Saturday, October 24, 2009

Waxing Nostalgic

I have always been a nostalgic person. Even when I was a little kid, I was nostalgic. For my grandpa’s days as a sailor in the Orient in the 1930s. For my parents’ sock-hop-letterman-jacket-1950s-youth in rural, small-town America. My friend Connie says that when she was a teen, all she could do was look forward into the future. When I was a teenager in the 1980s, I listened to Simon & Garfunkel and wrote poems about wearing flowers in my hair, or about my own childhood, which was, in my own words, about lilacs, kittens, and love.

Simply put, I have a thing for lost worlds, for what was, and this year the nostalgia is worse than ever. (I am not even counting how St. Elmo’s Fire, which I own, makes me cry, or my latest obsession with Thirtysomething.) This dangerous nostalgia started innocently enough, with picking up yet another Richard Yates’ novel. Then I discovered Mad Men and rented three discs at a time from Netflix so I could watch the episodes back to back. Finally, used book hunting in Tucson with my dad, I found Mary Cantwell, whose memoir, Manhattan, When I Was Young, is the true life version of “the good old days.” Cantwell was Mad Men’s Betty and Peggy all rolled into one.

In her job as an assistant at Mademoiselle in the late 1950s (a magazine, keep in mind, that once published the greatest literary writers in America), Cantwell wrote that all she ever did for her boss was “order theater tickets, make restaurant reservations, and type the occasional letter. The letters were personal, not professional.” And of her coworkers at lunchtime: “The copywriters and other literary types were eating saucisson at the French Shack, unless they were at Barney’s knocking back martinis.” The things that we think of now as clichés—martini lunches, cigarette smoking in offices and airplanes—were nothing remarkable. They were just part of daily life.

When I emailed my best book friend Janet to tell her I was reading Cantwell (and how much I was loving her), she replied, “When you are in NYC, do you feel the Manhattan of Mary Cantwell? I don't anymore but I did so strongly up until the mid-70's. Now I feel a huge surge of loss when I am there—but whether that's for the city or my younger self that loved it so, I won't know until I go back for more than a couple of days—whenever that might be.”

This reminded me of something I read in the memoir Leap Days, in which the author describes moving to New York in 2004, when she was in her forties: “Change is such a constant here that people have to become accustomed to it, if not inured. Novelist Colson Whitehead was thinking of the transitory nature of the storefronts and corners when he wrote that you become a New Yorker ‘when what was there before is more solid and real than what is here now.’ That fine newspaperman of the old school, Pete Hamill, calls New York the Capital of Nostalgia. In his book Downtown: My Manhattan, he tells us that the New York version of nostaligia isn’t just about buildings and the people who live in them: ‘It involves an almost fatalistic acceptance of the permanent presence of loss. Nothing will ever stay the same. Tuesday turns into Wednesday and something valuable is behind you forever. An is has become a was.’”

Something valuable, behind you forever. Our younger selves. The crux of it. Because my nostalgia is about more than just some romantic vision of a long ago New York that I never knew. That just happened to be the trigger, setting the stage for the very real losses that have overtaken me this year. When I heard that Gourmet magazine is shutting down next month, I sat alone in my apartment and sobbed. Then I received the news that my precious Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle, where I worked—and lived, and grew up—during most of my twenties, is the latest casualty of the economic downturn, diabolic predatory tactics of superstores, and people who will waste their money on so much crap but not pay full price for a book (and therefore keep quality alive). Chances are in January the bookstore will be leaving the city’s historic Pioneer Square, where it has reigned, serving as a landmark, defining Seattle as a literary city, and reminding the world that words and personal service do matter, for more than thirty years.

Naturally, I’m feeling very selfish. Not only do these two losses gouge out great pieces of my past, they also intrude on the beauty of my future. My Vietnam food book, Communion, will be published in February 2010, and it will never know the pages of Gourmet, a magazine whose thoughtful commentary and literary tone put it in a class of its own. My novel, In Yellow Babylon, which I have faith will be published soon, may never be purchased from Elliott Bay—and I may never read from it there, an event I have dreamed of for years.

Am I a Luddite? No. Do I hate newfangled things? Nope. Do I wish we could return to a time when a female engineer or advertising executive was more than just a anomaly? She was dreaded and even loathed. Absolutely not. And in any case, I am not talking about the social changes the last few decades have given us. Those are another essay altogether. My kind of nostalgia may be rose-tinted, but I am a realist at the same time. What I miss, and see going away, and feel is the most tragic loss in all of this (beyond my own personal sense of loss), is a respect for tradition and quality. In an article about the end of Gourmet in The New York Times, Christopher Kimball (publisher of Cook’s Illustrated magazine) wrote:

“The shuttering of Gourmet reminds us that in a click-or-die advertising marketplace, one ruled by a million instant pundits, where an anonymous Twitter comment might be seen to pack more resonance and useful content than an article that reflects a lifetime of experience, experts are not created from the top down but from the bottom up. They can no longer be coronated; their voices have to be deemed essential to the lives of their customers. That leaves, I think, little room for the thoughtful, considered editorial with which Gourmet delighted its readers for almost seven decades.”

I miss the thoughtful. I miss the considered. I want more than one sentence at a time. I want ideas that are thought through (thank God for The New York Review of Books.) I want a world in which patience still is a virtue, rather than some outdated fuddy-duddy quality like manners or personal responsibility (AIG et al still blow my mind). Yes, the clerk at Whole Foods really did snap at me, “What, don’t you know how to read?”, when I forgot to push the “yes” button on the debit card machine. Clearly, patience and manners were not part of her makeup, as seems to be the case with so many these days.

Another great loss in my life this year was Cook’s Library, a decades old cookbook store here in LA. In this store, I sampled the most amazing pine nut tart and bought the least pretty of all the tapas cookbooks because Tim who worked there assured me it was the best—he was right. I met famous chefs, and also one of my dearest friends, Ann Le, when we were both scanning the shelves doing research. Without this intimate, neighborhood shop, we never would have encountered one another, and our lives would be less rich for it. That is another thing I feel nostalgic for. Human interaction. The real deal, not just Facebook quips, as much as I enjoy reading them.

It’s not that I want the new to go away. I just don’t want the old to disappear—how sad I was in recent years when my neighborhood lost Irna’s Corsetorium to a trendy shop selling $400 boots, and the eighty-year-old Hungarian baker at the Farmer’s Market, whose kalachi recipe came from his own family, shut down his shop, which was replaced by a chain that doesn’t bake a single loaf of bread on the premises. I’m glad people no longer smoke in restaurants, but it still makes me smile when a man opens a door for me, or my friend Pete walks on the outside when we’re on a busy street.

And so, just a few years past forty, I am becoming one of those people who clings to the “old ways.” To my fountain pen, and to the shortwave radio my dad gave me that pulls in the blues station from San Diego (even though I could just as easily listen to that station online). To those funny ads in the back columns of the New Yorker, for books by the foot and the $14 beret from John Helmer, est. 1921. I cling to hope (thank you, President Obama, for bringing that back) that integrity and independent bookstores and the ability (and desire) to discriminate are not one day twittered away. And as far as Twitter is concerned, I wonder if there will come a day when today's twenty year olds turn forty and find themselves longing for a simpler time of texting and tweeting and the iPod Touch. Remember all those crazy things we used to post on our Facebook walls! Man, those were the days ... So life goes on.