Orange Lipstick at the Gotham Bookmart

by

01/03/2002

50 w 47th st ny 10036

Neighborhood: Midtown

I had just gotten my hair cut and in reapplying lipstick in the dressing room
afterward found that the only color I happened to have in my purse was
slightly too bright, and a little bit orange–not harmonious at all. So I put
on lots, blotted it, and put on more, figuring that one might as well be
brazen.

Then I went to the Gotham Book Mart to look at literary magazines; the Gotham
is a bastion of culture in the diamond district (“a crumbling islet,” as
Conrad put it about Patusan, where Lord Jim ended up, “between the two
branches of a mighty, devouring stream”). I rarely go there: it requires a
special strength of character for me to withstand the dusty silence of
bookstores, and my usual set of responses to them, especially the old ones–
either fleeing in panic over the massing of all those words, or else going
way over budget and buying books that I know will move from pile to pile
until we manage to shelve them or give them away.

All the literary magazines at the Gotham that day were old. I don’t know why.
I read a few stories by people I used to know, one about brushing teeth. I
picked up a copy of the Hungry Mind Review for my husband, because it had a
piece I knew would interest him. Meanwhile the book dealer in the back was
having a loud conversation about a woman who had sued him and then died
before her deposition.

“A lunatic,” he said. “Anyone who listened carefully knew right away she was
lying, but it didn’t matter. And then dying like that…..”

I wasn’t the only customer, but might as well have been, since each of the
few of us in the warren of rooms seemed utterly engrossed with himself.
Probably that accounts for why I decided it was fine to climb all around the
desk in the back, where I found a 1964 paperback by Rumer Godden, a British
writer who grew up in India and whom I started to read on my mother’s
recommendation. I had to climb, scrambling up the shelves like a monkey,
because I am so short. Typical of the Gotham, no one noticed. The
anesthetized quality of sound in the store and the oldness of everything in
it made me feel like I was among ghosts, ghosts who understood a code I
didn’t have, ghosts that had no use for me, not even to chastise, which was
depressing. On the street that day, amid the loud traffic, the traffic and
noise that annihilates everything around it, people seemed to have been
noticing me, either because of my haircut or the lipstick, which might not
have been flattering in either case, but at least I existed.

After that, having misbehaved, I could be more serious. Poetry. Nothing else
seemed urgent. Why does one thing seem urgent at a given moment? (On another
occasion at Gotham I’d read the indexes in lots of the memoirs, looking for
familiar names, and came upon Kenneth Burke’s account, in a letter to Malcolm
Cowley, of my grandfather, who was a novelist in the thirties and worked with
Cowley at the New Republic before going over to Time
magazine, convincing Burke to become a Communist. My grandfather
broke with the Party by the mid-thirties, as a result of which some of the
old guard walked out during a funeral in the 1960s when he gave the eulogy
for his best friend, Kenneth Fearing, a novelist and journalist who had not
broken with the Party until it was respectable to break with the Party. I
have never been able to get through anything by Kenneth Burke, no matter how
renowned a critic he is said to have been. And I have inherited a family
hatred of Malcolm Cowley, who, as my grandmother said, was always trolling
for other people’s good ideas, but that is another story — as if anyone
cares about old disputes. When I came back later to buy the book, it was
gone. )

With my smart new haircut, and tiny bit of confidence, it still took me a
long time to decide exactly which poetry seemed urgent (dead? alive? opaque?
modern? lyric?) – until I settled on wanting a book by the dead British poet
Louis MacNeice, a friend of Auden’s who seems to be having something of a
resurgence. In graduate school, in a course called Politics and Literature,
the Louis MacNeice book on the syllabus had to be withdrawn, as it was both
out-of-print and not in the library. I spent considerable effort for this
course, trying to locate the out-of-print books this professor assigned in
order to find an obscure paper topic, but MacNeice foiled me. Instead I wrote
on an out-of-print collection, History , by Robert Lowell, an
American and less-dead poet (the last poet, if you don’t count Bruce
Springsteen, to be on the cover of Time ), and according to
my professor drew faulty conclusions by failing to take into account Lowell’s
by that point well-developed madness. About five years later I reread my
secondhand copy of the book, a paperback, heavily annotated. Lines of his
haunt me still. That book ends, “The slush ice on the east bank of the Hudson
/ is rose-heather in the New Year sunset; / bright sky, bright sky, carbon
scarred with ciphers.” I was working then in an office with a view of the
Hudson, and loved the early winter sunsets, and the tempting near-legibility
of cloud shapes, which I took Lowell’s image to be, confounded with the
symbols on a sheet of used carbon paper. For a time after reading that, I
took to using carbon paper as well. I discovered that copying a great
artist’s habits doesn’t bring any of his gifts to you. The world, or rather,
the world as reconstituted in art, remains a cipher. Considerably later, when
my fifth-grade son was writing a report on Alexander the Great, I started to
quote Lowell to him– “Alexander’s moist eye missed nothing” — and realized,
in the face of his blank look, that this sort of fragmented and not-quite-
sensible poetry is an acquired taste.

In my twenties, I had a friend whose father (an advertising executive) could
quote lines and lines and lines from Shakespeare. It was a legacy, he said,
of long stretches of sentry duty in the army. In my case, the things I can
quote are so discombobulated — fragments from literature culled for papers
I’ve written over the years (“when I say nose, Madam, I mean nose”), doggerel
committed to memory, entire children’s books (“and he opened his mouth most
unnecesSARily wide”), song lyrics (“so it’s up the rope I go, up I go…”) —
yet even in this jumbled way I think I read poetry for the same reasons that
my friend’s father must have, as an insistence in the dark that there is a
civilization.

After a long, futile search for MacNeice, I broke down and asked for help. It
was hard to get help. I felt so dopey in this literate environment, a feeling
that the otherwise raggedy staff of the Gotham specializes in evincing in its
customers. And in fact I was, in this case, ignorant, not knowing any of
MacNeice’s poems, just two lines (“The world is crazier and more of it than
we think / Incorrigibly plural”) that I had copied down when I found it
quoted by someone else. I couldn’t get anyone’s attention, lipstick or no
lipstick. After I badgered a skinny fellow, he checked the shelves, same as I
had, and found nothing at all.

As he looked up MacNeice in Books in Print , we attracted
the bored predatory attention of one of the owners, who, after the
conversation about the dead litigant, had been bantering with one of the
assistants about why a customer bought a certain edition, an author I didn’t
hear the name of.

On hearing “MacNeice,” he came over, as if I’d finally broken the code —
telling me about The Selected Poems : “I always order a few
when I order from Faber and Faber, but they’ve just all sold. Except, in
fact, for one, which is on hold right now. I won’t sell it to you,” he said,
with a kind of satisfaction that only a certain kind of retailer can take in
not selling you something. The name MacNeice seemed to be one that mattered
to him, an initiate’s secret knowlege, a password among spies. Unfortunately,
his attention, even more than his deliberate disregard, made me feel smaller
and smaller. “Here it is, look! But next week — it could be yours!”

Then, as quickly as he appeared, he was gone.”Can I order it anyway?” I asked
my helper.”If you insist,” he said. He handed me a piece of paper, “Neatness
counts.”

Well, whoever put the book on hold must have bought it. No phone call
followed from Gotham about MacNeice, whether another copy came or not.
Finally, six months later, I bought a paperback copy over the Internet. I
threw out the garish lipstick when I got home. My husband had already read
the Hungry Mind Review in one of his solo bookstore jaunts. Not many people
care about the disputes of a past literary generation. I don’t know where I
left the Rumer Godden, another casualty of time’s devouring stream. And
hair, relentlessly, grows.

**

The store is located, as of now, at 41 West 47th Street,
212-719-4448. Browse for a diamond, then buy a book.

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