I’m off to Chicago to this year’s annual AWP (Associated Writers and Writing Programs) conference, where some 9,600 writers and writing students have registered to attend. I’m still an outsider, and probably should have heard of the AWP 20 years before I did, but persistence has put me in a position in which I’m actually moderating a panel at the conference on memoir writing, comprised of some pretty top notch writers. Of course, how and why keep rushing through my mind, yet it’s true, my name is listed in the conference program, followed by the names of those on the panel.
The AWP Conference has become a major reference point in my life, a tangible event bookending years of literary exile after graduate school, a period during which I continued to do my own writing but was completely removed from academia, and workshops, and those who knew anything about literature. For some reason, or maybe circumstances beyond my control, I went from graduate school to making master price tags at Toys “R” Us, which I dubbed “Giraffeland,” while some of those in my graduate school writing workshops leapfrogged to having reviews of their respective books in The New York Times Book Review. Not a great period in my life, though I couldn’t help but observe society in a microcosm based on everyone I interacted with at work everyday in the national headquarters of Toys “R” Us. A low point was Christmas Eve day in my office when Geoffrey Giraffe and Santa Claus entered arm in arm with bottles of champagne, wishing each and every one good cheer, when a mindset of forced merriment was far from my mental state at the time.
I was able to take steps to escape Giraffeland by buying a secondhand car, a car in which I always had to keep my right foot on the gas, even while braking, or it would stall, and this enabled me to cover council meetings in northern New Jersey for a weekly newspaper, which, in truth, was more like a pamphlet. Municipal government was an alien world to me, probably even more so than Giraffeland, but I understood conflict, and once the debates and arguments, the confrontations and the grandstanding began, I was pretty good at coming up with a lead for a story, and the rest would just flow. Somehow I instinctively knew straight news stories were written based on a pyramid model in which the editor or the production manager would cut from the bottom up.
I was fortunate that I could do such writing automatically, and once joked, somewhat accurately, I might add, that a reader could get through three quarters of a story of mine on a budget before realizing it was boring. More important, though, by covering local council meetings, I was able to write byline stories which gave me the all important clips to try and find a better job, which I eventually did, getting a job as a reporter in the Bronx.
My first editor in the Bronx was a curmudgeon, a crude man in his seventies, who was prone to wearing Gulden mustard colored, imitation leather suits and rarely uttered a sentence without an obscenity. In his prime, he was the managing editor of one of the major New York City dailies, where he wielded the power of a God of the newsroom, but those days were long gone, and he had subsequently worked at the National Enquirer before arriving at his final stop, the weekly newspaper in the Bronx.
I must confess I did not have a National Enquirer knack for writing leads. In fact, Selig, the editor, berated me for writing what he called “New York Times Episcopalian prose,” whatever that meant. Once, early on, I was assigned to write an article on a crosswalk the local School Board had approved for a dangerous stretch of roadway where a young teen had recently been killed. My first sentence was pretty much like the one I just wrote, with the appropriate five Ws — who, what, where, when, and why — which caused Selig to become apoplectic, cursing as he leaned forward and vigorously attacked my copy with a red pen, transforming the lead to “Kids will no longer be mowed down” because of the approval of the new crosswalk. It was probably accurate, but not the way my mind operated.
I soon escaped Selig and became the associate editor of a newspaper in Co-op City, the largest Mitchell-Lama housing development in New York State, with thirty-five high rise buildings and some 50,000 residents, known as cooperators. Co-op City was an extremely political environment, and still is, though it doesn’t have the aggressive organized clout it once did to determine elections. In fact, one Borough President in the Bronx owed his election to the disproportionate support he received from Co-op City — without his landslide victory in Co-op City, his opponent would have sailed into office.
One day, three women — two sisters and a neighbor who all possessed a somewhat detached, schizophrenic medicated look — came into my office, which was off a concrete courtyard on the lower level of a Mom and Pop store community shopping center. They were there to complain about the washing machines, holding up tee shirts and pants which were streaked with yellow stains. A local community leader was quick to jump on the issue, galvanizing the community around the creation of the group Cooperators Against Stains. Of course, it’s hard to imagine Cooperators for Stains, but that wasn’t the point, overnight an organization became legitimate by including more and more residents, always looked at as potential voters, who were protesting stains on clothing caused by the washing machines.
Week in, and week out, I received letters from cooperators complaining about the stains, demanding a solution from those in power. I learned early on that everything was relative, something might seem psychotic or rather insane, but if it was genuine and real to those involved, then, at least for them, it became a true legitimate, issue. The climax of the laundry room stain crisis came with the arrival of a gentleman from Proctor & Gamble in Cincinnati, dressed in a white lab coat, who was known as the Stain Detective and could have been played brilliantly by Samuel L. Jackson if the situation was the subject of a movie and not supposed reality.
So, there I was, at a press conference in the basement laundry room of Building 20, with Jerome, the Stain Detective, the local political leader of the opposition to those in power, and an actual television crew from NBC News, where Roger Grimsby, previously a fixture as an anchor on ABC News with Bill Beutel during my adolescence, was also present, relegated to such an ignominious assignment.
We all listened to the Stain Detective give a presentation, which was technical, heavy on chemical explanations and such, all leading up to a conclusion to the stain problem, similar to a vacuum cleaner salesman moving in to close a sale. The answer was relatively simple, the Stain Detective announced the solution was for all to use Liquid Tide detergent, which just happened to be sold by Proctor & Gamble.
I think Roger Grimsby summed up the entire press conference when he quipped to Jerome, “So what you’re saying is Co-op City is a Liquid Tide town?”
I’m not sure Liquid Tide was the answer, but the stain issue quickly disappeared, and ultimately, the local leader of the opposition swept all five seats in the next election and took over control of Co-op City.
From an MFA fiction writing program, to Giraffeland, to Cooperators Against Stain, I’m now going to Chicago to moderate a panel on memoir writing with DeWitt Henry, the founder and longtime editor of Ploughshares, which recently celebrated its 40th anniversary; Kelly Cherry, a versatile poet, fiction and memoir writer; Sue William Silverman, the author of two highly acclaimed memoirs; and Greg Herriges, who is from Chicago and is the author of a memoir about his successful quest to meet the reclusive writer, J.D. Salinger, some 30 years ago or so.
If there is a point to this essay, I suppose it’s that we all travel unique paths, snapshots in time, comprised of all sorts of moments, which has led many to gather this year in Chicago for the annual AWP Conference to see what they can see.