Toward the end of every year there are at least a few times when I give my bookshelves a casual looking over, to decide if everything on them needs to stay or if it's time to send them to McKay's for credit, so that I can get more books. Am I ever going to read that book again? Do I still like that author? Why did I think I wanted to save that in the first place?
I ended up doing that perusal the other day, when I finished a book and was deciding if I wanted to read something new off of my "To Be Read" piles or to reread something old that I still enjoy but haven't looked at in a while. I was in front of the Ri-Z bookshelf, pulling out The Radioactive Boyscout for the McKay's stack (I remember enjoying it, but I've never felt like rereading it or referencing it for anything so it's just taking up shelfspace that something I like more could use), when I noticed Martha Sherrill's My Last Movie Star and thought, "I don't really remember if I liked that. Maybe it can go? I vaguely remember the plot, though, and it sounds like something that I'd like. Why did I save this?"
And then I remembered: That book comes with a story.
When I still worked Albany we were very close to Saratoga, and once or twice a season a group of us would go over for a day at the races. We usually brought lawnchairs or folding camp chairs or blankets, bags of snacks, and paid for lawn seats, and I don't think any of us ever bet more than five or ten dollars per race. At the end of ten races that can still come out to fifty to a hundred dollars, but it was once or twice a season, not like we were dropping a hundred dollars on the ponies every weekend, and I usually came out ahead or broke even, anyway.
One year, several groups of people from our department happened to all have picked the same day, and met up in the lawn seats. The director of the judicial office had come very early and claimed a picnic table, and the fifteen or twenty of us who ran into him and his family (his wife and daughter also worked for our department) set up around it and had a pretty fun, relaxing day. It went so well, in fact, that people were still talking about it all through professional staff training, so the next year the professional staff training committee tried to recreate it, and I ended up in charge.
My boss was actually in charge of professional staff training that year, and I wasn't even on the committee, but she had some sort of commitment that weekend, and asked if I would coordinate that particular social event. I was happy to, as I wanted to go to the races anyway and we had a new coworker that year who was cute, gay, and out, and since I was younger, thinner, wore contacts, and had hair then, cute gay guys sometimes also thought I was cute and I was hoping that he would attend and we would get to spend some time chatting and hanging out in a totally innocent friendly group of coworkers setting. We set up a meeting time, and ten people RSVPed, including the cute new guy.
On Saturday morning, I was all ready by the car at the meetup spot. I was wearing a summery short sleeved white, baby blue, and taupe buttondown that I'd gotten at the Hard Rock Cafe in Boston. I don't normally buy a lot of Hard Rock Cafe gear, but it was on clearance and I remember thinking that it was a good bar shirt. It really has nothing to do with this story, except that I remember I was wearing it because it matched my buck suede oxfords and I was pretty in love with those shoes for a while. (Now I wear the same shoes to work almost every day. My old coworkers would probably be shocked, as I used to have about twenty pairs of shoes in steady rotation when I worked there.) Anyway, I was all set up at the meetup spot to leave campus and it was time to go, and nobody else was there.
I like to pretend that I waited five or ten minutes before calling people, but I have no patience so I probably only waited a minute, if not thirty seconds. People were too hung over to go, which was understandable since our campus culture was pretty alcohol heavy and it was a Saturday morning before classes had started but after summer classes were over. Cute guy was also hung over, (by the end of professional staff training I had gotten to know him better and realized that he was only cute on the outside, especially after he made it clear that I did not have good enough abs to ever be more than a friend; yes, he actually did say that) but at least he was answering his phone. A couple of people didn't answer at all, and a couple of people had decided to do something else and just didn't feel like going to the races anymore. Since I'd already gotten up, and I really wanted to go to the races, I decided to just go by myself.
When I got there I bought a lemonade and realized that I had no one to talk to, so I walked around and looked at the vendor tables while I waited for the races to start. One of the tables had books, the kind of recently released hardcovers that you see in the bargain section of Barnes and Noble after the paperback version has come out, but they only had about fifteen different titles, and out of those I selected "My Last Movie Star" because it looked interesting.
The book tells the story of Clementine James, a Hollywood reporter and celebrity profiler who has gotten tired of Hollywood and celebrities. On the verge of retirement her editor convinces her to do one last piece, a magazine exclusive with up and coming new Hollywood "It Girl" Allegra Coleman. Their few days together stretches into a roadtrip up the California coast until a car accident abruptly terminates it, leaving Clementine in the hospital and Allegra missing. While Clementine waits for news, she is visited by a string of deceased former "It Girls" and Hollywood starlets: Myrna Loy, Gloria Swanson, Natalie Wood, Tallulah Bankhead, and others from the Silent Era all the way up to the fall of the studio system, and they all want to share their stories of Hollywood and the price of fame.
I started reading it at the races, using my receipt for a bookmark, but by the fifth race of the day I was bored. Since I was still ahead for the day on winnings, I decided to leave, which is also right about the time that the sky decided to cloud up. By the time I got back to the car, I was walking in a sheeting downpour with no umbrella, and I drove home soaking wet but somehow managed to keep that book dry. It was the only time I ever went to the races alone, and may be the last time I ever went at all although I can't remember for certain.
That story's not that exciting. It's long and pointless and doesn't really go anywhere, but it's a specific memory of a certain time and a certain way that I lived then, and it's been enough every year to save that book from the shelf-purge when my eye happens across it. This year, since I had just finished another book and hadn't started a new one, I decided to reread it and see if maybe the story in the book was actually better than the story about the book.
It turns out that it was, and My Last Movie Star has been safely returned to the shelf until I reread it again someday.