Saturday, January 16, 2016

Absolute beginner

In the spring of 1989, my First-Year Studies professor, Bella Brodzki, organized an outing for our class to go see Maxine Hong Kingston read at the 92nd Street Y. It was the first time I’d been there; the first time I’d been to a reading not on campus; the first time I shelled out precious dollars for a hardcover copy of her new novel, Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book, for the purpose of getting it signed.

We’d read The Woman Warrior in class, a book that for whatever reason had resonated so deeply with me that it unlocked the quintessential Sarah Lawrence experience, the quintessential Bella experience. I’ve told this bit of the story at prospective-student events for two decades now: how I read my little mass-market paperback to shreds, the pages warped with highlighter ink and held together with rubber bands. (Yes, I still have it.) Bella assigned a 10-page paper, and I wrote and wrote and wrote in a fever and hit something like the 12-page mark with maybe a third of my ideas still lodged in my brain. What to do? In one of our conferences, I asked Bella this, on the verge of panic.
First, bless her, Bella laughed. Then, she said the most transformative sentence I’d ever heard, and perhaps that I’ve heard since: “I’m not going to tell you to do less work, Kim.”

It was a lightbulb moment—the realization that I was entitled to have an opinion; the thought that someone else, an adult, an intellectual, a woman of letters that I respected and admired and was a bit worshipful of/intimidated by, wanted to hear it. Keep going. Keep thinking. I had friends who’d gone on to huge universities, who’d been told outright that their professors and overworked TAs would stop reading at the prescribed limit, mid-sentence if it came to that. Your idea should fit within designated dimensions.

I don’t remember just how I wound that paper down—15 pages, 17? Bella praised it lavishly. I’m sure it’s still in a drawer in my home office, and I know I drew upon it on through my graduate degree. But the experience, that door blown wide open for me at 19, has never left me.

Back to our trip to the 92nd Street Y. Bella had checked out a campus van to drive us to the city. That image is hilarious to me now: petite, birdy Bella piloting a hulking 15-passenger van down the Cross County Parkway. (She forever claimed to be 5’3”, a lie I indulged because at 5’1” I loomed over her, even in my Chucks.) At the reading, someone distributed copies of several of MHK’s typed manuscript pages, with scribbles and strikethroughs and notes in the margins. As an aspiring writer, I was taken by these: here was another adult who inspired and awed me, and whose scrawled and typo-ed drafts were not so unlike my own! I blithered something to this effect to poor Ms. Kingston in the autograph line, later…and mentioned the raggedy, rubber-banded The Woman Warrior I’d left at home, afraid it would fall apart in her hands. She let me ramble and signed my book. My first signed book. (She did not personalize it, heh.) Her use of the Chinese character for her maiden name impressed me then. The blue ballpoint amuses me today.

Back in the van. It was night, dark and chilly in early-spring New York City; we first-years swayed and dozed in the stuffy blasts from the heat vents as Bella drove us home, like a mom, like all of our moms. She had the radio on, and somewhere during the ride they played David Bowie.

My Bowie horizons were expanding that year, too. I’d had Let’s Dance and Tonight on vinyl, in high school. (I was fascinated by the short-film video for Blue Jean, with its finger-snapping club audience, too cool to applaud.) But my roommate had arrived with both an Apple Macintosh and a stereo system complete with CD player, two signifiers of unimaginable wealth to scholarship-dependent me. Elizabeth allowed me occasional music privileges, and from her collection I’d made cassette copies for my own sad little single-deck boom box: Elvis Costello and the Attractions.* Talking Heads, Naked and Little Creatures. The Rolling Stones, Hot Licks. And a David Bowie greatest-hits collection.

I came back and back to that one. At one point I had the track list memorized, the exact order I’d copied down in block print on the cramped Maxell label, its particular sequence of Changes to Starman, Fame to Fashion to DJ to TVC 15. When I replaced that tape with a Best of Bowie two-disc set, years and years later, I noticed where it differed. (Now, I can look it up—can look anything up. My roomie’s album might have been the Fame and Fashion compilation, and I’ve scrambled the order in my head. It doesn’t matter. I knew it by heart once, sang along word for word and knew what was coming next.)
So. Driving at night, listening to Bowie. I vividly remember hearing it, that click of recognition, thinking, “Ohh, I love this song!”…but if I'm being honest, I can’t remember which song, now. One of the gentler ones. For the purposes of this story, this memory, it ought to be Changes. Me at 19, in New York City, visiting a cultural and literary landmark, learning to write, meeting a Real Writer. Feeling, for a moment, like somebody’s child still, lulled in the back seat even as all my horizons were vanishing at once, so so fast, so many doors opening onto infinite possibilities.

But I can’t be sure. Maybe it was Space Oddity, Major Tom stepping out into those very different stars. Maybe it was Ashes to Ashes.
I’m happy, hope you're happy too.
*Advance notice: If and when Mr. Declan McManus shuffles off this mortal coil, I am going to need a couple days off work. Stay well, Elvis!


Katherine Parker Richmond said...

Loved this so very much, Kim. Thanks for sharing your gift.

limugurl said...

So glad to be reading your words again!