All the Things

While we were in Seattle we attended a Literary Event with Paul Constant, who started out as our bookstore coworker many years ago and has been kind enough to remain our friend, despite the fact that the initial terms of our acquaintance consisted of an eight-month period during which the Rejectionist dragged herself to work in an increasingly bedraggled, surly, and hungover state, and frequently foisted off the most odious book-seeking tourists on poor, long-suffering Paul, whose notion of customer service was considerably more solid than our own. Our sole contribution, in fact, to the general wellbeing of the Elliott Bay Book Company was expunging its Native American section of books by white people on shamanic voyages. We are not such a wreck now, or we are but we are better at hiding it, and Paul seems to have forgiven us. Appropriately enough, the Literary Event in question was the writer and publisher Matthew Stadler discussing the future and possibilities of bookstores.

It was a great talk--we spent the whole time scribbling furiously, and wishing we had brought a tape recorder, and we have pages and pages of notes we took, in a little notebook where we keep our Current Thoughts, so that our notes on Matthew Stadler are intermixed with our random jottings of plot ideas for our current project ("idea of bookstore as locus of community not just location of capitalist transaction WHICH ONE IS HER FATHER, FIGURE THAT OUT"). It was a talk about the idea of community, and the kind of community that people who read make, and the kind of community that centers around bookstores, and even as we tried to write down every word that came out of Matthew Stadler's mouth (Matthew Stadler is a fantastic talker, the kind of talker who makes you want to go home and read the dictionary) we understood that it was one of those wonderfully delusional kinds of talks that fill you with hope for the world even though the idea of a bookstore as a locus of immaterial exchange is, at least if the bookstore is to remain in business, more or less impracticable.

There was something about that evening that exemplified for us an inexplicable and charming aspect of the West Coast that we still love, that kind of genuine faith in some alchemical community entirely divorced of commerce. Sometimes that conversation is so alluring that we wonder what, in fact, we are doing in New York, in this nearly unlivable monster of a city. We spent a significant part of our month in Seattle outdoors, and the ferocity of New York is hard to remember fondly when you are standing on top of a mountain looking out across forested valleys that stretch all the way to the horizon and for a moment it seems you are the only person in all the world, and the warm clean air smells like pine needles and earth, and you can hear the high thin call of a marmot echoing across the rocks below. Why would a person leave that behind for the L train on an August afternoon, when the fans in the stations are broken and the platform smells like shit and garbage, and the air is so thick and close that it sticks to your sweat and when you take a shower later the water will turn grey; why would a person leave that for anything at all.

But there is something, also, about ambition that is not welcome on the west coast; admitting to ambition is like saying you are a Republican, or in favor of sweatshops--it is unseemly and a little grotesque, that kind of desire. We spent a lot of our life pretending we were not ambitious, and then we came out here, and this city took away all pretense of everything other than the stuff we are made of; and, to be frank, we are a little on the ruthless side, and so are all the people we love the most. Ambition is a thing that you have to surround yourself with, or else stamp out in yourself altogether, because there is no good in being ruthless in a city of gentle people. New York is many things, a lot of them nearly unbearable, but gentle is certainly not one of them.

Sometimes, though, we miss it so much out there, miss even the winters where it rains ninety days in a row, where we can surround ourself with other people who also grew up at all-ages shows, who have lived in the woods without electricity and hopped trains and worked a thousand shitty jobs and do not look at you askance when you mention the time you were semi-squatting this land in the middle of nowhere and your landlady was a witch who lived in a yurt and told you to put wormwood on the windowsills to keep out spirits, and at night you fell asleep listening to the coyotes howling in the ravine behind your cabin. How people put all the pieces of their lives together in a way that makes sense is still a thing we are figuring out. Maybe somewhere out there is a girl who looks like us and thinks like us, who is the us who picked different, who learned to play the guitar she bought when she was fourteen rather than letting it languish under her bed, and maybe she lives in her own apartment in Seattle, and sometimes when it rains she looks out the window and wonders about us, too. Maybe that girl sees pictures of the New York skyline and thinks, What if. There are moments that come here, few and far between and precious, where we look out the window of the J as it crosses the river, and New York glitters below us like a constellation and we think Holy shit, I live here, and in those moments our restless heart is still in the same way it is when we are standing on top of a mountain in the Olympics, and everything makes sense and we are home.