June 29, 2007
One afternoon recently, I ducked into the Union Square Barnes and Nobel to kill half an hour while waiting for an appointment. I have a weakness for the Starbucks on the third floor, because, although it is a Starbucks in all its corporate ubiquity and dullness, this one occupies a choice space, in a historic building, with towering ceilings, old iron columns, and a string of windows overlooking Union Square.
A desire to visit this particular Starbucks, however, is often not a feasible one. As usual there were no free tables and many people trolling around hoping to catch a table as soon as somebody stood up. So I decided to go up to the fourth floor of the bookstore instead and see which Raymond Chandler novels I haven’t read yet. Answer: The Little Sister, Playback, and the incomplete Poodle Springs (if you count it).
The fourth floor of Barnes and Noble on Union Square also houses a large space where it hosts readings. As it turns out, on this humid mid-week day, Günter Grass would be reading from his new memoir. It was 2pm when I stumbled upon the rows of chairs readied for the event. The reading would be at 7pm. Already thirty-four people had taken up seats. And while I stood there more people arrived in groups. One can only imagine what it looked like at 7pm. I didn’t hang around the five hours to find out.
This is a classic New York event and a classic New York moment. Anything that’s cool is filled up or sold out before you even think of it. I mean, who stops to consider that they need to show up five hours early for a reading? Even Günter Grass? But that’s what it was like.
One time, a couple years after I moved to New York, I naively tried to go see David Sedaris read from Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, at the same bookstore. I showed up maybe fifteen minutes early, at which point the fourth floor was completely full, the third floor, where you couldn’t actually see Sedaris, was filling up, and store employees were holding people back on the ground floor, while a line snaked up the escalators, advising us would be literate latecomers that it may not be worth our while trying to enter.
Why are these classic moments? Because New York likes to pride itself on having “everything” (whatever that is), but even if such a claim could be true, it doesn’t matter because you won’t get in. Bands that I thought of as small cool off the beaten track bands, when I lived in California, bands that you could see in a bar or a club, sell out shows in New York. Everybody knows about them. Or at least enough do, once The New Yorker, Time Out, New York, The Village Voice, and so on, tip people off.
There’s more to it though. Not only is everyone in New York in the know, one way or another, but also the currency of New York is exclusivity.
And so the dual force of a broad range of people being in the know, while simultaneously coveting exclusivity, pretty much guarantees that anything you want to do is sold out, roped off, and has got a list. Is your name on it? No. Even if your name should happen to appear on the list, once you go inside somehow imperceptibly the scene will lose the full sheen of its glamour. Perhaps this isn’t the right place? Is there an after party? A back room? Where is K when I need a guide to this city?
In contrast, not so long ago, in what I guess must be a complete backwater, Paris, I actually did manage to see David Sedaris read, to about twenty people, in a small bookstore, on the occasion of the translation of Naked into French. We chatted with him afterwards (how quaint!). And if a certain friend had not been uncharacteristically shy, it was pretty obvious we could have taken him out for a drink. He seemed eager and like he didn’t have any plans.
Likewise I’d venture that if Günter Grass had shown up, when I found myself studying a while back at a rather large university out West, careful stratagems would not have been required to see him. I might have gotten there half an hour early, but even if I had show up on time, I probably could have crammed in the back, standing, and heard the man, as well as seen him, along with everybody else. Someone would have chosen a large enough space and guessed how many people were going to show up. Someone would have thought it would be nice to accommodate everyone. It would have been like I was part of something, like something was actually happening. It would have been like I was together with other people who wanted to be there, and afterwards we would all go out into the sunshine, or the cool night air, and smile, and talk, and need nothing more.