Take this as a slice of New York Life, where just about everything interesting that happens is unexpected.
I am in an East Side Hospital, waiting for my turn with the physical therapist to work over my recently operated-on arm. They have reattached a detached bicep tendon (thank you, Little League, for your demands on aging fathers) without which you have no working bicep muscle.
Overheard down the hall is an ever-so-New-York-kinda-voice of an elderly(?) and possibly Jewish woman complaining of pain in her foot and imminent steps to be taken with a podiatrist to make shoe inserts that will alleviate the agony of her Plantar Fasciitis.
Wanting to help the world - one painful step at a time - I intervene to confess that I have had that condition, tried the useless podiatrist and inserts, then benefited from counsel from an internist I met sailing in Maine who said Forget the Podiatrist. The answer to your condition is Birkenstocks.
I wear them almost all the time now to occasional odd looks which I ignore because my foot is no longer killing me, thank you. In fact the bad foot in Birkenstocks now works as it once did. Birkenstocks work!
I deliver this news to the woman in the hallway and soon discover she is not just any random woman of New York but a highly accomplished writer - Sandra Hochman, Pulitzer nominee for poetry, author of "Walking Papers" (Viking, 1971), the first of six novels, several books of avant-garde poems (Earthworks, Love Letters from Asia), Year of the Woman ((1973), an early and controversial documentary about the early women's movement, and most recently author of an imminent Broadway production based on her children's story, "Timmy the Great."
Some weeks later Sandra invites me to her 75th birthday party in a towering but small apartment on East 79th Street. By then she has read "Into My Father's Wake," the book that I sent her as sort of a get-to-know-me present between writers (and hoping she might offer some helpful advice). She responded like the teacher and mentor she has often been to others (she started the "You're an Artist Too" foundation at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to teach poetry and song writing to children aged 7-12 and ran it for 15 years) generously saying she admires my book and wants to help me get it published.
I do not make a point then of saying that it has been published (Amazon) because she comes from a world where only real publishers (Viking et al) count. "Self" cannot be a valid publisher in the world in which she came of age - despite the advent of the New Economy.
And as I will learn over our first lunch together, she has been very close with poet Robert Lowell and novelist Saul Bellow and other prodigious writers (including Philip Roth) of the officially published world. I am coming to believe that this rare literary woman's life should be made into a movie (what about a musical?) about women who have lived three-quarters of a century but seem to have had half a millennium of experience in that time, and remain far, far from dead.
By now I have secured a copy of "Walking Papers" from the New York Society Library and what do I discover? A tour-de-force of language and imagery and a highly independent woman's consciousness, often delivered in poetry-as-prose, lyrical commentary on ideas and feelings that spill out as vivid experience. This is a wonderful, rare and often very funny book that was way ahead of her time.
"Walking Papers" should be dusted off and read by any woman who thinks her own deeper feelings of post-divorce rage and fear and scars of a lonely custody-fight childhood and frustration and despair regarding the ways of men, lovable and treacherous as they can be, or the elusiveness of enduring love are unique to themselves. And men should read it to learn that yes, women think about those things too.
Moreover, "Walking Papers" stirred me to remember break-through writers who moved me when I was a much younger student - Alain Robbe-Grillet comes to mind, whose rule-breaking style made his work uniquely modern and changed the way many people thought about fiction.
So I marvel at this chance encounter in a hospital hallway that brought me to a breakthrough novel of its time that still has the power to inspire after all these years. How did I miss "Walking Papers" the first time around? Why weren't students of fiction like me forced to read it? (Some issues of feminism might be at work here.)
Thanks to a couple of sore feet, New York life gave me a second chance.