I have a few minutes before the violin lesson so I stop at St. Mark’s bookstore to see what new memoirs they have out. I go to the section under new non-fiction marked “Biography” and begin to scan the spines, my head tilted to the side. Most of them I remember from last time. My eyes move quickly past the books that are about other people – the life of George Sand – but stop at a cover I haven’t seen before. It’s a color photograph of a living room and a girl sitting on a couch except you only see the legs and torso. You can tell it’s a girl because she’s wearing a dress. The face is outside the photo, cut off. I stoop to look more closely. Sure enough, it’s a memoir. I thought so. They have a certain look, many of them anyhow. And this one is by Darcey, my advisor at Goddard a few years ago. She’s finally published a memoir, I think, after all those dumb novels. I’m a little jealous her memoir is out before mine. I’ve been writing memoir much longer than she has. I’ll read it though. I liked her memoir stuff. I flip to the back to see her photo and upon seeing it – the tattoo, the blond hair, the skinniness – I remember her, what she looked like. I’d picked her as my advisor because by that time all I wanted was to get my piece of paper with as little effort as possible and get out of there. I’d given up all hope of learning anything about writing at that place.
I write down the title in my tiny notebook – there’s no money for books this week – and drift over to the new paperbacks. Two young men stand right behind me. “There’s Elizabeth’s book,” one is saying. “Where are ours?” asks the other. “Oh, they’re in the back because they’re not brand new,” says the first one. We’re in front of the poetry section so I imagine they’re poets. Published poets, a rare breed. I thought of turning around, but I knew seeing them wouldn’t help me identify them. Instead, I leafed through a large edition of Howl, replications of Ginsberg’s typed pages with his handwritten notes. It would be a neat thing to have. I thought of how my friend Will would love it.
There was a book of new poems by my old friend Charles Bukowski who I got sick of about six months ago. But I opened it up and read a couple of them and remembered why I’d liked him so much in the first place.
I’d looked at pretty much everything I’d come to see. I looked over one last display table. A big volume on Patti Smith. I had considered her one of my people until a few weeks ago when I saw her on TV and she looked so ugly and sounded so bad I thought maybe I’d been wrong about her – without too much interest I began leafing through the pages, especially the early ones with lyrics from the albums that I knew so well. There was a photo of her kneeling like a disciple in front of William Burroughs, a writer too eccentric for me, and a photo of her obviously chummy with Ginsberg, and another of her sprawled in a chair holding a photo of Dylan’s face over her own. I liked the company she kept. For a little while I wanted to be her in those late seventies years – something to do with late nights in New York City and lace and defiance and jeans and sneakers. I came out of my building on Eighth Street late at night to buy ice cream and there she was, walking past with a few others and I just said Hi and she said Hi – and some of those songs – as I read the lyrics in St. Mark’s Bookstore I could hear her wailing voice and the guitars and drums -- just immediately evoked the rooms and places of that time.
I closed the book. Gathered my things. Went back out onto the street to walk the block or two to Catherine’s place. The rain was finally over. She had warned me that the front steps of her building were being worked on so I couldn’t climb them to ring the bell. We’d have to make eye contact through her window which is just above the street. But when I arrived the curtain was drawn. In books and movies, I thought, people are always throwing pebbles at windows to get people’s attention. Now was my chance to try it. I stooped down and found a translucent white pebble. I threw it. It missed the window by an inch or two and bounced off the sill. I started to reach for another to try again, but Catherine had pulled the curtain aside and was waving. She came out through the basement door. “Did you hear the pebble?” I asked, excited. “Yes!” she answered.