Creative writing programs in universities often host visiting writers and poets for public readings, student manuscript consultations, and class visits. As an undergraduate I organized the visit of Gwendolyn Brooks (and her husband, Henry Blakely, Jr., who demanded to know what poetry I, a mere proser, was working on). As a teacher I arranged for Rick Powers, Pam Houston, Angela Flournoy, Richard Bausch, and others. I got to hear many other figures and was often invited to dinners or cocktail parties with people such as Maxine Kumin and Dave Eggers. I enjoyed the events.
Known literary figures are often paid handsomely, fêted, transported, fed, housed, and minded. Members of the public come to their readings curious, attentive, and sometimes filled with awe and admiration. But the reception of artists by faculty and students is sometimes strange. In fact, my only real gripe about the events was that those in the programs often would not talk to their visitors at social functions, whether out of shyness or professional jealousy. (George Plimpton, lonely in his cape and mask at a do in Miami, as cliques giggled and chattered, comes to mind.) It is exhilarating, I suppose, to prime your three-pound gun at the appearance of a Yamato-class battleship.
Not wanting to be rude, and having sworn to myself at the age of 12 that people were people, I always tried to engage with a guest, if conversation was lagging, to show we valued them.
Once, I was seated next to a well-known poet at a long restaurant table with a dozen faculty members and select guests. The poet looked around uncomfortably at the others giving her tight-lipped smiles, so I chatted with her about her reading, which had genuinely interested me. Her actual hosts listened in with looks that said, Wait, this conversation was to be had? At the time I was an adjunct, politically excluded from most of the department’s dealings and lacking in status. No one had communicated anything about the visitor to us.
That is why, I think, there was such rapt attention when the poet described her husband’s writing in general terms, and I said, Sorry, would I know your husband’s name? The others sucked in their collective breath and held it, as much from glee at my faux pas as from embarrassment. The poet did not have such pretensions and said casually the name of a Very Famous American novelist and biographer. I laughed gently and said, Yes, I know Mr. X’s work, and the spell was broken. We all ate and had a good time.
I was reminded of it recently when re-reading a scene in the novel Limo (1976), by sportswriter-journalists Dan Jenkins and Bud Shrake. Their protagonist, a network executive named Frank Mallory, likes to drink at PJ Clarke’s on Third Avenue in New York City, where he hangs out with friends at “the garbage,” a collection point for bussed dishes and glassware. Clarke’s is known for its colorful clientele and is said to be “where Onassis ate one of his last hamburgers in America.
“The waiters were afraid Onassis and Jackie might get bothered by some drunks on that particular winter’s night,” Mallory says, “so they asked some regulars at the garbage to occupy a table next to them—to protect them from any possible intrusions from strangers or drunks. But the first thing they knew, one of the regulars who had sat down, a horse player named Billy, was leaning across Onassis’s lap, saying, ‘Is it still snowing outside, Ari?’
“It is said around the garbage that if the history of Clarke’s is ever written, the title will have to be Is It Still Snowing Outside, Ari?”
Horse players come in handy sometimes.