The Apparition of a Face in the Crowd

I went to a reading the other night for someone I have known for a decade. I call him a friend, but really we are something between Facebook friends and former colleagues who rarely saw each other in person. We have kept in spotty touch, and several times he was generous enough to Skype-in to graduate classes I was teaching. Call it an intermittent professional relationship I have valued and enjoyed.

When I first met him I was writing a profile of the literary organization where he worked. Maybe it is more accurate to say that the owner worked him—hard, I believe, to the point that this is his first book, though he has all the credentials and is now in midlife. I am happy for him.

Facebook delivered notice of the reading last minute. I considered not going, unsure it would matter to him, but changed my plans and drove on out. I intended to say hello, briefly, and wish him every success on the book. Authors do not need somebody monopolizing their time when there are others waiting to talk.

I also did not think he would recognize me by sight, since time and tide have worked me over pretty hard these last years, and it was out of our previous context. I have been enjoying my total anonymity in a new city, surrounded by others going about their well-established business.

Out of traffic and safely parked in the city neighborhood, I felt light and loose. There was nowhere else I had to be. I ate pizza in a place endorsed by a president and eyed the ice-cream place next to the bookstore for later. Suddenly someone I had worked with at another university walked up, and with her, her partner, who I remembered in a flash. They greeted me warmly.

Where I came from most recently there is a single bookstore in a metropolitan area of 200,000. It is one of the lesser-chain stores and stocks lots of Beanie Babies and Bibles. This night’s reading was at a proper independent store with a bronze of a writer outside and a good cat inside that walked around in the small crowd, not to inspect or be petted, but because regalness obliged. I made the noise with my tongue and teeth that sounds like a tiny bird screech, a noise that has earned me friendship and respect from cats all over the world. This cat wanted nothing to do with me, which was oddly reassuring.

Staff set out some library stepstools behind the main chairs in order to seat everyone. I sat all the way in the back, in a corner.

When my friend stood to read he had the dazed, sightless look of those who do not read often; this was in fact the inaugural reading from the new book. He glanced around the room, not looking at anyone very long, though some of his colleagues and perhaps his students were there. Chekhov calls the look “psychic blindness”—we see but do not process what is in front of us.

Then he saw me and stopped. He is one of those social geniuses who can remember for ages and make connections quickly—it was a big reason for the success of his previous employer—and I saw that in milliseconds he knew he knew me. It took only another second for him to say, wonderingly, “John!” Everyone was amused and turned and looked. It went on long enough that I grinned and said, “Hey!”

He still stood there, looking at me, and briefly I wondered if I had broken him. But he recovered and said he did not know I was in town. It was sweet. Then he started reading from his novel, which is about a character who cannot quite place where he is and whom he is with at any given time. And for a moment I no longer felt like another face in the crowd.