The scene: The Brooklyn Book Festival. I’d spent the day with Wingfield, wandering around, checking out the booths set up by various small press publishers and literary magazines, dodging strollers piloted by the hip, literate parents that flocked to the event. We’d seen a discussion celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Kerouac’s On the Road. We killed time with a coffee and got our tickets to the 5PM panel, which was a works-in-progress reading featuring Joe Meno, Jim Carroll, and Gloria Naylor.
I’ve been a huge fan of Carroll, the diarist/poet/punk musician, since I first read The Basketball Diaries in high school. Wingfield and I had a chance encounter with him in the hallway an hour or so before his reading. It took me a second to recognize him, aged and frail as he was. He asked if I this were the second floor, I said no, it was the first. He was looking for some room, I assumed the artist check-in area. He gathered his bag and loped up the stairs to the next floor. I turned to Wingfield and said, sotto voce, “that was Jim Carroll.”
“I know,” she said.
“Should we have helped him?”
When I’d first seen him read, sometime in early 2001, he still looked like his old self, a charter member of the Heroin Preservation Society. It was in a dingy rock club on the Lower East Side. I was maybe twenty-three years old, and I sat on the cold cement floor, five feet from the stage, enraptured. The figure that approached us in the hallway was gaunt, sunken, stooped. His lanky frame bowed by illness. I wondered if he’d found the room, if he’d make it to the reading.
We waited in the queue to be let into the court room of Brooklyn Borough Hall. By the time we were settled and the obligatory introductions and sponsor thank-yous were made, the program was already fifteen minutes behind schedule. Naylor was running late, and we were told she may not make it. (She didn’t.) Meno and Carroll were seated behind the large Judge’s bench. Meno read first, a short story he was writing as a fund raiser for 826 Chicago. Then it was Carroll’s turn. He took a microphone and apologized. He said he was recovering from an illness. He was funny and self-deprecating. He stood, his leg was bothering him, and began to ramble a bit before from one of his previous books (Living at the Movies, maybe? I’m not sure). The character in that piece, Billy, was also the protagonist of his new novel, The Petting Zoo. Then he began shuffling through the type-written pages he’d brought. He couldn’t seem to find the selection he planned on reading. Time slowed to a crawl as everyone watched, uncomfortably, while Carroll turned over various pieces of paper, alternately apologizing and chastising himself. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I had it all together.” Meno, stuck next to him, watched with both pity and discomfort, mirroring the feelings the rest of us had. We wanted him to succeed, to get it together. People started to slowly trickle out of the room. Time was ticking by. Carroll made a discovery. “There’s typing on both sides of the page.” He held one aloft. “No wonder I can’t find what I’m looking for.” More shuffling.
One of the festival volunteers came up and said we had about ten minutes left. Maybe it was time to do a bit of Q&A. Carroll asked for more time. She said if the crowd wanted Carroll to read more, she’d bend to our will. There was applause. Carroll continued to shuffle his pages, determined to find what he was going to read, to get it right. To present what he’d planned on presenting, this work, this piece from The Petting Zoo, a novel he’d been writing for well over a decade.
More people began to leave, until the trickle became a hemorrhage. A shout from the peanut gallery. “Come on, Jim. Just read something, Jim.”
He started telling us about the portion he’d planned to read. When he spoke about the story, the context, he was lucid, commanding. Hints of the wry, roguish author he’d been shone through. The section of the novel was about a raven, though not just any raven, one who’d been on Noah’s arc. The raven was visiting the character of Billy, who naturally though he was hallucinating, being confronted by a talking bird. By this point he’d found a portion of the text he’d been looking for. He read. Then faltered again. More searching. The volunteer came back again. It was six. We had to go. To clear the room. There would be additional charges the festival couldn’t cover if they didn’t vacate the room on time.
Carroll was still standing, microphone in hand. He asked for more time. Another volunteer took the podium to the left of the bench. She was firm. She told everyone to clear out, thanked us for coming, and said the microphones would be cut off.
Wingfield and I gathered our belongings and started to exit. There was confusion. Grumbling. The event before had run over, we’d started late, why couldn’t they let him finish? I turned back for a final glimpse.
There was Carroll, microphone in hand (though it had been silenced), waving a piece of paper in the air and asking, pleading, to just be allowed to finish the page.