I have been pretty scrupulously avoiding Karl Ove Knaussgard’s epic for a while now. I have really been focused on reading and writing about women and have been trying to tamp down the proportion of navel-gazers in my life. Still, I just finished the first installment of his piece for the Times magazine and found it so funny and so familiar that I think I can, in fact, come to enjoy his particular brand of stoic Norwegian narcissism.
In any case, his incuriosity, his fear of strangers, did remind me of myself and made me want to tell you this story about my trip to Pennsylvania this week.
I had an amazing time. A colleague invited me to Widener University to give a lecture on editing Mrs. Dalloway to her students and the community at large. I went down in the morning by train. A hunky, flirty Jordanian squash coach made me listen to house music on his Samsung on the way. I had a sublime few hours at the Barnes Collection, got picked up and taken out to Chester, met people, talked, had dinner, got dropped off at the Best Western just across the street from campus.
It was 9:15.
I was exhausted but exhilarated. I had had some wine. I just wanted one quiet beer so I could calm my nerves and go to bed. I asked Siri. She recommended a pretty gross sounding bar. I looked out my window: a 7-11. Perfect.
No beer at the 7-11.
I talked to Siri again. The bar was .25 miles away. I walked a bit. I walked over the I-95 overpass into a very, very run-down neighborhood of early-20th century homes. It looked like the backside of any industrial East Coast town. I tucked my ropes of fake pearls under my black shirt.
The Village Grille is on a corner. One street runs parallel and above the interstate, the other one is a side road that runs parallel to the service road of motels and pizza chains that grow up around the highway. It’s in a shabby fake-Victorian house, covered in asbestos siding, but with a turret. The entrance is on the corner. I could see in the windows that the lights were bright.
I walked in. The music was deafening but, to me, unrecognizable. Everyone was black. In fact, black-ish was on the TV. The bartenders, a man and woman in their 50’s, were good-looking, slim, and efficient. He gave me an appraising look and asked for my order. “A Bud.” He grabbed a bottle and asked if that would be ok. I said it would and reached for my money. Fumbling. Two singles. A bunch of receipts. A raised eyebrow from the bartender. Then, victory. A ten.
I paid (the beer was $3.50) and drank my beer, watching black-ish, which looks terrific, and watching the people in the two rooms further back. A woman, my age, in a parka and a nursing tunic, dancing by herself. Some men in playing pool. Across from me at the horseshoe bar, a man, about 70, watching me and wanting me to know he had his eye on me.
My beer about done, a plump woman came in. I was sitting right next to the take-out spot and she stood for a while, waiting to get the barkeep’s attention. Then, she turned to me: “Do you have…?” I couldn’t hear, but she was holding out coins. I reached for a single. “Is this what you want?” “Yeah! Can you do another?” “Sure,” I giggled, “but my wallet’s gonna be so heavy!” “Aww…you’re sweet,” she said, and gave me a hug and a kiss and walked to the back room with her singles.
I snapped my wallet shut and looked up.
Across the bar the old man mouthed “Want another beer?”
“No thanks,” I mouthed back and left.