Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Things That Scare Us

People always say it takes guts to go after the things you want, and I think that's true, but I also think it takes a certain level of blindness, an inability to see or understand the implications of what you're trying to accomplish.

I find myself constantly afflicted with this aforementioned blindness, though usually, thankfully, it seems to work out in my favor. I think because if you do have that blindness, a negative response to your actions doesn't really phase you. So maybe bad things have happened when I've blindly gone after the things I've wanted, but I've just never noticed them. What's that saying about ignorance being bliss? And what on earth am I talking about?

In the past, people have asked me how I've been able to do certain things--how did you get so-and-so to appear at your reading? How did you get your article in such-and-such publication? "Well," I always say, "I just asked." There's really no big secret to it. On many of these occasions, I have been blind to negative outcomes and I just do what I want to do. If it doesn't work out, okay; or, in the immortal words of my mother, "NEXT!"

Such was the case again this week when I was presented with an interesting dilemma--there was an article from the February 5, 1985 issue of The Village Voice I wanted to read as a reference for an article I was working on for another publication, and I couldn't find it online. The piece, titled "I Spy," was written by famed former Voice film critic J. Hoberman, Jim to friends. I contacted him and asked if he had a copy I could read. I didn't think there was anything really special about doing this. I guess my mother had also told me to simply go to the top first, and if that person can't help you, then try someone else. So I went to the source, and to my delight, he responded in the affirmative--yes, he did have a copy I could read, but he didn't have a scanner. Could he mail it to me? Or, he said, I could find the Village Voice archives at the NYU Bobst Library. If he mailed it to me, the piece wouldn't get to me until after my deadline. Would I be able to meet him in person? I asked. I would be glad to get him a coffee or whatever pastry his heart desired as thanks. While I waited for his response via email, I called up the libraries just in case he wasn't available.

It turns out I could only go to Bobst Library if I had an NYU student ID (nope), an NYU alumni ID (also nope...and neither did HanOre, an actual alum, so I couldn't even borrow it), or permission from the New York Public Library in the form of what's called a METRO pass to use Bobst--meaning that whatever I needed was not available in the NYPL system so I, sad and pathetic researcher that I am, had no place left to turn except Bobst and they would take pity on me. So, before wandering down that path, I called up the NYPL--did they have what I need in microfilm? No--they only had the July to December issues of the Voice, or so it seemed. Well, that was one element crossed off my list. Now it was time to call Bobst, to see if my treasure was buried in their microfilm...and it turns out it wasn't there either. Jim was now my only hope.

And to my delight, he was available. We would meet for coffee. "See you there then," he wrote. "I'm a grizzled guy with glasses." I chuckled.


"Hi Jim, I'm here outside of the Anthology Film Archives in a leopard coat and cowboy boots. Thanks again for meeting me today, and I'll see you soon!" is probably on the list of the most "me" things I have ever said. 

But I am easy to spot (no pun intended), and shortly Jim appears, in a maroon beanie and black leather jacket pinned with some kind of band button I can't decipher. His beard matches his self- description and I appreciate his self-awareness. We attempt one coffee shop, but it's full so we try another. Shortly I have a latte in his hands and a tea in my own and we are sitting and chatting. He takes out a padded folder and removes his piece, a perfect photocopy, and hands it to me. After all of the library-calling and emailing, it feels less like a treasure map and more like the treasure itself. I am so excited to read it, but I am also excited to chat with him about his work and the golden age of The Village Voice. He tells stories and laughs and we talk about freelance writing, and it's a lovely time. He shares details of his life--his teaching gigs at Cooper Union and, soon, Columbia; his past and forthcoming books; growing up in Queens--and asks me about mine. I am honored that he has been kind enough to take an audience with me, but also that he is interested in my own life. On our way out, I ask him if he hates it when people ask if he's "seen any good movies lately." He does, he laughs, then we shake hands and part ways. He says he is interested in reading my piece when it comes out.

This is where the blindness comes in for me, I think. I didn't just say, Jim Hoberman, legendary and accomplished film critic, I am going to ask you to coffee! I just said, here's some research I need to do, and this is how I'm going to get it done.
So yes, Jim was the film critic at The Village Voice for almost 25 years; he has written several books about film, has taught at Cooper Union, Harvard, NYU and, shortly, Columbia; and he has twice served on the board of the New York Film Festival; and, as he writes in his website biography, "the thing of which he’s most proud is surviving for over 35 years in New York without the benefit of a normal job." But he's still a person, as we all are. We all put on our pants the same way. Some of us have just been putting them on for longer and in more distinguished places, but those of us who haven't have the opportunity to catch up and get there, too.

And this is not to say that I haven't been scared meeting other people in the past. I was notably fearful about what kind of salad I should order while having lunch with James Wolcott. But I was still there--courage is not the absence of fear, after all; it is acting in spite of it. 

I am scared of so many things, often without reason--failure, butter, rejection, every time I pitch Vogue, texting guys I am dating, mayonnaise--but I try to notice what scares me, recognize the fear is holding me back and do it anyway. Eat the butter, text the guy, pitch Vogue, fail, get rejected, then get back up and do it all again.

I guess if you ask me how end up doing certain things, if I am ever scared, this has been the very long-winded version of my answer. I just never let fear stop me.

The photocopy of Jim's piece