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My Life on NW 23rd

At the end of 1992, I moved from New York, where I had a job I hated, to Portland, where I had visited only during the sunniest times of year. I wanted to be a writer, and living in New York required too much attention for me to actually figure out what kind of writer I might become.

I enrolled in Tom Spanbauer’s dining room workshop, not having any clue what I was doing, and refused all leads on any real jobs. Instead I took a job at Coffee People, endured 40 hours of training in which we had a practice complicated tasks such as putting ice into cups, and served my time working the drive-thru at Motor Moka before getting a transfer to their location on NW 23rd. Later, I also took a job a few blocks down the street at Kinko’s, working graveyard shift, dealing mostly with lunatics who wanted to Xerox their hallucinations.

It was a miserable year. For a variety of reasons. A lot of it, I discovered, had to do with the weather. At the end of 1993 I filled out applications to graduate schools and moved to New Orleans to wait for the response. And so it seemed appropriate that a few weeks ago, I found myself back on NW 23rd, doing a fundraiser for Dove Lewis in conjunction with Kiehl’s, which is, of course, located almost exactly between Coffee People and Kinko’s.

In New Orleans, back in 1994, I got a job... serving coffee. And my first customer on opening day was Anne Rice, with her husband Stan. I didn’t realize whom they were until after they had left, but the next day Anne sent a huge flower arrangement over to the shop, and faxed every hotel in town urging them to send people our way. People say she’s crazy.

All of this espresso work came in handy when I eventually moved to New York to get my MFA at Columbia. Suddenly there were espresso shops opening everywhere, and I actually knew how to use the machinery. These many beaneries also worked their way into my writing. My collection of stories, The Kind I’m Likely to Get, features many a frustrated barista, including some who find their way from NW 23rd to New Orleans and New York.

When the collection was published in 1999, I went on my own little tour, which included a packed house at Powell’s. I later discovered that at least some of the audience was recruited with a flyer that featured a photo of me at a Red Dress party. (Other Red Dress attendees included a pre-Fight Club Chuck Palahniuk, and pre-Tin House Elissa Schappell and Rob Spillman). In New Orleans, Julia Kamysz Lane ran a really great review in the Gambit, and came to my signing at a bookstore in the French Quarter that has since been replaced by Urban Outfitters. I signed a copy for her.

miserable, self-loathing, paranoid and apatheticThat signed copy shows up in this month’s Poets & Writers magazine, in a wonderful essay by Julia Kamysz Lane: "After the Flood: A Writer Says Goodbye to Her Books." Julia and I had become friends in recent years, not over literature, but dogs. She and her husband lived in Lakeview. In her essay Julia writes about how it seemed to her that if she could replace the books she had lost, she would have a sense of having not lost everything. Over dinner in December she presented me with the mildewed, distorted original and asked, "Can you sign a new one, in exactly the same way?"

I wondered what it was I had said that held so much meaning for her.

The inscription is pretty standard. But beneath my own name, in parenthesis, I had written: (miserable, self-loathing, paranoid and apathetic). Words she used to describe my characters — quite accurately — in her Gambit review of the book.

÷ ÷ ÷

Ken Foster, a writer and teacher, is the author of the bestseller The Dogs Who Found Me; its sequel, Dogs I Have Met; and the new book I'm a Good Dog. His collection of short stories, The Kind I'm Likely to Get, was a New York Times Notable Book. His work has been featured in Salon, Time Out New York, the New York Times Book Review, and other publications. He lives in New Orleans with his dogs Brando, Douglas, and Bananas.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. The Dogs Who Found Me: What I've... Used Trade Paper $3.50
  2. Dogs I Have Met: And the People They...
    Used Trade Paper $2.95
  3. I'm a Good Dog: Pit Bulls, America's...
    Sale Trade Paper $8.98
  4. The Kind I'm Likely to Get: A Collection Used Trade Paper $3.50

Ken Foster is the author of I'm a Good Dog: Pit Bulls, America's Most Beautiful (and Misunderstood) Pet

2 Responses to "My Life on NW 23rd"

    Alexis August 2nd, 2006 at 11:29 am

    I don't know which part I love most about your postings here: the references to places I know and jobs I've had (Remember the old Marsee Baking on NW 23rd?); the way you make New Orleans (a place I've never been) seem like a real place instead of a place most of us saw from the unreal frame of our televisions; or the fact that you, too, noticed how my fellow Powell's employees (those who design and make the graphics on the site and the powell's ephemera beautiful) like to turn some of us into puzzle pieces (half of me currently resides on a bookmark). And then there's the dogs... I look forward to the rest of the (very short) week.

    Ken August 3rd, 2006 at 7:31 am


    And I do remember Marsee Baking. In fact, I remember raiding their drum full of discarded bread one night.

    More dogs and New Orleans coming up...

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