Congrats to Patti Smith on winning the National Book Award in the non-fiction category, for Just Kids , her memoir about her relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe (which I reviewed here ). In her acceptance speech, Smith spoke of her time as a young woman working at Scribner’s bookstore; she would unpack the National Book Award-winning books from boxes and arrange them in special displays, imagining what it might feel like to win such an honor. Watching her speak (sadly not in person, at one of the $12,000 tables at Cipriani Wall Street, but on the National Book Foundation website ), I was reminded of another, even more poignant episode from Just Kids . Smith, age 20, newly transplanted to New York, without a place to live, finally landed a job at the uptown branch of Brentano’s bookstore, where she sold, to her chagrin, not books, but ethnic jewelry and crafts:
By the end of my first week I was very hungry and still had nowhere to go. I took to sleeping in the store. I would hide in the bathroom while the others left, and after the night watchman locked up I would sleep on my coat. In the morning it would appear I had gotten to work early. I hadn’t a dime and rummaged through employees’ pockets for change to buy peanut butter crackers in the vending machine. Demoralized by hunger, I was shocked when there was no envelope for me on payday. I had not understood that the first week’s pay was withheld, and I went back to the cloakroom in tears.
Last night Smith took home a check for $10,000, and joined the ranks of past nonfiction NBA winners Joan Didion and Gore Vidal.