23. I had dropped out of the graduate school I enrolled in right out of college–the most pomo late 80s graduate program imaginable. On the first day of class, the prof played “Here Comes A Regular” and talked about the refusal of a masculine upward note at the end, and how it deflated expectations. I wrote my first paper on Desperately Seeking Susan. You get the idea; go ahead, roll those eyes. So I left it, and my boyfriend, too, who had moved with me to enroll in that same program, so we could us to swap Adorno quotes all the day long. We tried to organize the TAs. We made picket signs.
Enough, I decided.
New York. That’s where my friends were. That’s where my grandfather was, a few blocks away from the apartment he moved into in the 60s when he finally could afford enough to move up and better. The neighborhood he aspired to was now suddenly where the twentysomethings were moving: cheap enough. That’s where I should be
A book store job, perfect. But with a catch: on the upper-east side. The second floor of the Carlisle Hotel, no less. A rare book store. I made sure all the spines aligned with the edge of the shelf. I stole some of the gilt edged tea cups the posh ladies left on the tables in the hallway by the elevators on the way to the bathroom.
I had a salary and health insurance but I started a week too late: turned out I had a pre-existing condition. The kind you get when you’re 23 and careless. My friends gave me a basketball to help me recover afterwards (I have a mean lay-up), but that was only after I had to call the credit card company to get my limit raised before I could go into that large room with a dozen others lying around wondering whether.
Enough, I decided.
My grandmother, across the tunnel in New Jersey, she was an artist. In the 20s, she lived in the Village and supported her alcoholic father by drawing children’s clothes for Vogue. She was friends with Lee Krasner. She had beautiful art books. She gave me some.
I brought one to the second floor of Carlisle hotel. In it were original Chagall lithographs. My boss gave me $3000.00.
I left New York. Took a boy. Moved to a resort island for the off-season. I worked on a farm; he in fish store, picking up the catch from the boats every morning. We scrimped and added to the three grand. I had a friend paint the hood of my car with a drawing from a Kathy Acker book. Remember Kathy Acker?
But all this–all this I am telling you. It was the wind up. In my mind, it was non-life. I wanted life. I had a goal. It was this:
Chagall lithograph and fish change in our pockets, and we did what kids like us were supposed to do: take a road trip cross the country. The holler the boy was from, Graceland, the Natchez Trace, the French Quarter, West Texas–where we watched a game more Friday Night Lights than the book itself–Big Bend, kept going along the Rio Grande. Our car broke down in the most rural of rural Mississippi and Elmer (I kid you not) gave us a ride to the gas station but he had no teeth and we couldn’t understand a word.
I kept a journal. Every day I wrote down anecdotes: so colorful and ethnographically fascinating, the country, isn’t it? I was very clever. I put together a photo album after we finally parked in Philadelphia. Material! Those six weeks on sixty dollars a day. The night the raccoons outside our tent ate all of our Devil Dogs (remember Devil Dogs?). What a story it will make I told myself. And told myself. And told myself.
I have it all still. The material. Every time I move, I take the box and move it from one basement to another. I wonder what is inside. I wonder.
Turns out I was wrong. The trip was an interlude. The picket signs to unionize the TAs, the car with the Kathy Acker hood, the Chagall lithographs, and that basketball–wherever it is, deflated, too, no doubt. Turns out this was the material.
I mixed them up, life and material. I’m still trying to catch up to that mistake. And to what I forgot, and what I hang on to for too long. Material, I am learning, can never be decided.