Last Saturday was sunny and hot for the first time all month. This, plus pollen motes churning in the air, tree trunks soaked by Friday night’s lawn sprinklers, and the necessity for sunglasses built the perfect July day. And so, I got up, got dressed, got out the door, market list in my pocket and satchel (big enough for greens, cheese, wine and probably a whole chicken) slung over my shoulder.
The only thing better than a good farmers market is a good farmers market with a good bookstore nearby. Tempted by the window display, the first item into my bag wasn’t chevre, spring greens or cured meat, but a collection of stories by Maeve Brennan. I knew neither the lady nor her work, but the cover charmed me in a flash: a black-and-white photograph of the author, hair drawn into a flawless knot, modeling an awfully ugly pair of glasses and admiring herself in a mirror.
The back-cover bio glossed over Maeve’s life: her ascent from staff writer to regular columnist at the New Yorker, deceased in her mid-seventies with two anthologies published during her lifetime and one posthumous work released so far. Looking at photographs online, I envied her elegant, writerly life: fine clothes, prim smile, pithy tone, distracted yet controlled manner. The sort of life writers managed to make commonplace in books and biographies prior to 1955.
Her essays are plain accounts of ordinary days, slightly out of step with the decades she chronicled. A man she passes on Forty-sixth Street makes an impression by the way he carries his hat; repetitive dinners at a local steakhouse double as chances to eavesdrop on diners seated nearby. Her stories evoke bygone lounges and social scenes, and the publication dates tacked at the end of each essay are startling, seem too recent. Her impressions of 1968 sound less like five years before I was born, and more like a world my great-grandmother would find comfortable.
In an effort to contextualise her essays, I cast a more critical eye upon myself: the words I choose, my turns of phrase, the photographs I pair with posts on my blog. And, sifting through three years of my essays and articles, I reconsidered how quickly things change – style and taste, patterns of consumption, social trends – and the speed at which those things surge into then pass out of favour (sometimes fast, sometimes slow). And, it became easier to see Maeve’s seemingly old-fashioned 1968 spooning my 1973 birth.
In the five years separating those dates, my parents met, became engaged, and their 1970 wedding photos depict guests dressed like the people described in Maeve’s stories. A quick flash and gone were the pillbox hats, stuffy textiles and dinners at which it would have been inappropriate for a lady to appear alone, replaced by the white pantsuit, silver slippers and broad necktie my parents wore to the altar. And, by 1973, cue their stylish haircuts, bright red sofa, bell-bottomed jeans and me, a shrieking flannel bundle.
Five years…easy for an eccentric and troubled lady like Maeve to find herself out of step without realising she’d missed a step at all. I often consider social graces and standards, and the quaint manners most people my age never learned. My knowledge of napkin etiquette, cutlery-handling and table-laying seems like a cultivated fetish. But, I also have a lot of tattoos, wear jeans to the office, say words like “motherfucker” and “dickweed” when I ought to be more polite, and am often unsure what to do with my hands. I teeter between being prissier than necessary and too casual for the places I hang out.
I like the way Maeve seems driven by her own tastes, refusing to adopt a modern lingo that would have been a disservice to the stories she wanted to share. Her grace, spare words and weird observations at first made me think how wonderful it would be to live Maeve’s kicky life, but I retracted my envy after discovering her more detailed history. Eccentricities growing less adorable, colleagues freaked out by her weirdness and alienated by her drunken sloppiness. Her decline through the 1970s led to sleeping in the ladies’ room at the New Yorker offices, then passing from flop house to flop house until being admitted to care in the 1980s. There she remained until her death in 1993, crazy and lonely, reputation more than mildly soiled. And so it goes, the lady in the ugly glasses and gorgeous hairdo, estranged from all acquaintances, alcoholic, divorced, sleeping in the toilets at her place of employment before dying at a public hospital.
Her stories appeal to me because of their tendency to worry curious details like a bone, the sort of observations that either elude most people, or upon which they feel no compulsion to comment. A few years ago, I enrolled in a writing workshop, and was offended when the instructor suggested my stories focused on the wrong stuff; I wrote well, she told me, but didn’t talk about things my readers wanted to hear. Take, for instance, my piece about the imaginary life I created for the occupant one floor above me in a hotel. Why not talk about my own experience staying in the hotel, the things I was thinking and doing, how I spent my days and nights? Well, I explained, that isn’t the story, for one thing. And, inventing that guy’s life is how I spent my time; it is what I thought about. No good, the instructor insisted. I was missing the point, avoiding the “real story” which I was simply too frightened to probe.
I disagreed, eventually growing so frustrated with her critiques, and so confident that it was she and not I who missed the point, that I withdrew from the programme. Reading The Long-Winded Lady, I feel an affinity with Maeve Brennan’s approach, the things she decided were the most important bits to recount. The manner in which these stories suggest she navigated New York City. While I now concede that my workshop instructor had helpful things to say, I still write stories that “miss the point”, skipping over the major accident that drew everyone’s attention at an intersection, and instead describing the onlooker whose laugh made me angry. I work as a genealogist, and instead of drawing inspiration from the family histories I piece together, I write about my colleague who wears three fanny-packs at once and favours a brown one-piece jumpsuit I nicknamed the “uniboobitard”. That outfit bisects her ample figure into the most unflattering planes, and in my opinion, is at least as intriguing as the family tree truncated by three wars.
I’m not sure how to reconcile my affection for The Long-Winded Lady with the author’s craziness, her sadness, her urban tragedy. The fact that I instantly envied her existence and share much of her worldview – what does this say about my own tendency to be obsessive, to remember nothing short-term (the name of the woman who just shook my hand at a party) or practical (that I need eggs, toilet paper, salt and bananas), while retaining total recall of the minutiae of my past? What are the chances that my own demure yet saucy secretary outfits, short stories about nothing, essays about office ladies and retention of all the wrong details are red flags, forecasting a ladies’ room-sleeping, liquor-guzzling, reputation-wrecking decline? So far, Canada has retained universal healthcare, so at least I’m assured a fate a fraction better than expiring in a public hospital, but (like my writing instructor said), that is sort of not the point.
Maeve’s essays recount a trip to the veterinary clinic with a little cat who needed medical attention, an awful lot of solitary dinners taken at fine restaurants, a book in her handbag which she carries “because it diverts me when there is nothing to listen to and camouflages my eavesdropping when there is something to listen to.” I, too, never leave my apartment without a book in my purse, pass mostly solitary Sundays and often cook dinner in slippers while my cat looks on. And, a couple summers ago I was reduced to pacing the sidewalk, speaking to three different animal rescue services and shelters on my cellphone, none of which were willing to help, before despondently walking away from a thirsty, starving stray cat that was cuddling a trash can behind a local shop.
Maeve wrote a wonderful story about a group of young ladies she encountered in Midtown circa 1967, dressed in miniskirts and fishnet stockings, tall and broad (in fact, her essay seemed poised to expose a trio of transvestites, but Maeve held tightly her conviction that these ladies were indeed girls, perhaps another indication of her out-of-step-ness). Confronted by their forward behaviour, she ducked her head and kept walking, paying no attention to the bold way the young women made eye contact with passersby or the subject matter of their loud conversation as it cut the evening breeze.
I like to believe I’m more savvy than Maeve was, but the other day, I was appalled by the young women walking ahead of me, recapping their weekend and mostly just shit-talking absent friends. The loudest girl told the others about “some guy I hooked up with this weekend, he had the nerve to friend me on Facebook! What a loser, man!” That he was “some guy” and not a more limiting “that guy” or “the guy” suggested this sort of hook-up was commonplace and meaningless; an unfair judgment perhaps, but the way she rendered him nameless and scorned him for trying to follow up the next afternoon…It made me feel weird and old and disappointed, the way she made fun of him for having the nerve to give a shit about her after they fucked, the way she broadcast his lameness and her own lewdness at the top of her voice.
Her behaviour was not only at odds with how I live my adult life, but was also with how I behaved at her age. Casual connections are fine if that’s what works for you, but I can’t imagine shouting about them amongst friends, and certainly not in the street. If I consider the tone of my writing, I see how ill-equipped I would be to describe that girl’s day, like a contemporary Maeve attempting to catalogue New York’s changing streets. And that’s just their conduct – I haven’t even broached the matter of their leggings, schlumpy boots, bomber jackets and lurid cosmetics.
As for my affinity with the work and life of a lady who experienced a massive, self-induced decline, I wonder if her work appeals to me because I’m headed for crazy, too, or because I recognise something in her work that is gorgeous when kept in check but dangerous when given free rein? And what about my own work? Was my instructor right when she advised me to think more critically about the stories I choose to tell, and encouraged me to pick more universally intriguing topics?
Rumour has it Maeve Brennan was the inspiration for Capote’s Holly Golightly, another character I envied before I finished the novel and duly noted her dark side. Holly, too, had a curious affection for troubled cats, an enthusiasm for happy hour, and wandered in solitude, searching for something she never did locate and speaking a language and dressing a fashion completely out of step with her time. Holly rationalised all her wandering and partying by declaring she had yet to find a place to belong. Criticizing my choice of subject matter wasn’t the only way my writing instructor shook her finger at me. When I suggested her class was perhaps not the right place for me and my stories, she poo-pooed this conceit. All writers, she said, think they’re special because they don’t fit in, but really, we are not special at all. If nothing else, she went on, we share this image of “outsider” with one another, which makes us one of a crowd. Again, cue Maeve Brennan’s short works and Breakfast at Tiffany’s, where the outsider has everything she needs but repeatedly jettisons it in favour of piquey drama.
And so, is my instant connection with Maeve Brennan precisely what my instructor cautioned against indulging? The conceit of the romantic writer: distracted, obsessive, alone or smothered by the wrong kind of companionship, adrift or stagnating, the interplay of these factors tossing me (and all my outsider-insiders) like a sea. Or, am I over-thinking things, like I often do, weighing my affection for a lady’s outfits and stories and coming up with something far heavier than it really is?