Thursday, June 12, 2008
I hate telling this story on myself, but I wouldn't be a card-carrying member of the New Narrative if I left it out, trying in vain to keep my worst embarrassments from being known to the world. For I've been at it for decades, making the foulest mistakes, and yet feeling obligated to report all the details of my social and sexual nightmares one by one. Shame and remorse have turned out lucky for me, I guess, good thing too because of my lifestyle, which seems intricately bound up with putting my foot in my mouth and mis-seeing situations. There wasn't anything sexual about this one--except the eros of walking back to an Eclipse on a sunny Thursday afternoon in Maine--but the social chasm I fell into was immense, as you will see.
Okay, there was Stan Apps, standing there in front of a dry cleaners or something, and at his side I saw a woman I hate! It was one of those moments where you absolutely cannot believe that you’ve come thousands of miles to this tiny college town, to run into the one person who shouldn’t have been there. I can hardly use her real name here, it wouldn’t be very gallant would it, but suffice it to say the woman I had in mind knows nothing about poetry, she can barely read, she comes from another part of my professional life—and yet here she was, looking pretty good actually, chatting with Stan Apps as though she knew him, surveying him, and us, up and down through dark glasses more chic than she had ever, in our earlier run-ins, ever been known to wear. I gave Stan one of those, “I thought better of you” looks and attempted to pass them on the pavement. My nemesis was having none of this and insisted on a hug. She must have felt my froideur because she looked up at Stan in mute appeal, in her stylish pants so wide, with so much fabric to them, they might have been sails propelling her here to Maine. Down the street we could see a car absolutely packed with people—like clowns, pulling away from the curb and attempting a difficult five or seven point turn. Looked like Rod Smith behind the wheel.
“Do you have a car, can you give us a ride?” Stan asked. “We were going to go with Rod but he’s stuffed.”
I couldn’t believe his chutzpah! I wouldn’t have minded giving Stan a ride, anywhere in fact, but didn’t he know that this woman from San Francisco, whose name I shall give here as Helen, had nearly been the death of me of several different occasions. My doctors always say, steer clear of Helen from your office if you want to make it to age 56. (In my regular life In work as a secretary for a downtown janitorial firm here in San Francisco.) And yet here was Helen, acting all sweet and everything. And how did she come to know Stan Apps? Were they related somehow? Did she somehow figure out from interoffice memos that I would be travelling to Maine and she might have decided, "Cousin Stan said he'd be going to Maine too! Why don't I tag along, that would really bug the shit out of Kevin."
Now I tried to pass her on the street, there by the dry cleaners. “What’s the matter?” she asked. “You’re acting cold.” And I was, all stiff and touch-me-not and very pointedly avoiding the question of whether she was going to hitch a ride from me and Dodie in our little Eclipse. “This isn’t like you, Kevin.”
Then it hit me—this wasn’t, in fact, my enemy Helen. This was the completely separate, innocent, and in fact beloved Ann Lauterbach! Maybe it was the sunglasses which, as she now drew them down the bridge of her nose, revealed her cornflower eyes bright as petals. “You shouldn’t wear those glasses, Ann,” I said. “I completely mistook you for somebody else—someone back home I crossed a continent to flee.”
“Can I get in the car then?” she asked sensibly.
From then on in I tried to make up to her for my unwonted coldness and reserve. As I think of this embarrassing episode now, it reminds me of a story from classical antiquity or—oh, I don’t know, was it Buddha? Like you’re supposed to treat all creatures with compassion and tenderness, to look behind their apparent hostility, and find the real person underneath because he (or she in this case) might be the Buddha or Jesus or whoever it was? She and Stan gracefully accepted rides in the cramped backseat of our Eclipse; they had to draw their feet up on top of the seat to do so since there was so little space for them on the floor. We chatted and I groveled all the way back to the campus, to the class of 1944 Hall where the next event was being held—the keynote poetry readings of Jayne Cortez and Bruce Andrews. I parked in some off lot so we approached the building from an unpopular angle, but gathered together in the back several of the keynote speakers were posing for a photographer: Coolidge, Wah, Raworth.
When Ann stepped into their midst, the photographers went wild, and a new round of keynote photos was taken. Then a glass door opened from inside and Bruce Andrews came to join the party.
At that I whipped out my camera too, as did everyone within shooting distance—you just couldn’t help it. The five of them cavorted in different poses; it was like flipping through a bin of old Rolling Stones LPs, noting how the principal players shift from era to era, how Brian Jones seems to recede in each pose, then eventually he’s not there any more. Inside the Class of 44 Hall (yes, that is what they’re calling it now, something to do with Tom Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation”), the atmosphere was dense and vibrant. I said hello to Paul Stephens, the Zukofsky expert who was one of the great leading men of the 2004 Orono conference; I remembered how crushed I was when I told him my name and he stepped back and said, “I’ve heard of you.” Now he looked in fine fettle, but changed; well. we all of us were changed by that Zukofsky centenary.