January 30th, 2002

The gentleman is always properly dressed

Cool places I don't go to

Here’s an odd thing – I feel like I have too much to write about. I woke up this morning with my head swimming in ideas and not knowing where to begin. Should I tell you about my dream where I was waiting in a bar that catered to two mafia families, one Italian and one Orthodox Jew? How about reflections on my friends and how guilty I feel about their acceptance of me, their presence in my life? Or maybe I should talk about finishing Dave Egger’s A.H.W.O.S.G. and how pissed off and in awe I am at him and his book?

Better take the easy way for now.

I’m looking at things hanging on the cork-board in my office. They’re mostly my things, not work related at all. Little things really, trinkets, gewgaws. I'd like to say that they’re little reminders of who I am, peepholes into the shadow box of my psyche, but that would be something of an exaggeration. Really there’s lots of things here that reflect the dreams that I’ve never really been able to fully explore. They tell not of who I am, but who I wish I could have been.

Take the pamphlet for the Boston Athenaeum. The Athenaeum is one of the finest private libraries in the country with and august history and holdings at which I still marvel when perusing the list:

1) Approximately one third of George Washington’s personal library;
2) One of the most important collections of abolitionist tracts and pamphlets in the world;
3) The complete collection of Gypsy materials assembled by Francis Hindes Groome; and, of course
4) Stack upon stack of far more mundane but terrifically entertaining STUFF.

I first heard about the Athenaeum in the latter days of my undergraduate career and was positively entranced. Here was an organization which, for better or worse, appealed to some vanity hidden deep inside me. Of course I couldn’t be a member. I was too mundane, too middle class, too intellectually inferior. But if I could, oh, the world would open up to me! I could wander the stacks, pulling Byron off the shelves and with the intent of standing on the terrace overlooking the burial ground (did I mention how amazing the building is?) and… well, I don’t know what I’d do, exactly, but it would be magnificent, and stupendous, and the world would have known that I had arrived. I would be accepted, known, and, of course, somehow revered. It was supposed to be the ultimate justification of all of my intellectual pretensions, the ultimate reward for all the years I had been scorned as a "brain" or "bookish" or just a plain old "geek."

Well, it wasn’t all that. I learned years later that the application process for standard membership wasn’t that vigorous. It helps if you have a member listed as one of your recommendations (I did), but really they’re just another non-profit organization which seeks to promote itself in the midst of an overwhelmingly apathetic climate. I became a member. There was no fanfare. No accolades. No triumphant arrival into the who’s who of Boston, New England, the United States. No, it wasn’t splendid at all. Well, on second thought, it was and wasn’t at the same time. It’s still a beautiful place to read. There are constant offerings to satisfy one's curiosity (a reading from “The True History of the Kelly Gang”), need for culture (noonday music at King’s Chapel), appetite (afternoon teas), and all manner of other things. There are book groups, puppet shows (I love marionettes), readings, black-tie balls, art exhibits. All of this is still happening even though the building that houses the Athenaeum has been closed for renovations for about two years.

I’ve been to almost none of it.

Now, I suppose that the way that I’ve been talking about this that you’re thinking that I was somehow disappointed that membership in the Athenaeum wasn’t the grand event that I had hoped and wished for, but it’s far more tragic than that. No, really it’s just that even though I’ve been a member for some time now, I still don’t think I deserve to be a member. I still haven’t come close to achieving all of the things that I thought that gaining access to this library would mean and I am disappointed in myself and more than a little embarrassed. I’ve assumed while at the few functions to which I have gone that someone would recognize me for the fraud that I am and have me summarily tossed from his/her presence. Here, like most everywhere else, I live in constant fear that someone will motion to a burly security guard, point at me, and say something cliché like, “Get that creature from my sight!”

Still caught up in my own illusions of grandiosity even though it’s generally been the utterly ordinary that has held me captivated. (And there will be more on that later, too.)
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The gentleman is always properly dressed

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How about this one? I'm looking at one of the cards (I'd call it a business card, but it's over twice that size) of the now-defunct Curious Liquids Café. It was one of the coolest coffee shops I’ve come across. It was just up the street from the Athenaeum in another of the gorgeous 19th Century buildings up on Beacon Hill. They made great sandwiches and better coffee and the atmosphere was truly remarkable… If you wanted to be all trendoid and do the see and be seen thing, you could sit upstairs at one of the little café tables in the windows and be on display like mannequins at a Newbury St. fashion boutique. Ok, so that never really appealed to me, but downstairs… Downstairs, in the basement of this beautiful brick building, you could hide yourself away in a distressed easy chair nestled in the safety of an arched alcove and just be there. Alternatively, if you were feeling more sociable, you could hang at one of the larger tables decorated with Edward Gorey (!) prints in the center of the room, chat, play games, just stare. There was music (some crap, some inspired), art (again, some crap and some inspired) and no end of interesting people assembled there at all hours.

I saw the place open. I lamented when it closed, driven out (IIRC) because the present tenant was willing to go much higher on their lease than they could. Still, in spite of it being a short walk from my office, I can use my fingers to count how many times I actually went there. All of my visits were eminently memorable. Things that come to mind…

I met my friend Amanda there and sat and marveled at her while she talked about her art, her hopes and fears, and her ever-present spring fever. It always amazed me that she could be so full of life, so driven. Her life had the potential to be so chaotic, but somehow she always seemed to be on top of things, calm, together. At the time, she was on the cusp of going to New Hampshire to do summer stock, and then off to tour the country in various productions, and later to settle (somewhat) in NJ. It was the last time I was able to meet her casually, just for the sake of.

Once while I was wandering around with So (another of my seemingly ubiquitous arty friends), we both got a hankering for expensive coffee drinks and ended up in town on the Hill. On the steps of Curious Liquids, I ran into a beautiful Argentinian I had known in school and had called my friend. She snubbed me. Well, ok, not outright, but in that way that people who are terribly, terribly socially adept can say, “I really don’t know why I’m speaking with you,” even while smiling and making conversation and pretending to care about what’s being said. She was so very pleasant and so very bored all at once. So and I laughed about it later, but I still didn’t love the feeling that I was somehow no longer magnificent enough for her.

So many little anecdotes, but far too few. Too few for a place that I loved and “Wowed” out loud the first time I had one of their roast beef sandwiches and could just go and sit and read and didn’t even bother to go to on the day when they were closing to say goodbye and thank you to the owners.

Hooray for nostalgia. :P