Postage Due

I don’t suppose you’re going to get around to asking me, but no, I have not met that many people who wound up on postage stamps.

It had not occurred to me, really, but most of the celebrities I hang around with on a day-to-day basis are, um, probably not going to make it. And my classmates from school are at the same awkward age I am (funny how that works out): too old to be child stars and too young for Nobel Prizes. And since you have to be dead, basically, to get on a U.S. postage stamp, I am reconciled to never seeing myself on a stamp unless one day authorities in Monaco or San Marino are just scraping the bottom of the barrel for ideas and decide to do a series on semi-famous bloggers. Or I could buy myself one of those computerized postage programs and print my own picture on the stamps, but that’s not the sort of thing I was thinking about. (But I won’t give up hope that somebody ELSE might put my face on a computerized bit of postage. I’ve had mail come in with Nancy Kerrigan and Gwen Stefani on them, so I suppose one day somebody…look, all I want is for some researcher to glance at an envelope in somebody’s archives, squint a little, and cry out in awe “Who the heck is THAT?”)

Where were we?

I had the catalog of the U.S. Postal Service arrive today, and among the 2012 stamps saluting Hawaiian shirts and the one with the toaster on it, I found the series honoring famous poets. And there among the other immortals was Illinois Poet Laureate, Newberry Library Fellow, Honorary Caxton Club member, and, incidentally, pretty decent human being Gwendolyn Brooks.

It was not what you’d call an auspicious occasion. She was late for dinner. When you get to dessert and the featured speaker has not yet appeared, the crowd gets restless. But she did show up. Turned out she had come straight from the hospital where her husband had just been rushed for what turned out to be a fatal problem. Her dinner had been saved for her, and we lingered over coffee while she fortified herself to meet the adoring crowd. The crowd had showed up precisely for the purposes of adoration, and I had spent the evening sitting next to someone who spent the whole meal rehearsing what he was going to say to her. (He had great chunks of her autobiography memorized and was going to quote them to her. I thought she might well have already read the book, but I try never to discourage the amusements of my elders and betters.)

She was going to sign books, too, so people had brought things from home. I was carrying one myself; it had been suggested to me that if I got a book from the Book Fair autographed by her, I could sell it at a great advantage to the Newberry. As it happened, I couldn’t find any of her books, but there was one anthology—which we would have marked at fifty cents—in among the children’s books.

When I reached the front of the line, I passed her this skinny paperback, which was the best I could do on short notice. I achieved the great goal of those who attend book signings, which is to get the Guest of Honor to initiate a conversation as you pass. She looked up at me and raised an eyebrow.

I swallowed hard. “You’re on page 96,” I said, opening the junior high poetry reader to her immortal “The Pool Players”. “It was all I could find,” I said. I learned later that Gwendolyn Brooks had the same regard for the poem that Dorothy Parker had for “One Perfect Rose”: she didn’t dislike it, but she wished people would realize she’d written other poems too.

I still have the book around here somewhere. She took that fifty cent book and inscribed that page to me personally. I suppose this looms larger in my autobiography than it would have in hers, had she gotten around to a third volume. A signed paperback book, if you’re interested, is difficult to sell.  And so much fuss has been made by the people who sell signed books about how inscriptions lower the value of the signature that an inscribed paperback is even more difficult, even if the signer did wind up on a postage stamp. I can’t say, though, that I made the trip for nothing, since a book inscribed by Gwendolyn Brooks to me is worth something to me, if to nobody else. (And I did, after all, go back and pay the Book Fair fifty cents for it.)

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