“Hello,” a stranger called out to me. “We have many old friends in common,” he continued cordially, as he drew closer.
I was sitting in the twilight, contentedly chewing my hot dog during the delightful Pre-Independence Day picnic supper on the roof-deck of my new apartment building in New York City.
I am eighty-five and legally blind so any outing these days is a big adventure. “Many old friends in common?” I repeated it doubtfully to myself. How was that possible?
Holding off on my next hot-dog bite, I responded brilliantly. “Oh! Old friends?” I certainly have never seen you before.
He began enumerating: “Sybil Knox. Arlene Trepan. Deborah Lieb.” Then he paused. When I still said nothing, he added more. “Marc Douglas and Ruby Stuart. Enough?”
I was dumbfounded. I nodded assent. He seemed to know them better than I knew them! Which was impossible because they are all fictional characters I made up.
They appeared in my first published novel, COME BACK ON MONDAY (Abelard-Schuman, 1960), an angry book about the dreadful racist schools in Harlem (where I taught).
But this is 2013! Fifty-three years and eighteen books later!
The stranger was amused by my bewilderment. He explained. “My mother introduced us. She bought your book and had enormous sympathy for those Harlem junior high school girls in their lousy school. She loved your book. It had a profound effect on her; it made her so angry she couldn’t stop talking about it, and she talked so much I had to read it too. As you can tell, I’ve never forgotten it: the petty, white administrators, the no talking in the halls during class changes, the street gang fights – girls with ripped earlobes….”
I was overwhelmed. We talked for a good while. He remembered the book with amazing clarity.
Then the party began to break up; he’d volunteered to help with the cleanup. So he walked me down the steep roof-deck stairs. I told him gratefully, “I think this is the most wonderful conversation I have ever had. Thank you so much.”
“And I am so glad to meet you at last, and tell you what we thought of your book,” he said. “I’m delighted you’ve moved into my building.”
“Me, too!” I said, and went happily to bed repeating in my head again and again, “Old friends in common.”
But I couldn’t sleep. I was jubilant. So I got up and wrote this.
What a delightful story! I’ve always thought that books were like old friends. And it’s amazing that your neighbor remembered the book so well after so many years.
Sheila, what a tribute to the characters you write about that they live on for so many years. Now I’m off trying to read that novel that you wrote which somehow I have missed.
Keep on writing! Miriam
This is a wonderful, beautiful story and it also shows that a good book and a good author are always remembered. .
Sheila, I had already heard this story in person. But the written version is very moving. No wonder your new (old?) friend remembers your compelling storytelling after all these years. It’s hard to forget. Giselle
What a great story!And…a great tribute to the effect that a wonderful book can have on the lives of readers.An amazing and happy coincidence that this man lives in your new building.
This story gave me shivers – thank you so much! I am sharing it with Nathan – every young writer should know what joy awaits them – if they are very, very good and very, very lucky!