As anyone who’s spoken with me for more than 15 minutes already knows, I spent about three and a half years living in Manhattan during my mid- to late-20s. For the first two and a half years I lived in a tiny studio apartment in Hell’s Kitchen; the next year I spent on the Upper East Side—seven months in a shared two-bedroom and five months on a buddy’s couch. It was in July of 2001 that I slunk away to graduate school in Washington, D.C., scarred but smarter, grateful for the experience, blah blah blah.
I actually ran into a couple of literary idols while living there. Once I saw John Updike walking past the Algonquin Hotel, a sweater wrapped around his shoulders in classic “anyone for tennis?” style. Didn’t say anything to him, though. I also spotted Kurt Vonnegut just a few blocks south of Grand Central Station. He was lounging across the steps of a Protestant church and smoking a cigarette. Didn’t say anything to him either. After walking past, taking much too long to register that it really was him, I turned around to say something, maybe shake his hand, whatever, but he was gone. The embellisher in me wants to say all that was left behind was the great writer’s still-smoking cigarette butt, but that’s probably not true.
I also ran into Stanley Crouch, the great jazz critic for the Village Voice, standing on 48th Street. I was walking home from work one early spring afternoon, wearing my dark business suit and beltless trenchcoat. Crouch, meanwhile, looked like he always did: brown suit, short salt-and-pepper beard, black framed glasses. A living Far Side cartoon.
“You,” I said, slightly adrenalized as one tends to be immediately after making it through Times Square, “you’re Stanley Crouch.”
“That’s right,” he said, offering his hand. “Who are you?”
We shook hands, I introduced myself, and then a weird thing happened: he asked me if I knew where the entrance to 30 Rock was located. He said he’d been directed to go there for an interview but he couldn’t figure out where he needed to be. We could not have been more than 50 feet away from the entrance.
Before I knew it, we were walking along the sidewalk, together, Stanley Crouch and me. Looking back now, I think the reason I felt present enough to recognize and approach him—the way I failed to do with Updike and Vonnegut—was that Stanley Crouch was all over the news around this time, having racked up a dozen or so appearances on 60 Minutes II, sparring chummily with Molly Ivins, while his debut novel, Don’t The Moon Look Lonesome: A Novel in Blues and Swing, was scheduled for release in just a couple of months. Being something of a media fiend back then, I had come across quite a lot of industry hype about the book, and so I asked him about it.
“Yeah, man,” he said, delighted that a perfect stranger was aware of the upcoming release. “It’s going to blow up.”
Sadly, Don’t The Moon Look Lonesome did not blow up. If anyone remembers the novel nowadays, it is for the beatdown it received from The New Republic‘s Dale Peck. (Incidentally, Updike reviewed it for The New Yorker, and while he was considerably more sympathetic than Peck, he didn’t love it, either.) I never read Don’t The Moon Look Lonesome, but I think it’s probably safe to say his nonfiction work, including 2014’s Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker, was more successful overall. His ability to speak and write on jazz, “America’s music,” was singular. His ability to not only back up but expand on his strong opinions about music, race, and art was deft, enlightening, genius.
We arrived at 30 Rock’s front entrance. “All right, Clancy,” Crouch said—and the fact that he called me by my last name, like a contemporary, still tightens my stomach in a most pleasurable way. “Guess I’ll see you around.”
And that was it. We shook hands again and he went inside, on his way to the next gig, and I went home, feeling as large and legitimate as I ever had before. The feeling lasted for weeks. There’s still a little bit of it now as I type these words.