Just Another Writer–Chapter 4

Chapter Four

In 1972 I had reached the point where I was working as a temp to support the bookstore. I got a call from Ralph asking me if I wanted a full-time job at the Press and I took it. By that time, there was a group of women committed to the work going on at Pride and Prejudice and a new sign went up at 3322–The Women’s Center. I got rid of the used books. A women artists’ collective brought in lithographs and paintings and pottery. We started having regular meetings, or at any rate, regularly scheduled meetings. Everything else about them was highly irregular.

Our political leanings ranged from Polly, the Trotskyist, to a Republican whose name I can, sadly, no longer recall. Judy was married to David Hernandez, leader of the Roscoe Street Blues, and they had moved into the bookstore building when Nick left. Pat was a single mother who lived in a drug-infested building with her kids and her younger, hippy lover. Susan was a high-strung dancer who had left her husband Walter, a pipe organ repairer, and moved into the bookstore building. Molly, a red-diaper baby from western Illinois, had also moved in. Lucina and Kathryn you know. Joan was a classical violinist from a strict Presbyterian background who was rapidly becoming a Lesbian separatist. She lived in a coach house down the alley that had become a kind of annex to the bookstore building. My little sister Sara came up from Oklahoma and moved in there, too. She took classes at the Art Institute and became the official artist for Lavender Woman, a lesbian newspaper. The one and only thing we all agreed on was feminism.

Besides Lucina, Kathryn, Molly, Susan, David, Judy, and Paul, the building was now home to Kidd, Angie, Howell, Jackie and Ralph, with James coming in every weekend at first and then moving in himself. Actually, some of those people weren’t there when some of the others were, but I can’t possibly tell you exactly who was there when. It wasn’t that kind of place. My brother Mikie even came up from Oklahoma for awhile, but while he was with us, there was a shoot-out between the police and some gangbangers in the grocery store parking lot across the street. We watched it from behind the plate-glass windows of the darkened bookstore. A week or so later, Paul was arrested for not opening our front door fast enough for the police. He was put into a cell overnight. His cellmate asked him what he was in for.

“Obstructing justice,” Paul said. “What about you?”

“I killed my wife.”

Understandably, Mikie decided that Chicago was not his kind of place and went back home. I don’t think he left Oklahoma again for ten or fifteen years.

When my parents came up to visit us, on the other hand, my father was delighted with the whole setup. He declared that he would have liked living in a place like that when he was our age.  He was especially taken with all the sleeping lofts we’d built. My mother made friends with Kim, a small transsexual whom she first encountered sitting under a sheet in an armchair, meditating. They were well matched, both gentle and pretty and gracious.

So. I had a full-time job and a time-consuming political commitment. I lived in a lovely madhouse. And I was writing a book.

I decided to move out of the madhouse. I took a small apartment a little more than a block away. Still caught up in everything that was happening at 3322, I now had some privacy and some peace and quiet. I was no longer in the dinner collective and I could cook my own meals. The first night in my new place I had a dinner of green beans, just because I could. This was the second time in my life I had lived by myself.

Unfortunately, the job at the Press turned out to be more than I could handle. I didn’t have the skills or the experience or the temperament, and I started to develop a stress-related respiratory problem. (I probably also screwed up at least one poor man’s academic career, for which I am deeply sorry.) The doctor said I could quit my job or take Valium. Fortunately, an old acquaintance from modeling days, Bob Nelson, called to ask if I knew anyone who wanted to learn keyline and pasteup. He had a one-man advertising agency and more work than he could handle. I told him I knew somebody and took the job.

Bob was an odd duck. He had a small basement office in the north loop and a few clients who’d been with him for years. He designed and produced ads and catalogues and brochures. While I was learning, he paid me a small hourly fee. After I learned it, I was paid by the job.

I loved the work. Bob would hand me sheets of typeset material, which I would “butter up,” meaning that I would brush poster cement on the backs of them and leave them on a big table to dry. Then I’d cut a large sheet of white illustration board and tack it down on the drawing table. I’d rule the dimensions of two pages of a catalog with a light pencil and put a sheet of the typeset material, glue-side down, on a cutting board. With a shiny steel T-square and an X-acto knife with a sharp new blade, I’d cut out squares of type, peel them off the cutting board and put them in place on the ruled illustration board using the T-square and a clear lucite triangle. Where the illustrations were to go, I’d rule in boxes, using lovely thin pens. Everything was clean and precise and satisfying. Most satisfying of all, I could look at what I’d done and say, “That’s good,” and walk away. It was completely different from the women’s center or the book or my personal relationships.

For years after I began to make my living as a writer, I thought of keyline as my safety net. I had a skill, a trade I could fall back on. Computers took that away, but I don’t think I’ll need it now. And besides, I’ve learned to design websites.

Bob was also an amateur photographer, and the joy of his life was taking pictures of models who happened to find him while doing rounds. That’s how I met him. He was lecherous in an entirely innocent way and ended up becoming a good friend to me over the years.

One day I was at Bob’s, working away on a catalog of educational materials, with a cigarette in the ashtray beside me, only inches from piles of paper coated in highly flammable adhesive. It used to make Bob quake, but for some reason he never made me quit smoking at work. “Just for God’s sake,” he’d say, “don’t dump the ashtray in the wastebasket.” The phone rang and Bob picked it up, as he always did. I didn’t answer the phone, even when I was alone there. It was almost always a client calling, and I didn’t want to be a receptionist. I was a cranky young woman. Anyway, this time the call was from Andra, and she had news. Beacon Press wanted to publish our book.

I’m pretty sure my heart stopped. I know I whooped, because Bob came running in from the photostat room. When I told him, he opened a bottle of the wine he kept in the refrigerator for clients–and models, bless his heart.

More wine was drunk that night at 3322. Much more. We had lost the boys with the dream and found Beacon, one of the solidest, most respected publishers in the business. And it was a publisher committed to social concerns, with a reputation we could be very proud of when we told our friends and families the news. The advance was small, but we were in no mood for quibbling. We were used to being poor, but we weren’t used to being published.

Shortly thereafter, I decided that I wanted the full experience and that included meeting the people who were going to publish our book. I wanted to be treated like an author, whatever that meant. Beacon was in Boston, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me. Lucina had, by this time, moved to New York and was about to open in an off-off Broadway play. I decided to get on a bus and go east. I would see Lucina’s play and talk to whoever would talk to me at Beacon. I called them up and told them I was coming, packed, and headed for the Greyhound station.

I remember Lucina’s play vividly. It was what they used to call agitprop and included a reading of Judy Grahn’s poem “A Woman is Talking to Death” and the story of Mountain Charlie, a woman who passed for a man in the Old West. Lucina was very good in it, powerful and graceful and always interesting.

I remember Lucina’s apartment on the Bowery, where she seemed so happy and at home. An attractive and rather buxom woman, she would sometimes be hassled by the cruder denizens of her neighborhood as we walked down the street. I remember her turning on one such man and saying, “You are being a bad neighbor.” In Boston, I remember walking along the streets and wondering what they did with everyone who was not between the ages of eighteen and thirty, imagining attics filled with children and old people. I remember the conference room at Beacon Press.

But I don’t remember anyone I met at Beacon or anything we said.

That may be guilt. You see, when I was back in Chicago, at work at Bob’s, I got another call from Andra. She had just phoned Farrar, Straus to tell them we were going to publish with Beacon, and the young woman she talked to begged her to wait, to give her just one day.

We didn’t know it then, but the young woman who had asked to see the manuscript in the first place had absolutely no authority at Farrar, Straus. She was some kind of assistant who had been assigned to read and reject unsolicited manuscripts. When she got our query letter, she wrote to ask for the manuscript without consulting anyone. No one else there even knew we existed.

After Andra’s call, this young woman went to one of the editors, Linda Lee, and asked her, as a personal favor, to read our book that night. Linda agreed, and the next day she went to Roger Straus and pulled in all her favors. By that afternoon, they had doubled Beacon’s advance offer. For the first time in twenty years, Farrar, Straus & Giroux was going to publish an unsolicited manuscript, and it was ours.

Click here for Chapter 5

9 Responses to Just Another Writer–Chapter 4

  1. Christine says:

    YAHOOOOOO!!!!! I’m so excited to know it’s going to be published by FSG for more $$$$! (oh… wait…it has been published…a longish time past…sorry… got really caught up in The Moment! Still: Yahoo!)
    🙂

  2. Olga says:

    What a great story; what is the book that was published?

  3. It’s like it just happened, and it’s very exciting. I’m holding my breath for Chapter 5.

  4. Jan Gleiter says:

    Believe me, there’s nothing the least bit “odd” about the 40+ people who are reading this. You, on the other hand, I’m not so sure about . . . Nonetheless, the book continues to be wonderful. It’s wierd that someone who pretty much knows how it all turns out can feel like she’s reading a suspense novel.

  5. Mac says:

    5 … 5 … 5 … 5… 5 … 5 … 5 … 5 … 5 … (no pressure though)

  6. Carolyn W says:

    I’m enjoying your writing. I didn’t quite follow the “typeset” paragraph though, got lost in the large number of names in earlier paragraphs, too. Not criticizing, just critiquing.

  7. Thanks very much, Carolyn! This is the kind of comment that really helps me.

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