Dining in Nirvana with Little Steven

He's pretty shiny, right?

I have a habit of leaving cryptic notes for myself, often in the form of untitled lists scrawled on scraps of paper then tucked away to be found at some later date. I wonder over them.What was the moment in which this group of words seemed important? What was I thinking? What is on this list that is still important? Sometimes they result in lovely serendipities.

For instance, I have a tattered, creased sheet of grid paper I have held onto for 23 years. (It's somewhere in the attic right now.) At a funny angle on the back side (I've no idea what's on the front) is a list of titles of books about theater (Towards a Poor Theatre ... Empty Space ... ) And set off a bit, a guessed-at name: "Castlevetro?" I hurriedly made this list after a conversation with the Great Condee, my dramatic theory professor, whom I coouldn't embarass myself in front of by admitting I didn't know what he was talking about. For a long time I kept this list because I wanted to remember to learn its contents. Over time, without even referring to the list I did. Then I held onto it to remember being the person who made it. Last week, I gave my Intro to Fiction and Drama class a minilecture about the neoclassical response to Shakespeare; I mentioned Castelvetro. It's taken a long time, but I'm finally on the other side of that list.

Maybe Lodovico Castelvetro was shiny on the inside.

The other day, I found another list, this one more recent. A blue square of scrap paper with notes about music that might make good "soundtrack" for the damned Book in Progress (henceforth BIP), mostly rootsy, Americana type music. The Mark Knopfler/Emmylou Harris collaboration from a few years back is on there, and a lot of Springsteen, including an entry for Radio Nowhere (which has tantalizing connections to working title of BIP). I had the list at the library with me, and took the last 10 minutes before closing to try to grab some CDs. No Knopfler/Harris to be found, several Springsteen that I wanted to check out ... but nothing called Radio Nowhere.

At home, working on BIP, without looking too closely I tried to decide what CD I wanted to play in the background - Ghost of Tom Joad or Magic? There are ghosts in the book, but there is also magic, and right now what I need is more magic. (Yes, this is the way I think sometimes. Inviting serendipity, really.) I put Magic in CD player, then looked at the track list ... Do you know what the first song on that album is? "Radio Nowhere." Nice. Very nice. I opened up the case, and on the inside was a picture of Bruce and the band ... Steven Van Zandt beaming on the right ... and I was instantly transported to the time I crossed paths with him. I haven't stopped thinking about it since.

20 years ago, when I transferred from the most expensive experimental liberal arts college in the nation to CCNY, the kind chair of the English department suggested I might be interested in a special course with a visiting scholar, an Oxford don no less. An intensive half-semester poetry seminar with an Oxford don who happened to be the great-great-grandson of William Wordsworth's brother. I didn't know crap about poetry and I'd already the year before suffered my first bout of crippling writers block. How could I say no?

The great-great-great uncle, who had a fondness for daffodils.

Jonathan Wordsworth was tall, angular, smart, casually handsome, tweedy, enthusiastic, and ironical. Everything you'd want your visiting Oxford don poetry professor to be, I suppose. I was in way, way over my head. I can recall making one canny observation about a poem by e.e. cummings, but when it came time to begin writing the seminar paper, I was in deep trouble. Faced with the same writers block that had driven me to the edge of the cliff the year before, I tried to protect myself. I went to Jonathan's office (everyone called him Jonathan), and told him I was desperate and I wanted to drop the class. Jonathan guffawed and talked me into staying. (Later he described my demeanor during that visit as "dithering." I've always hated him a little bit for that.)

When the course was finished, before he took his Wordsworth Express on to the next station, Jonathan gave me an incomplete and detailed instructions about where to send my paper, and he took the whole class out for dinner, at Nirvana.

To get there I took the subway to Columbus Circle and walked across Central Park South to number 30. A discreet brass plaque on the building announced the presence of the restaurant to those who knew enough to look for it and pointed the way to the penthouse elevator. I rode up to the 15th floor alone and walked into the bar, the ornate antechamber to a glowing, draped, upholstered confection of luxury with one glass wall revealing the whole breathtaking expanse of Central Park.

I was the first one there. I have no idea if I was appropriately dressed. I sat on a tufted bar stool and ordered a rum and tonic with feigned nonchalance and waited until I was led to the table. Still alone, I sat with my back to the entrance, the park filling my view. Across the small room an expensive looking man with a scarf tied around his head leaned in close to talk to his dinner companions. He looked familiar. Soon Jonathan and the other students arrived. We munched on papadums. I ordered another drink. I flirted with the grad student on my left. I gazed and gazed at the park. It dawned on me that the guy in the headscarf laughing on the other side of the room was Little Steven. How very odd that we had ended up at the same place at the same time. I felt small and important. Completely out of my element at a table I had been invited to join. Magic?

Why is this memory asking to be written? I'm not sure.  I never finished my paper for Jonathan. My permanent record says F-incomplete. I carried shame about that for a long time, regretted not dropping the class. But what's the point? He died in 2006, teacher to thousands (including Martin Amis and me), having forgotten my dithering. Without him I'd never have sat in that dazzling penthouse with a rockstar and a view of this:
Thanks, Jonathan.


  1. Dithering really stings. F-incompletes I know something about. I love the little notes to no one that appear and disappear and appear again. Its you, talking to a future you, a present us. I love it. You are shiny indeed.

  2. Bennington? Bard? Simons Rock? Just wondering which college qualifies as most expensive AND experimental. Sarah Lawrence is vastly expensive, but I am pretty sure not considered experimental. And I enjoy finding the serendipity in life. Dithering is so BRITISH isn't it?

  3. It was Sarah Lawrence, indeed. Experimental because there were no majors, most classes lasted a year and included tutorial (one on one with your "don" ... wait, maybe I just have an Oxford fetish?) as well as class work, and there weren't really letter grades. Oh, and when I was there, there were two separate theater departments.


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