Notes from the Underground (Cafe)
One Night and Several Years at the Elliott Bay Book Company
Ryan Boudinot read from his debut collection of short stories, The Littlest Hitler, at Elliott Bay Book Company on Saturday, September 16. This is a review of that audience. Well, it was supposed to be a review of that audience.
In January 1999, I graduated from the low-residency MFA program at Bennington College in Vermont. As I have come to explain over the years in job interviews, the low-rez format required me to travel to Vermont twice a year for residency periods, then return to the Northwest, where I lived with my then girlfriend/now wife, who was studying naturopathic medicine at Bastyr. During the graduation ceremony, I decided that I would start a novel the day I returned to Seattle. The following Monday I took an extended lunch break from my job as a customer-service rep at Amazon.com and walked to Elliott Bay Book Company. I set up my laptop at a table in the cafe and went to work.
That novel, called The Disinterment, never got published, and I kind of hope it never will. It was very much a novel born in a cellar, and I have forgotten most of it, including most of the characters' names. It was some dark shit, written by a guy exhausted by his day job. I remember getting stuck one afternoon, trapped in a narrative cul de sac, and looking up from my computer to see Tess Gallagher, the poet and the late Raymond Carver's wife, eating a sandwich at the table across from mine. I considered telling her how important her husband's work was to me, but I imagined she got that all the time. Plus, she seemed content eating lunch by herself. So I kept working.
I left Amazon.com after two years and went to work in Factoria at Drugstore.com, underestimating how severe my lunchtime bookstore withdrawals would hit me. That gig lasted nine months, after which I was laid off and cast adrift into a seven-month stretch of unemployment. I lived on First Hill and frequently walked down Yesler to camp out at my table in the cafe. To justify my use of the space I bought drip coffee, and if I felt really extravagant—and if my unemployment check had just come through—a bagel. I was writing another novel, Frozen Novelties, about a family of ice-cream sellers who become dot-com entrepreneurs in the Seattle '90s. This novel never got published, either.
From 2001 to 2004 I worked at a company called Apex Learning in Bellevue. I spent lunch breaks in corporate lobbies with my notebook, writing the stories that were to be eventually collected in The Littlest Hitler (out this month from Counterpoint). This was an era when corporate lobby design was all down with gas fireplaces and plush furniture. Occasionally I walked to the Bellevue Barnes and Noble, where I searched with little hope for Damien Hirst books in the art section. This Barnes and Noble was the first place I went on January 8, 2004, when the charming executives at Apex gave me the pink slip. This happened to be the day my wife and I were expecting our first son. I sat in one of those sad, beaten-down Barnes and Noble chairs and tried to grasp my situation. Then I thought, What the fuck am I doing here? I need to be at Elliott Bay! So I got on the bus and rode to the International District station and hoofed it to the bookstore where I bought a cup of drip coffee and sat at the same table where I had written two much-rejected novels and got to work again.
After five months of unemployment/paternal leave, I got another job at Amazon.com, and promptly started using the Elliott Bay Cafe as my lunchtime writing center again, working on another novel. Nowadays I work in the Columbia Tower and try to make it down there during lunch at least once a week. I don't profess any religious affiliation, but Elliott Bay Book Company is the closest thing I have to a church. Wandering around its creaky floors idly looking at books recalibrates some sort of spiritual serotonin level in my brain.
The Littlest Hitler is now on display with a generous employee-recommendation note from Casey, the guy who introduced me at my reading on Saturday, September 16. What a relaxed, happy evening that was. I read a story called "The Flautist," various members of the audience asked intelligent questions, I signed some books with my son sitting on my lap. This article was supposed to be all about that one night, but why write about a single night when Elliott Bay Book Company has given me so many years of material?
Boudinot reads again on Thurs Sept 28 at University Book Store (4326 University Way NE, 634-3400) at 7 pm.