“You know, Frankie, you’re the only soul alive who understands me.”

Posted on August 3, 2010

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Dear Helene Hanff,

WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN MY WHOLE LIFE?

As it would happen, you’ve been right beside me. To suggest you have been missing from my entire life is quite false, since in fact you’ve been an ongoing presence throughout it. I discovered, via my parents’ VHS library of recorded-from-cable films, “84 Charing Cross Road” when I was but a wee tyke. It became a staple in my little pre-adolescent world.

A relative of mine once noted my interest in the film as odd. While most ten year olds, she asserted, were watching cars explode and puppets dance, I was consumed with watching a loud mouthed old New York “broad” and a stuffy Englishman boringly write letters to one another. I failed to see her point. (And, to be fair, I was quite fond of exploding cars and puppets so her logic was clearly flawed.)

At any rate, I watched the film over and over and I read the samely named book and its sequel-of-sorts, “Duchess of Bloomsbury Street,” repeatedly as a kid. And although I have revisited the film frequently, I stopped reading you. I don’t know if I assumed you hadn’t written anything else or if the undernourished shelves of the North Carolina Public Library system stocked nothing else by you. I imagine the latter mostly to be the case since “Duchess” wasn’t even available there way back when and I sought it out at a used bookstore in town, paying the grand sum of two dollars and fifty cents for its worn paperback edges.

Flash forward many more years in the future than we care to acknowledge to the long, gruesome summer of 2010. It had been quite a while since I revisited the much-loved aforementioned film so, having moved well past dusty VHSes on shelves, I hit the play button on my netflix instant queue. (How people existed before having the world at their fingertips, I’ll never know.) Once more I was flooded with Anne Bancroft’s probably inaccurate but deliciously New York cadences and Anthony Hopkins’ stiff-upper-lip repressed-but-Oxford-bred charm. Although I won’t make any claims to being able to recite the whole of the film’s dialogue – as I barely manage to remember where I put my keys on a daily basis, I can’t attest to having a memory for memorization – I am clearly beyond familiar and enamoured with its words. So it struck me as odd that it had never occurred to me to investigate one particular line of dialogue. You, vis-à-vis Ms. Bancroft, are typing away furiously when you turn to the camera to address Frank once more, saying,

“I sold a story to Harper’s Magazine. Slaved over if for three weeks; they paid me two hundred dollars for it. Now they’ve got me writing the story of my life, in a book.”

Story of my life. In a book. Now, this bit of information precedes a very poignant moment in the film, so maybe I overlooked it caught up in the emotion that followed? Or maybe I assumed you meant “84 Charing Cross Road”? But, of course, you couldn’t have as this moment is years before the autobiographical events of “84 Charing” even end, much less are published in book form. You couldn’t have possibly published an entire memoir that I failed to even think of looking for, could you have? After a quick search of the NYPL website, I found that indeed you could have and did. And, as it so happened, a copy sat on the shelf of my favorite branch of the library just waiting for me. Its pages yellowed from age, the spine of the book literally creaked from disuse when I opened it. The bibliophile in me practically did a jig in the stacks! I found a nice cool spot at the reading table and greedily tore into “Underfoot in Show Business.” On the second page, after the dedication, there is a note to the reader and it smacked me slam in the face.

“Each year, hundreds of stagestruck kids arrive in New York determined to crash the theatre, firmly convinced they’re destined to be famous Broadways stars or playwrights. One in a thousand turns out to be Noel Coward. This book is about life among the other 999. By one of them.”

Currently, I, too, am one of them. What followed was the life of a penniless wanna-be writer trying to survive the pitfalls and joys of New York City. The years covered in your story spanned the late 1930’s to the early 1960’s and yet I saw so much of my modern life in them. The landscape of New York, both physically and culturally, has changed since those times but the types of people, the types of experience, the struggles, the unique exhilarations in and of the city are still the same. You found success as a writer in your fifties, and while I still hold out hope that I too won’t have to wait until then, what an affirmation it was to see that who I am and what I want to be is not unheard of. To see that through the struggle of trying to reach your purpose in life, quite possibly you are serving your purpose in life. More than once I beamed from a sentence that described the utter joy and simultaneous misery of a pauper’s life in the city; I hooted “YES!” at wry observations about the profound as paper-thin set and their silly claims at glory; I found hope and calm in the little moments like stealing a smoke on the fire escape while watching it all unfold. By the end, all I wanted to do was hug your neck, if you’ll excuse my southern parlance.

I needed more Helene Hanff in my life! I needed your wit and words and literary comfort food. But the stacks held nothing new. Impossible, I thought, Where are the other titles I found online? Your book on writing; the collected radio broadcasts on BBC; your New Yorker’s guide to New York. Only one could be found in the New York Public system, and it was one of those reserve titles where one is expected to take the book out – Under Supervision! – sit down in that, albeit beautiful, 42nd street branch and read it all in one gulp. The rest? Nowhere to be found. Well, not for free, I should say.  I felt like you, after reading John Donne, when you wrote to Frank swooning, “Dizzy with Donne, I craved for more! But the closet was bare.”

As we have noted, I am of the penniless writer variety, and I have been trying, in recent months, to curb what I refer to as my “book whoredom.” I am not victim to many impulse buys in my life save for music and books. A bitch like me could simply go broke let loose in a Barnes and Noble unchecked. I have employed an astonishing (for me, at least) amount of self-control as of late when it comes to music, but my book fetish is still, well, livingly festishistic. So I gave in.

Were you still alive, I would’ve obtained copies at new cover prices under the auspices of supporting an artist at their trade. Since you passed away in 1997, however, I decided to honor our shared loved of secondhand books and purchase used copies. While it is indeed a nod to our shared pauper aesthetics, I do so love secondhands, with their marginalia and inscriptions and markings of previous lives. And as a further homage to you, I decided to procure my “used books” from a British distributor. In this age of website ordering and rote form email responses, I am unlikely to spark an overseas correspondence as you once did I’m afraid. Sending all my love to “Nora and the kids” in response to my half dot com order confirmation is more likely to have my PayPal account permanently disabled for cyber-stalking than it is to inspire cross-continent pen-pallery, so I kept my urges in check. But the spirit remains.

I am currently staring at newly arrived copies of “A Letter from New York: BBC Woman’s Hour Broadcasts” and “Q’s Legacy.” The “Letter” was formerly sold, at some point in its life, for one pound fifty its cover flap tells me and the “Q’s” is a discard, first edition large print version, from the Flathead County Library System in Kalispell, Montana. My own copy of “Underfoot in Show Business” and “Apple of My Eye: A Personal Tour of New York” are somewhere above the Atlantic this very as-we-type. I await, with anticipation, to see the trajectory of their former lives as well. Who knows, after all, they may have come from some place utterly exotic like Utah or Detroit. Only time and ink stamps will tell.

As I slip my bookmark into the worn pages (and thank you, Strand, for placing them by the register to be grabbed by the pileful and stashed away while the cashier turns to retrieve a bag), I can’t help but wonder if in a decade past some other wanna-be writer sat holding this same book. Was she dreaming, somewhere near Trafalgar Square, about the Big Apple the same way you once did London; or was it a him on east 72nd peering up at the high rise you once tromped through with the neighbors’ dogs in tow wondering how to start that new play that no one will read? The life of a book contains so many lives when all is said and done. Thank you for sharing yours.

More anon.

Yours, Wordily enraptured,
Number Nine Hundred and Ninety-Eight

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