A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore

Hi! If you don’t want to read 700 words about my day antiquing, you can skip down right to the first picture.

First though, I want to shout out to my sister, who is kind of ambiently poking me right now (that’s a twin thing), and to whom I was within six feet of for basically this entire day, a large portion of which was spent with her head in my lap, very nearly obstructing my reading material. She keeps telling me sweet flattering things that make me want to hug her and I should really just put it out there that my day wouldn’t have been as awesome without her in it, poking me with ambience.

Oh, today has been tons of fun. You see, a few days ago I was feeling bored with everything and very restless and irritable and aimless because life felt pointless, and it was in this mood that I convinced my mom that a roadtrip was in order. An aimless roadtrip with an unknown destination. Oh, we tossed out some towns we could visit within a few hours of here- Salem, Portsmouth, South Hampton- but ultimately we were just looking for interesting signs. We ended up taking an exit that lead to a “historic waterfront” with a “maritime museum,” and as soon as we got off the exit we stopped at a gas station to ask directions. This was fun because I was kind of hyper and really just sort of flailed at the poor baffled man behind the counter, but we did get directions.

We managed to find our way downtown and locate the museum (the giant bouys out front were helpful in that pursuit), but it turned out to be closed because March in New England doesn’t generally attract tourists. However, also in front of the museum was a sign that said “Oldie’s Marketplace,” and at the other side of the parking lot was this giant, eccentric-looking warehouse with the same title on it, so we decided that that was definitely worth checking out.

Oldie’s turned out to be a huge antique store, kind of. It was giant, for one thing, and everything was beyond nifty. They had old books and housewares, toys and tools, jars of buttons and knick-knacks, figurines and glassware, old records and photos… it was completely thrilling. Vintage hats and clothing (Emma bought a fantastic newsboy cap to which she affixed a golden turtle pin- it looks absolutely smashing on her recently-sheared cranium), but then, folks, but then, Emma found a case filled with old cameras.

It was like Jensen Ackles had come and offered me a piggy-back ride, that’s how excited I was. There were five in the case, ranging in price from eighteen dollars to forty-five, and later we would find a second case with even more expensive cameras and a few old video reel cameras which looked fantastic but about which I know nothing. I picked up and handled each one (with numb, clumsy fingers- this place was frigid) and eventually selected the cheapest camera, which was a Brownie Hawkeye. This camera has to be at least fifty-sixty years old, and since Brownies are actually toy cameras for children to use (you can see Charlie Brown and the gang using them in the really old strips), it’s made of plastic and virtually indestructable, ha! Here’s a picture of it. The flash is removable, and mine doesn’t have a bulb in it. I prefer toting the camera around naked.

After our purchases had been made (I also bought a couple of old matchboxes to add to my collection), we went to lunch at a seafood restaurant, which was much fun and the food was good. Over the meal I somehow (I don’t actually know how I accomplished this) convinced mom to let us go back to Oldie’s and buy me the second-cheapest camera they had, for twenty-five dollars. Keep in mind: I had paid for the Brownie, but mom had paid for Emma’s hat. This probably influenced her decision.

My second camera was a Kodak Retina III c. Pay attention to the door next to the lens- I guess the idea is that it collapses? I can’t get mine to do that, though, but that’s probably just because it’s very old and has been in this position for a very long time. I also can’t open the door where you would insert the film. This one also came with a pretty Indian-style strap, and both had cases.

All in all, it was quite a thrilling find! I collect cameras, even ones that don’t work- I think I have six or seven at this point? Oh, and hey, if you’re interesting in actually seeing my photography, you can go here.

This is going to be a really long entry. That up there? About 700 words already, and I read three books in the car- it was a six-hour roundtrip. Firstly, I finished the novel I’ve been reading, then I read a two quick graphic novels.

I’m on a website called tumblr, and on this website called tumblr I follow a blog called Coverspy, which is based in New York, and the guy who runs the blog goes on subways and such and notices what people are reading, then posts a picture and a short description of the reader. It’s interesting, and that’s how I found out about this book. They showed a (different) picture on Coverspy.

A Gate at the Stairs is about a young college student named Tassie who’s in need of funds, so she goes around trying to find a job as a nanny. After falling flat a few times, she finds Sarah Brink, an eccentric middle-aged woman who owns a restaurant and is soon to adopt a child with her husband, Edward. Working on instinct, Sarah hires Tassie for the job, and Tassie is there from step zero; she goes with Tassie to meet several birth mothers, then to meet the child (a young half-black girl named Mary), and then to bring her home. She starts work the next day.

I don’t know how to explain that there’s really a lot to this novel. Tassie herself was very average- she starts the novel at age nineteen, just kind of hovering, and she feels the same way at the end- just hovering. But it’s a different kind of hover that I can’t explain because everything that’s been set up for the first 260 pages all gets flip-flopped over in the final sixty. It was exciting, but also kind of terrible. What begins as an enlightening, humorous exploration into purposelessness becomes a frightening, nihilistic conclusion.

It was an incredible read, but I’m not sure I would recommend it to everyone because of the uncomfortable ending.

One theme that ran strong throughout the entire book was that of race. This story takes place in the southern USA, in a place where a white couple adopting a half-black baby was shocking and uncommon. Sarah forms a group for biracial families that meets on Wednesdays. Tassie takes care of the children in an upstairs room while listening to bits of the conversation drifting through the floorboards.

A good book- but perhaps not one that I would read again.

The second book I read on the trip- a very quick read. The Night Bookmobile is a graphic novel by Audrey Niffeneger (whose work I’m a fan of- she wrote The Time-Traveler’s Wife and Her Fearful Symmetry) about a girl named Alexandra who, at a time in her youth, wanders upon a Winnebago inside which resides a library of every book she’s ever read. The Library closes at dawn, however, and so she has to leave. Once the bookmobile drives away, however, she can’t locate it again for another nine years!

The bookmobile becomes an obsession for Alexandra, who asks the librarian to take her with him, only to be told that there is no position for her in the Library. Her life slowly loses meaning, though she decides to become a regular librarian and spends all of her free time adding to the bookmobile.

I really enjoyed this book and intend to buy a copy of it. Since it’s so quick, I gave it to my mom and brother to read as well, but they seemed dubious as to it’s merits, particularly in light of the ending. Max asks me what does it mean, and I am very bad at answering that question. I can read books with messages- Gate at the Stairs certainly had a message- but I can’t tell you what it was. In my opinion, The Night Bookmobile was meant to say, to bookworms like me, that the books you read are more important that the time it takes you to read them. For Alexandra, that library became a better representation of her than she was.

This is the final book I read today- The Man Who Grew Young, by Daniel Quinn (author of Ishmael), is about a universe where time progresses in reverse, the idea being that once the universe completes it’s journey forward, it yo-yos back again to the beginning. So every person’s life begins when they’re taken from the ground, and ends with them, as infants, returning to their mothers’ bodies. The main character is a man named Adam Taylor, who- doesn’t seem to have a mother.

Rather than regress through adolescence and childhood, as everyone around him does, Adam remains perpetually youthful, a man of no more than thirty years, living backwards through time. Across his journey, he searches for his mother and answers. He thinks he’ll find them in the same place.

This book takes effort- I had to continue reminding myself that time is not progressing in the line we imagine it does. I was also constantly thinking, “Why, why are they doing this?” with the answer being “well, obviously because they did that the first time around,” and that’s a thinking trap because they were unaware that time had originally moved differently; they didn’t do anything to undo what they had done the first time, to unravel the yarn. It was especially interesting, as industrialization and history reversed, how they justified giving up luxuries and going “primitive.”

The most interesting part for me was right at the end, when Adam was with an old man who was unpainting artwork in caves. The man tells Adam that these paintings don’t belong on the cave wall, they belong inside him, and that he is the only person in the world who could do this. I had to imagine Van Gogh unpainting Starry Night, Monet unpainting his countless waterlilies. All artwork belongs inside someone, and when they see it, they’ll know. There was even a part closer to the beginning where Adam fed a photo into the slot of a Polaroid camera, then “untook” the picture.

It’s a completely bizarre concept, though, and it comes with questions Daniel Quinn probably knows the answers to but can’t explain? But it left me with a feeling of “well, that doesn’t work.” It’s what made the timeline so impossible to comprehend. I asked Max what it meant, and he said the idea is that we go to earth when we die, but we’re really born from earth as well- but to me it feels like it can’t possibly be that simple.

I had a very good day. Reading good books, buying good cameras, eating good food (we stopped off for chocolate on the way back home, and I made a caramel tart yesterday which I would really like but I should definitely be making a stronger effort to control my sweettooth- the thing is getting an attitude), and enjoying good company. We took a break from cakemaking this weekend, but I’ve been doing a lot of cooking this week which has really made me feel good. I’ve also been thinking a lot about the next few years, and for once these fantasies were not accompanied with feelings of dread. I don’t really want to share my thoughts, though, because someone will force me to acknowledge that real life is not a chickflick.