I am convinced that there is no square mile on earth as bizarre as Union Square. Cutting across the square, I pass by a group of severely pierced teenagers making fun of someone who’s running around in a tattered coat and wearing a Scream mask. As I’m walking to Chez McDo for a honey mustard grilled chicken wrap before hightailing it to Barnes and Noble, I overheard a man handing out flyers say to someone, “Hey, what are you guys doing tonight besides each other?” Way to get them to take a leaflet, guy. After these encounters, I’m left thinking, “Of all the Barnes & Nobles in all the blessed city of New York, why would Caroline Kennedy kick off her book tour in this one?”
From the back section of the store I can see her target demographic all around me: baby boomers and older, conservatively dressed in basic cuts and non-threatening colors. Nearly everyone looks like an Upper East Sider (or as my friend Matt has nicknamed, ‘Upper No Vibe Side’). With my short hair and post-rugby practice coach’s outfit, I feel woefully out of place.
As we wait for the show to get underway, I’m reminded of the Saturdays of my youth spent on my parents’ living room floor thumbing through my mom’s collection of Jackie O books. I can nearly perfectly recall her progression from toddler to debutante to inquiring photographer, then politician’s wife. I thought of what people think of when they think of “Camelot”: Jack and Jackie’s wedding day, Jackie bending over that long white table at the reception, smiling. They think of Jack Jr. playing with his mother’s pearls or hiding under the Oval Office desk. They think of Jackie’s perfect pink suit and pillbox hat on that fateful Dallas morning. They think of a son’s heartrending salute as the casket passes by.
Does anyone think of Caroline? Do any pictures of her float across the expanse of our brains? Usually not.
There was always something so sad about her in that way that oldest siblings tend to be sad: a loner; a fierce protector of her freewheeling brother; a perfectionist; still water running deep. There still seems to be something seminal or convergent about seeing the daughter of such legend even though I’m not necessarily a Kennedy like the women of the generation before me. But still, I don’t feel right here. I am the only brown face. I am in sweats and sneakers and an Under Armour athletic jacket. I look neither fashionable nor conservative. I am a poorly paid public servant with little faith in the establishment. How can I possibly take seriously a woman who represents and brings together people so completely opposite of me?
An impromptu round of applause shakes me out of this daydream. Caroline and her refreshingly small entourage enter from the escalator, and some of the older ladies around me start maniacally clapping, jump out of their seats to take pictures, can’t keep their eyes off of her as she glides from one side of the room to another. As the opening remarks are read, I’m surprised to find that the anthology we’re celebrating tonight–She Walks in Beauty: A Woman’s Journey Through Poems–is the number one book of poetry in America. Another round of applause. The store’s events coordinator also mentions Caroline’s volunteer work in Bronx public schools over the past eight years. One more thunderous round of clapping. She is frighteningly thin, Caroline is, the kind of thin that makes a woman look like a timid bird, look as if she’s 14 again and just figuring out that she has this body and isn’t quite sure what to do with it. Her smile is fragile. Her comportment, though, is impeccable: legs appropriately crossed, hands neatly folded in her lap, hair just so, pants tailored just so. Jackie’s girl, for sure. The women look at her with such eagerness, such hunger. “I wish I was that,” they all seem to be thinking.
Caroline stands at the podium after another thunderous round of clapping. She seems embarrassed that anybody would be clapping for her, which saddens me somehow. I want her to talk as little as possible because she looks so uncomfortable.
But then she opens her mouth.
When she speaks, Caroline Kennedy shows that she is not the awkward sister in the background forced to simply help her brother ski or ride horses. She is a thinker. Profound. She says things I do not expect her to say like, “Poetry is important because it passes down the most important values,” and “Poems give voice and hope to struggles that transcend time and space, which is especially relevant now that words are so often used as divisive measures.” She believes in poems as a way to bring us together rather than divide the elite and the layman. Most wonderfully, she says this: “In a time when people place such a tremendous value on test scores, I’m more concerned that the world doesn’t talk enough about what we’re reading and why we’re reading it and how we’re reading it and why reading it matters.“ I didn’t expect that someone coming from so much privilege and such a legacy would be so in touch with everyday humanity. I didn’t expect that a wealthy daughter of the revolution would turn out to actually be the revolution.
And maybe the truth of it is that we’re all Carolines: a little unsure of ourselves but powerful when we allow ourselves the freedom to actually be ourselves. So, maybe I do belong here and so does the Asian woman to my left in a funky fresh scarf and heels. And so does the 80-year old lady with stark white hair down to her shoulder blades who’s in front of me. Maybe that’s why she chose to start her book tour here, in a neighborhood with crazed teenagers roaming about, with surly street advertisers, with bums and an overcrowded McDonald’s. Maybe all of them belong here, and maybe Caroline enjoys being here with them. And maybe you belong where you feel you don’t, in places that seem above us or too good for us.
No matter how our exteriors may appear or our pedigree or our hardships, maybe way down deep there’s room for all of us.
Courtney Fenner is a New York City public school educator. She makes a mean strawberry cupcake and can occasionally be seen jogging through Fort Tryon Park. Much of her work focuses on finding the beauty in everyday humanity and translating that beauty to a willing audience. More of her nonfiction writing can be found on her blog at www.gorillamylove.wordpress.com. She happily resides in Manhattan.
No related posts.