One of the reasons that I left my middle-management job during a recession was because I never had the energy left over to read.
In fact, I never had the energy or passion left over to do much of anything. For four years I lived in San Francisco and worked ten- to twelve-hour days, first in San Francisco and then in Oakland. Because I didn’t have a car (too expensive and I hated parallel parking), I rode mass transit every weekday from Golden Gate Park to the Oakland Airport, a one and a half hour commute going in, two and a half hours going home.
At first I was excited about the long commute; the tunnel didn’t have wi-fi in those days, and I would get to read for hours a day. I packed what was then considered a new-fangled Kindle; I took the time to find a stylish case for it and loaded it with a New Yorker magazine subscription and novels and memoirs by Diaz, Kingsolver, and Goodman. Despite warnings of BART muggings of patrons‘ electronics, I read from it religiously all the way from Civic Center station to the Oakland Coliseum station, both notorious stations for violence. I set a permanent stern look on my face (“don’t mess with my book, fella”) and lost my mind in the midst of the underground. Occasionally someone (always a man) would brave my scowl and interrupt me, tentatively. “Excuse me, but is that a…Kindle?” My expression would melt into commiserate understanding, and I would nod enthusiastically. I would take in a quick profile of the speaker, I’m ashamed to say–if they were professionally dressed and carried a clean briefcase or messenger bag, I would ask them if they wanted to look at it. They would accept it gingerly, and I would show them how the controls worked–a quick tutorial, my heart exposed on the screen for them to see–before they passed it back to me with as much care as one would pass a masterpiece drawn on an Etch-a-Sketch, afraid that the slightest of tilts would erase the screen. “Thanks,” they’d say, lost in wonder, and I’d smile and nod and try to go back to reading, succeeding only in reading one sentence twenty times while the flush of connection with another reader fought with my desire to be cool about the whole thing.
Then wi-fi was installed in BART so that the other patrons could talk loudly on their cell phones, the exotic nature of having a Kindle was lost on more and more people riding with Kindles and Nooks and iPads of their own, and the long workdays on my feet with virtually no breaks meant that I usually used the extra transit hours to sleep. On weekends I would try my best to decompress, wandering the museums, parks, and sports venues of San Francisco as compensation for abandoning my beloved City all week. If I did read a book, it took me months to do it.
In my last year of working in Oakland I had a supervisor who tried to mentor me back into work/life balance. I labored at that balance, toting a fat book and a sack lunch from Specialty’s every day in my backpack. I had switched to paper books in hopes of feeling connection to the breadth of the book itself again, like writing with a fountain pen and paper instead of a MacBook. I also secretly hoped that someone, anyone, would interrupt me and ask me about the book that I was reading–wearing my heart on the cover with books like Edmund Morris’s rendition of the life of Ronald Reagan or Barbara Kingsolver’s “The Lacuna.” But no one asked on the trains and transit, regardless of how kindly I controlled my facial expression, and I tried to sequester myself when I read at work. My supervisor did his part to block the work interruptions for me by sending me to unused parts of the big warehouse building that we worked in: abandoned offices, empty corners, gray and dusty. Once a week, however, the sandwich went untouched, the fat book would stay in the backpack. I resented those interruptions at work while I hoped of getting interrupted in the name of connection on the train; the work interruptions confirmed the fact that four days a week I was getting away with something, and the train interruptions opened up an escape hatch.
In this way, my brain started to work in a way more fanciful than any novel could have done. I didn’t have a social life, a spouse, or family, because I didn’t even have time to read, and I hoped to make a connection with someone in the long term over a book, of all things, that I didn’t have time to read. I also had ideas for poems and short stories of my own, but when could my writing happen? I didn’t have time to read the works of other writers, let alone ask others to hear my stories. I let my “team members” (friendly term for employees) and my work ethic take precedence over everything that mattered to me, starting with my deep love of words and stories. I gleaned drama from the depriving of my passions. In the end, I left the fat books at home, stacked in my bedroom in tall piles that started to resemble their own cityscape, a cityscape left behind.
In March of 2011 I had saved enough money to quit, support myself for six months, and learn how to put myself first. I gave two weeks’ notice–my last day was Tax Day, April 15th–and on my last day at work I only worked half a day and then took a train from the Oakland Airport back to SFO to meet my brother and his fiancee in Las Vegas. I had my Kindle with me with the intention of “packing light,” but I couldn’t seem to settle my mind enough to read it. In the airport’s newest terminal I walked around all of the fresh and shiny shops and eateries, killing time before the flight, and came upon Compass Books’ “bzinc,” filled with longing for a paper book for the flight. I didn’t want to have to “switch off” my reading material until the captain signaled that I could read again. I wanted a book, with no interruptions at all, even for a connection.
At one of the front tables of the bookstore was Jennifer Egan’s “A Visit From the Goon Squad.” The title seemed appropriate to my life, but more importantly, I found that when I read the first chapter I didn’t want to put it down. For most of the weekend, I didn’t. While my companions went off to gamble through the hours–sometimes winning, sometimes losing–I sat in the hotel room in a chair next to the window, or in the jacuzzi tub, or in one of the free bars my brother had access to, and read. My only interruptions were the return of my family from another lucky number, or the next drink, or a cheer from the floor when someone won. I read in Paris, the Bellaggio, Venice, New York, the Mirage. When I read the last page I was in the Las Vegas airport again, waiting for my flight back to SFO to start the next chapter of my own life, and I wanted to keep reading, anything. I checked my Twitter feed on my phone and found out that weekend Egan had won the Pulitzer for “Goon Squad,” while I was lost in the book.
I quietly said, “Amen,” and put my phone away, feeling the connection of good works rewarded.
I spent my days after the Vegas trip disciplined and looking for a fresh start, and my nights and weekends finally getting a life. I led a couple of writing groups across the City. I made new friends, one who introduced me to a writer I had been too busy to find: Armistead Maupin and his “Tales of the City” series. I read his works riding on trains and buses: to interviews, to writing group meetings. I read his works in coffee shops, on Golden Gate Park benches. I looked up from his books conspiratorially–here I am reading Maupin in San Francisco! Who else is doing this? The setting sun would streak pink stains in the fog, and I would shiver in the summer night, holding the book open to the last of that pink light like a plea: stay. Stay with me and let me finish the last of the chapter. Just a little longer. Please.
Eight months after I was brave/foolish enough to leave that job and take the leap of starting over, I could no longer afford San Francisco. No one wanted to hire someone foolish enough to quit her job. I had to sell most of my fat books to eat, whether I had read them or not. I hadn’t bought books since the Maupin series; the library was my new haunt. More and more of my daylight hours were spent job-hunting, even though I still insisted on carving out time to read and write. The whole point of the fresh start, after all, was to teach myself to make time to connect through reading, if only with the author.
In January of this year I had to move in with my brother and his fiancee in Southern California. I hesitate to make comparisons between San Francisco and San Diego, but the challenges speak for themselves. I don’t have a car in a car culture. The job opportunities are even fewer and farer between here. And, where I live in North County (as they call North San Diego County), few people like to read the kind of novels that I fell in love with. I walk into a library here and I either can’t find the book that I’m looking for–the taxpayers and patrons of this fine county would consider the book I’m looking for an extravagance of fundraising dollars–or I find a whole stack of the books that I’m looking for in plain sight in the middle of the New Fiction section. I pile up these treasures and stagger back, stunned, to a table to read a hoarded cityscape. It shocks me that books by Murakami, Didion, even Egan’s “Goon Squad” aren’t on an extensive hold list. They are on…the SHELF. Openly. For the taking.
I sit at the library window, overlooking a pale ocean and cloudless sky, and I read the opening lines of “Goon Squad.” I’m back in Terminal 2 at SFO with another chance to try everything again. Used to a big, intricate city to play in, I also like to walk around my new town of residence, finding different places to read, and now to write, too. About a month ago I walked to the beach, under miles of unrelenting sun and often without the protective illusion of sidewalks. Mass transit cost money, and I had none. I walked along the beach until I found a rare treat–a shaded, unoccupied bench facing the ocean, and sat down with my recycled bottle of tap water and a fat library book. I read. I disappeared into a tale–
A man approached me.
“Do you work out?” he asked. He was older than I was, maybe my father’s age. He was dressed in an old t-shirt, slightly faded cargo shorts, knee socks, worn tennis shoes. He shaded his face with a Charger’s cap, frayed at the brim.
I was so deep in the book I had forgotten where I was. “Excuse me?” I said, looking up at him.
“Do you work out? Because it looks like you work out.”
I looked down at myself. I was in an old, oversized t-shirt myself, with the logo of the workplace I had left behind. My yoga pants were too big, too. And the hat I had on could have been mistaken for Gilligan’s. I wasn’t wearing something skin-tight, or a wetsuit for the purpose of surfing, or a bikini, like nearly all the other women on the beach. Had he really made the mistake of hitting on my appearance and not on that of my book jacket? Had he really ripped me from my escape to try the most tired pick-up line in history? I closed the book in my lap, and excused myself politely. I didn’t answer his question, but I wished him a pleasant day.
I felt his question was the wrong one.
Instead, I answered what I wished the question would have been, just to believe that I deserved more.
Yes, this is the latest Murakami novel. Yes, it’s nine hundred pages. Yes, it’s the longest book I’ve ever read.
But it’s so worth the journey. Do you have a moment? Let me tell you…