'The New Yorker,' My Mother, and Me

In person: an Austin writer courses through her favorite magazine's festival circuits

Although we've never lived anywhere near the Big Apple, my family has enjoyed an epic history of The New Yorker readership. My mother first subscribed as a college student in Ohio in the late Fifties, and she's continued her subscription without interruption to this day. "I read it cover to cover when it comes, always have," says Ma, a retired physician. "There were years when I didn't have time to finish a single book, but I read The New Yorker every week."

So it was that every week of my young life, a new issue would appear on my kitchen table in Central Texas. My mom would devour it first. Then, it would pass into smaller hands; my siblings and I would look at the cartoons (Roz Chast and George Booth were usually the only ones we understood) and ogle the fancy ads. By high school, I was reading "Talk of the Town" and the film and theatre reviews, feeling wildly urbane and erudite, learning words like "urbane" and "erudite." When I was in college, my mother bought me my own subscription; aside from the few years when Tina Brown was editor, I've read it ever since.

Then came the New Yorker Festival, a yearly collection of panels, readings, and signings sprinkled around New York City throughout three days. Since its inception, my mom has been salivating at the festival's offerings, and finally this year she decided to go and take me with her. Here are some notes from the journey we two longtime Texans made into the heart of the city, following a thread from the quilt of our family's history.

Friday, Sept.19, noon: Arrive in Penn Station. In cab to hotel, ask driver why policemen are putting people into cabs now; is it some post-9/11 thing? Driver rolls eyes and says, "That wasn't a cop. It was a taxi valet."

Friday, Sept. 19, 7pm: After much untangling of subway lines, arrive at Joe's Pub for reading by Bosnian novelist Aleksandar Hemon (Nowhere Man) and Jeffrey Eugenides (The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex). Bar is packed, dark, and swanky. Audience is utterly silent.

What I thought the writers would look like --

Hemon: Plump, curly haired, prematurely gray, somber.

Eugenides: Dark-haired, sharp-eyed and slender-nosed, slim, with a fast metabolism and beautiful hands.

What they look like --

Hemon: Baseball cap, swimmer's shoulders, intelligent eyes, full lips. Perfect English except for the occasional misplaced syllable stress. Hands rest in pockets when not making sweeping, palm-up gestures.

Eugenides: Top-bald, with wavy, dark hair that's long in back. Brow juts over eyes in hawklike manner. Beaky, Greek nose; mustache.

Ponderable quotation: "In America, because the infrastructure is strong, individuality is linked with consumption of certain brands, certain things. In Croatia, the weakening infrastructure allows for more interesting and varied individuals." -- Aleksandar Hemon

Friday, Sept. 19, 9:30pm: Reading by Zadie Smith (White Teeth, The Autograph Man) and Sherman Alexie (First Indian on the Moon, Ten Little Indians) at the Angel Orensanz Foundation, a towering, sandblasted synagogue. Filigreed doors, Romanesque blue ceiling; paint peeling in multicolored patches. Audience is lively and verbal

What I thought the writers would look like --

Smith: Beautiful, dark, wavy-haired, slender.

Alexie: Longhaired, tattooed, grizzled, deeply lined, weather-beaten.

What they look like --

Smith: Breathtakingly beautiful. White teeth. Improbably high cheekbones and impossibly large eyes. Deep voice, working-class edge to English accent. Terse in answers to audience questions.

Alexie: Young, short-haired, handsome, clean-cut, neatly dressed in casual/professional. Glasses. Forgot his copy of story; read from book borrowed from audience member.

Ponderable quotation: None.

Saturday, Sept. 20, 1pm: Longtime New Yorker theatre critic John Lahr interviewed improv artist and film/theatre director Mike Nichols at the French Institute. Audience was mature, argent-haired, intensely respectful, and appreciative. Dick Cavett sat two rows in front of me.

What I thought John Lahr would look like --

Graceful, debonair, stylish, tall, and graying.

What John Lahr looks like --

Short, round, unstylish, gnomish, slightly porcine-faced (in a good way).

Ponderable quotations from Mike Nichols: About comedy: "Laughter is the audience's way of saying, 'Me, too'"; about movies: "It's my greatest joy, working in the realm of the unconscious. It's like, you can't wait to get to sleep because your dreams are so great"; about life: "Accomplishment is unsure. Process is everything."

Saturday, Sept. 20, 9:30pm: Hendrik Hertzberg, New Yorker writer and "flaming liberal" (Ma's affectionate description), interviewed Emmylou Harris, whose music wafted through my home since earliest childhood.

What I thought Hertzberg would look like --

Gray, wild, wiry hair, glasses, small frame with tight muscled limbs, nervous gestures, high expressive voice.

What Hertzberg looks like --

See "What I thought John Lahr would look like ...," but remove "graceful" and add "professorial."

Ponderable quotation from Emmylou Harris: "There's Nashville with a capital N that you see on all the awards shows. And then there's Nashville with a small N that's made up of all the artists that really move country forward today."

My favorite moment of the festival: For her single curtain call, Harris plays "Boulder to Birmingham." Sitting in St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn, my mother and I are transported to Houston, 1978, the winter my dad left, and she's singing us through it all over again. end story

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