We pass one another on the library stairs from time to time, each of us heading in opposite directions, up or down, to or from one of the 5 floors of the building. Although I don't know this young woman's name we have exchanged pleasantries. We work in different departments, with different hours; but this occasional ritual passing is an island in time, like seeing a blue heron or a shooting star. Why? Because she always carries an orange canvas bag that says:
new york city
b o o k s t o r e
Whenever I get to Manhattan I make a point of going to The Strand bookstore on the corner Broadway and 12th St. It has been there since 1956 and was previously, beginning in 1927, on 4th Avenue amongst "Book Row" where there were once 48 bookstores.
The Strand is in some ways the antithesis of the modern-day corporate store; mostly used books in an atmosphere of some disarray it is a browser's paradise. For those that love books and are happy to come across a forgotten or obscure surprise it's a place to get lost in.
A week ago, my friend and co-worker Rebecca and I were in the library lobby at closing when she espied the Lady With the Orange Strand Bag. When I mentioned The Strand connection with the bag Rebecca pointed out that Joyce Carol Oates had a short story about two young girls in The Strand.
I promptly read "Three Girls" in the Oates collection "I Am No One You Know". In the story set in March of 1956 two teen-aged self-anointed "girl-poets", NYU students, and seeming lovers, are browsing in the store. One of them notices a conspicuously familiar woman reading in the stacks and notifies in a whisper to her pal, who narrates, that she should discreetly take a look.
".....I perceived an individual in the aisle, pulling down books from shelves, peering at them, clearly absorbed by what she read.....in a man's navy coat to her ankles and with sleeves past her wrists, a man's beige fedora hat on her head, scrunched low as we wore our knitted caps, and most of her hair hidden by the hat except for a six-inch blonde plait at the nape of her neck and she wore black trousers tucked into what appeared to be salt-stained cowboy boots. Someone we knew?....I was about to nudge you in the ribs in bafflement when the blond woman turned, taking down another book from the shelf (e.e.cummings' Tulips and Chimneys - always I would remember that title!), and I saw that she was Marilyn Monroe.
Marilyn Monroe. In the Strand. Just like us. And she seemed to be alone.
Marilyn Monroe, alone!"
The girls follow Marilyn's every move in the store - torn between their own rapture and the need to protect and preserve her anonymity. When Marilyn finally begins to approach the counter with her pile of books, the narrating girl approaches her and offers to intercede and buy the books to save her from being recognized. When they hand her the books outside, Marilyn pulls out a copy of the Selected Poems of Marianne Moore from her bag and hands it to them before disappearing down the street.
The photographer Eve Arnold took a picture of Marilyn right around this time. She is seen in an untypical pose, reading a copy of James Joyce's Ulysses. according to Arnold this was not a concocted pose (speculation, predictably rampant, about her reading the sexual monologue of Molly Bloom near the book's end). Marilyn told her that she had been reading bits of it every day and though she found it tough going at times enjoyed reading passages out loud.
I was pleasantly diverted to know that Marilyn, in the story had given the girls a book of Marianne Moore's poems. Marianne Moore first came to my attention when I heard she was a great baseball fan of the New York City baseball teams; the Brooklyn Dodgers in particular - she lived in Brooklyn herself. She knew the poetry of the game and graced the page with it now and then.
Moore's poems absorb me like mysterious and beautiful puzzles; like Marilyn with Ulysses perhaps, I can never quite get the meaning, but the sound and rhythm and imagery and the little glimmer of knowing are enough to keep me coming back.
here is a short poem from her early years:
"It arouses my indignation that they should be so rare,
Yet I think I should be as willing to wear green
Sapphires as I should be willing to wear
Emeralds, the point of the thing's being, not to make people stare
But to have to wear, what keeps life from becoming a parcel of
What prevents its deteriorating into a bugbear:
To have what makes it start from its rut like the horse seen
Showing its might in the book of Job, where
The dramatist watches it leap like a locust in the air,
And swerving neither to the right nor left, bore its way
up into the heart of the breeze."