I'm back in Cincinnati; it's spring. I'm up in my office, reading a piece in the New York Times by Brendan Bernhard about bumping into Tom Verlaine outside the Strand bookstore.
"Spotting Verlaine outside the Strand," says Bernhard, "is by now a total cliché, since he’s been seen there so often."
I never saw Tom Verlaine outside the Strand while I lived in New York, or if I did, I wouldn't have known it was him at the time. I did used to see Joey Ramone everywhere when he was still alive: an in-store record event for Supergrass, at Coney Island High; he kept showing up. The kinds of encounters that happen all the time in New York, so often that they no longer seem like coincidences.
I recently started listening to a lot of Television (partially thanks to this book), and I'm thinking it would have been pretty cool to bump into Tom Verlaine outside of the Strand, but I guess it just wasn't meant to be.
* * *
We just got back from ten days in New York, a trip I found difficult to write about. But in spite of my hestitation about returning to the city we left behind, there were a lot of things I was looking forward to: seeing friends, eating Momofuku pork buns, wandering around bookstores like Book Culture and the Strand. On my last day, I started coming down with what felt like the flu, and never made it to the Strand. On Wednesday, we hopped into the car, our mix CD started whirring, Television's "See No Evil"—the perfect spring road trip song—and headed west on 80.
We were going fast, smoothly rounding bends, overtaking semis. We were making good time. We were making such good time that I remember, at the very moment it happened, thinking that we'd be home not too long after dark. That's when the steering wheel stiffened up almost completely. "I think something's wrong with the car."
We pulled off the highway at the exit for Emlenton, Pennsylvania, a little town on the Allegheny River. Population 784 give or take a few truckers passing through the Emlenton Truck Stop. We were passing through too, and once we realized we'd have to be there for the night while Bert at Bert's Auto Repair got us the part we needed from the nearest dealership, we pulled a bottle of bourbon and our toothbrushes from the back of the car and settled into the Motor Inn up the hill.
The next morning, we woke to a blinding light through the curtains, the sun bouncing off a foggy dew covering the entire Allegheny Valley, obscuring Interstate 80 and the little auto shop down the hill. I ran outside with my camera and started snapping: the still pines half-obscured in bright fog, the mural of a deer illuminated by the sun on the walls of the motel, the Motor Inn's sign, wind-torn, yet proud. We checked out and hauled ourselves down the hill to the Plaza Restaurant, where we waited for the call that our car was ready. While Connie poured us bottomless cups of coffee, we told her of our misfortune, adding that at least it turned out to be such a nice place to stop. "Well, maybe it was meant to be."
Bert soon picked us up, and after a handshake thanking him for his help, we drove our car with its new little part west on 80. Scarcely a mile up the road, we saw a hilly field of Amish kids playing baseball. (So hilly that the center fielder was low enough down the hill that I can hardly imagine he could have been able to see the batter.) As we drove past, the ball popped into the air, and eight Amish kids reached above their heads with oiled leather gloves, in the sunshine, we were west of the Allegheny, and springtime was coming up fast on our tail.
* * *
Tom Verlaine had no place in this story, really, but I'd been listening to his music all day, and for some reason I began to write this by typing his name on the screen. It made no sense: I couldn't easily tie Tom Verlaine to the Amish kids playing baseball on a hilly field. And then I started listening to the lyrics of the song I had on as I wrote:
I had this friend who told me that coincidence cannot articulate the best events.
She said she'd rather think of everything as accident, after all, it's all heaven-sent.
She said I don't think good, but I know how to wait, as if when you wait it is not hours but some forgotten sense of time.
It's very kind of all those powers to feature love without design.
I was never a fan of the phrase "things happen for a reason." It leaves too much room for people to give up responsibility and replace it with the willingness to let a higher power dictate life for them. The fates decide, we don't, it seemed to say. But meant to be: I can almost get behind that. It allows for a little bit human intention, and a lot of science; there's not necessarily "reason" behind it, it was just meant to be. Physics, trajectory.
Bernhard was not meant to find Proust at St. Marks, but Verlaine at the Strand. I was not meant to meet Tom Verlaine outside the Strand, apparently, but I was meant to hear this song today. Just as we were meant to breakdown at the precise halfway point between New York and Cincinnati, driven quite literally off the smooth path, and into a little rough patch. "Sometimes," I said to J as we sipped our coffee at the Plaza Restaurant, "it's when plans are interrupted that I find the most inspiration. When I end up doing something out of the ordinary: it gets my mind going again."
Sometimes poetry finds us right when we need it most.
© Zan McQuade. All Rights Reserved.