Saturday, January 17, 2015

strangers, writers, and kingpins.

another saturday night at the tavern. this time i didn't test my comfort level with seating and headed straight for the corner bar stool. two searches through my wallet for the free-beer promo card later, i ordered my brew and my black bean-quinoa burger and laid out my ipad to start my first e-book, Just Kids, a memoir by punk-rock legend patti smith.

like a novice solo-dinner goer, instead of the pro i should be by now, i made the fatal error of making eye contact with the guy two stools over, whose eyebrows were very bert, as in ernie's other half. i don't think i exude "knows football," but bert asked me if the panthers won. assuming that a shrug of my shoulders paired with "i dunno" wouldn't suffice as a shut down, i looked up at the flat screen above the back bar and noticed the team-mascot icons and accordingly gave him my prediction: cat's gonna eat the bird. from now on, this is how i'll gauge the outcome of sport contests, not that i expect anyone else to ask.

i thought i'd managed to secure my invisible bubble, but once again, i found myself next to a person who wouldn't shut up. on my last trip to the tavern, which is not a tavern but a gastropub, i was challenged to ignore the high decibels of the half-drunk half of the unfortunately looked-down-upon interracial couple. this time, my neighbor was not as loud as he was odd. as the night went on, i realized he didn't need me to participate in conversation since he was mostly mumbling to himself. it brought to mind a recent visit to starbucks that ended in the arrest of a similarly odd neighbor, a young kid who persisted in poking my arm to get me to respond to various conversations he'd been having with himself. of all the places i've lived, like memphis and miami and new york city, i'm reluctant to say my home state leads in stranger danger. i remain hopeful that future visits to coffee shops and gastropubs will yield more positive results.

sitting at the bar and then on my couch later that saturday night, i read most of Just Kids, finishing it sunday morning along with a cup of organic hazelnut coffee; two free-range, cage-free scrambled eggs; and homemade drop biscuits from my freezer, whose ingredients are shameful given i'd run out of butter halfway through and had to finish with blue bonnet—a.k.a. not-butter—my arteries cringe—which was brought to me last minute from another person's kitchen (this + butter imposter made the whole biscuit situation strange). patti smith's descriptions of her world in late-1960s new york city didn't invite me in as many memoirs have; rather, it made me feel like an onlooker, as if i were sitting in a theater watching it on the big screen. this wasn't an unwelcome feeling. it couldn't have been, given the wonders of her world: andy warhold, salvador dali, kris kristofferson, allen ginsberg, janis joplin, and other characters who were not infamous but were no less streaks of lightening and splashes of color.

i am utterly addicted to memoirs—not just any, though. i'm drawn to the stories of people who have lived outside the lines; who have overcome dysfunctional upbringings, poverty, or repeated failures; who have achieved success by following their dreams and instincts. my addiction began with maya angelou over 15 years ago. in 2001-ish, i found audre lorde. in 2011, it was d. brown, who isn't a famous writer and whose book is likely still far, far underexposed. d lives in one of memphis' satellite cities, and i know about her memoir because she hired me to edit it. (a copy editor who writes in all lowercase, i've found, is an affront to the pedants of the world. i'm hard pressed to say i get that, because, really, do they think i don't know how to use capitals? clearly it's a stylistic choice, which i think should be respected. that said, if i were offered publishment [<— hey, neologism] i could be moved to use proper caps.)

when i first spoke with d. brown to discuss the project, i knew we'd click.

we met for the first time at a starbucks on her end of town. a few minutes into my wait at an outside table, she appeared, and i was naturally drawn to observe her from the bottom up, like one would a sequoia or a sunflower or anything rooted in the ground and driving your gaze toward the visual splendors at its highest points. she wore her jeans slightly tight, enough to show the slight fullness and strength in her upper thighs; a shirt whose boundaries were gently expanded by large breasts; and her hair in a modified afro. her smile—which expressed a genuine "hey" without spilling the actual words— showed one gold tooth. d had never written anything but had decided some years prior that her life story was worth telling and so spent those years writing—literally on paper—later transferring it to electronic format. her story was more than tell-able, it was intoxicating: middle-class, church-going california girl falls in love with a pimp/drug dealer, leaves for texas where she becomes a prostitute and he goes to prison for murder, transforms herself into a drug kingpin, and goes to prison. without even knowing she was being a writer, d did this thing that is a thing of great writing: woven into the scenes were gospel hymns that she sang to herself while going about the criminal acts of her everyday life. it was brilliant. the happy ending? it really happened this way: she ended up in tennessee married to her former pimp, complete with day jobs, a house in the suburbs, and children in college.

i spent an afternoon at d's house that spring of 2011, working out details of a particular prison scene. toward the end of the day, in walked her husband: former pimp. convicted murderer. redeemed human being. he nodded and said hi, and i smiled and said the same. the moment felt like a scene in the movie of my own life. although d couldn't pay me much and thus i couldn't dig into the project as much i wanted, it was by far the best project of my career. not only did i love every minute of working on her book, i also made a friend. d and i talked, about prison-room perimeters, diaper drug stashes, and unrelated existential things. i told her about a man i'd been dating on and off for a couple years, about how his shy demeanor and mysterious ways never made sense. a few months later, captain thumbs down and i would make a baby—and he would unfortunately continue his pattern of making no sense, which is a gracious way of putting it. i can't remember what it was, but d had given me some wisdom about him that day at her house. of course i didn't listen. no one ever does, you know.

d self-published her book, not printing too many copies. she sent me one after i moved back to west virginia. i told her it should be a movie, and i meant it. i can't decide if quentin tarantino or memphis local craig brewer should direct it. either way, i'm certain it would be a hit. the thought that it may never happen gives me a sort of sadness, that a work so deserving of attention might never rise above a few shelves in tennessee and one in west virginia.

like d. brown, i feel an urge to write stories about my life. someone once asked me, in earnest, "why do people want to read a blog about your life?" my answer: the same reason they read books. hopefully, if i'm good enough at it, my words will lead people inward—into the tales i tell and, if i'm really good, into themselves where they'll think about...whatever. who knows where a particular turn of phrase of mine might lead other human beings in their own discrete mind spaces. that's the wonderful thing about writing and about reading: you go where your mind takes you.

d. brown's book is called Kept. i googled it today and couldn't find it. it felt like a loss. i hope she's still writing. i hope i always will.


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