I remembered that the rain would diminish. I remembered that squalls blow over. I remembered that we had only to be patient. It’s strange, isn’t it, to be half-blinded by a recollection of something you’ve known all your life.

And then the rain stopped. And then we walked on.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Corner Store


My granddad was a grocer. He bought bananas and grapefruit wholesale, worried about whether his signage was adequate, and paid the Mafia a monthly retainer so they wouldn’t kick over his trashcans. My mother said that he had the soul of a poet. After work—after he unlocked the store at 5:00 in the morning for the first delivery, after he culled the rotten potatoes from the bin, after he braved the cooler in order to manhandle the wayward milk bottles into strict rows—he’d walk home, take my mother on his lap in the easy chair, and read to her from Keats.
I’m a grocer too. The store in which I’m a partner—along with a retired oncologist and a retired pathologist—is a little corner grocery in an old frame house in the middle of a liberal little Southern university town. We’re a “blend.” “Blend” is jargon for a store that sells local cheeses and Cheetos, locally made baguettes and cans of Red Bull. We’re PC but then again we ain’t.
I rather like it that way. I like that the guy who used to own this place when it was a bait and tackle shop—the store is called Johnny’s after him—can come in here and buy a Moon Pie and a little bitty Coca Cola and the woman behind him in line, who’ll get a discount for bringing her own coffee cup, can pick up a pound of organic quinoa and several packs of her favorite seaweed snack.
I didn’t expect to be a grocer. I thought that when I retired from 30 years of bookselling, that I had done with retail. But there I was, sitting on my couch and writing my novel when it occurred to me: it’s not so easy to go from the most public of jobs (behind the counter of a busy store) to the solitary life.
I’ve dabbled in writing for several decades with some moderate success. A novel of mine was published by a Big House a couple of years ago to pretty good reviews. Writing is what I do for fun. Well, not fun exactly. More like exercise. I write for exercise.
By which I mean that I write fiction in order to hone my thoughts about this cesspool we call daily life. My most recent novel, about a utopian community in the late 19th century, is my response to the Iraq War or more specifically, to those who vowed to pack up and move away in chagrin at America’s belligerence. As if, I said to myself, there’s anywhere better. America may suck, but there’s nowhere better. Shoot: I went to visit Sweden, the mothership of all that’s liberal, and my host hurried me across the street and out of the way of the thievin’ gypsies. America, I’m afraid, is as utopian as it gets.
Writing, as you’ve heard, is a solitary art. Solitude is often difficult to deal with. It gets lonely. Some people can hardly stand it. I have writer friends who exhibit a pathological need to post a Facebook status before or even as they’re in the midst of their scribbles which reads thus: “I’m writing.”
I’d never post such a status myself, mainly because I’m not completely sure what the hell writing is exactly and thus I’m not sure when I’m doing it, but I can see why someone would feel the need to shout it out. I suppose it helps them to feel that they’ll not be forgotten for the couple of hours during which they’re toiling away.
Also, writing is slow. If it’s not, you’re probably not doing it right. Good writing requires hours of labor. You write, delete and delete and delete. Deletion’s the main thing. ‘I’m on a roll’ ought to mean a couple of paragraphs, maybe a page. Much more than that and you haven’t suffered half enough.
I like the solitude. I like the need for patience. I’m willing to spend the butt in the chair time.
But I need a little human interaction too. Human interaction is built into retail-- at least, into brick and mortar retail. I don’t know what those Amazon guys do. Maybe they telecommute and work in their pajamas. Probably they have crumbs in their beards but who cares.
But it’s not just the human interaction that sustains me in the grocery store. It has as much to do with creation.
I like it when something looks good to the eye. I like those orange peppers in that red bowl. And, after years of selling the permanent (Jane Eyre, MacBeth), I like the feeling of selling the ephemeral (hormone-free half & half).
I like the immediacy of the grocery store. To wit: people need eggs. I provide the eggs. They buy their eggs and then they go home and make an omelet. It’s nice. It’s sort of hamish. It’s simple and clean. I’ve always felt that about retail. You give something to me and I give something back to you and we both feel more or less good about it. Not a lot of politics. Filthy lucre? Shoot: it makes the world go round.
Writing, on the other hand, isn’t at all clean. It’s hard to imagine more muck. Maybe all art is like sculpting: you have to chisel the melody or the choreography or the brush strokes from the hardened mess that is your mind. That’s what writing is for me. The story’s in there and it’s up to me to carve it out. It’s a muddy business. One does it only because one has no choice.
The grocery store on the other hand? Well, Johnny’s is clean and well-lighted enough for the average bear. It hearkens back to a simpler and more innocent time. That’s an illusion, of course. Back then…whenever that has ever been…was never simpler and more innocent. Nostalgia’s a trick our minds play on us. That’s what my new novel is about.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

C & E go to NYC

C. and E. go to NYC


--We took the train from NC to NY. If you’re on the train for long haul you’re asked to sit in the back of the train. This way, it’s easier for the conductors to keep track of which travelers are going where. Be that as it may, it makes for a strange socio-economic division of humanity whereby the middle class people--who are just going for a Fun Jaunt on the Train-- sit up front, and the poor people, who simply can’t afford the price of air travel, sit in the back.

--Another fact of the train. By in large, people who live along the train line live in trailer parks.

--E. wrote some novel on the train and C. texted her boyfriend for pretty much the whole way which was I'd say about 123849329534784 hours. Still, it wasn't entirely not fun.

--We arrived at 57th St. at about 9. Our hotel is exactly next door to the Director's Guild Theater which is where E. and her mother had seen a panel about the Tea Party when they came up for The New Yorker Festival; the panel included David Remnick, Jill LaPore, That Asshole Dick Armey and (sigh) Anthony Weiner who should have stuck it out, so to speak, in E’s opinion. I mean: look at Newt Gingrich. He left his wife for another woman while SHE HAD CANCER and he could’ve been the next president except for the Greek cruise problem. E’s point is: the memory of the public is short.

--Our hotel room is AWESOME (C's word) and AWESOME (E’s word also). It has three rooms, a fabulous architectury tub and huge windows that look out over Batman-Gotham-style NYC towers.

--We went out to a "deli" and split a $23.00 pastrami sandwich. It was $23 because of location, location, location. It was so big that E never ever in her life ever ever wants ever to eat another pastrami sandwich ever. One of the two men seated next to us had a ginormous BLT. At one point the other guy looked at the BLT guy and said, "You have mayonnaise ALL OVER your face." The BLT guy shrugged. Then the other guy said, "I can't even look at you." It was amusing to C. and E.


--We saw the Alexander McQueen show at the Met. He was a genius who sewed his complicated heart onto his very complicated sleeve. It was a remarkable, scary, sad, enthralling, exciting, tremendous exhibit. It seemed to E. that the designer was afraid of women and the way he conquered his fear was to deconstruct them and then reconstruct them so he could understand what they were made of. We both loved the show. E. loved a buttoned Jack the Ripper jacket and C. loved a dress that had been dipped in mud. The McQueen exhibit requires and deserves a lot more than this paragraph.

-- We ate luncheon pretzels in Central Park and watched the nannies.

--We walked on Fifth Avenue wherein C. was complemented on her outfit by the salesgirl at Bendel's (which, if you don't know, is tantamount to being complemented on your car by the guy at the Ferrari dealership).

--We ate supper at La Parisienne which is one of those Greek diner-type restaurants with a menu as long as your arm and prices that are niiiice and small. When the elderly waiter saw C. snitch a piece of feta from my plate, he brought her her own little dish of it.


--We bought $5 sunglasses on 14th street;

--We bought Grandma an awesome plastic watch on 6th in Greenwich Village and saw a baby dachshund in a store window;

--We walked to Washington Square and watched the assorted schoolchildren/people making movies/guy making a mandala out of sand on the pavement/dogs of all sizes/druggy banjo players all having a good time.

--We walked down to Soho on Lafayette and stopped into a shoe store which was so amazing that E dropped a bundle on art-shoes for C. even though the sales girl said "they don't have shoes like this in NC, do they?" whereupon E snappily said, "no, but they have the internet there.”

--We walked into Chinatown deep enough so we were the only visible white people and looked at a cat looking at fish; did you know there are like 30 different kinds of shrimp?

-We walked into Little Italy and got lured into one of those cheeseball-Italian places to eat salad served by the classic rude waiter who laughed at E when she wanted Prosecco which she guesses is more for dessert than for lunch but once she drank it, she didn’t care about the stupid waiter.

--We bought Sophie a weird gift on the way out of Little Italy due, probably, to the Prosecco;

--We took the train up to Harlem and went to Amateur Night at the Apollo. It interested us that the emcee yelled into the packed house, “Who here from New York? Brooklyn? New Jersey? North Carolina?” Those four places. We clapped and screamed for a host of singers, one dancer and a sax player. The emcee was funny, especially when he mimicked white speech by overenuciating. There was a dance contest on the stage featuring people plucked from the audience including a stylish broad from Rotterdam and a beautiful Asian girl in a shiny shirt who had no chops. People were booed off the stage when necessary which was hard on C and E, as they are both too prim for such things. The experience was interesting and fun but it would have been better had there been fewer white people, she said ironically.


--We went to MOMA, where E was appalled at how much C. doesn't know about art and realized that since now NC is Last in the Nation in per capita student spending, it was immediately necessary to resort to homeschooling, so she talked at length about Dada and pointillism and painterly borders and modernism and Modigliani and Gauguin and Dali and Picasso none of which she knows anything about.

--We went to Times Square, a truly truly horrible place where C, an excellent shopper, spent an hour picking out the perfect nail polish color: Ocean Love Potion. (Green.)

--We walked up to Bryant Park and ate in a deli with lots of young suits;

--We walked into the NY Public Library which is celebrating its 100th anniversary and had this tremendous exhibit of their fabulous stuff including a copy of Dickens's David Copperfield from which he did his public readings which was all marked up, by him, for his benefit, with his stage directions; Malcolm X's notebook; Jack Kerouac's glasses; Virginia Woolf's walking stick; a Gutenberg Bible; ad infinitum. This, needless to say, was E's favorite part of the whole trip and C. liked it very much as well. E. asked C. what she remembered from this same exhibit and she said, "those anti-Nazi pamphlets (hidden in) packets of seeds and tea, and that lock of Mary Shelley's hair."

--We walked down to Grand Central Terminal where we people-watched until C's Aunt Ellen met us, having come up from Danbury to do so. We walked together to a Korean bar-b-que place which, E hastens to say, is not all that much like an NC bar-b-que place. There we ate way too much meat and bibimbop and seafood pancakes but it was so good we couldn't stop.

--We walked back to the hotel to store the leftover chicken and cellophane noodles in the room fridge and then took a cab to a movie theater to see a production of The Company which we were too late for. So instead, we saw Woody Allen's newest, Midnight in Paris, in which we meet Dali and Gauguin and Picasso and Modigliani's mistress and Gertrude Stein and E. kept elbowing C. and saying, "we saw his picture TODAY" until C said, "please stop. You're hurting me."


-E. wanted to go to the American Folk Art Museum but we arrived there 1.5 hours before it opened;

--After some quick reorganizing, we took the train to Herald Square so we could be like every other Japanese, Swedish, French, German, Russian, Polish, American tourist in the entire goddamn city of NYC and get our own stupid-ass pink shopping bag full of stupid-ass, oversexed, overstuffed bras from Victoria's Secret which was having a Big Sale. "Charlotte," said Mommy, "if I do this for you, that is, if I spend a portion of my precious precious life in the Store of the Underwire, will you go with me to the Folk Art Museum totally uncomplainingly?" She nodded, pink-cheeked with excitement. There at the underwear store we stood with ALL MANNER of other women: every nationality (as I've said), every size, color, economic goddamn bracket, political persuasion, etc while she carefully picked out bras and pantalettes, and then went and tried them on while E slunk into a corner and waited for her to wait in line so she could try on the 1/4 yard of yellow/pink/white whatever. And do you know what E thought as she slunk there? She thought this: I am glad that I have a daughter who feels pretty enough to indulge herself in this crap. Yes, this is what she thought. Which just shows you that the human psyche is a complicated thing.

--Then we went to Macy's where E bought Sophie a birthday tee-shirt for $45. A tee shirt. It's a good thing it's Friday because E is running out of money.

--Then we took the train back to the American Folk Art Museum which is nice and small and was veritably empty and we saw quilts and weathervanes and all manner of things made of popsicle sticks by old Black ladies from Mississippi.

--Then we ate falafel from a Halal King Tut street vendor who treated us like we were a couple of Nefertitis.

--Then it rained and C watched a movie while Mommy took Bath Number Three in the architctury tub and read a travelogue by some guy named Patrick Leigh Fermor which has just been republished in a beautiful edition which she got a lot of bathwater on but will pass on to her brother Jason nevertheless because it's his kind of book.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Watch & Learn

Dave walked into the kitchen and showed me his wrist. On it was his watch, boldly lying about the time. It wasn't anywhere near 5:30. Dave is a bus driver. His need for an accurate watch is paramount. Sometimes when we're speaking casually about where to be when, he'll say, "I'll meet you at 4:53 in front of the post office." He lives by his watch.
"Oh no!" I said to the stopped watch.
Dave nodded sadly.
"But we thought it would last forever!" I said.
He agreed. "I feel a little betrayed," he said. "If you can't trust a Swiss Army watch that was purchased IN SWITZERLAND, then what can you trust?"
I myself have a watch from China, one of those Mickey-Mouse-style watches with a little character whose arm is the big hand, only in my watch's case, the character is Mao, not Mickey Mouse. My Mao watch stopped almost immediately upon receipt. This, you expect. It undoubtedly came from some guy's street table. I was disappointed but not surprised. The halting of the Swiss Army watch, on the other hand, was truly distressing.
I recalled the vacation during which we'd visited Switzerland. We'd come into a little money and decided that the best possible thing to do with it was to spend it in Europe. Our kids hadn't seen Europe and we ourselves had only limited experience with the continent. So we decided to go to Paris and Switzerland and Florence.
Dave is city-phobic and always has been. He was raised an hour outside of NYC, but to him and his family, it's a place of insidious perfidy, where pimps will come at you and rob you with switchblades; where young girls like ours will be sold into white slavery; where conmen will hypnotize you with fascinating shell games and then take all of your money.
I understood, therefore, that the heavy-on-the-urban trip might not be as fun for him as it would be for me. I appreciated the fact that he was ready and willing to do it when he’d probably be more comfortable camping in the wilds of Siberia. (This reminds me of a dinner party I was invited to at which among the other guests, were two women in their late seventies. They disliked each other, these two, and ended up bickering about which was better: the city or the country. “I just can’t abide the noise of the city,” said the one and the other, by then overwrought, replied, “Well, I love it. Just give me some bus fumes and I’m as happy as a clam.”)
At any rate, I was cognizant of the fact that this vacation was ours, not just mine, and that thus, it would be good to build in a little downtime from The City for Dave. Which I did do. I put the rural Swiss downtime in between Paris and Florence as a little respite for him. I was the trip-planner; I didn't know anything about Switzerland; I lit upon Interlaken as our Swiss destination. That it was filled with elderly German tourists and Irish frat-boy types came as an unwelcome surprise, but physically the landscape’s so Heidi-gorgeous that we had a great time anyhow. Dave rented a bike immediately and rode it around the 20 mile-around lake that one of the lakes of Interlaken is inter. After one of his rides and before supper one night, we walked into an official Swiss Army store where he bought an extra knife (he loves those knives) and his watch.
After Switzerland, we took the train to Florence and looked for our hotel which was directly across the street from the Duomo. It had a one-star rating, simply because the bathroom was shared and across the hall, which was fine with us. Everything about that hotel was tremendous. Fifteen-foot ceilings, windows that opened onto a full view of the Duomo, breakfast of almond-flavored rolls served at a little table in our room. The elevator was awesomely teensy and non-American; the two flights of stairs took us past the silent Haitian Embassy, which was cool. Whomever it was who had plastered the walls white was an artist whose heart simply hadn't let him cover the antique green stenciled wallpaper entirely; he'd left a small unplastered square of the decoration above the bed like the most beautiful of hotel pictures.
There was a single fly in my gelato. And that was what the heck Dave was doing. As I was planning the trip—booking hotels, reading guidebooks-- I'd envisioned us walking together down the streets of Paris and then Florence, fingers entwined, eating street food. I'd pictured us touristing together, sweetly, companionably. Our girls were getting along, we were on vacation, we were in beautiful and interesting places. And so why, I wondered, gazing out the window at the Duomo, why does he walk behind me, rather than with me as we stroll? Why doesn’t he want to walk next to me? When I see something wonderful, there’s no one at my side to show it to. I’m all alone on my family vacation.
There could be but a single reason. His distaste for cities was such that he was pouting. If he wasn't on a bike (he'd biked Paris, then Interlaken, then the hills around Florence) then I guessed he wasn't willing to play along. He was miserable on the sidewalks of the cement jungle and he was bound and determined to make sure that I knew it.
I was mad. I challenged him to a conversation. We decided on the steps of the Duomo as our debate court. We walked down the stairs of our hotel and across the street. We sat.
"Why won't you walk next to me?" I said. "It hurts my feelings. I've tried to make this vacation as interesting and as fun as it could be for you. I thought if you had your own time, that we two could share my time. But we haven't been together. We've been on two separate vacations. Why don't you want to walk next to me? It makes me feel isolated from you."
Dave sighed. "It's not that," he said.
"No?" I said, hurt. “Well then what is it?”
"It's just that when I walk behind you, I can make sure we're all together, is all."
It became clear. He had taken on the role as the herder, the catcher in the rye, a reverse Pied Piper. He was doing his job as he saw it. He was keeping us safe as we walked the city streets. Immediately, I was suffused with a myriad of feelings: a little chagrin, a modicum of rue, more than a dash of love.
I turned to him and smiled the way you smile when you've falsely accused someone of something and hope they'll forgive you, and suddenly, the hour changed and all the bells of the Duomo tolled at once. Hands over our ears, we ran back across the street, up the stairs past the Haitian Embassy and to our beautiful room. There, he dressed for his bike tour while I rounded up the girls for the Boboli. I believe we gave each other a hug before we parted.
Two years later, I was washing dishes back in Carrboro, while next to me, he chopped peppers and onions, his stopped watch still on his hopeful wrist. I was thinking about that moment in Florence and about how wrong it is to falsely accuse and how easy it is to misinterpret almost everything, when it hit me. I turned to Dave.
"Maybe it's the battery," I said.
We looked at each other.
“Why didn’t we think of this before?” said Dave.
I shrugged. “Maybe because of no Duomo?” I asked.
“May be,” he agreed and we went back to our chores.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Way of the Auroch

I am coming on to the home stretch of thirty years in bookselling. It’s a noble profession. Selling books hardly seems like selling at all. I’ve felt less like a merchant for all these years and more as if I’m doing my customers a giant favor by helping them see what’s there. “Here’s a gorgeous one,” I say, handing them Cloud Atlas. “See if you’re ever the same again.” Or, “It’s smart and it’s fun,” I say, showing them City of Thieves. “Take it on an airplane ride and the hours will fly along with you.” Or, “Try The Leopard,” I say. “I think you’re up to it.”
I fear I sound immodest. But literature expands minds and I’m a drug lord. I’m the Timothy Leary of the Bull’s Head Bookshop. I’m wearing a beret, sitting on my velvet hassock, handing out square-shaped party favors in dust jackets. I’m a librarian, only I’m not shushing.
Bookselling lends itself to a little humor. A bookstore delivers the perfect place for the sweet dorkyness of a spelling bee, or for your chance to vote for your favorite literary donkey or vampire or love triangle. Dorothy Parker Day at my store included ginger ale in martini glasses, and candy cigarettes; Marcel Proust Day sported madeleines and lime tea; and James Joyce Day, which we celebrated this March, was your destination for oatcakes, (root) beer and a sort of goofy reading of Finnegan’s Wake.
It’s been a wonderful life. I’m sort of hoping that my life’s not quite over—in fact, I need a job so if you hear of anything let me know. But I’m through with bookselling.
Simply put, I’m getting out while the getting’s good.
The thing of it is this: people would rather order from Amazon than go to a bookstore with, like, books in it. They want the bargains—as if books are shoes! As if books are bed linens!
It’s not only that, of course. Amazon’s fun! It’s the Great Democratizer, right? Amazon may be the granddaddy of the “My” Generation (as in My Amazon Account and My Wish List and My List That I Thought Of And Can Now See Online As If I Were David Brooks Or Maybe Even Dave Eggers). (Hm. I just thought of something. Maybe it’s just sour grapes. Maybe I simply resent sharing my crown as the Queen of the Arbiters. Well, Hell Yes, I resent it. I’ve been buying books for a big store for about a century, and suddenly Phil from Hoboken has as much street cred as I do because he likes Dune and he says so, in a colorful list with his name on it. Shoot.)

(This seems like a good time to say I’m something of a hypocrite.
Full disclosure:
--when I couldn’t find an agent for my novel, subsequently published by Putnam, I entered a contest sponsored by Amazon and did pretty well. Along the way, agents found me, and one of them sold my book.
--I check my novel’s status regularly on Amazon.
--I use Amazon’s website constantly while at work to help me find books for my customers.
So, okay, I’m a hypocrite.)

To continue:
The demise of the bookstore is not all about Amazon. The ebook isn’t helping. But as I sit here and write this, I can tell you that it wasn’t the ebook that killed Border’s. Nope, that was Amazon. We have yet to see the havoc that the ebook will wreak. But that’s sort of a different story in my point of view. Ebooks are just a piece of technology, like the cd was to the record. You shrug at progress. Oh well, is what you say to progress. But Amazon is a company. A greedy company with a greedy CEO, who’s willing to lose money on books in order to get his hands in the wallets of, well, you and yours, for all the future stuff he wants to sell you. You can’t stop progress. But someone should stop a CEO who’s dancing on the graves—dug by him-- of so many Mom & Pops.
So I’m the rat deserting the sinking ship. I hope it doesn’t sink. Maybe it won’t sink! I love the ship. I’ve loved my years on deck, from my ship’s boy’s duties all the way up to captain. I’ve weathered the storms and enjoyed the calm. The swells have been excellent. Whoa, look at those dolphins over there. What’s that, a mermaid?
This is all to say that you ought to go to a bookstore right now. Take a reusable bag. Go to an independent one. Or a college one. Or even, if you must, a remaining big box. Browse for a long time. Go into sections you’d normally shun. Go to the Economics section. Go to the Foreign Language Dictionary section. Walk up and down all the aisles. Camp out in front of literature and take your time choosing between Texaco and The Radetzky March and Middlesex. Hell, why choose? Buy ‘em all. And then go put them in your bike basket and turn right around and go back into the bookstore and spend some more time in there. Because I am here to tell you that if you wait a whole lot longer, you won’t get the chance at all. Soon, bookstores will be gone--gone the way of record stores, gone the way of the Auroch, gone the way of the wet nurse, never to come again.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

do tell

Dear Marco,

I haven’t written you in a long time because you’re dead. You died 18 years ago of Aids. You may not recall the day but I do. It was July 4th and as you—look. Let’s be honest. You didn’t “slip away.” Slipping wasn’t your style. You went fighting. It was as if you had the word “activist” tattooed on each of the 206 bones in your body: bold script for the arm bones and leg bones and across your skull and then fine little cursive for your finger bones and those teensy ones in your ear. So okay. As you went out fighting, fireworks exploded in the street it being, as mentioned, Independence Day, as well as one of those states with pretty lax fireworks laws. Not like NC, your home state.
Which reminds me. We have this friend who’s a great and funny guy whose kid is my kid’s best friend, which is how we know him. And he told me recently that he’d finally applied for American citizenship in great part so that he could explode the illegally powerful fireworks that he traditionally hosts in a big smoky display at holiday time. He explained that breaking fireworks laws as an American citizen would be a lot safer than breaking them as an alien. So he’s become an American. You’d love him.
I’m writing today, Marco, because despite the fact that it’s December 18th and actually snowing in North Carolina which is not exactly miraculous but certainly unusual, it’s another Independence Day. Today, after years of battle and as if in afterthought, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was repealed by the Senate. It was a nasty piece of discrimination and it was a blemish on our country and now it’ll be gone and that’s a wonderful thing.
So I write to tell you about this step forward and also to tell you that I’m proud of you. You assisted. You had your own way of making a difference. You spoke to crowds and carried signs. But there are other ways too: sit-coms with cute gay characters, and comedians who marry their partners in public, and magazines, and the amazing pride parade that our mother and your niece and I went to (Mom wore an Act-up tee shirt; I had multicolored balloons, Charlotte had rainbow fingernail polish) and the greeting card I carry in my store showing a guy who says, “Mom made me gay,” and his friend says, “Can she make me one too?”
The country’s changing, bit by bit. Freedom is becoming manifest. Today was a big bit. You did a really hard part. But all the bits and all the ways are important. I thought you’d like to know.
It’s almost time for Ashu to light his illegal fireworks. I always think of you when I see their patterns in the night sky. This year, for me, it’ll be truly a celebration. Each pop will be another ask; each bang, another tell.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Promo Notions

Nothing original here: writing’s solitary, promoting’s the opposite. When you sign on to publish your book-- whether you’re doing-it-yourself or being published in the established way—you accept the fact that you’ll have to do some promo. Unless you’re Philip Roth, you’re probably going to have to sell yourself around a little. If you don’t, chances are that your book will end up under the bed with your unpublished ones, just a’languishing.

You build your website (and then you have to tell people to go to it), you email book clubs, you post reviews, you try to avoid saturating your buddies with stuff about what is, after all, just a little bitty novel. The thing is: you worked hard on your novel, you want to coddle it some, you know that it’s likely that its day in the sun is limited and you want it to get a nice little tan while it can.

A week ago I spent a day in NYC at a private book fair. The fair-goers fell into two groups. Group A was comprised of representatives from institutions which might like to ask you to come talk to them, ie: they were lecture scouts. Group B was comprised of a whole lot of authors. We authors had 2 minutes each (by which I mean 120 seconds and no more) to describe the books that we’d taken 2-6 years to write. We were to describe them in witty, self-deprecating, self-promoting, enthusiastic, kinda cool, unhurried, competent, well-dressed-but-not-overly-so, nerveless, intelligent-nay-brilliant sort of ways. We authors—of whom there were 50-- had written novels, dog books, political books, historical books, joke books, and books about how to get good deals when you go shopping. We authors, who were seated in alphabetical order, were unknowns (hiya), best-selling authors, Pulitzer prize-winners, actresses whose faces you know, serious scholarly authors with books from Oxford University Press, lady novelists (hiya), tall, short (hiya), etc.

I was seated next to Michael Ellsberg, the son of Daniel Ellsberg who released the Pentagon Papers which exposed the web of lies upon which our involvement in the Viet Nam war was based. Michael Ellsberg’s book is called The Power of Eye-Contact which supports the idea that eye contact can lead to successful dating. On the other side of Michael Ellsberg was a guy who’d written a scholarly book about Nixon and knew a lot about the Pentagon Papers. Subsequent to Michael Ellsberg’s 2 minutes, everyone who went up to the podium made some crack about looking at the “eye contact guy.” 50 authors at 2 minutes each equals an hour and a half or so. There was a lot of interesting info, some squirming, quite a bit of laughter as we each took our turns.

Afterwards there was a meet-and-greet. I’m bad at those. I’m friendly but I like small groups. I’m not good in crowds. In large groups I tend to talk about inappropriate things in monosyllables. I drank wine but it didn’t help. I talked to a scholar about eastern religion and I talked to a lady about her dog and then I made a totally lame pass around the room and then I’d had it. I figure: it’s good to know your limitations. If I’m going to become a world-changing author, it’s going to have to be my writing that does it because my personality isn’t going to sell me, for me. Or something.

So I headed out. I walked out onto Park Avenue and then up towards Fifth to hail a cab. I’m from a small town and haven’t experienced much cab-hailing. I looked around for a good spot and some nice cabbie recognized something about my body-language: he pulled over right in front of me. No hailing even necessary! I smiled, climbed in and told him my destination. As we pulled away he looked in his rear-view mirror and said, in his lovely Persian accent, “Good eye contact, hunh?”

In the end, no eye contact needed for the butt in the chair part, but when promoting your book, it’s probably not a bad idea.