Come Back in September: A literary education on West Sixty-Seventh Street, Manhattan
riverrun, $69.99 hb, 419 pp
‘If only one knew what to remember or pretend to remember.’
Elizabeth Hardwick, Sleepless Nights
I first went to New York City in January 1975. It was wonderfully dilapidated. There was a blizzard of sorts, but I had the light jacket I had bought in Athens. If it was cold, I didn’t notice. The morning I arrived, there was a particularly gory pack murder on the subway. I read about it in the Times. So I avoided the subway and walked everywhere, through the sludge. We all knew what happened if you strayed into Central Park. Folks in Columbus, Ohio, where I had been staying with friends, had implored me not to visit New York. They couldn’t imagine why a nice young boy from somewhere called Melbourne – anarchically long hair and freakish wardrobe notwithstanding – wanted to visit that sinful city. (Still missing Nixon, they spoke of sin and sodomy.) I stayed in Midtown, in a grungy hotel soon to be demolished. The old black-and-white TV was on a constant loop, but I followed The Dick Cavett Show as best I could. The louvred door to my room cast terrifying shadows over my bed whenever anyone passed my room. Each night I dreamt that an ogre was on his way from Wall Street to stab me to death. In the morning I had breakfast for 99 cents – or, if I was hungry, $1.99. Then I didn’t eat for the rest of the day. I haunted the grand old bookshops that lined Fifth Avenue in those days. I visited the Metropolitan Museum for the warmth, but I didn’t know about the Frick. Velvet Underground wasn’t playing at the Metropolitan Opera, so I skipped that. During my stay in New York I didn’t speak to a soul, which suited me fine. It was the purpose of my visit.
It is unlikely that Darryl Pinckney – twenty-one then, still relatively new to Manhattan himself, an outsider because of his race and sexuality – ever went for more than fifteen minutes without conversing with someone of consequence, whether literary, artistic, theatrical, bohemian (he moved in all these spheres). Often it was Elizabeth Hardwick, as he relates in this tender, quirky memoir of their unlikely friendship.
It began in 1973 when Pinckney, a student at Columbia raised in Indiana, joined Hardwick’s creative writing course at Barnard College. During his interview he had confided that his roommate had threatened to kidnap Harriet, Hardwick’s daughter with Robert Lowell, if she didn’t enrol him. Somehow it worked.
Pinckney, though gauche, tried to be formal at first. ‘Professor Hardwick was fresh and put together. Her soft appearance made the tough things she said even funnier.’ He ventured into ‘an education of sympathies’ – first as her student, then as a visitor to her apartment on West Sixty-Seventh Street, dogsbody, reader of drafts, emptier of the dishwasher, companion, secretary, fact-checker, drinking partner, walker, fellow gossip – even shrink in a way.