Book Twitter, Ride-Sharing, and the End of Strangers
Kate Petersen Finds Herself in the Sunday Dusk of a James Salter Story
I bought the flowers in a converted garage late on a Sunday in mid-December, too early to be twilight but it was, the sun already down behind the buildings on 16th Street and the tulips nodding in their pails. I hadn’t bought flowers in years, and should have been reminded of Mrs. Dalloway, I suppose, but instead Mrs. Chandler from James Salter’s story “Dusk” came to mind. This betrays my brain for the poor catalog that it is; when I returned to the story later, Mrs. Chandler is in a grocer’s, no flowers in sight. But I’d recalled correctly the feeling: being a lone customer in an empty shop in late autumn, watching dusk come on, the reluctance of her stance. “She seemed to be looking at onions,” Salter writes, “she had one in her hand.”
When the woman behind the desk asked what I wanted, I said the flowers were for a friend’s birthday. Did I like anything in particular? Ranunculus and hypericum berries, I said, though as soon as I did, I backpedaled: “I’m not sure they go together.” I’m never sure anything goes together: flowers, outfits, people. She began with a candy-cane amaryllis, and as I watched her pause before the risers of stems, I felt glad she hadn’t made me answer her real question.
There-are-two-kinds-of-people-in-this-world is bullshit peddled by the makers of bumper stickers and novelty mugs, the cheap kind of untrue. Except when it comes to Sundays. Sundays, I’m a believer. You either understand how terrible Sundays are, or you don’t.
Salter knew. Turn to any page in his novel A Sport and A Pastime, and there’s a good chance it is twilight, or Sunday, or both. “Four in the afternoon. The trees along the street, the upper branches, are catching the last, full light.” The narrator stands outside a football stadium in provincial France. “Far away, the players are streaming across the soft grass. There seem to be no cries, no shouting, only the faint thud of kicks. It is the emptiness which pleases me, the blue dimensions of this life.”
For Mrs. Chandler, in “Dusk,” the time of day offers no comfort: “It was nearly dusk, and the room immediately became cozy. Outside the fields were disappearing. It was a serene hour, one she shrank from.”
The florist handed me the bouquet. It was gorgeous and ruled out the bus. I am a bus person by principle (use public goods!) and by necessity, being a non-tech writer trying to live on the thin underbelly of San Francisco’s current tech bubble. But the party was far away, almost at the ocean, and the bus would take an hour and a transfer and more faith in my one-handed flower-protection game than I had right then. San Francisco is famously seven-by-seven miles, a small city according to anyone who doesn’t traverse it by weekend public transport. (Enter Tech.) I felt like Mrs. Chandler standing there with her onion, suddenly overwhelmed by the deceptive scale of the mission.
Sundays, for those of us afflicted, never get very far from twilight. Unlike other days, their minutes and hours are deceptive, too, distributed unevenly so that the hopeful part of the morning seems to evaporate while you’re in the shower; the rest is dusk.
But for many people, Sunday is just the opposite: their favorite day. Sunday Funday. Day of cooking together, day of rest. I know because I’ve asked. And every brunch tradition, every pot roast I’m told about is a tiny brick laid that I stumble on, trying to get over. For me, Sunday has always been: asking the man I’m seeing whether a certain flower shop is any good, and he replying, incredible. Sunday is standing at my kitchen sink at sundown, wringing out a sponge.
Twilight is more technical than I realized. “Civil twilight” is defined as the time when the sun is between 0 degrees, 50 minutes north and 6 degrees below the horizon. As the sun falls six degrees further, it becomes nautical twilight. Another six, astronomical. Wikipedia will tell you all this too, if you ask.
I am deeply ambivalent about ride-sharing, and deleted Uber about six political missteps ago, but since the bus was out, I did the next budget-conscious thing: dialed up Lyft’s carpool option.
In winter at the 37th parallel, even civil twilight comes too early—4:51 that Sunday, according to the almanac—and by the time a car came for me the sun was fully down behind Mount Sutro. The driver who picked me up was playing mall-worn Christmas carols. Johnny Mathis singing “Silver Bells,” Bing Crosby’s “Adeste Fideles.” Nat King Cole’s rendition of “Oh, Holy Night.” I found myself unexpectedly glad.
We crossed Market to pick up another passenger, then climbed 17th, a street so steep the sidewalk has steps. In my neighborhood, windows are flush with the street, curtained, some barred. The only Christmas trees you can see from the street are in bars and pizza parlors. But as we drove west it seemed that every window, bayed and undressed, contained a stout twinkling tree. Even this year, I thought, halfway between wonder and dismay. I held the flowers like I would someone else’s child, admiration subsumed by the desire to preserve. The gold ranunculi were tucked up against white hypericum, and as we turned onto Stanyan, Cole’s voice repeated its tender admonition: O, night.
The party was one I think Salter would have liked. Women in silk dresses, dry rosé, pickled carrots and slivers of good cheese and toast on a length of butcher paper that dragged the floor. All his characters were there: producers, writers, artists and a few young failures, their invitation a mystery or a kindness. (Perhaps I am speaking of myself, here.) For as long as I have loved Salter’s work I have never found myself in the body of one of his characters. Only ally to the narrative guest or ghost that populates so much of his work, the outsider who surveys the rinds of cheese in the morning while the lovers sleep. Pushed gently into a warm French pastry, blown out, wished. The hostess asked its name. Pithivier, said her friend who’d made it. The man there with her was trying to Instagram it, but kept wanting to add an a where there was none. She corrected him. It sounded like it would have an a.
A nightlight was plugged into the wall in the host’s bathroom. I hate light-related epiphanies but even so I had one: I haven’t lived in a home with a nightlight since I was a girl. I’m probably far from alone, and it’s a fact of little consequence. But on Sunday, as I bared my teeth in the mirror, this seemed suddenly significant, commensurate with any other persistent lack. A series of nightly absences, inconsequential on their own, when strung together, name a kind of life.
“She hadn’t had a love affair in college—she was the only one she knew who hadn’t,” Jane thinks of herself in Salter’s story “Such Fun.” “Now she was sorry, she wished she had. And gone to the room with only a window and a bed.” To say I’ve never recognized myself in a Salter protagonist is not quite true. The first time I read this passage, I was 22, barely out of college myself, but I felt the thud of kinship with Jane, her hunger that has no antecedent in experience but is triggered by circumstance. The peculiar sting of regret that arrives without its requisite mistake.
The party had slowed, and even though it was still early, the dinner hour elsewhere, it felt late. We were approaching the moment a Salter narrator would begin to pull at the threads of the evening: a glass broken in the sink, an awkward confession, a face that had gotten a little too drunk to hide its disappointment. His is a revelation through unraveling. But since I’m the one telling it, the facts are sturdier and plainer: I felt out-Sundayed, and worried that if the group dwindled any further someone would detect it. I said my goodbyes and called another Lyft for home. When I got in, my driver whose name, according to my phone, was Bill, asked what I do. I teach, I said. Writing.
“Writing,” he said. “Do you know where I can find someone to help me write a book?” He had advocated for his mother in the health care system, he said, nursed her through two rounds of cancer. Now he wanted to write a book for other advocates.
I told him about a freelancer website I knew, but did not ask what cancer, or how his mother was. I missed some silence I could never prove.
“Oh,” he said, “another ride.” His phone chimed, and we crossed into the Sunset.
“Tyler?” Bill confirmed as he pulled up in front of a corner store. In this brave new world, we know each other’s names before we ever meet.
“Bill, yeah! How’s it going, man?” the kid said as he got in. A girl got in the backseat with me. “I want to play Cecelia this song.” He must have been 23, 24. “Any way we could we do that? It’s jazz.”
Just a few days before, one of my students read aloud from a story she’d written in which a young widower picks up shifts in his father’s cab to earn money to support his daughters. His eldest girl is named Cecelia. As my student read, she played Billie Holiday’s “Pennies from Heaven” on her laptop, because it was playing on the radio in his cab.
As Salter’s story unfolds, my kinship with Jane falls apart. Not feeling well, she leaves her friend’s apartment early, hails a taxi.
“In the rear-view mirror, the driver, who was young, saw that Jane, a nice-looking girl about his age, was crying. At a red light next to a drugstore where it was well lit, he could see the tears streaming down her face.” He asks her what’s wrong.
“–Nothing, she said, shaking her head. I’m dying.
–No, not sick. I’m dying of cancer, she said.”
Bill and I listened silently while the boy played his song for the girl. It was a kind of spastic, jam-band number, short and underwhelming. I wanted to look at Cecelia, buckled up beside me, but didn’t dare. When the song was over, Tyler thanked our driver and asked what he thought. “It’s okay,” Bill said, politely. Then, after a moment: “It’s no Charlie Parker.” Bill asked if he’d been to the SF Jazz Center. “Where’s that?” the boy asked.
Jane goes silent again, and the narrator moves to the cab driver’s mind: “The city was filled with so many strange people, he could not tell if she was telling the truth or just imagining something.”
Strange people. That Jane confesses to the driver, and herself, that she has stage four cancer—“she had said it for the first time, listening to herself”—hinges on the customary anonymity between cab driver and passenger. It’s an anonymity that fosters a kind of intimacy, one I feel any time I can hear a stranger breathing. One we take for granted until it’s trespassed. We will never see each other again, therefore, I can tell you this.
It’s this very strangerhood that fuels fiction. Dear reader, I will never see you, so I may as well tell you the truth.
But that strangerhood is disappearing quickly with ride-sharing. Literature, too. At a moment in which we live (and now govern) on social media, authors are encouraged to engage regularly with their readers on social sites like Goodreads and Twitter, to be the face of a story or book after it’s published, and so account for it. Published authors can check their Amazon ratings and reviews as often as they can refresh a webpage. A publishing industry trying to compete with glowing screens has begun to rely on them, promoting online engagement to boost signal and so sales; gone is the day a book was sent into the world, its maker again left alone. Here I mean the good kind of alone, the alone a writer needs to sit before a new blank page. Speeding down Oak Street, we were a reluctant family of four trapped listening to Tyler’s terrible jazz. But Bill would rate Tyler. I would have to rate Bill. We were all stuck performing for a score so that some day, when we needed it again, someone would let us in.
I’m not suggesting that this new sharing economy or “book twitter” don’t have their own logic, their own opportunity and upsides (though I think we are becoming more aware of these economies’ troubling externalities). Nor am I merely mourning the past, what’s fading or gone, though I suspect there will be much of that in the coming years. But there are stories about the mystery and space between strangers that couldn’t be written now. There are certain stories that require the space between strangers in order to be told.
And when I was at that party, partaking and enjoying myself, here is the truth, whoever you are: I longed to be outside, down on the dark street again, where I knew the light would be fainter, prettier, the faces and shadows belonging to them just assumptions, and ones that I could get wrong yet, stationed as I was in my own private season.