I’m going to tell you about a nice day in Manhattan, full of surprising little experiences linked with people I admire whose names I am preparing to drop.
But before I do that, let me say I reported two interesting depositions for the Department of Labor yesterday. The Government is suing an Asian business because they don’t pay their grocery store workers minimum wage. I learned a lot about The Vegetable Department, The Meat Department, The Fish Department. I learned about paying your workers in cash and how the Department of Labor frowns on wages paid where no time cards have been punched.
After the deposition, the interpreter and I went to a Chinese restaurant on Canal Street where she ordered for both of us. I didn’t embarrass myself too badly with the chop sticks. We stopped at the corner of Mott so I could buy a new watch battery installed by a street vendor (Canal Street is the place to go for watch batteries where the vendors do business on the sidewalks) before proceeding north to Midtown.
On Madison, in a chic block ending at Fifth Avenue, I was let into a private art gallery where the translator advises on financial and human resource matters. (Her talents are diverse.) In the back office I saw a magnificent medieval painting selling for a great deal of money. I’d like to drop names, but perhaps I should be discreet and not draw attention to the painting or the gallery.
Let’s extend one nice day in Manhattan to one-nice-day-and-night, because that evening I attended a literary reading at Le Poisson Rouge, a nightclub, sort of, in Greenwich Village, on Bleecker Street, between Sullivan and Thompson. But not just any nightclub. In The New York Times I’m always reading about some interesting concert held there, a jazz group or string ensemble or classical artist singing cabaret. At the reading last night I heard two wonderful writers I’ve studied with: Michael Cunningham and Carryl Phillips, novelists who both teach writing at Yale University. (Since it’s the 100th anniversary of The Yale Review, the place was crawling with Yalies.)
I know M. Cunningham from classes years ago in St. Helena, California and more recently, Brooklyn College. C. Phillips reads every summer at the New York State Summer Writers’ Institute (my designated, all-time favorite place to be in early July) where, in clear, limpid prose, this St. Kitts/U.K./U.S. novelist navigates the class and racial divides he knows from firsthand experience. Then there was Edmund White, a dilapidated man whose quick, elfin humor makes you adore his pudginess. (Belt off-center. Shirt wrinkled. His waddle onto the stage enhances each sharp, observant sentence of his fiction.)
A woman who looked familiar was at the Hungarian Pastry Shop the next morning where I sat at my usual table, writing. (We’re now into the second nice day.) “Weren’t you at Le Poisson Rouge last night,” I asked, “and didn’t you introduce the editor of the Yale Review?” Indeed she did. Later, Julie Otsuka (When the Emperor Was Divine) stopped at the table for a brief hello. We’ve both been patrons there for a long time, she much longer than I. If you look at her Web page, you can read about her experiences writing at the Pastry Shop.
Yes, it was a fine day — a fine two days — in Manhattan. But tomorrow Vince enters the hospital to have his pacemaker-defibrillator repaired. Life is a collection of nice days. Aging bodies. Names worth dropping.
Before I go, let me mention the novelist Mary Gordon whom I recently heard at a Catholic book discussion group four blocks north of where I live. I’d seen a woman on the bus reading Gordon’s book about Jesus and the Gospels and asked how she liked the writing. She loved it and invited me to her reading club that meets at a church on the Upper West Side. “Mary Gordon will be there,” she said.
Gordon teaches at my favorite writers’ conference and has written letters to help me get into graduate school. I loved seeing her and hearing her again, but was appalled at some of the hostility she met. She’s a humble reader of the Gospels, not needing a guarantee of Christ’s divinity or of the miracles, but finding faith and inspiration, anyway. Four women seemed quite angry; she hadn’t convinced them that her reading was accurate. They were quizzing this distinguished writer and teacher. At one point Mary said, “I take your correction,” and her inquisitor wasn’t even gracious; showed no interest in how the book came to be written; paid no attention to Gordon’s beautiful prose. Also lacked charm, humanity, and a sense of humor.
The four hostile readers wanted rules. Guarantees. But often when you’re writing, the ground shifts under your feet. Often you write because you, yourself, are trying to find a good place to stand. Frequently you have no rules, or far fewer than some people would like you to have.
I’m writing these paragraphs to alleviate my anxiety about Vince’s health. I long for rules that will guarantee the continuance of his habitual life, our satisfying home, and yes, my freedom to roam about the city and come back to him. But today’s writing has not offered any insight or assurance that Vince will be fine. The act of writing often brings me peace. A good sentence brings peace. That’s a rule I generally count on. But frankly, it’s as changeable as rules for punctuation. Today’s writing may bring peace. Tomorrow the ground may shake underfoot.