The book club was held around a long wooden table in the library of the retirement home. The members (all women) trickled in, dressed to the nines in khaki pants over stockings and slippers, or smart appliqué sweat suits. When everyone was seated, one more woman entered the room. “I’m late!” she said, rushing—to the extent that an old person can rush—to an open seat, which happened to be next to mine. She had curly white hair and big purple plastic earrings. She settled in beside me, took my hand in both of hers, gave me an enormous smile, and leaned in close. She gazed into my eyes. She sighed.
I love you, too, I almost said.
“You’re the author?” she said.
“I am,” I said.
Her smile got even wider. “Honey,” she said.
“I hated your book.”
“I hated it.”
“Oh,” I said. I pulled my hand back like she’d bitten a chunk out of it. “Um,” I said, thinking of the eight graphic sex scenes, “did it offend you?”
“No,” she said cheerfully. “I hated it because it was bad.”
Moving to New York City is sort of like moving to a Third World country with excellent tap water. First and foremost, you must learn the language: walk-up, the L, bodega, Nolita. Then you have to lower your standards: You dine with mice. You live in a closet. During rush hour, you stand in the subway, resting your face in a stranger’s armpit.
You accept jobs you haven’t had since college, or jobs you wouldn’t have touched in college: You are twenty-seven years old and tending bar on the day shift. You are twenty-seven years old and walking a bouquet of poodles. You are twenty-seven years old and standing outside a comedy club, freezing your ass off for five hours on a Sunday, forcing fliers on innocent passersby.
“Comedy show!” you scream in their faces. “Everyone likes to laugh,” you shriek without cracking a smile. You are like a telemarketer in person. You are uncharacteristically aggressive. You are horribly annoying. Your job title is part of the foreign, exotic-sounding New York City lexicon:
You are a barker. You are one who barks.
I moved from Rhode Island to Manhattan two years ago, an impulsive, passionate, I’m-going-to-do-something-for-myself-and-pretend-I-usually-don’t decision, the kind that comes from reading too many women’s magazines filled with columns called Take a YOU Break and All About You, You Fabulous Woman!, a decision I called “liberating,” by which I meant, “similar to jumping off a sky-scraper.” I had no money, no plan, no job, just an East Village apartment that a friend said she’d sublet to me while she spent six months in Michigan.
For the first few weeks, I holed up in that apartment, surfing Craig’s List, first scanning the teaching jobs, then sliding gradually down the employment totem pole until I landed on an ad that said, “HOT girls needed to work the door at a HOT comedy club. Email pictures.”
I called one of my friends and read her the ad. “Can you believe it?” I said. “It’s like, demoralizing. I would never!”
Always one to look on the bright side, my friend pointed out, “It’s better than stripping. Or escorting.”
I didn’t tell her that I was broke and desperate enough to have considered both, that the only thing stopping me was my fine breeding, a.k.a. my mother’s voice in my head: “Sex is not a recreational activity…You can’t go to synagogue with your knees exposed!…The only man you can trust is your father.” But working at a comedy club was a far cry from prostitution.
Recently, I was working at the bar when a drunk guy approached me. “How’s the book going?” he asked.
“Good, good,” I said, smiling. “Thanks.”
“Yeah? You traveling all over?” “Yup,” I said. “Lots of traveling.”
“Are you going to forget me when you’re famous?”
I looked at the man. He was wearing a suit. He was sweating from his forehead a little, the way men sometimes do when they’ve had too many drinks. His tie was loosened and crooked, like a caricature of a drunk guy. He was grinning down at me, swaying slightly on his feet. I had no idea who he was.
“You?” I said. I gave him a friendly punch in the arm. “You I could never forget.”
LUKE SAYS: I long for the days when people said to me, "Are you going to forget me when you are rich and famous?" I used to get that a lot a decade ago. "One day I’m going to see you on CNN," that sort of stuff. Not so much anymore.