>Travel Diary: May 18, 2003
Every morning of my life I wake up and think: What am I doing here?
Yesterday’s panel went fine. Attendance was a little light, but the conference generally seemed smaller this year. In the evening, I went to A_______ K_______’s reading, and it was decidedly underpopulated. More folks showed up for the free-food-and-bad-wine soirée afterwards, which was either very rude or very working-class. G_______, from U. New Mexico, came to our panel and I stayed for her paper right afterwards. It was good to see her. She just got tenure at TVI, the bum!
S_______ raved about K_______ when she introduced him, in a way that seemed both ingratiating and false. White girl swoons over cutting-edge black artist. I hope somebody’s getting laid here. They’d met at some conference in Germany—and isn’t that just about perfect?—and she’d decided to invite him to Youngstown.
He had the habit, which I’ve seen other writers adopt when they read their work, of removing and replacing his glasses over and over in a compulsive, Tourette-like tic. I tried to find some relationship between whether he had his glasses on or off and whether he was looking down at the page or up at the audience, but I never could decide if they were reading glasses or the kind that correct nearsightedness. Maybe they were clear lenses and entirely an affectation.
Because of his substantial dreads, a yard-long lock of which fell down just in front of each eye, bracketing his face like the bars of a jail cell, he had to perform a small, side-to-side movement of his head each time he wanted space to slip the slim stems of his glasses over his ears, and then again when he wanted them off. First the left side, the dreads swaying like heavy black vines, his glasses held akimbo in his right hand, then his head wobbled in the opposite direction and the right stem slid into place. After a few repetitions, I began to find the gesture hugely annoying, and I stared down at my lap every time I saw his hand fly up to his face.
He also mumbled, in a thick accent, and it was difficult to follow most of the reading, which he said was from his third novel, currently in progress. When he got done, there were no questions, which didn’t surprise me: No one could have asked anything because no one had understood anything! What I did catch were two scenes that struck me as cliché and cartoonish: a fat white cop verbally hassles a black guy who, riding his bike to work, must pass through a fancy white neighborhood where he doesn’t “belong”; a Chicano worker is killed in an accident at a construction site and, later, the white foreman gets his name wrong (referring to him as “Pedro” instead of “Manuel”).
If such incidents are emblematic of the extent of racism in this country, I guess things have gotten a lot better since I last checked. So that was annoying, not least because of the obvious reverence with which we were supposed to be listening to this guy. Plus he kept reciting the litany of “race, gender, and class” and couldn’t manage to fit his mouth around the words “sexual orientation.” I dunno. Maybe I was just in a mood. But I keep wondering when we’re going to move along in the discussion about race and “multidentity” in this country; I’ve been waiting a long-ass time, it feels like.
At the cocktail party I felt myself starting to unravel but stayed on past the warning signs. What is it about standing up and talking to strangers that feels like a test I’m always flunking? Annoying conversation, mostly. The more _______ drank, the more pedantic and provocative she became; we were joined at some point by a skinny, slightly unwholesome-looking queerboy who held forth on a variety of topics long beyond the point at which my interest in hearing about them had faded. For food, the conference had gone the Italian-deli route: platters of marinated mozzarella balls, olives, salami, cheese, etc., were placed around on four-tops. It was good, but there were no plates or utensils, so you were pretty much reduced to eating with your fingers. Hard to talk intelligently about literature when you’re trying to figure out where to spit the olive pits.