“So, how will you write about this evening?” asked Stu. It was a sweet, touching question. He was sitting out in the small audience with me up front, reading bits and pieces from my book and talking about things like writing and memoir and whether I edit my writing or not.
Stu is a big guy in a denim shirt. His hair is white. He looks a bit like a rancher though he lives in Rhinebeck, a wealthy man who looks like he’s been running things for a few decades.
“How are you going to write about tonight?” he asked, honestly wanting to know.
I said maybe I’d start with how an hour ago I realized the seam on my tight red dress was coming apart, how I searched my friend’s abandoned house where I was crashing for the afternoon for a safety pin at least, looking in all the places where a house might have tossed a stray safety pin years ago, and though I found many such places I never did find the pin. How I turned off at a supermarket on my way to the bookstore -- still thinking this was an emergency – 40 minutes before the reading, to buy needle and thread, and immediately realized there was no time for this and swinging back onto the road with the phrase “The Show Must Go On” in my head, imagining how actors must often have to leap onto the stage knowing their zipper is broken and you just have to pummel through.
I didn’t say to Stu how I might write about how before the reading, before people had really started to arrive, how when Greg my photographer friend, a friendly energetic Canadian, asked me to come to the door of the store, to lean out and smile so he could get the store name and my face in one shot, how it reminded me totally of my wedding morning when I was getting dressed and Ben, another photographer friend, wanted me to come out for a shot but I didn’t want anyone to see me yet so I just stuck my head out the door, looked into the long black lens and thought “This is it, this is my Vogue shot, the one time in my life that a real photographer is going to focus on me and make me glamorous and beautiful.” But there I was again, at the door of Oblong Books, sheltered from the rain by an awning, in the exact same pose 8 years later.
Jules was there with her husband, Bob. They introduced themselves. I had met Jules on Twitter and now here she was in front of me, a real person with a big natural smile, brown hair, brown eyes, no make-up, a pony tail. I immediately liked her. I introduced her to Jim who was pouring himself a wine – “Jules,” I said, “this is Jim – Jules & Jim!” I cried – a reference that the girls, Anna and Kristen, later at the Rhinecliff Hotel where we went for drink, didn’t get.
“I can’t believe I am hanging out with people whose parents were hippies,” I said. It is a strange thing, to be having a drink with the children of my generation.
We sat at a wooden table by the wall – I was relieved we didn’t have to order food. It was a friendly accommodating place. We knew the two guys making the music in the corner with rough voices and plugged in guitars – I wasn’t listening except when they started Knock Knock Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door. I am always glad when my ear picks up background music that I didn’t think I was paying attention to.
Last week Nick Flynn, a great memoir writer, late in the café came over to Fred’s and my table. It was a celebratory moment, we had just opened the Memoir Festival with a rollicking panel discussion and I was making my way through a huge plate of French fries. Nick said I should read a memoir called Evening’s Empire. “Oh,” I said, “that’s a quote from something –“ I couldn’t remember what it was, but started piecing the words together as they came to me, not knowing what I was saying until the last line rolled into view:
Oh I know that evening’s empire
has returned into sand,
vanished from my hand,
left me blindly here to stand,
but still not sleeping.
Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man…
I was surprised that Nick didn’t join in. I thought everyone vaguely my age had words like that tattooed on their blood vessels, but he just kind of looked at me almost in wonder as if I were performing a literary feat, which then I actually did take some pride in.
I don’t know all Dylan’s lyrics by any means. There are huge holes in my knowledge but what I know I know deeply and well.
The first Dylan I heard was when I was 12 or 13. I heard him sing one morning out of the small black transistor radio that I had taken to borrowing indefinitely from my mother. I played it late at night under the covers, listening to rock & roll on Radio Luxembourg, the cool station that reached England from Luxembourg after dark. And I played the radio – now just junky morning pop – as I got dressed in my blue pleated skirt school uniform. Olivia Newton John was having a hit with a song called If Not For You, and the DJ that morning must have been feeling ornery. And now, he said, we’ll hear the man who wrote that song, and on came Dylan singing Olivia’s hit.
I was horrified. It was hideous. I wanted Olivia back with her blonde hair and her smooth syllables.
By 14 and 15 though I was getting craggier myself, was back in the States where I had the whole attic to myself and though I had no friends through American 10th, 11th and 12th grades, I had my Panasonic stereo with two speakers – the fanciest thing I had ever owned and the only reason I had it was that it was leftover from my father closing down the apartment he’d lived in for a year, trying to make it as a consultant in Washington DC.
By then Dylan was my muse, the one I listened to more than anyone else – especially in the long summers, lying on the leftover couch in the screened-in porch where there was some kind of record player, listening to the double album of his greatest hits – the only Dylan record I had – records were out-of-reach expensive, at Christmas I put them on my list and received two or three from my parents but it was always a problem – how to have enough records, how to choose one over all the others. I depended on the radio.
I lay on the piece of sofa – one half of an el-shaped crushed velvet sofa, also a leftover from the DC apartment – one of those pieces of my father’s life that hadn’t included the rest of us – and listened to every single word that Dylan sang, over and over, listening as he painted scenes and dialog that I puzzled over but also understood in some wordless way.
It is only fairly recently that I understood the lines “Stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues again.”
I always heard it as: Stuck inside a mobile with the Memphis blues again – stuck inside a mobile, like one made by Alexander Caulder, I thought. Tangled up somewhere hopelessly and unable to get out. Which wasn’t so far off the mark.