This morning, I woke early and walked the dozen blocks to the conference hotel so I could hit the first session of panel presentations on the schedule. The panel I attended was a discussion about creative writers and their careers as teachers. Strangely, every member of the panel managed to utter at least one withering statement highlighting the futility of everything I do as a writer and/or every ambition I have as a teacher, effectively undermining my exhilaration at being here. After that disheartening experience, I decided to make an appearance at the monstrous bookfair here (more on that later) and then abandon the conference to get a little sightseeing done. The first day is always fairly light, anyway, and the weather was only good today, so I had to get my photography in while I could.
Fortunately, at the bookfair I met a fiction publisher who invited me to a reading and reception this evening, which immediately preceded the keynote address by author John Irving (my students will know him as the author of The Cider House Rules, though he was first famous as the author of The World According to Garp). I planned to attend the keynote address — why would I pass up a chance to hear John Irving speak? — so I agreed to attend the earlier reading as well, partly because the publisher who invited me prefers more experimental fiction and, though it’s not my normal milieu, that could be one way to describe my latest novel and some of my recent shorter fiction. Besides, as a promotional gimmick, the publisher had printed loads of “Kiss me” buttons, each with a different punchline, and I found on rooting through the basket a button that reads “Kiss me — I’m a vampire.” I took it as a small sign: while I’m in New York, I’ve been tinkering with a novel that opens in this city, and it happens also to be a new, semi-experimental take on the vampire genre.
When I got back to the conference hotel this evening, I bumped into my friends Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly in the hotel bar. While Tommy balked at his eight-dollar Budweiser (I nodded at the tab and said, “Welcome to New York”), Beth Ann hugged me and said, “Well, okay — if the first person we see after getting to New York is Sam Snoek-Brown, then this should turn out to be a pretty good conference.” (We’re not as close as I sometimes like to make out, but I do love Beth Ann and Tommy — they’re both brilliant writers, and because they’re far more generous friends to me than I’m able to be to them, I always feel like I owe them a lot. Still, they manage to find this small excuse to cheer me up.) That brief encounter — and the John Irving speech later (more on him later, too) — served as the perfect bookend to my conference day; it managed to undo the damage done this morning and set a much better tone for the conference. To paraphrase Beth Ann, if I end my day with a hug and a passing compliment, this will turn out to be a good conference after all.
After I left the conference this morning, I took a long walk through Times Square to 42nd Street ( a full ten blocks south of the conference), then headed east to 5th Avenue and Bryant Park. The park was awash in long white tents that swarmed with black-shirted set-up crews like ants from a disturbed nest. I stopped to read one of the flyers tied in a row down the low wrought-iron fence: “Please excuse our construction as we prepare to reestablish New York as a fashion city.” Anyone who watches Project Runway as religiously as my wife does will know they were gearing up for Fashion Week. But that wasn’t what I’d come to see. On the back side of Bryant Park, across a wide patio from a stubby bronze statue of Gertrude Stein, is the rear of the New York Public Library’s humanities & social sciences branch. It’s only one of many NYPL branches, really, but it is the most famous: this is home to Patience and Fortitude, the huge marble lions that guard the front entrance and serve as the Public Library’s official mascots.
I have made a habit of visiting the public libraries of every major city where I attend a conference. Or, I try to anyway. I missed Atlanta’s, because the conference wasn’t close enough. And I skipped San Antonio’s because I’d been in several when I used to live there. But I have seen Albuquerque’s, where I studied a huge scale model of the Globe Theater and enjoyed a quiet cup of coffee in their small sunken garden. I have walked through Vancouver’s, a fascinating spiral-shaped building frequently featured in movies. And I have been in the hallowed halls of America’s first public library, the wide, museum-like Boston Public Library (its lions perch on either side of the grand interior stairwell). I’ve also been in Chicago’s public library, the largest in the country, though its entrances are guarded not by lions but by looming owls perched along the eaves. But New York is the crown jewel, if only for those two huge lions, which my wife — a librarian and a Leo — has come to adore as though they were distant adopted pets.
The library itself is a strange sort of sanctuary for literature, where librarians have chosen the protection of books over access to them. When I entered the grand marble foyer, a pair of velvet ropes guided me to a guard, who searched my bag with a flashlight. When I climbed the majestic staircase to the second floor, I found another guard at the top, with a third pacing the hall. On the third floor, the same. And nowhere could I find any books — only long corridors of marble, a few statues, and the cold eyes of the guards. Occasionally I’d pass a narrow door tucked away in a niche; some of the doors had brass plates specifying a special collection, and through the glass windows I could see long polished tables with little lamps and red padded chairs. I began to understand the monkish stereotype of some librarian portrayals, because here, researchers are scuttled away into corners, cloistered in tiny (though apparently comfortable) cells in which to pore over secret, protected tomes.
Finally, on the third floor, I wandered into an open lobby brightened by huge, colorful murals of Moses and his stone tablets, a mother helping her young son to read, and a medieval scholar painstakingly copying ancient manuscripts. And I found an open entryway, above which was a sign announcing a public catalog room. At last, I thought, I’ve found the books. But I hadn’t. Instead, I’d found the computers on which they keep their card catalog — a whole room, just for looking up books. (I was amused to note that the library’s acronym for their catalog system is CATNYP — a treat for the lions, maybe.) Beyond this were two separate rooms filled with desks, designated solely for reading the books (my students might have recognized the one I entered as the site of many New Yorkers’ final stand in The Day After Tomorrow). Between these room were long rows of counters and windows like tellers’ stations in a bank. There were books in the reading room, but they were separated from the readers by a railed walkway along which paced yet another guard. Instead of browsing shelves, researchers and casual readers alike need to look up a record in the catalog room, take their printed request to a library assistant at the tellers’ stations, and then wait patiently in the reading room while the assistant — not you — retrieves your book. (Those of you who’ve seen Breakfast at Tiffany’s will recognize the process.)
It was an altogether forbidding experience, especially when, having casually wandered into and then out of the reading room, I was stopped by another guard (the seventh I’d seen and third I’d spoken to) so he could search my bag. Ordinarily, I like to browse a library’s catalog or shelves to find writers I know (my usual test is to see if they carry Tom Franklin’s books, since he’s the guy I wrote my masters thesis on), but here, I gave up on trying to track down anyone because, for me, half the pleasure of a public library is the freedom to roam the stacks, to take down any book that catches my eye, to touch the spines of so many volumes of genius. Here, all I could touch was stone. So I headed back to the main entrance, where I had my bag searched a fourth time, and I left.
I grabbed a bus down to the south end of Manhattan. I wasn’t exactly sure of my directions, but I was looking for the corner of Bedford and Grove, in a quiet residential neighborhood of brownstones and small apartment buildings. I got off at Christopher and found myself strolling west, then south along Bleeker — a name I recognized from hundreds of television references, but the street was not quite residential (I passed a few internet cafes, a couple of unassuming boutiques, and a surprising number of sex shops, with inflatable dolls and tight leather lingerie in the windows). But after a short block I hit a row of brownstones and found myself on Bedford. West another long block, past racing children and a couple of young mothers pushing strollers, and I’d found it: the corner of Bedford and Grove, site of the little apartment building they used for exterior shots on Friends. I was standing outside Monica and Chandler’s place. I took only two photos, but I lingered on the corner as long as I dared (the mothers were starting to stare), basking in an almost fervent awe as though beholding a relic or holy place. That’s not quite fair, really — I certainly felt a great deal more reverential awe in the presence of Saint Nicolas’s bones or the Green Mosque on a Friday during Ramadan when I was in Turkey ten years ago — but in the sense that I am a Friends fanatic, the emotions of amazement and veneration are as close as I can come to describing my brief moments outside that building.
Downstairs, where Central Perk would have been had it been a real place, was a tiny restaurant called The Little Owl. Had it been open for lunch, I’d have eaten there, no matter how expensive it might be (it looks pretty swanky); I would definitely have ordered a cup of coffee. As it was, I could only gawk alongside a foursome of teenage girls, who were giggling at the not-quite-Central-Perk until the restaurant’s launderer arrived with an armload of white tablecloths and brusquely shooed us all away.
It’s late now — after 1 a.m. here, and I have an early start again tomorrow — so I think I’ll save my John Irving notes for later. I will offer this one observation, though: I think sometimes that the most engaging fiction writers are also brilliant storytellers, because so many of the best I’ve met are masters of the long oral story, especially the narrative joke. Tommy Franklin was the best I’d ever met until I heard John Irving tonight. That man can certainly weave a yarn.