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.