Wednesday, April 22, 2009

an April morning in Manhattan

I.

During breakfast at the Leo House, my favorite place to stay in New York, one of the nuns in charge approached me and said “I don’t know why they won’t just leave him alone.” I agreed, although I had no idea who or what she might have been talking about. It was the kind of thing people over sixty will say to you on buses in Milwaukee. Rather than commencing at the beginning or end of the narrative, these conversational overtures plunge straight into the center. It’s as if we’ve been having a discussion and I’ve had a brief bout of amnesia. The odd thing is, it works for them- or at least, it works often enough to keep it thriving as a form of public discourse. Older Milwaukee people seem to have a huge reservoir of shared assumptions, and the confidence to assume them with strangers in public spaces. I heard one old woman launch a conversation with another by asking “What are you gonna do?” The stranger just sighed and replied “Nothing you can do.” Both seemed satisfied that information had been exchanged. The eaves-dropper is left to wonder whether they were talking about nothing, or everything. Writers and artists struggle constantly with the creative challenge of making the particular universal, but this skill was mastered long ago by the busybodies of Milwaukee. As the Sister moved on to greet another breakfast diner with another non-sequitur, I remembered that the Leo House is a project of the Sisters of Saint Agnes. They are from Wisconsin.



II.

I took the C Train up to 125th Street, hoping to see the Kalup Linzy video installation at the Studio Museum in Harlem. As I climbed the stairs out of the subway station, the man ahead of me suddenly lobbed a huge gob of spit at the wall. I was momentarily startled. He noticed this, and asked me what the fuck I was doing walking so close behind somebody. This startled me more than the spit, and I said I was sorry. I figured that he was a little embarrassed, and that this was a loss-of-face situation, and it would be better to just let him save his. But then, for good measure, he asked whether I was sick in my fucking head. There didn’t seem to be a good way to respond, so I walked briskly to my destination a few blocks ahead. When I got there, I was told sorry, the museum is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. I said that I’d checked the website and it explicitly said they were open Mondays. The woman at the counter smiled a gorgeous smile, shrugged, and said “Well, you need at least four hours to see them anyway.” This made sense to me at the time, but as I thought about it later I was baffled.



III.

I decided to walk down to Book Culture near Columbia. It was a rainy morning, and there were only a few customers in the store. I spent an hour looking over my pet subject areas, one of which is old lefty memoirs. On a shelf in a sub-section of a sub-section, I came across a spined copy of a thin paperback called Red Family, about the thirties communist organizer Junius Scales. After reading a few pages, I decided to order it from my local bookshop when I got home, and returned it to the shelf. Almost immediately, I heard a man approach the information desk and ask for this book by name. “Your website says you have a copy but I don’t know where to find it,” he added. The bookseller looked it up, hunted it down, and within a couple minutes he had purchased the book I’d just had in my hand. If you haven’t worked in a bookstore, you may not realize how bizarre this is. When a celebrity plugs her book on Oprah, or, since this is Book Culture, when Hugo Chavez gives the President a book exposing US imperialist atrocities in Latin America, it wouldn’t be surprising to have many requests for a single title in a single day. But Red Family is the sort of book that might sell a couple copies in an entire year. How strange! For a moment I suspected that this man had been watching me, and was staging some sort of Paul Auster-like mind game. And then I wondered, in a non-sequitur sort of way, whether he was in league with the thug on the subway and the nun at Leo House.

2 comments:

Thomas said...

"Are you fucking sick in your head?" That's original! I've often wondered that about you, and will steal that to use on my own!

Great post, and nice little anecdotal view of NYC.

Stacie Williams said...

Good stuff, glad to read it. I knew we'd get our talons on your blog eventually...