Monday, August 21, 2017

Chiara Barzini Reads Tuesday Night at Powerhouse Dumbo

Date: October 20, 2012
Author: Chiara Barzini
Venue: 192 Books
Neighborhood: Chelsea
Free Drinks -- yes
Q & A -- yes
Book signed -- no
UE Check Number -- 783542

I started going to a lot of readings after I got fired from my job writing about mergers. Even without the wedgie near-visual that occurred, the Chiara Barzini reading was one of the best.

As usual I got to the bookstore early. I sat down in a back row to the right of the small table where the author would read.

People started to arrive and a guy came in and sat down one seat away from me. I asked him how he came to be interested in the work of the Swiss writer Robert Walser, the author who I thought was the subject of evening's activities. He didn't know who Robert Walser was, but said he thought the Italian writer Chiara Barzini was reading.

When I saw the pile of her books at the reader's table, I realized he was right.

Anyway, I chatted with my better-informed neighbor a bit. He had the pleasant, diffident manner of somebody who was likely to be an interesting conversationalist. Little did I know that we were about to become partners in a slight crime. I guess the courts will sort it out.

He got up to get a glass of wine and asked me if I wanted one and, if so, red or white? I said red. When he returned I saw he had gotten red also. A modest buddy movie could have been starting even if we hadn’t turned out to be co-defendants.

We introduced ourselves and Chris said he'd met Chiara at a party and had impressed her by being familiar with her uncle's book, "The Italians." Pretty good for a guy who'd never heard of Robert Walser.

As the bookstore began to fill up, I noticed it was a better looking crowd than you find at a lot of readings. I mean, yes, the work is the main thing, and maybe it was just because there were a lot of Italians, but just as you wouldn't knock a movie because it was cast with attractive actors and actresses, I have no personal objection, despite what happened later, to being in an audience with a lot of attractive people. I mean, I know I don't add anything to a tableau like this, but I have no objection if the faces I see on the other side of the room during those moments when I'm not looking right at the author are engaging.

But there is looking and there is looking and it is hard to legislate when looking turns sour, or becomes objectionable. All I can say is that my intentions that evening were honorable, and if Chris' weren't, well, I had just met the guy and could hardly have gauged how much of a lecher he was or wasn't, which is a moving target, anyway.

Chiara read a few short, short stories that were spacy, surreal little gems, often quite funny about Roman plumbing and life after Berlusconi among other topics.

During the questions and answers session, someone asked Chiara whether she wrote her stories in English or Italian. She said she wrote them in English, adding that she liked how many words there are in English and the way you can mix high and low language. As an example she said in English there is a word for when your underwear get stuck in a position where they don't belong: wedgie.

It was such a lovely cultural event with wine and attractive spectators that, speaking of mixing high and low language, I almost hesitate to expand on Chiara’s definition of wedgie by saying that a wedgie occurs when your underwear gets stuck in your butt crack.

But beyond the pleasure of hearing Chiara's stories, and mingling with all the attractive people in the audience, there was another sight that Chris and I had been looking at and not looking at for the whole fifteen minutes of Chiara's reading. It served as a kind of an illustration of the high-low capacities of the English language.

The sight that tested my and Chris' forbearance, our sophistication as the worldly gentleman that we no doubt are, was, well, it was certainly a butt crack, though not a wedgie as far as I could tell, and really, a wedgie was about the only thing the woman sitting in front of Chris and I might have been concealing.

She seemed perfectly comfortable, wasn't fidgeting as a wedgie might have caused her to do. So, let the record show, I'm not saying that when Chiara started talking about wedgies, Chris and I had merely to look down to see one. It wasn't that simple. I said so at the deposition.

But the woman sitting in front of us was another one of these attractive people who were overly represented in  Chiara's audience. Maybe that's why everybody's always raving about Italy.

In any case, sitting right in front of Chris and me was a woman with brown hair wearing a short, black sweater and low-cut jeans. By low-cut, I mean her jeans revealed a broad section of her lower back region, oh, OK, the top half of her ass, butt crack included.

When Chiara started to read, this woman leaned forward, which only served to increase the already large display of her lower back. Between the shortness of her sweater, and the modern, extremely low cut of her jeans, there was an awfully broad swatch of flesh visible to Chris and me if we did anything other than stare straight ahead or up at the ceiling.

It's not that I stared down at this woman's ass for the whole reading. Neither of us acted like a transfixed teen-age boy. I did look at her now and again. More to ascertain in a spirit of scientific inquiry, don't forget the Italians gave us Fermi and Marconi, if there was really a half of a naked woman's ass, perched on chair in front of me. I felt compelled to look a few times if only to make sure I was really seeing what I thought I was seeing. I had to wonder at the combination of fashion and biology that presented this image to us.

But art really started to imitate life when Chiara started to talk about wedgies while Chris and I, and the young woman who took the seat between us, half way through the reading, she might have been attractive, too, but by then, I was in a state of sensory overload and wouldn't have noticed if Gina Lollabridga had taken that seat.

I concentrated on Chiara's brief, funny, surreal stories. I enjoyed them. Once in a while I'd glance down to see if anything had changed in the display that was framed by the lowest wooden rung and the seat of the lady's chair . The rather glorious expanse of flesh was still there as were the black lace, conventional not thong, underwear she was wearing.

I will not testify that I could see enough of this woman's ass to tell if her underwear were properly deployed or if they were, in fact, improperly positioned, too zealous in their role and too clinging to the nether regions separating the two lovely globes, of which they were guardians, but I hoped not guardians who had ridden up too high, who had crossed the line from merely enclosing to outright pinching, yes, even black lace underwear can give you a wedgie just like drugs and crime can occur in the best of families.

True, fortune had permitted, Chris and me, an extensive view from the back and above, but, alas, not a view that could detect whether a wedgie was, in fact, present. I make no representations on this subject and hope that Chris hasn't either. We are trying to keep our stories straight.

I will go to other readings this week. I won't exactly be watching for wedgies, but if they occur I’ll give thanks for the way we readers and writers of English can profit from words like "wedgie" and "butt crack."

And I look forward to getting to know my new friend, Chris, even if the woman with the short, black sweater settles out of court.

And, yes, the way you say “wedgie” in Italian is "quando le mutande ti entrano dentro al sedere."

Friday, April 28, 2017

Gerard and Febos Sparkle, Caldwell MIA, BookCourt Closing Bad Vibes

Date: April 20, 2017
Venue: Pete’s Candy Store
Authors: Melissa Febos, Chole Caldwell, Sarah Gerard
Lit Celebs Present: Molly Prentiss
Free Drinks: Yes, I got there before the register opened
Drone-On-Meter : negative
UE check : N/A
It took me forever to write this because I’d planned to mash up a million things. At first, I was going to lead with the brilliant memoirist Chole Caldwell not showing up for her second straight booking in the Pete’s Candy Store Thursday night reading series.
But then I thought that since the other two writers on the bill, Sarah Gerard and Melissa Febos, gave such great performances, why not concentrate on that?
So, yeah, someday Caldwell will be booked again for the Pete’s Thursday reading and she’ll probably show up. Why make myself sound like a jerk complaining about how I rode my bike over the Willy B Bridge twice to hear her with no success?
Before the event started, co-curator Jill Capewell was talking to the sound guy as they were setting up the audio and he said, “Our microphones don’t use any hormones.” Sound guys are the coolest. Jill is no slouch, either. She not only helped set up the sound, she showed co-curator Brian Gresko how to adjust the microphone.

Brian gave a nice intro about how we may be living in a golden age of memoir. He said that the form is being used in new ways and that the two writers reading that night are examples of this blossoming.
I sat next to Schlmo from Seattle. He's a copywriter who might start writing non fiction. We had a nice chat, which is an example of the admirably high congeniality factor that you get at Pete's. It's not one of those reading venues who nobody talks to anybody and just files out like robots when the reading is over.

I tried out my joke with him about how, since I’m so much older than anyone at these readings, if only I took the trouble to dress better and didn’t talk to anyone, people might think I was someone important, a sort of Jonathan Galassi trolling the Brooklyn writing scene. I love the image of FSG head Galassi going to a reading deeper into the borough than Pete’s, say in the basement of Unnamable Books, to visit one of the Manhattanville readings.

I think Schlmo laughed. I've had to retire the "I'm the Harry Dean Stanton of" joke cause nobody knows who the actor is.
The first reader was Sarah Gerard, touring and giving a lot of readings, in support of her new book “Sunshine State.” She said that parts of the book are memoirs, but that it includes other forms including poetry. One passage she read at Pete’s was addressed to a lover or former lover with whom she got complementary hip tattoos. She skipped around in the book and all the selections sounded good.
Melissa Febos read from her second book “Abandon Me.” She mentioned that before a reading in Portland, she and a friend set up a classification system for audiences in which they are either “hickeys” or “criers,” depending on whether they respond to the hickeys or the crying sections in the book.
She pegged those of us in the Pete’s audience as criers and read a section of the book that would appeal to us. Some of the passages she read were lyrical and touching and just as a reading is supposed to do, her performance at Pete’s insured that I’m going to read “Abandon Me.”
In other readings news, somebody told me the closing of the Cobble Hill bookstore “BookCourt” pissed off a lot of authors and publicists because there was no advance notice. The closing of the store last December resulted in a lot of cancelled events early this year.
It’s always a terrible, terrible thing when an independent bookstore closes. Importance of presenting alternate voices, loss to the community, and they’re easier to shoplift from.

One of the blurbs on the Pete's web site says it is the KGB of Brooklyn. While that is true as far as it goes, it overlooks the central role of Lou, KGB's superb bartender, in the LES bar's event schedule. For a readings venue to really rock you need a bartender who has just finished all of "Remembrance of Things Past." But keep trying, Pete's Candy Store, curators Brian and Jill are running a great series even without their version of the sublime Lou.  

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Smitten With Jimmy Breslin


Date: April 22, 2008
Venue: McNally Jackson Books
Author: Jimmy Breslin
Lit Celebs Present: Ronnie Eldridge, spouse, host of public access TV show
Free Drinks: No
Drone-On-Meter : negative
UE check collect: #276534

I was new in the Bergen Record’s Wayne, N.J. newsroom in 1988. A part-timer working nights, covering meetings mostly, I wrote my stories at the day shift reporters’ desks.

Some nights I landed at Jim Dao’s desk and I briefly registered that it was a shrine to Jimmy Breslin. No votive candles, just Breslin’s books strewn around in the causal disorder that characterized the bureau.

Working on deadline at 10 or 11 pm, trying to parse the details of the Butler Planning Board meeting I’d just attended, I didn’t give Dao’s d├ęcor much notice except that as I struggled to sort out which commissioner had said what in my reporter’s notebook, I felt that I was in the right place, doing the right grunt work, and this dayside guy got it too.

A few years later, I’d gone to journalism school and come back to the city to keep working as a reporter, our trade at which Jimmy was the best. I was working for the Chemical Marketing Reporter, writing about price increases in polyethylene.

There was a young guy from Douglaston covering some other kind of chemical. Because he also wrote for a weekly in Queens, he’d somehow wrangled a meeting with Breslin. They had breakfast at a dinner on the Upper West Side. He told me Breslin gave him a lot of advice and that his table manners weren’t the greatest.

My chemical reporting colleague was lucky to score his one on one with Jimmy but like Jim Dao at the Record and so many other reporters, we are all Jimmy’s acolytes. Maybe we couldn’t all be Jimmy, but we could try. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one faced with the problem of finding my own Marvin the Torch or Klein the Lawyer and sticking him into a story about the ’94 autumn increase in polyethylene prices.

To put it mildly, the newspaper business has changed since Jimmy got his start at the Long Island Press. I got caned at a corporate finance magazine in that recession thing of ’08. Even as I suffered the indignity of having to buy my reporter’s notebooks at the Columbia University bookstore, it was still Jimmy’s voice I wanted to emulate.

And even on the mundane topic of where to get your notebooks, the Master had some advice to the rest of us. I remember him being quoted someplace saying that whenever the paper he was working at was about to fold, or he was jumping to another outlet, he made a point of loading up on notebooks from the stockroom of his soon to be former employer.

After I got fired, I started going to a lot of literary readings. Eventually, I figured out that this was my new beat. I try to write for my little-read blog, “In the Front Row, On the Dole,”  with the same Breslin voice, Breslin values, that all of us Irish-American columnists employ. In fact, a masterpiece like Jim Dwyer’s story about 9/11 and Inwood must have been inspired by Jimmy.

When Jimmy’s book, “The Good Rat,’ came out, he gave a reading at the McNally Jackson bookstore on Prince Street in Soho back in 2008.

When my hero popped up on my beat, of course I showed up to review his reading. That’s what my stupid blog is all about. While I don’t have a Marvin the Torch, I do have a Lou the Bartender. He works at the KGB bar where there’s a reading most nights. Lou told me he can tell when a reading is going to have an older audience because he gets all these calls about how steep and how long the stairs are.

Jimmy’s crowd that night at the bookstore on Prince Street might have had trouble with the bar’s stairs, but they turned out in force for his street-level gig.  Half the small audience seemed to go back decades with him. He read an excerpt from the book and then sat around talking to his fans. I knew this was my moment to talk to my hero, to get a quote for my blog, which although it is missing a classified section, a sports section and a lot of other sections, is informed by the work of our Master, this guy from Ozone Park.

I approached my hero and knowing that cheeky was preferable to solicitous, asked him, “If you’re such a big deal writer, how come it’s your wife that has the TV show? He laughed and said, “That’s a good question.”

Podcasts may blossom, papers will continue to fold. Reporters may have switched from the bar to the gym, a development that he lamented. But we will never touch a keyboard without trying to match you, Jimmy.