I didn't entertain high expectations for myself. High expectations weren't nurtured in my neck of nowhere back then; children weren't fawned over from an early age as "gifted" and groomed for a prizewinning future; self-esteem was considered something you had to pluck from the garden yourself. Attending Frostburg certainly wasn't touted as the slingshot to a soaring tomorrow. I remember the then head of Frostburg's English department---in whose office hung a framed letter from T.S. Eliot, the closest thing to a saint's relic---drawing on a cigarette in class and pronouncing, "Some of you will make something of yourselves in life (here he took a juicy pause worthy of Charles Laughton as Captain Bligh), and some of you will end up wiping the lunch counter at Woolworth's." I rather doubt my generational counterparts at Princeton and Yale had their chains yanked so. Then again, he prided himself on his crusty curmudgeonliness, and another one of my English-lit professors, who later went on to become a prison chaplain, loaned me money when I decided to leave for New York, an act of generosity that I wouldn't want to go unrecorded. Anyway, adversity isn't the worst thing to have on your side. Frostburg's inferiority complex helped stoke an underdog attitude that made you want to prove everybody wrong. And by "you" I mean "me," since I don't know if any of my classmates felt the same way, or if they were even listening. They may have had a whole different narrative playing through their..."
From James Wolcott's new memoir, Lucking Out: My Life Getting Down and Semi-Dirty in Seventies New York.
The Skimmer and I didn't feel well yesterday. We spent a lazy day inside watching TV, napping and reading. Well, I was reading. The Skimmer was listening. As every few minutes I'd read a passage to him from Lucking Out.
"Skimmer, Skimmer, you up? Listen to this."
On the inside looking out, I managed to become a minor fixture in the aquarium, part of the sandy grit at the bottom of the Voice's ecosystem. I dated a co-worker, though dating isn't exactly what we did. I'm not sure what it was we did, recalling only the prison heat of her five-floor walk-up on Eighth Street---a street as unpicturesque today as it was then---where she once chucked her shoes at me as I exited following a minor spat in which it had been determined I was wrong.
The Skimmer chuckled, "We're always wrong."
"Yes, you are! But so few of you are so eloquent about it."
Wolcott continued, describing the shoe chucker as a "luscious string bean," "an Italian-American tempest with a raucous, dirty laugh and chocolate eyes who enjoyed a smattering of rough sex."
I didn't read that or what followed out loud. Didn't want The Skimmer to get any ideas. I already had a headache.
From the Kirkus review, a group who prides themselves on being The World's Toughest Book Critics:
...the entire book is not only a bittersweet valentine to a much-maligned era but a model of exemplary prose that any writer would do well to study.
I've been a grateful student of Wolcott's, taking mental notes for years. So lucky his exemplary prose are only a click away. If I posted lines from his posts that surprised and delighted me, lines I'd like to remember so that I could refer to them to see how it's done, my blog would be so filled up with excerpts from him that I would have to change my blog's name from Blue Girl In A Red State to Blue Girl In A Red State Who Reads Wolcott In A Blue State 24/7 If Only He Would Post That Much, The Slacker.
I did post an excerpt from one of his posts on Facebook early in the summer:
Will Texas gov Rick Perry--i.e., George Bush III--get in the race? Please, let it be so. He and Romney can have a hair-off, with hot combs at dawn.
I know they both have that hair. I've thought about both of them having that hair. I've stared at their hair, in those stupid debates, week after week. And where I go, Ew, gross, Wolcott comes up with a hair-off, with hot combs at dawn.
Yesterday, as I was reading the excerpt at the top of this post...
Anyway, adversity isn't the worst thing to have on your side. Frostburg's inferiority complex helped stoke an underdog attitude that made you want to prove everybody wrong. And by "you" I mean "me," since I don't know if any of my classmates felt the same way, or if they were even listening. They may have had a whole different narrative playing through their...
...My right eye began to itch. I pulled my glasses down a bit on my nose and closed my eyes. As I ran my finger beneath my brow, I thought about the different ways that sentence could end.
They may have had a whole different narrative playing through their... heads.
They may have had a whole different narrative playing through their... minds.
I knew better.
They may have had a whole different narrative playing through their internal sound systems.
Surprising and delightful!
This student still has a lot to learn. Lucky for me, I'm only on page 31 of Lucking Out. And so far, it's been one gem after another.
How I got to Mailer was the equivalent of firing a paper airplane out the window and having it land at JFK.
Reading the Voice, you could practically hear the clomping hooves of police horses as a protest threatened to get disorderly, tear gas canisters about to hit the cobblestone. Since New York didn't actually have that many cobblestoned streets, my aural imagination must have been using its embellishing brush.
Or, when he was back in Dan Wolf's office for another interview:
To return to the office where Mailer's photograph silently roared: The questions Wolf asked were basic and general, mild probes befitting an informal interview with a non-candidate for a nonexistent job. I wonder if he thought I was a rough diamond or a raw carrot.
Even after I study the next 227 pages, I might still retain my raw carrot status. But an even more surprised and delighted raw carrot, to be sure.
Because Wolcott's so... great.
Because Wolcott's so... awesome.
Or, as Roy Edroso put it in a comment on my hot combs at dawn post on Facebook:
"Yeah, he's a treasure."
All you rough diamonds and raw carrots should order and read Wolcott's Lucking Out. And I know you knew that already because you're all so... perceptive.