Tuesday, July 04, 2006

More on this age-factor thing

Literally the nicest writer I ever met was Allan Ginsberg. He wins the Madfoot Award for Greatest Kindness by a Total Stranger with a Literary Pedigree. I was working a gross "special sales!" job at Houghton-Mifflin. It was an awful secretarial gig, and the atmosphere was utterly high-school. My boss was the worst combination of thinks-she's-cool and is-an-anal-retentive-nerd. In fact, she bore a certain resemblance to a certain Steve Carell character... but that's another histoire. Let's just say it was awful and soul-killing and I was young and lost and mourning the death of Kurt Cobain.

So I trudged out for lunch one day (I had to eat at 2 so I could cover the phones while the cool kids had their lunch) and plopped myself down at the counter of Zen Palate in Union Square. My eye was caught by a beautiful light-skinned black man dressed all in white fluttering around someone next to me at the counter, who turned out to be Allan Ginsberg. Right next to me! At the counter!! I sat there for as long as I could (I can be very blase when I need to be, NYC is bursting at the seams with celebrities of every stripe) but finally had to say something.

The gist was this: "I know you were considered awfully scary in the fifties, but to me you're more of a beloved uncle, because my parents have taken me to see you read since I was in diapers." Then I told him that when I was at Columbia, we read an account he wrote about being on LSD on the South Lawn and seeing a giant hand coming out of the sky to grab him, and then we used to lie on that lawn and try to invoke the hand (though I, for one, was too chicken to drop LSD). He got a huge kick out of that, laughed and said "You're kidding!" and I smiled and turned back to my fried wheat-gluten stew when he asked, "But what about you, my dear? What do you do?"

"Ach!" I waved my hand. "Nothing interesting." "No, no!" he insisted, bending forward slightly, not letting me turn away. "Tell me what you are up to." This was how my parents' friends would talk to me, the ones who'd known me forever and were genuinely interested in how I'd turn out. Was Ginsberg just acting the part of an interested party because it fulfilled some inner need for attention? Did he just love acolytes? Who cared! He made me feel like I had a voice again.

I blurted out that I had tried to be an actress and standuppy-person, that it was too hard, that I'd given up and taken desk jobs, that I hated the desk jobs, that I couldn't fit in, that I didn't know what I was going to do, that I was writing kids' books and thought I could do that but wasn't sure... He took my hand in between his two and shook his head and clucked his tongue and patted my hand (patted my hand!!) and said "My dear, do you know that I worked in advertising all through my twenties? I hated it! Do you know how old i was when Howl was published? Thirty! There's time. Relax, you'll find your way."

At that moment I would have laid down my life for that man. Honestly. You know how people talk about meeting Bill Clinton and feeling the charisma roll off of him like heat off a jet engine? It was like that, only I honestly think he got joy out of making me (and my ilk) feel encouraged. It is such a generous way to be. It is so easy to be snooty and derisive, but makes the world a much more loving place to be interested, open, and kind.

I know that sounds completely retarded coming out of my cynical mouth, but it's entirely possible I have a soft side.


ThursdayNext said...

That is one amazing story. I think Ginsberg knows more about writing than anyone else. I am willing to bet that there are so many amazing writers who didnt get published until they were a bit older. Will check and get back to you here. :)
He took your hand? GAH! I would have melted.

work in progress said...

These last two posts have been wonderful for me! (which I'm sure is EXACTLY the reason you've written them). As of late I have been struggling with the 'Am I too old, and have I missed the career-boat?' question. I'll be thirty in a year and will have just aquired my Bachelor's degree.

Nobody makes money with a bachelor's degree! There's no time to get a Master's...and I'm OUT OF MONEY! I've begun to panic...thinking I got a late start and now I'm hosed!

Thanks for these posts, they've calmed me down a bit

Starchild said...

Oh Amy, the Ginsberg story made me misty-eyed. I never knew that story, how cool Also, I would never have recognized him, as I've never seen him and only know the name of his famous work, which I've never read. But what a great story.
I wish I had a similar mentor-y story.
And you're SO right, it is so easy to be snotty and derisive in NYC, I try really hard not to be that cliche. Of course, I may have a bit of an advantage in that way, as that is not the go-to emotion for Alabamians. Usually... but then, that is why i sometimes didn't fit in. that, and a couple other things...