Thursday, May 27, 2010

How to be alone in a crowd

One of the things I like about New York is that, for the most part, one can do things on one's own without feeling like a pariah. Along the same lines, it's socially acceptable to be neither outgoing nor hostile, merely low-key and self contained. But even in New York, I have gone into a bar at the end of a not-so-great day, ordered a whiskey and settled in to sit and stew only to have some patronizing old man be all, "What's the matter, honey? It can't be all bad!" No, it can't, but being condescended to makes it that much worse.

Today after work I spent way too much time getting to Brooklyn's central public library, where Jonathan Franzen and another New York author were giving a free reading and talk. I had no idea what the setup would be and whether I needed to get there super early to get in at all, and I arrived a good 50 minutes before the start time. Also scoping the scene were dudes with uncool backpacks and unkempt hair, making no effort to look detached. Ah, nerds. Hello fellow travelers. I got my ticket, ordered a quick dinner at the cafe in the library and sat down to eat alone, over a book -- amongst several other people who were doing the same thing. Bliss. When I went back downstairs many of the seats still available were between people who had also come alone, many of whom were either reading or writing as they waited for the program to begin. I sat between two of them. We did not talk.

The reading itself was also calming and wonderful. Franzen got a reputation for being an asshole a few years ago when he was the only author to turn down a chance to be part of Oprah's book club. When I raved about The Corrections, people (okay, an ex boyfriend and his bestie, but other people too) said 'but he's such a dick, blah blah' but I wasn't saying anything about whether he was or not. I had never met him. I had no opinion on his personality. I just liked the book. And I liked How To Be Alone, an essay collection that followed it and is more personal. On stage, Franzen was ... actually quite engaging, funny, charming even. He laughed at his own jokes a couple of times, like Ira Glass used to in the early years of This American Life. During the Q&A, either he or the other author made a point about how seriousness is often confused with snobbery. Myself and my unfashionable fellow travelers, we didn't cheer our agreement, just pondered and nodded, and smiled ever so slightly.

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