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  • Sing Me a Song of 19 University Place
  • Ben Miller (bio)

January 1987 (afternoon–early evening)

I did not detour through the Washington Mews to reach 19 University Place. I saved walks down the mews for weekends. A mews walk made me stop more than walk. Linger. Sigh like a pillow-headed tourist. Elfin roofs! Stucco! I hoarded my one hundred yards of mews, fearing the incongruous beauty would vaporize if I visited it too much. Straight up University Place and into the gray building I went like I had a real plan. Registration day, first year of the graduate writing program, second semester.

During the administration of real estate–gobbling NYU President (and ex-congressman) Brademas, registration involved visiting the English Department to pick classes and obtain signatures, right prior to a trudge to another stone soul-sucker, the Registrar's Office. I punched an elevator button. I got on, got off, and found I had no plan.

The giggly pimpled secretary, Danny, suggested a workshop he thought I should take, the one led by E. L. Doctorow, author of the recently released novel World's Fair. I had never disagreed with Danny, and kept the streak going. He handed me a small card and, pinching it, I shuffled, befuddled, a bit nauseated, around a department replete with shut office doors and an infamy of institutional lounge furniture.

I looked for Visiting Professor Diane Ackerman—poet and essayist—charismatic cloaks, bucolic ringlets of hair. I didn't see her glory. Full-grown infant writers loitered, their nervousness fierce and paralyzing. I noted a pierced, latter-day punk and the hard-earned superfluousness of his leather uniform. The natty acolytes of The Quarterly literary journal and its cult leader, or editor, Gordon "Minimalist" Lish. Simeon, a lean environmentalist from the Northwest (billowing linen shirt, man curls, suede satchel, slacks of mossy coloration), chatting up himself, mostly. And of to the side of the crowd, another artist, her face at a height of six feet, fair and intricate, under a pink hat. [End Page 293]

Blond commas of brows set over greenish eyes. The slant of her nose and slight, scintillating undulation of the nostrils when she focused on a bulletin board posting (Flannery O'Connor's dispiriting quote about schools not "stifling" enough writers had been added by passive-aggressive Danny) or a stranger, me, wearing eye-frames repaired with tape. I was then living on Polar cream soda and seventy-five-cent cart knishes ("Extra onion sauce, please") and, like a potato, had the look of a thing recently dug up. To save dimes and quarters I washed clothes once a month. She blinked.

What was her name? Under the turned-up brim, there was no dismissiveness in her gaze. She kept scrutinizing the raw specimen from Elsewhere.

My scent: cheap King Edward seegars I had been puffing since receiving a box at Christmas (a return to the family pit thankfully spent mostly on a Greyhound bus: two days out, two days back, what felt like three days stuck in the Cleveland bus station). A marionette's plethora of strings dangled off of the green Vietnam-era army-issue khakis I had purchased at Ragstock before "coming east" from urban Iowa. Boot ties to facilitate Hudson River wading. Cargo pockets stuffed with what I thought I needed to survive more months of being at loosest ends in America's most expensive city—fresh napkins from Joe Jr.'s, Bobst Library pencils, mint toothpicks from the Triumph diner, sugar packs from Le Figaro Café, flyers advertising free Bitter End rock and folk performances.

I wore the grin of one pleased to still have pockets. How funny to think I assisted Jean Tobin, librarian at the New York Stock Exchange, for thirty hours a week. I filed annual reports of the listed companies. I stapled what she wanted stapled. I had already been pulled aside by her boss Joe. He told me about deodorant. Where Broadway hit Wall I always stopped, head back, aghast at the stiletto of Trinity Church's slender steeple. To work I wore cordovan shoes a businessman's widow had donated to Goodwill, the same formerly white...


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