A woman walking alone on a deserted Manhattan street…
But it’s a Saturday in Tribeca, and the bright afternoon sunlight eases my fiction-writing mind. I have a few hours to kill before meeting a long-lost-but-Facebook-found friend. Time enough to knock-off one of my must-dos of this trip.
When I arrive, my curiosity is peaked. This is not a retail or commercial street. Or if it is, every shop is mysteriously low-key and nondescript. Don’t storeowners want to be found? Or, is it part of the allure now to keep a low profile so only those-in-the-know know. Entering, I feel as if I’m an accomplice in an unwitting crime: The Case of The Mysterious Bookshop.
Even the Atmosphere is Mysterious
lean on each wall, attached to tracks for ease of sliding across the stacks.The bookshelves bear the weight of pages upon pages of mysteries, whodunnits, thrillers, and true-crime. Tables and short bookcases create islands of more books. If the owners could display books on the ceiling, I think they might have.
Confession: I Don't Typically Read Thrillers and Mysteries (but I want to write one)
twelve, his childhood softness yet to developing angular height and breadth, peruses the young adult book table while eyeing the employee. At the front desk, an employee with closely-trimmed greying hair checks out a customer.
I turn to the books. I don’t recognize any authors or titles. Wait! Here’s one: Dennis Lehane. Oooh, it’s a signed copy.
The boy asks a question; he’s looking for a specific book. The employee doesn’t think they have it in the store since it sounds more fantasy than mystery. The boy counters, pointing to some of the YA titles displayed, more mystery than thriller. The employee graciously accepts the kid’s point. Having tested his waters, the child pontificates in a precocious manner about other authors and titles. Kudos to the employee who continues to be warm and open to the curious child. And why not? While the boy may not purchase anything today, he is a reader and future customer.
Eavesdropping on their conversation, I continue to scan for a book that will help my thriller investigation. My finger bumps also the spines housed in the floor-to-ceiling bookcases; perhaps I’ll find a hinge. Perhaps, one panel opens to a secret room beyond these walls. There’s no hint of a trap door in the floor, but I listen for any hollowness beneath my feet.
I’m lost in the potential mystery of the shop itself. I’m adrift in giddiness, flipping through pages, thousands of worlds waiting to be unbound by an unsuspecting, or maybe suspect, reader.
Finally, I ask for help. I share the premise of the novel playing over and over in my head. Within minutes, the two employees have handed me books: In a Lonely Place, Eeny Meeny, I’m Traveling Alone, and a few others.
“Let us know when you’re ready,” the more senior says. He leaves me scanning pages and back covers.
I don’t want to leave. This is a bookshop. No disrespect to the large Box Shops, where I admit to buying books with discounts and coupons, but the world has fallen victim to the convenience of click-click-checkout. No wandering through pages unknown. No ringing of a bell on the door. No eavesdropping or spying on others to make up little stories about them. Where’s the ambience in Search-Click-Checkout?
The Mysterious Bookshop, however, invites you in. Its books intend to scare and startle, but the space and the people are warm, welcoming, and worldly. It’s a place I am willing to lose myself, my sense of time, and the scary world outside.
Woman last seen in Tribeca bookstore…
There is no collective noun for a group of writers, however, Quill Cafe on Blogspot has some fun ones; “Absurdity of Writers” is the obvious choice for a writing marathon at Mark Twain’s Hartford home. I sat in his library, pencil in hand, journal open, for three hours.
Preparing for the Writing Marathon
The day before the writing event, I joined one of the regular house tours. Entering the library, I scanned the dark wood paneled walls, the plush end-of-the-nineteenth century furnishings. Guests are not allowed to touch, let alone sit, in his velvet wingback chair. The library is not a large room, and I wondered, how the hell are fourteen writers going to have elbow room tomorrow night? Secretly, I must confess, I did scout the room, in the against-the-odds hope that the furniture would be fair game for the writing marathon.
No such luck, but there is hope for some elbow room. When the museum employee calls us together, only nine gather around here. She repeats the rules clearly communicated via the event’s webpage. Then she adds: “No roaming the house, please stay in the library. No touching the furnishings.” So much for my private wish to sink into velvet.
By the time we reach Twain’s front door, others have joined the Absurdity of Writers. We’re now a full dozen.
We pause in the dark-paneled entrance hall, perhaps to build suspense, but the “no roaming” rule is repeated yet again. I flinch seeing fourteen folding chairs and TV-dinner folding tables wedged between the fireplace wall and the back wall, not including the cozy bow-window space. During the previous day’s tour, I learned that Twain would sit in this alcove with his daughters and play the “fireplace game.” Starting with a drawing of a cat’s face, to the far right of the fireplace, Twain had to create a story using every object on the mantel, in order, until he reached the portrait of a young woman in a cornflower-blue dress.
A few writers who came together whisper and point where they want to sit. I claim a “desk” in the front row, in front of the simulated fire. The third place winner of the 2017 Royal Nonesuch Humor Writing Contest welcomes us and shares a little about herself and her writing. By about 6:15, we settle into writing.
The Writer's Zone
I admit, I had a millisecond pause of “now what?” Crammed into a room with strangers and sitting on a folding chair for the next three hours, I’m definitely outside my comfort zone. The chair squeaks in agreement. The folding table wobbles as if nodding “yes” to my discomfort.
“Discipline, just be disciplined,” I tell myself.
Travel journal: check.
Five pencils and mini pencil sharpener: check.
My wits about me: half a check.
Words of wisdom I always told my students: “When in doubt, just put words on a page until you get in the flow.” So I did. I chronicled checking in. The museum’s welcome and introductions. The stragglers. Speaking of which, about this time, two more came in. Apparently they drove down from Boston. Descriptions of the room. What do I hear? What do I smell? See? I listed the objects on the mantel; maybe I’d play the mantel game and create a short story.
Then the magic of the Absurdity of Writers happened. I didn’t think it possible, but once all fourteen of us settled in, the chairs stopped squeaking, and the pencils started scratching, I found the writer’s zone. Three hours passed with ease and comfort. I jotted down notes and ideas for how to format Travel Lit, which would be renamed A Teacher Travels. Even when the gentleman next to me took off his shoes and whispered to his buddy, I remained focused on the pages in front of me. I counted them: twenty-five pages of scribbled notes, observations, and ideas.
Before stretching our legs in preparation to depart Twain's library, one writer suggested we introduce ourselves and share something about our writing. Absurd, isn’t it, introducing yourselves at the end of an event?
Author's note: I had this wonderful opportunity during June 2018. The Mark Twain House does not permit photos inside the house, so I apologize for the lack of visuals with this post. If you'd like to take a virtual tour of the house in 3D, you can do so on the Mark Twain House website.
Salem, one of many town facts revealed during the an evening walking tour. At the end of the path, behind the museum, across the street, is a bear-brown seventeenth century home, and just behind the house, is the Witch Trial Memorial.
Honestly, I don’t know what I was expecting. Standing at the entry of the memorial, I felt underwhelmed. It sat in shadows. The morning light had yet to cross over to illuminate the large rectangle “park” bounded by stone walls with stone slab “benches” and thick-trunked trees. The “benches” probably weren’t intended for sitting. They jutted defiantly from the wall, each paying tribute to one of the twenty victims. In the center, a long, narrow patch of grass and thinner trees stretched the length of the “park.” Its design was simple, Puritan Plain. Before stepping over the threshold, I read some of the quotes, words the victims voiced during the trials, carved into the granite. Some ran under the start of the stone wall, which was tiered, like steps going up to the gallows. I entered on the right side. Normally observant, I failed to notice the descending date order on the benches. During the walking tour, Bewitched After Dark, I would learn the “proper” entry was to the left, starting with the first hanging victim, Bridget Bishop, on June 10, 1692, and ending with the final victim, Samuel Wardwell, on September 22, 1692.
I apologized and asked their forgiveness. It didn’t matter that centuries lay between us.The stone wall from the right wrapped around to start the back wall, but an iron-spike fence replaced it until the last two or three feet, at which point the grey stones once again stood guard over the benches down the right side.
Just over the wall was the Old Burying Point cemetery. I took several minutes to soak in the scene, appreciating the “golden hour” morning light Long shadows sprawled across the grass and up the ancient oak trees.
The next bench in my reverse chronological viewing order was John Proctor’s. I’m not a dramatic person. Nor do I typically feel strong emotions while visiting historical sites. With Giles and Martha, I felt a warm literary friendship. I expected the same with Mr. Proctor. I did not expect to feel a crushing weight of regret and guilt.
Confession: I got sentimental. Tears threatened. My upper ribs clawed into my lungs. The pain spasmed in my diaphragm and an empty pit opened below my sternum. I felt comfortable with the Coreys, but why this gasp with Proctor? Inexplicably, I felt a genetic bond with him. The tears did not fall, but my mood greyed to somber. If I habeen alive 326 years ago, could I have stood by my values the same as John Proctor? Would I have accused or been accused? Am I any better a person than his accusers? Can I be as brave and principled as he was?
I lingered. I didn’t want to desert him. I promised to return.
Near the left entry, I chatted with Rebecca Nurse and Sarah Good, the second and third victims. I vowed to come back the next day with flowers.
Perhaps my first experience of the Witch Hanging Memorial needed to be in reverse chronological order. When I turned the corner and met John Proctor, time compressed. I felt no distance between me and the twenty human beings honored in this space. I had made nineteen new friends and met a “family member.” Nay, we were all family now. The least I could do was provide flowers. In the face of twenty-first century injustices, the best I can do is to aspire to be as brave, outspoken, and principled as they were.
Author's Note: This trip to Salem was taken June 8 and 9, 2018.
I'm a Chicago-born baby raised in Connecticut with a two-year diversion in Beirut, Lebanon. As an adult, I'm a nomad having lived in New York; Connecticut; London, England; (back to) Connecticut; Ohio; and now Florida. I have traveled by foot, by bike, by air, by car, by motorcycle, by boat, and by train. I remain constantly curious about the world.