[Diary of a Memoirist] Faces in a Crowd
Written by
Nancy K. Miller
January 2014
Written by
Nancy K. Miller
January 2014

On my way to work this morning, winding my way through the crowded streets of the garment district, I looked up to see three New York City policemen mounted on horseback.

It’s not as though I’d never seen mounted police before, but it was startling on this brilliant and freezing morning to come upon three of them poised for action. What could be happening? As I turned the corner, the reason for their presence was revealed: several streets of advertisements for the Super Bowl—people lined up at various booths, stamping their feet with the cold.

I found myself thinking how amazing it was that hordes—and this was just the beginning—hordes (mainly of men in down coats) were hanging out participating in some kind of pre-game mystery, possibly shopping for souvenirs (of the event that had not yet taken place). It wasn’t amazing that they were participating in what appeared to be a ritual. That was predictable. What struck me was how you can feel utterly disconnected from what appears to be a large segment of the human race. In this case of American men gathering—or pre-gathering—for a major national activity. Football. I had a moment of utter clarity: this is something that could never, never touch me. It was a comforting feeling. I spend a lot of time dithering about doing this or that, the relative advantages/disadvantages of going here, there, buying this, that. In the morning sunlight I felt gloriously detached. No way I belonged on Super Bowl boulevard, newly created for the event.

Later that day, in the early evening, after teaching my first class of the semester, I got on the F train with a young colleague, headed for Brooklyn. I’m not sure I’ve ever taken the F train, but it appeared to be the quickest way to get to an event in Dumbo: a book party sponsored by PEN for new members and new books. Since my book was a new book, and since I was a member, I absolutely wanted to be there. After all, how often would I have a new book? And how much time and effort had I already invested in getting the book into the world? It would be a shame to miss the occasion. And how great was PEN?

My friend and I arrived at the bookstore—the Powerhouse Arena. It was an astoundingly large space for books—nothing like it is in Manhattan, huge, spacious—and by the time we had hiked several long blocks in the freezing cold from the subway stop, we were happy to join the packed crowd in the store.

Naturally, my first concern was seeing whether my book was there. It was!

I was happy to see the book displayed. I was thrilled to be included in just the kind of event I want to be part of: the polar opposite of the Super Bowl.

But here’s the thing. I looked around at the many faces of fellow writers, thinking surely I would know, encounter, or at least recognize someone. But as we wandered through the the vast and noisy aisles, gazing at the books on offer, it soon became clear that while all those familiar faces looked familiar, they in fact were not. Without my friend by my side, I would have stood in a corner feeling completely ridiculous—and utterly lonely. The music was loud, the crowd was young, “cool,” and I felt as much an outsider as I had contemplating the crowds excited by the Super Bowl.

On the cab ride back to Manhattan, as we looked at the fabulous views of bridges and skyscrapers, I couldn’t help wondering why I had wanted so badly to be there. That’s not quite it. I know why I wanted to be there. The hard part was admitting that being there, like having my book out in the world, wasn’t really enough. I wanted a kind of belonging that for me never means being part of a crowd.

I always knew I’d never be at home in the world of football fanatics. I hadn’t quite realized just how out of place I would feel in a literary gathering.

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  • Susan Holck

    Nancy, I so agree with you! My career (I am retired) was as a public health physician working at the World Health Organization. I had two major things going against me: I was young (29 when I began) and a woman. Power lay with "old" men. I managed to reach a senior managerial level and am fortunate to feel like I made a difference in people's lives. That 30+ year experience gives me self-confidence that is helpful when I encounter the young in the writing world. I am OK with the fact that I can learn from them. I'm glad I'm not their age, though.

  • Nancy K. Miller

    Yes, my discomfort feels "generational." It's odd. When I was young (another era), people in power were old--truly.

    Now that I'm old, the people in power--at least in the literary and taste making world--are young. The young can be as cruel as gatekeepers as the old were when they were in power.

    And so, after a certain age, my generation can expect feeling out of place in many places. I certainly do. 

  • Susan Holck

    Great story. I can relate to both situations (though I haven't - yet - had a book published.) I wonder how much of the lack of sense of belonging at the "literary event" was an age/generational gap. At 61 I am often one of the older people in writing and publishing conferences, and I feel a certain disconnect with many of the twenty-somethings (I have a 27 year-old daughter.) Yet I also feel self-confident enough for it not to intimidate me; I have lived through decades of harrowing experiences and learned from them, and learn more as I write. Yes, we older writers need to be up to date in our social media skills, etc. But we also have a lot to write about.

  • Natylie Baldwin

    "I wanted a kind of belonging that for me never means being part of a crowd."

    I really hear you about this.  I always feel out of place in large crowds, even if the throngs supposedly share the same interest.  It's unfortunate that your expectations of what you thought you'd feel, and needed to feel,(a sense of belonging), ended up being unfulfilled.  I'm 40 and I usually feel out of place with people 30 and younger -- too much culture shock for me.