Thursday, September 29, 2011

Reading Henry Miller on the Subway

At 7pm, I exit the main branch of the New York Public Library, having spent all day inside a palatial reading room. I’m not complaining by any means, because I love staring at the ornate gold mouldings and rows upon rows of ancient wooden desks, but my feet were near frozen. I must remember to wear a closed shoe of some variety when I go there again because sandals that leave my feet mostly naked are not really an option.

I walk down the beautiful white stairs, holding on to the gold railing. I’m wearing a red dress, almost like Audrey Hepburn in that scene from Funny Face, if Audrey Hepburn were carrying a bagful of writing materials and wondering where the hell her cell phone is.

Outside, the air has the slight chill and stronger wind of early fall. It is already dark and if there were any traces of summer left they’re now gone. In true Elyssa fashion, however, I am still dressed for summer and the fall breeze rushes right through me. By the time I arrive in Grand Central Station, I am cold enough to buy a CafĂ© au Lait from Financier, which turns out to be a good choice because they give free, tiny pastries with each purchase. Scores of people rush past me, men in their late 30s and early 40s looking to catch the MetroNorth back to their suburban lives. My plans, thankfully, are different.

I am headed where I always go when I am by myself and have no plans in particular: The Strand. On the corner of 12th Street and Broadway, just off of Union Square, The Strand occupies four floors packed top to bottom, inside and out, with books, books, more books, and miscellaneous things book readers love, like Moleskines, calendars, and a variety of tote bags emblazoned with The Strand logo. The store is said to have in its clutches over 18 miles of used and new books, which is longer than the length of Manhattan. I always feel at home when I go there, running my fingers over the colorful paperbacks, reading the summaries in hopes of finding the next book that I will call my own and hold close to my heart as I walk through the city looking for a place to sit and read.

Today I found myself hovering in Fiction, a pleasant surprise since I am often drawn to other areas, like Sociology, Photography, New York History, Creative Non-Fiction, Journalism and, of late, Food Writing. I have to be in the right mood for Fiction, mostly because I have always preferred the truth to the imaginary. Staring up and up and up at the bookshelves, around each corner and into each crevice where books are stacked, I’m thinking a modern classic tonight, but I don’t really know where to begin. I contemplate Nabokov, Updike, Janowitz, and others before I spot Tropic of Cancer. The novel by Henry Miller I remember is advertised in the front window in a celebration of Banned Book Week (I will find out later that upon publication, Tropic of Cancer was banned in all English-speaking countries. I think this is pretty badass.) Deciding I could go for a bit of salacity and dry wit from the 1930s, I pick up the book and, involuntarily, hold it close to my heart. Miller and I have already begun our love affair, and I am eager to jump into bed with him later. I realize a smile crossing my face and remember just how long it’s been since I bought a new book—my income is not as disposable as it once was, so I am only the utmost selective when purchasing a book. Sometimes too selective. I think it has been almost six months. Nevertheless, I am glad to have chosen Miller to end the dry spell, in what is perhaps a perfect exercise in irony.

I tell the cashier no thanks, I don’t want a bag for my book and I walk out happily holding it in my hand. I am excited when I remember I will have time to start the book on the train, as it will take about 15-20 minutes to get to my stop. I enter the station, and sit and wait for my train. Another gift of reading time! The subway station is loud and clatters and clangs with the noise of incoming and outgoing trains and passengers, but funnily enough it is a perfect place to read. Once my eyes start taking in the words, external sounds fade to nothing and I am lost in a sea of quiet punctuated only by the words in the novel. Is this what being a New Yorker feels like?

A blond man to my left with a bag of Whole Foods groceries at his feet asks if I’m enjoying the book. I smile and say I’ve just purchased it, but I hope so! He is visiting for three weeks from New Zealand, he says, so he has a lot of time to read. I smile again and turn back to my book. I could have easily kept talking to this attractive man and perhaps we would have started a grand love affair, but I am not interested, especially since the far more interesting Miller is in my lap at the moment. Just call me Belle (start video at 1:02).

Eventually the man departs and offers his goodbyes, and my own train shows up. I get on and open the book again, wanting to ingest as much of the book as I can (I sometimes find it difficult to read elsewhere because I always think I should be doing something else). But I quickly realize I really am a funny girl with her head stuck in a book—I have gotten on a train going in the wrong direction, which I have not done since I moved to New York. This Miller chap has quite a spell over me it seems. Ah, well! More time to read on the train home.