A few days ago I walked past a gift boutique in my home town and came to an abrupt halt. In the window display among the cute pink and green Lily Pulitzer shifts and novelty gifts for the golf nut in your life were two macrame owls.
You may not be familiar with macramé’s first flush of popularity back in the 1970s. It was a hobby that involved knotting and braiding rough brown twine into decorative wall hangings.
Macrame became so hip that it quickly morphed from wall art to vests, hats, tote bags, and anything else you could knot your personal stamp onto. I never attempted macrame as I have no fine motor skills; but I cruised weekend fairs and county festivals which had more then enough macrame to fill my needs.
I also remember that Michael and I were given wall art macrame made by his mother or maybe his sister. They were both crafty people. We hung it up in the living room — testament to how on-trend we were.
The sad truth is that over time, macrame grows very ugly. There is something in the rough brown twine that grabs grime. There is something in the force of gravity that makes wall hangings (often knotted onto a tree branch) sag relentlessly like an pair of old underpants.
When macrame lost its appeal, thrift shop shelves were clogged with it. We were not the only people who had tired of a filthy matted brown thing hanging limply from a wooden dowel stick.
Now, you may be wondering: What on earth does macrame have to do with Roadfood?
I will begin my answer by noting that, like most writers, we wanted to be published by the most prestigious houses and magazines. When we began our career, there were two such beacons of excellence at the pinnacle of publishing. For books, it was Knopf; and for magazines, it was The New Yorker.
Most writers who wind up at one of these two places are not only superb artists but savvy social players. They attend the right literary parties, have dinner at Elaine’s or Rao’s, sit on the board of the New York Public Library or any of a dozen private clubs and organizations for the arts. Michael and I might be the two worst social climbers in the world. Clawing our way up the literary ladder was about as likely as us scaling Everest. We were too lazy and we didn’t know the route.
However, through luck, talent, or having a great agent, we one day found ourselves meeting with Robert A. Gottlieb, Editor-in-Chief at Knopf and, subsequently, head of The New Yorker. Gottlieb’s authors included Joseph Heller, Toni Morrison, Robert Caro, and dozens of the biggest and best-selling names in publishing.
Need I say that Michael and I did not exactly see ourselves traveling in such circles? In fact, we were mute with terror at the prospect of meeting this legendary man. When the elevator stopped at the Knopf floor of the Random House building, we walked with a clumsy shuffle like we were on our way to death row, shackled together.
Our first sight of Bob was two long chino clad pants legs coming out from under his desk. His back was bothering him and he was doing his floor stretching exercises while enjoying his daily lunch: a can of sardines.
I have never heard the term “love at first sight” happening in business, but that is the only phrase that comes close to how it felt. Bob was our soul mate and the three of us knew it immediately. His enormous corner office was filled with plaster busts of Elvis, paint-by-numbers canvases, and a faux toaster that popped up toast-colored sponges. There were misspelled posters for rural high school plays and notices from a Yeshiva that a certain Rabbi Lipshitz was performing a medley of Sondheim hits in Yiddish. By the time we left Bob’s office, we were Knopf authors and the future was golden.
Shortly after that, Bob came to visit us in Connecticut and we spent all day showing him our collection of old postcards of mental asylums, lamps made at the Maine State Prison by convicts, and velvet wall rugs of The dead Kennedys, Jesus, and Martin Luther King. During our breaks from looking at our “treasures” we made a list of books that we wanted to write. Bob gave us the green light. This was before publishing turned into a corporate nightmare of graphs and sales figures and such.
Our travels for Roadfood and similar books took us to small towns everywhere: the kinds of towns that had flea markets, country auctions, and thrift shops that had not yet been plundered by collectors. Bob gave us brilliant editorial advice on the books, but he also gave us long lists of things that we should look for in our travels.
At the end of each road trip our SUV was filled with collectibles for him: Plastic ladies purses from the 1940’s (about which he wound up writing the book A Certain Style), ancient vacuum cleaners, Scottie Dog memorabilia, vanity press books with titles sich as Life Without Kidneys and Halo Over Hoboken and, need I say, every filthy straggly macrame owl that anyone was selling for fifty cents. (Pictured: Jane Stern, Bob Gottlieb, and Martha Kaplan trying on thrift store choir robes.)
Many years later, when Sonny Mehta replaced Bob at Knopf as Editor-In-Chief we were asked to come in for a meeting. We found a cryptic unsmiling man sitting at what was once Bob’s desk in a now stark office. Few words passed between us. We knew not to ask Sonny Mehta what he collected because we guessed by the unblinking dark eyes the answer was author’s souls.
As with macrame, an era had ended. But like crocuses peeking up through the snow, Bob was busy pumping new life into The New Yorker, where he was now Editor-in-Chief. Before long, we were writing for him there and happily watching as his predecessor’s sepulchral office filled with vintage vacuum cleaners and macrame owls. There was still a place for us at the table.