Sunday, April 23, 2006

Anne Tyler in the Port Authority

Once again, an overgrown-comment-turned-post, this time replying to Jo Spanglemonkey's post about Anne Tyler. If I do this every time my comments threaten to overspill the paragraph mark, I'll post a lot more!

When I was 16, I had a summer job in The City, at some computer place. The job itself was a grindingly boring low-level clerical gig, but the commute was thrilling: I took the 167 Bus from Coffeechin, NJ into The City every day, maneuvered my way through the (scary, filthy, dangerous) Port Authority Bus Station, and then walked a couple of (dirty, seedy) blocks through midtown to my building, then rode the genteelly dinging and whooshy elevator to the proto-cube where I typed envelopes and address labels all day.

(So dangerous was the Times Square area considered back then that my parents mapped out the route I was allowed to walk between the Port Authority and my office building, specifically emphasizing that I was not to walk on 42nd Street between 7th and 8th Avenues, which would have been the most direct route. Such a Good Girl was I that I actually followed their instructions for most of the summer. At some point in August it occurred to me that they would never know if I didn't, and that I probably wouldn't be immediately raped and murdered if I walked one dangerous block on my way home from work in the sunny summer daylight, and, feeling very daring, I took That Block home. From what I remember, it was kind of creepy, without the exuberant street-scene feeling of my usual route. I think there were a lot of porn shops, from which I genteelly averted my eyes, mostly. But, you know, I was fine. I don't think anyone even whistled. (Though I'd trained myself to totally tune it out if they did, which is a whole other post.))

The Port Authority was a cavalcade of wonders: streams of people rushing and pushing each other out of the way, in business suits and commuter shoes. Escalators crisscrossing and zigging and zagging, all leading to rows and rows of plaforms down endless hallways, on different levels, enabling me to feel thrillingly adult and competent as I wove my way through the crowds and up the escalators and along the corridors to my very own platform, where I would wait along with all the other commuters for the next bus to Coffeechin.

And if all that wasn't enough, there was a bookstore right at the Port Authority! Right on the way to my bus. And because I had no responsibilities, other than to get to work and to get home eventually and not to walk on 42nd between 7th and 8th, I would often stop and browse in the bookstore.

And that's where I found Anne Tyler. Well, Anne Tyler's then-newest book, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, just out in hardcover and recently reviewed in The New York Times Book Review. (I'd read the review! Oh how happy I was to be so grown-up and literary!) One late-afternoon, I stood in that bookstore and read one chapter, then the next, thinking every once in a while that I really should stop reading and get the next bus.

But she had sucked me right into her world, the way the best books do, and I was right there with Pearl Tull and her family: the rebellious oldest son, the dreamy younger one, the baby girl, the way anger and loss circled around and shot through them all, and the mysteries they were to each other.

Finally, it occurred to me: I could BUY THE BOOK. Even though it was a hardcover and cost $13.50. I had a job! I had money in my purse! (Cash, it must have been, back then.) And here I was, practically a grownup! Why, this was only the first of many, many new hardcover books I'd be buying from now on, in my money-earning literary adulthood. And if it could keep me reading in the store like that, missing one bus after another, it was probably worth owning.

So I bought it, and read it all the way home, and have it still. I was wrong about some things: I think I could count on one hand the number of hardcovers I've bought new in the last 24 years (not counting remainders and books for school). My bookshelves are full of paperbacks, used books, handed-down books, books scrounged and scavaged and given to me.

But I was right about that book being worth owning. Anne Tyler nails family like nobody else: the grudges, the kindnesses, the alliances and betrayals, the unspoken promises kept and broken. Every few years I pick up Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant and read it again, and fall right in, and remember parts I'd forgotten, and jump back a little at the stuff she gets just right.
I know things now that I didn't know at 16, but Anne Tyler knew them all along.


Anonymous peripateticpolarbear said...

Now I want to read it again. I remember her as one of my first "grown up" books, too...

9:57 AM  
Blogger Carrie said...

This has nothing to do with Anne Tyler (I have never read her and had the impression she was some pulp romance writer, I don't know why, but I guess I'll have to try her now), but I lived on 43rd between 8th and 9th Aves. for a while when I was 20. I lived within a block of the NY Times building, a transvestite strip club and three regular strip clubs, the headquarters of the Guardian Angels, and a Catholic grade school. Good times. But I can see your parents' concern.

1:54 PM  
Blogger Jo said...

Yay! How I love her! I'm going to reread that one when I get home. It'll be like we have our own little book club. I think I've read pretty much every one of her books.

6:59 AM  

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