Having escaped New York City ahead of a brutal winter storm, I was safely shuttled to my downtown Tampa lodgings. Deciding to attend A.W.P. (Association of Writing Programs) conference late in the game meant that everything closer to the convention center was unavailable. The Marriott Waterside, site of additional conference events, was overbooked and a fellow attendee had been shunted to an airport hotel. We are delayed departing the airport. The driver’s computer received incorrect information from headquarters and deleted passenger accurate data. A harbinger of things to come…
Despite a gratuity being included, I tipped the driver for removing my heavy bag from the van, even though he didn’t drop me at the proper entrance to my hotel. I dragged my overstuffed suitcase through the front doorway and up two short flights of stairs, praying that a busted knee and injured shoulders, damaged at a literary meeting in October, would not worsen. At the Hotel Floridan’s front desk, I was greeted by a tall man with heavily pomaded hair: Severus Snape meets Lurch.
“I’ll need your credit card.”
I shook my head.
“You already have it.”
‘I’ll need it for incidentals.”
“There won’t be incidentals.”
“You have a trustworthy face. Here’s the key.”
I lugged my bags to the elevator and rode to the ninth floor. After a brief struggle with a recalcitrant lock, I’m inside. Hooray! Mission Accomplished…Uh, not exactly. The room stank of cigarette smoke. If I stay here, I will asphyxiate. Back at reception, I’m Oliver Twist imploring Mr. Bumble:
“Could I please have another room? The smell of smoke is unbearable.”
A new room on the eleventh floor promptly secured. After multiple attempts to slide my entry card, the door bleeped open. There are antiques, a king-size bed, two bottles of water, and one bar of soap. I needed to rest before heading over to the convention center for registration. Before I could fall asleep, the door opened and I gasped in horror.
An apologetic man handed me a white terry cloth.
“This is Housekeeping. You’re missing a hand towel. Sorry – I didn’t know this room was assigned.”
I took the towel, shut the door, and settled a spindly top latch into place. When I tried to turn the deadbolt, it would not budge. How could I stay in alone in a hotel room without a functioning lower lock? Weariness from travel meant deferring a solution. I chose to take a long desired nap, reassuring myself that fiendish deeds only happen in the dead of night.
The late afternoon involved getting my bearings (walking twenty minutes to the convention center and pondering which route would be safer when returning at night), registering (getting a dangling identification badge to wear at all times), and following through on a commitment to attend an off-site literary journal event. By sunset, I scoped out nearby dining destinations, a strategic array of bathrooms, and the location of the Emily Dickinson Room, tucked away on the third tier of the convention center. Unfortunately, Emily’s door remains locked – no solitude until tomorrow. Secretly, I’m hoping for comfy chintz chairs, the aroma of freshly baked black currant cake, and tasseled ottomans. My attempt to commune with Emily Dickinson unfolded towards the end of the conference. Pushing open a heavy door, I discovered round tables suitable for a catered affair. Inside the stark, post-modern room, two stiff chairs were combined (quickly and quietly!) so I could nap upright, legs outstretched. Younger exhausted participants (“If it’s Tuesday, This Must be Belgium”) snored on Emily’s floor. I refused to sleep on the wall to wall carpeted floor. Such an act was beneath my mid-life dignity. I’m probably also allergic to the fabric.
It’s my first A.W.P. and I’m grateful that some more experienced literary folks have reached out to me for two breakfasts and a dinner. I don’t press the folks I only know via cyberspace for additional companionship as they have things to do and people to see. Instead, I secure solo transportation to the Tahitian Inn and listen to writers and poets share their work. I buy a poetry collection and try to make small talk with one of the journal editors. He’s uninterested in me once my purchase has been made. I wear my mid-life invisibility cloak with grace and wait for my ride. A charming driver arrives promptly and sings the praises of a rising Tampa – fine restaurants, art institutions, the economic impact of the banking industry, and robust local military installation. I note the glassy condominiums, blocks of vacant commercial space, unpopulated streets, and am unable to discern the difference between capitalist boom and bust. The courtly driver offers me a card and his services for the duration of my stay. I’m grateful for the mild flirtatiousness as young hipster editor has definitely bruised my ego. A “Woman of a Certain Age” goes to bed. But not without removing the wooden chair from beneath a desk and placing it in front of her door.
My morning begans with an 8A.M. breakfast at the Marriott. I was been instructed to arrive at the hotel lobby bearing my own breakfast. This is far from simple as my hotel does not serve breakfast of any kind (there’s no pool either) and nearby cafes do not open until lunchtime. Fortunately, I discover Gorgeous Blue-Eyed Bruce and his well-reviewed food truck near the city center. Charming gray-haired Bruce became my source of all things breakfast – delicious egg sandwiches, glazed donuts, and hot chocolate – until he vanished on Saturday morning. A Starbucks biscuit was sadly consumed. Alas, none of the servers was handsome like Bruce…
It’s a joy to meet in person with Women Writers who mostly teach at colleges, universities, and low residency M.F.A. programs. The energy generated by our breakfast meeting could power several cities. Folks were warm and friendly. I’m grateful to have traversed six degrees of separation and been included this gathering. A closed women’s writing group led to my friendship with Janice, who knows my high school friend Susan, who was my late best friend Doreen’s closest friend (they were serious Beatles fans) during elementary school. I also went to Hebrew School with Dave, Susan’s younger brother. We’re all from Jamaica Estates and heartbroken about the November 2016 election. How could the narcissist from Midland Parkway have been elected President? We agree not to talk about him – it’s a decision of resistance. Instead, my newfound literary colleagues ask me to describe where I’m staying.
“There’s a fancy dining room and wood paneled bar but an insufficient supply of soap. The lock on my door misbehaves. It’s ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ meets ‘Hotel California.’”
Indeed, for the next two days, there will be continual challenges when it comes to entering (an uncooperative key card) and departing the premises (the dead bolt having finally been closed refuses to budge!)
We adjourned our gathering with hugs and sped off to attend an extraordinary range of panel discussions. The lost, marginalized, abandoned, oppressed, are all given platform and voice without any serious discussion of class consciousness or mention of Marxism. Capitalism receives radical critique and moral condemnation, but dialectical analysis of enduring/transformative dynamics never materializes. My literary immersion included listening to Feminist writers, Jewish poets, essayists weaving together pop culture (“Dawson’s Creek!”) and politics while trying to tell tales of enduring value, older women of all orientations and experience writing about sensuousness, interiority, sex, and desire, as well as learning about opportunities for pitching agents, writing residencies, and winning awards. Meals were stolen in between panels. “The Sail” never ran out of fried grouper and bottled cranberry juice. A sumptuous spiced carrot cake at Jackson’s reminded me of the one baked by Jonathan Pine in “The Night Manager.” Most importantly, the Tampa Convention Center had soft club chairs great for napping when panels end and before keynote speeches begin.
Saturday evening, I found myself alone, exhausted, and in low spirits. The more established women writers were going to off-site events, mingling with rising and established literary stars. It was time to conjure a plan that would change my mood. The previous night, I had dined (again, thanks to Janice) with women writers at the Westin’s lovely hotel restaurant. It was an excellent and affordable meal which did not require reservations and I hoped to repeat the experience. As the day unfolded, I’d been thinking about Doreen, missing her terribly and remembering how we’d hung out at the American Sociological Association convention in San Francisco many years ago. At that time, Doreen was healthy and in her professional glory, working the convention for HarperCollins. She was also a foodie and we’d dined in fabulous style at Green’s, Alta, and a great restaurant in Chinatown. As I crossed a narrow bridge leading towards the Westin, the loss of Doreen weighed heavily on my heart. We used to joke that the one good deed Rupert Murdoch had done was cover the cost of her chemotherapy.
I waited to be seated. I waited to be given a menu and served. Finally, I curled on top of an upholstered chair beside a long brown table, as far as possible from the man seated at the other end. A woman arrived and sat opposite me. She was also wearing an A.W.P. identification badge but I couldn’t see her name. My badge also dangled out of sight. While waiting for our food, all three of us begin to chat. The woman and I discovered that we are both from New York. The man is a cardiologist from the United Kingdom; the literary woman and I have stories of open heart surgery to share (hers happy, mine painful). We are toasting, there’s nascent comradeship, their food comes, and I’m still waiting for mine. The woman speaks up on my behalf. It turns out the order has been lost in the kitchen. Many moons later, my clam chowder and Caesar salad materialized. A female manger took responsibility for the mistake and my meal was on the house. The cardiologist asked the woman across from me if she is a writer. She tells him that she works in publishing. A tiny bell tinkled in a corner of my mind…Could she have known Doreen? After finishing his dessert, the cute British cardiologist expressed fear of turning into a pumpkin and bid us goodnight. A half hour later, the literary woman and I are still talking, sharing our opinions about walking up steep hills and whether or not to ride trolley cars. I mentioned attending a San Francisco conference with my late best friend who had worked in academic publishing. The woman across from me fiercely whispered: “DOREEN!” I screamed. Then I cried.
My new friend Dominique, like many of her colleagues, had adored Doreen. Dominique had attended the funeral and heard my eulogy. She took a picture of my identification badge so we could become friends on Facebook and stay in touch.
“Mindy, that’s why you seemed so familiar!”
We hugged for a long time and acknowledged the existence of miracles. However, the full impact of meeting Dominique hit me two days later. Doreen was an Anglophile. London was her city, the Kinks, Stones, and The Jam were her bands, and handsome men connected to the United Kingdom were the ones she relished most. Our cute British cardiologist had served as catalyst. He’d opened our hearts, enabling a conversation that forged a magical connection, linking two strangers from beyond the grave…
Sunday morning, I departed the hotel (unlatching the stubborn dead bolt for the last time) and waited for my pre-paid shuttle. The driver called my cell phone. He’s on the other side of town and won’t be able to pick me up. I’m enraged. Did this guy think that a woman traveling alone from New York could be dumped? Did my peculiar, foreign-sounding last name make me easily disposable? Or, did this guy just forget to re-set his clock? No way was I going to miss my flight! In a flash, I called the pricier car service recommended by A.W.P. A town car materialized in less than ten minutes. Whew!
I whirled through security having made sure the hairbrush resembling a gun was stowed in my checked baggage. Upon arriving home, I found a note from the T.S.A. inside my suitcase telling me that it had been searched. Had an upgraded scanner made them curious? Or, was it prompted by an almost forty year history of political activism that might correspond with a government file? Was the search an act of insidiousness and domination, punishment for refusing to join the ranks of the T.S.A. pre-cleared, the folks who have nothing to hide and have handed over their retinas?
It was lonely at the airport. Other conference attendees talked among themselves. They’d rather be cool than friendly. Young women seated near me suddenly rise and rush over to greet a literary celebrity. Accomplishment and fame make one desirable regardless of age. As we waited for our zone to be summoned, there’s an opening in the conversation. I entered with care.
“You get to board earlier if you give up your civil rights.”
The V.I.P. and her friends laughed with delight. They seemed to wonder (albeit briefly) why such wit came from an unfamiliar source. I grabbed my carry-on bag and joined the queue for boarding.
Viva A.W.P.! Next year in Portland!