Reading Tama Janowitz on my Birthday

On Facebook this year, people I didn’t even know wished me happy birthday. They sent dancing memes, pictures of cakes, flowers, jumping bunnies. They said sweet things, wishing me a great day, a great year, a life of wealth and luck (okay, I may have made that up, but I do wish it for myself and for all of you).

I heard from people I haven’t seen since high school. I got to remember faces, conversations we had at my locker. I learned yesterday my young nephew was late for a date so that his dad (my brother), my sister-in-law, my other nephew, and my dad could have a picture taken of them holding a sign that said “Happy birthday, Auntie Anne” they then posted to Facebook.

A woman I had met once in a yoga workshop and had connected mightily with afterwards on Facebook sent me a photograph she had taken that was so flooded with light and beauty I lay down and looked at it for a stretch of time. She had thought of me. A woman I had been in a crowded room with for three hours had sent me a beautiful photograph that she said made her think of me. This is the good stuff.

I was happily scrolling through the hits of well wishes, and then I stopped short. Tama Janowitz had wished me a happy birthday.

It was as if I’d gone to the mailbox as a little girl to find a postcard from Laura Ingalls Wilder. (Granted, that would have been doubly miraculous as Laura Ingalls Wilder is dead and Tama Janowitz is wildly alive, but you get my point.) The membrane between reader and writer had been broken. We were both real.

When I read that Tama Janowitz had wished me a happy birthday, I smelled the memory of her book. It was small apartment and dirty hair and smoke and the burn of fierce intellect. And, for a moment, she had thought about me. Tama Janowitz had read the words “Anne Heffron” and had pressed the like button.

In the 1990’s, I was taking creative writing classes in college and graduate school, and Slaves of New York was my North Star. The book started with a description of penises! I didn’t know you could even do that. Reading her book made me feel the way I had felt when I had first read Nora Ephron’s essay on breasts in one of my father’s badly hidden Playboys. I didn’t know you could write about things that most people talked about in low voices, if at all. I didn’t know writing could be so…dangerous. So…thrilling. So…informative.

The writing was edgy but had heart, and this is what kept me glued to the page. It was evidence, for a girl who was raised to be “good”, that a woman who was both good and bad could not only survive but flourish. “Even saints have human flaws; it is overcoming their own frailties that makes them greater than the sum of their parts.”

The narrator Eleanor was a smart hat designer who also worked as a prostitute, but she talked about it the way I might have talked about working at Friendly’s. Like it was no big thing. Like it was just…life. She was fearless in her determination to survive in the city she loved, New York, the place of my birth, the city that had scared me away when I’d gone to look at N.Y.U. I wanted her dirty determination, but what I had was something softer, and so I lived in New York City vicariously through Eleanor.

I read more books before Facebook came into my life. It was easier to focus on the page when there wasn’t the promise of dopamine hits every time I looked at my phone. And while reading novels connected me to the world in a way that felt vitally important to me, Facebook connects me to a world that talks back.

And when I googled Tama Janowitz on my birthday, I saw she had written a memoir. Five minutes later I was reading Scream. And the magic’s happening all over again. I want to read. I want to write. I want to get out into this crazy world and see what’s going to happen next.