Driving Ms. Joyce C.
Sande Boritz Berger I had been a loyal fan of the renowned author, Joyce Carol Oates, since the 70’s, when, as a newly divorced housewife needing an income, I had to shelve my own secret yearnings of ever becoming a writer. Then, years later, I heard her speak at Marymount, just blocks from where I was living inManhattan. The subject of her speech was rejection, which I understood, too well, since sending my writing into the slushy world of publishing. In a soft-spoken, soothing tone she recited anecdotes of how history has noted that writers the likes of Beckett, Dickenson, and James Joyce had suffered enormous rejection─ the nemesis known to halt many talented writers midstream in their careers.
She spoke of the early success of one contemporary young writer- Jonathan Safran Foer, who’d published his first novel: Everything Is Illuminated as his thesis while atPrinceton. I detected a lilt to her voice, a glint of joy actually, when she mentioned his name. I later learned she had been his thesis advisor. Soon, I was to become a believer in the phenomenon of “six degrees of separation.” Because a year after hearing that speech on rejection and Foer’s success, he judged a contest I had entered and awarded me third prize. Motivated to keep on writing, I became a candidate for an MFA in Writing and Literature atStonyBrookSouthamptonCollege─ a program I began at the age of 59.
Then, one summer evening, I got a call from the conference director saying he was giving me sole responsibility to chaperone the keynote speaker, Joyce Carol Oates, to a dinner reception inSouthamptonto be held in her honor, opening night. And, either because I’d beamed at hearing her name, or I was much older than most students and drove ridiculously below the speed limit, it became my gig to deliver “Ms. Joyce C.” where she had to be─ safely and on time. I had begun referring to her as “Ms. Joyce C.” to remain calm, fooling myself into thinking her less the literary giant and more like a college gal pal from upstateNew York, where she was raised, not far from where I’d also attended school.
In my soul, I knew that if “Ms. Joyce C.” had been a reincarnate of Jane Austen, I could not have been more exalted at the prospect of chaperoning her around the lush and beautifulHamptons. Not to mention that having been put in charge of someone so valued in the literary world would teach me more about myself than all my years in talk therapy.
On a drizzly, steamy July day, reminiscent of a Poe poem, I waited for the author several hours before she finally arrived in the lobby of the Southampton Inn wheeling her own tiny blue tote bag. She looked tired, and so I quickly greeted her and handed over the keys to her room. I was so awestruck that I forgot to give her the “goody” bag of gourmet snacks I’d selected earlier at the Cheese Shoppe in town, which now hung limply from my wrist. I decided to leave it at the front desk for the manager to deliver. I didn’t need the credit; I was happy to give her something, anything, as pay back for all those decades of pleasurable reading.
Ms. Joyce C. and I agreed to meet in an hour and nodded quick goodbyes. Since I was about twenty minutes from my home in Bridgehampton, and it was the usual heavily trafficked, Friday, I decided to change my clothes in the basement bathroom of the crowded inn. The staff didn’t mind; they already knew me as that frazzled woman camped out in the lobby awaiting “that famous author” most of that dark and dreary day.
Though Ms. Joyce C. was already waiting outside, while I paced the lobby inside, she eventually found me. I liked the fact that we were both on time and responsible. As we walked to my car, she pointed out her room, which faced the parking lot. I wondered then if she’d noticed me earlier dozing off in my front seat, or cleaning my car seats with a package of baby wipes kept for grandkid’s messes. I’d already tuned in the radio to the station that plays old standards, songs offering a mellow and nostalgic mood, songs from our childhoods.