Letter from Boston
March 11, 2013 | by Michael McGrath
Smoky circles formed outside the Hynes Convention Center, the Association of Writers & Writing Programs Conference and Bookfair’s central hub. The snow was light but constant. There was a consistently surprising disparity between what filled the sky and what accumulated on the ground. Cheap sunglasses doubled as ski goggles. A man in an orange wool hat aggressively bummed a cigarette while smoking a cigarette.
Across the street, in the shadow of John Mayer’s alma mater, a row of Back Bay sports bars pumped deep cuts off the American Pie 2 sound track. Inside one of them a man with pink cheeks argued with his friend over Ben Affleck’s filmography. He proclaimed Pearl Harbor to be Affleck’s best movie, then ordered another Ketel and Sprite.
Further down the bar, burlier regulars passed their snow-day or no-show shifts warily eyeing the influx of eyeglasses. One ate waffle fries with a fork. I remained neutral, drinking hard cider and picking at a dry turkey sandwich. Below us a panel talk on criticism was slowly convening in the basement. After filing the mustard from under my nails I descended the wet stairs and made a beeline for the couch, reserving a cushion with a makeshift hat-and-jacket scarecrow while I scrounged for more cider.
There is a form of déjà vu peculiar to AWP, to the mobs of vaguely familiar willowy blondes and bearded schlubs. There is also a particularly awkward and dispiriting form of loneliness that settles in the shoulders when faced with a room filled with social media connections, those digital acquaintances who remain strangers in the flesh. Of course one of the painfully ironic realities of a writing conference is the thousands of introverted attendees who travel great distances, get themselves to the city, out of their hotel room, into the bar basement, on the cusp of an encounter, only to divert eye contact at the last minute, feign a phone call or investigate the bottom of their pint glass.
Another painful reality of the “off-site” setting is the quixotic battle between the relative silence required for a literary event and the ever-present din of almost every last public gathering space in America. Proximity to alcohol is valued but it also means grumbling ice makers and chattering cash registers. As James Wood described an early assignment, the Pearl Harbor fan came down the stairs looking for the men’s room, each step squeakier and unsteadier than the last. Jokes and insights were swallowed up by the music blasting upstairs—Dashboard Confessional, Ozzy Osbourne, Kid Rock—and the clattering silverware and hissy spigots. One panelist, described by the moderator as a “force of nature,” was no match for the pure white noise of the lavatory’s handblower. On the giant television Mariano Rivera announced his retirement. I snuck across the street to the oceanic book fair.
Later, at a party hosted by a blogging platform, a man seemingly familiar with the bartenders (“April, how ’bout some ketchup, honey? There ya go”) ate what looked to be doughnut holes and brie. There was some confusion over what our name tags were worth at the bar. The guy next to me—Waldo glasses, lopsided grin, carefully curated stubble—nabbed the last free well drink. I left in a huff, secretly happy for the excuse.
Outside the snowflakes had grown fat and wet. The smokers huddled under a shallow awning. I recognized a supper club across the alley as the venue which hosted my step-grandmother’s book release party (a memoir of her second marriage) several years ago. I briefly entertained the idea of barging in there and trying to bluster my way into a free Scotch as karmic reparation for the name tag slight, but instead I ducked into the wind and made my way to the Park Street T entrance. I was experimenting with different ways of carrying my new tote bag. I finally bundled it up like a knife roll and tucked it under my arm.