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On a winter's day in New York with the most talented writer I've ever met
One cold, wet January morning I walked west on Prince Street to Dean & Deluca to meet Sandra. Typically, she had called me a few minutes earlier, out of the blue.
“I can meet you now,” she said. That was all.
The moist, frigid air penetrated my leather flying jacket, my gloves, my shoes, my hat. The light was wan. In gray, muted light you could take in the details, the intricacies of Soho’s architecture—store windows, the rust shades of brick walls, jagged fire escapes, the streets unfolding. It was all so obtainable. This was back in 1980, just a few years after Dean & Deluca opened its first gourmet food store on Prince Street.
The place was so new, so young, that Giorgio Deluca himself would serve you. Small, bespectacled, with dark curly Bacchus hair and black eyes, he was nervously energetic, so determined with his young mission that he seemed hardly able to focus. Giorgio would talk to you in clipped phrases as he grabbed a croissant or pain au raisin—“Hey good to see you. Try the Romano. Unbelievable.”—and shoved it into a little bag, darting around his young workers, reaching for something else.
I bounded up the two riveted iron steps, opened the door and walked in. When you walked in, the big door jingled. Just to your right were wicker quivers holding arm-long crusty baguettes, backward leaning. Directly in front of you was the counter behind which workers with optimistic faces circulated, moving in that frantic choreography of service. In the back of the store were tables where you could sit and drink your coffee, talk, write, or read. I stood on tip toe, stretched my neck to look in the back to see if Sandra was there. She wasn’t.
I ordered a café au lait and took it with me to a vacant table in back. The wood floors creaked as I made my way there. There was an old skylight above the tables, an ancient facet that poured light onto you as you sat and drank or ate. There were no computers. There were no cellphones. Only pens and pencils working against paper and people reading or conversing. I had a notebook with me. I pulled it out and imagined I was Hemingway in a Paris café. I had the pen, I had the café au lait. It was easy to convince myself that I was a writer here. I sipped the strong coffee, which was rich with breeding.
But the people around me were too interesting. The smells were too ravishing. There was too much life. Instead of writing, I looked around to see who else was there. How many stories were here? Then I felt something. I turned and looked up and there she was. Sandra. She was standing next to the table, silent. She wore her long Salvation Army men’s coat, a fat cable knit scarf wound twice around her neck and a cable knit hat. Her gray-brown hair streamed from under the cap and flowed onto her coat. She wore, as usual, glasses—old fashioned, the kind secretaries wore when they were still called secretaries. She had put on lipstick. For me? Silly to think that. I couldn’t help it, though. My heart raced. She didn’t say hello.
“Oh, hi!” I said, a bit flustered that she hadn’t said a word.
I stood up. I moved to pull out a chair for her.
“I can sit down by myself,” Sandra said. She took the chair from me, and I was left standing there, an absurd tableau vivant, leaning toward her chair.
“Oh, yes, sure,” I said. I sat down.
“Look,” she said, “I don’t have much time.”
“How about some coffee?”
“I don’t drink coffee.”
“Right! Well, what about some tea?”
She nodded. I got up and went to the front and fetched her a pot. I put it before her. She took the tea bag out with a clipped gesture.
“How’s the work going?” I asked her.
“I don’t like to talk about it while I’m doing it,” she said.
Once again, her feral baritone! She had very little subtlety in her tone, very little modulation—a minimal range. She didn’t use the shadings, pitches or keys of her voice to help express what she was thinking or feeling. Her speech was pretty much level. She did all her expressing with her razor-blade words and eyes.
I thought of saying, “Why did you come here? This is ridiculous the way you act.” But I didn’t. It all stayed inside.
Those wary eyes examined me through glasses. Then she glanced at her watch.
“Don’t tell me you have to go already?” I said.
Still, with all her stone cold incivility, I loved looking at her. Those lips! Those eyes, darting about the room even as I spoke to her, as if she were searching for some prey to devour. That streamy hair. I never stayed angry long.
“Well, what did you think of Danny’s piece?” I asked, changing the subject. Danny had read a piece about going home to visit his parents in Malaysia at the last writers group meeting.
“Not much,” she said. She took two beats. “Oh, there were a few places that were all right.”
“I sort of liked it,” I said.
“We’ll,” she said evenly, “that’s the problem.”
“What? What do you mean?”
“What if I said that about your writing? That I sort of liked it.”
She reached into her old leather bag she carried and pulled out a paperback. “There’s something I want to give you.” She pushed it across the table to me. I picked it up. It was The Beet Queen by Louise Erdrich. It had obviously been read, perhaps by more than one person.
“You should read this,” Sandra said.
“Thanks, I will,” I said without enthusiasm.
She got up to go. She hadn’t even taken off her coat. She’d only taken one sip of her tea.
“You’re going?” I looked up at her.
“Thanks for the tea,” she said. Then, before walking away, she said, very clearly, “I like you because you love literature. Most of the others don’t.”
“Thanks.” I saw an opening. “And what about love?” I said.
“I don’t love anyone,” she said.
“That must be very lonely.”
“I’m never lonely,” she said. “I’ve got my work.”
Then she turned and walked away. I watched her open the store door and walk out. I wondered where she was going. To write? To meet someone else? I stayed there in Dean & Deluca for twenty minutes or so, restoring myself with the smells and sights of the place, with its creaking wood floors and skylight.
I finished my coffee, got up and went outside. I drank in Prince Street. I took a deep breath of crisp air. Then I walked back toward my apartment. What was it about her? Why did she have such a hold on me? Why couldn’t I just couldn’t let go? But it was clear that I couldn’t.