A delivery arrived on our little front porch the other day — a large box of books. Forty-two copies of Girl To City. Two years ago around this time I was finishing my book, working on a cover, trying to make the pieces all come together.
Funny, I hadn’t ordered any copies. I looked at the packing slip: STORE RETURNS TO PUBLISHER. Hmm, the distributor must’ve gotten something wrong because—oh wait, I’m the publisher. Stores returned the book. It’s over, my first book. It’s been a good ride but all that work, all my hopes and dreams of life as a published author—well it’s actually been pretty damn good but not in any of the ways I could’ve imagined. I don’t even remember what those ways were but I think they involved me wearing a cape with matching turban and riding in a limousine.
And now things are waning, until I finish this next book. Damn.
I tried not to feel sorry for myself because publishing my first book has been one of the most valuable experiences of my life. I flashed on an image of Girl To City sitting proudly on the memoir/autobiography shelf of the bookstore where I work, and how the store’s been closed to browsers for over a year now and I know it’s been that way for stores all over. So maybe readers didn’t actively not buy my book, they just never got a chance to see it on a shelf in a random store. I started feeling more sorry for the bookstores all over than I did for myself, imagining many many titles being returned. Nothing to be ashamed of. Better to add up the victories than the losses when possible.
But I wonder how long I’ll leave these books in the middle of the hallway floor, to trip over every time I go up the stairs where my desk waits for me to write some more. Maybe that pile of books is the totem I needed to inspire me to get the next book done.
I can still sell these copies, especially if I ever go out and play shows again. When will we go out and play shows again?
“Amy, is that you? Are you at the door?” I’m calling my dad from New York and he’s in Pennsylvania.
I tell him I’m not, but that I’ll come and see him again soon. After that there’s not really anything to talk about, and he can’t hear me anyway, so we hang up.
Last week started with glorious weather. “Oh how I love working outside!” I shouted, as Eric and I raked and shoveled soil, sawed and snipped roots, rolled out garden fabric. The sun was shining and the air was warm for the first time in months. We could actually see shoots of green pushing up through the ground.
Then we moved on to an old decaying shed that has been a blight on our backyard since we moved in almost ten years ago. Eric cut away chain link fence and we began dismantling, knocking out rotting sheets of wood, clearing away dead vines wrapped around everything.
A few hours later, I was typing away at my desk after tripping on the pile of my first book in the hallway when I noticed I’d been absentmindedly scratching my arm for a while. I remembered a terrible bout with poison ivy a few years ago, how I’d vowed to never be blasé about working outside again…
“Patient is a pleasant 62 year old woman, presenting with contact dermatitis…”
The doctor spoke into his voice to text app. I looked around the tiny examination room, expecting to see a rosy-cheeked washerwoman with her hair pulled back in a wispy grey bun, then realized he was talking about me. Shit, am I really that age? Somehow it sounds much older when you hear it said out loud. But I felt proud how even with raging poison ivy rash that was driving me insane, I still came across as pleasant. “You oughta see me on one of my good days doc,” I wanted to say.” I think the adjective would be…ebullient.” I liked the Doctor. As he went on with his report he referred to my adventures dismantling “an old barn” and called poison ivy “the culprit” responsible for my rash.
The doctor called in a prescription for steroid cream. I walked to our local Walgreens to pick up the prescription and they told me my insurance was with CVS now. We may be the only town in America where CVS hasn’t sprung up directly across the street from Walgreens. I’d need to go to another town.
I drove down to Saugerties for the poison ivy prescription. I was in agony but thought the drive down country roads would be a good distraction. I know people outside of this area tend to think of Saugerties as something to do with the Band, and Bob Dylan and Big Pink but it feels more like weekend bikers and giddy city folks, blue collar Republicans, boating, horse shows and the odd artist and hippie.
The prescription wasn’t ready so I went into the little shopping district of the town and tried a cute coffee place I’d passed a thousand times. Something weird went on with the girl behind the counter’s Square reader and she’d told me to just come back and pay when I was finished with my coffee.
She called her boss on the phone and you’d have thought they were trying to land a plane. A man strolled in and started to order.
“Look at this guy,” I thought to myself. “What is it about Saugerties…”
He wore sport shorts, short-sleeved zip up sporting shirt in matching shades of grey and he positioned himself like a baseball coach in front of the counter, hands on hips and muscled legs splayed out ending in sporty sneakers, also the same shade of grey. Grey ballcap, sunglasses perched on top. He ordered a coffee drink – I’m not sure what, I only heard the part where he said “and could you put four espresso shots in there?”
Fine. I was just wondering how I was going to pay for my coffee and a cute little baby bib I’d chosen off the rack of “Upstate and Chill” sweatshirts and other weekend-in-the country-for-city-folk garments. The young woman behind the counter had just informed me and the sporty guy that it was going to have to be cash only. I asked both of them if there was an ATM nearby, but no one seemed capable of answering me. I heard him say something about “pay it forward.”
“I can come back another time for the bib, no problem,” I said. Again I asked, “Is there an ATM anywhere in town?” I sensed a stranger was about to buy a baby gift for me to give to someone else and it just felt…weird. The girl was too busy figuring out how to pour four shots of espresso.
The guy took his drink and bounced on out into the world, while I stepped up to the counter to figure out how I was going to pay with there being no cash point in the town of Saugerties and the young woman not able to use Venmo. I suggested she write down my credit card number. “There’s other ways you can take payments,” I said. Was my poison ivy rash making me bossy and impatient, or was this person just maddeningly useless? “You know, or just tell me where I can find cash?”
“He paid for you,” she said.
“What? The bib too?” The man was gone.
I don’t know why but it felt sort of…aggressive. I can see that he felt in a funny position if he said “pay it forward,” thinking he was buying a stranger’s coffee. I’d offered a get out by saying “don’t worry about the bib!”, when I’d sensed a magnanimous gesture looming. He probably didn’t want to lose face with the cute girl behind the counter, as if she would notice or care. “Mom,” I pictured him imagining her saying when she got home, or even “Hannah (her roommate), you won’t believe what a kindness this handsome stranger did today…” The type of generosity of spirit we all should be so lucky to have.
I think the rash was making me cranky, and delirious. Or maybe it was the hot wind whipping piles of last year’s leaves around down the street.
I picked up my prescription and as I drove back home, I popped in an old CD, my second album Middlescence. I’d brought it along because Don Heffington died this week. I could’ve listened to Bob Dylan’s Brownsville Girl, or an Amy Allison album; Emmylou’s White Shoes, He played drums on so many records, but I wanted to remember him playing on one of my records. His playing and presence added a lot to my first two solo albums, and he became a friend and an important part of my artist journey. Listening to his epic fills, stately timekeeping and deft percussion was like looking at a photo album from a memorable trip.
I’ve been mourning Don but I think I’m also mourning a part of my life. The famous quote from The Go-Between: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there” applies well to the music biz of the late twentieth century. I was lucky (is that the word?) to have the experience of recording budgets, time reserved for the making of an album and all that went along with that: producer, musicians, studio and engineer; mixing, mastering and sequencing; cover art, promo photos etc etc. It was all very eventful, maybe overblown, the pressure was real, the possiblities felt endless.
Nowadays recording is part of everyday life and there’s an ease to that—I feel fortunate I learned to make records the old fashioned way, so it is instilled in me the urge and the craft. Eric is always ready to fire up whatever machine and help me record, and these days releasing a track or an album on your own is a demystified series of steps you take when you’ve committed to the idea. The pressure comes from nowhere but inside.
It’s okay to mourn the past, and who we used to be in it, but there’s no going back there.
Except I’m working on another memoir, so I keep going back there and maybe that’s where all these thoughts are swirling in from. My first book was a coming of age, and the second book is harder, because prolonging a voyage of discovery takes a lot of messy effort, and mistakes add up, and how do I make that entertaining? I tend to tune out in artist memoirs where the last several chapters become a litany of tours, TV shows; this album, that album. I can understand all that a little better now: along with those benchmarks, real life that goes on after those early moments of discovery can be repetitive, mundane; and how to find a narrative arc and craft a story out of it all is a challenge.
I just found a notebook from back in that era of my life and on one page it says “Find better video store” and right there, I wonder where I’ll find the poetry in the late 90s/2000s…I think the point is to not look too hard. More and more, I realize time is not limitless. I might not have ten years to write this book.
I come back home and Eric’s set a bass amp up in the living room and cables are trailing across the kitchen floor and the steroid cream helps with poison ivy rash, so I feel good that I’ve learned to ask for help when I need it. We plug in a guitar to record a new song I wrote, but first I play a few bars of bongo drums that Eric loops. I bet Heffington would think that was cool.
I’m trying something new, recording my blogs ie doing them as a podcast a la Girl To City. You’ll be able to listen as well as/instead of reading – here’s a link to the first one: https://anchor.fm/amy-rigby/episodes/Rambling-Vines-etv9m1. Thanks for spending time here, I really do appreciate it!