Saw this on another blog today. Very timely, for various reasons. Also, just awesome generally.
I’m always surprised by how calm & peaceful the West Village is at night. I don’t remember it that way – I remember crowds and cheerful shouting and lines at restaurant doors and the smell and lighter-flash of cigarettes everywhere. And yet here it is, Tuesday nine or ten PM east coast time… and this is a photo of a street, with no one on it, and just a distant glare of lights from a taxicab a few blocks away.
Or to put it another way: every time I walk through the West Village at night, I feel more as if the end of the world already happened, and no one noticed, and now it’s the aftermath.
It’s not that things are totally deserted; they’re not. It’s not that the area’s unsafe; as far as I can tell, it’s not. There are small groups of people, twos and threes walking peacefully home, holding each others’ hands or the leash of a small cheerful dog. Fragments of overheard conversations are things like, “but I’m romancing you!” and, “she’s thirty-five, man? What are you doing?!” (which sounds unreasonable until I add that the two guys having this conversation were, in my estimation, themselves only twenty-two or twenty-three years old). A tall college-aged woman in a long t-shirt style dress and a sturdy-looking man about the same age played some version of tag-plus-hide-and-seek down the empty streets, ducking in and out of doorways and laughing at each other. A skinny man in a hat and a worn but still stand-out suit played a viola on a streetcorner, its case open in front of him as a hopeful target for donations. He played well as far as I could tell, and unlike many street musicians, used no backup speaker. I gave him a little money, and he asked if there was a song I’d like to hear.
The bakery was closing as I walked past, the staff inside wiping down counters and slinging on backpacks. A few restaurants had cozy yellow lights in the windows and a few people seated at tables, talking quietly.
There were a lot of empty stores and a lot of construction of new stores (why build new stores if the existing ones stand empty? I don’t know.). Some of the streets were torn up; some of the streets were blocked off.
It was in many ways a lovely place. It was in many ways a lovely walk. But mostly… it was quiet.
And I missed the deadline. Contributing factors include:
- Timezones – if you’re planning to submit poetry to a magazine in the UK, well, May 29 there doesn’t end at the same time there as it does here
- Weather – it was really really nice outside and so I read a book in a chair in the sun rather than cleaning up piece #3 that I wanted to submit
- Friends – had dinner with friends rather than cleaning up piece #3 that I wanted to submit
- House – did useful stuff re: planning the remodel rather than … yeah, that.
I did learn some things though, namely:
- Clearly, submitting these pieces to this issue wasn’t my P0 (ie, highest priority) – I had plenty of things I could have chosen not to do, that I did, and therefore I didn’t do the writing. As my mother says my grandmother said, you do what you want to.
- I can write really fast when I think I’m on deadline. When I finally did clean up piece #3, on a plane just a few minutes before what I thought was on time… wow, that was fast. And the results are pretty good. I’m happy with how it came out.
- I also found another poem inside a longer piece I’d written years ago. That was cool.
So. I didn’t make the deadline, I didn’t send things off to this particular thing, but … I did stuff. It’s stuff I’m pretty happy with. Okay.
I’m pulling together 3 poems, a bio, and a cover letter to submit to a magazine I like to read. I’m down to 5 poems, one of which needs massive editing and is really more of a prose-poem than a pure poem but might be incredibly funny when I finish it. Fun of writing vs lure of procrastinating vs difficulty of choosing. Two of the poems are similar in tone and structure; are they a tone and structure that this magazine will find compelling? They’re a little more dense in construction than most of what it publishes. On the other hand, I think they’re good. And they fit the theme. But then… maybe better odds of success if I submit three things with more variety. Three things to submit is not very many! How to choose, how to choose?
Some days I really do feel lucky. This afternoon I needed to do some thinking about a project at work, and this is the scenery nearby where I went to take a walk.
It is years since I’ve spent much time in a library. Growing up, libraries were a weekly – or several times per week? – affair, and cross-town too, as my parents drove me far and wide, from my hometown to the next town over, and the next town over after that, in search of the next book in whatever series I was reading, or a new section of children’s or young adult books I hadn’t yet devoured. And ‘devour’ really is the right word. The quantity and variety of books I brought home was limited mainly by the length of my arms: I had learned early that the easiest way to deal with a precarious stack was to hold it carefully with both hands beneath, and then wedge it under my chin.
I don’t know when my frequencing of libraries changed. It wasn’t college; college was all libraries all the time. It wasn’t really post-college either. In Los Angeles and later the Bay Area, I made pilgrimages to UCLA librairies, Berkeley, Stanford, the local public libraries … but in recent years, it’s tapered off. I read just as much or more as I ever did, but the time I spend in public, at public desks, reading or writing or dreaming, has altered.
But a few weeks back, I took a class on essay writing. It took place on one of the upper floors of San Francisco’s Mechanics Institute. I’d never even been in the building previously; the library is membership only, I don’t exactly live nearby or spend much extra time in the city, and I’d never even seriously looked into it. But. That afternoon in the class, I felt the weight and age of the building around me; after the class, I peeked in the window of the reading room. Architectually it’s like Gold Rush meets City Beautiful, east coast done on a dime-sized budget in the west. The building feels solid, with high windows with single pane glass and wooden frames. From the view through the stairwell landing into the reading room I could see both comfortable lounge chairs and deep-set shelving stacks.
In college, I used to hide in the stacks to work. The ceilings were low, the lights were on a timer, and there were always student myths that either a serial killer or several stray couples having sex could be found back there, if only you went deep enough. The elevators were tiny, and creaked as if about to fall through the building. The stairs echoed with every footstep. The silence felt like a preservative, a moment or solution for statis. The air smelled comfortably of the heat of decaying paper, ancient ink, and glue. When I needed to procrastinate I’d read old back issues of fashion magazines from the 1920s; when I didn’t, I’d find an empty desk surrounded by books, no windows, and get down to work. I’ve missed those stacks for years.
And so today, here I am, new-minted membership to the Mechanics’ in hand (or, more literally, in handbag). I’m sitting in an old wooden chair at an old wooden desk. The stacks extend to my left and the lounge chairs lounge on the other side of the room. Light drifts in through those high ancient (by California standards) windows, extended and evened out by flourescents two stories overhead. I’m typing.
It feels strange and familiar, all at once.