Yesterday, when I was writing about what it was like to learn to type, I forgot to mention something that I read in Kim Gordon’s memoir Girl in a Band last year. She described how (probably at least twice; the book could have used some editing), when she first came to New York (in 1979), she worked as a receptionist in an art gallery, getting to know famous people, and deliberately did not learn how to type. This, she declared proudly, was so she could never become a secretary. That statement bothered me. It still bothers me. I came across a review of the book today that said that “sometimes the book feels as though she wrote it in shorthand: a list of names with the sentences barely filled in, as if we should already know the story.” Well, of course, I thought, it was written in shorthand because she never learned to type.
Really, though, it made me think again about Kim Gordon (and I have to admit that I never really liked Sonic Youth all that much, except for a few songs) and how her greatest talent was simply being cool. She didn’t need to be particularly good at her receptionist job (apparently she wasn’t); that wasn’t the point. The point was just being who she was. I’m not saying that she isn’t a good musician (I’m not really sure), but she certainly isn’t known for that precisely. And a lot of her book points out how she really considers herself an artist, not a musician, but if you take a look at her art, you get the feeling that the only reason she got to have art shows at all was because she was already Kim Gordon.
Another review of her book had this to say: “She stays cool because she is cool, even in those rare moments when she’s not.” And I wondered how some people are simply, naturally, seemingly effortlessly cool (whatever “cool” means, which is totally beside the point). Kim Gordon was apparently close to Kurt Cobain, but did not like Courtney Love, and yet when I think about Courtney Love’s desperate neediness for attention, I just find it so much more appealing somehow, so much more relatable, than Kim Gordon’s cool aloofness. Some people find Courtney Love cool; many do not. But who doesn’t think Kim Gordon is cool? I love this photo of her as a young woman on the subway. Who wouldn’t?
And that is something to be admired for, I guess, but not the sort of thing that really interests me. After reading her book, I realized that it was more fascinating to read about the people she knew back then than anything she had to say about herself.
Recently I read this in an interview with Patti Smith, someone I admire for who she is and who she was, and who, to me, is truly cool: “I’m not a celebrity, I’m a worker. I’ve always worked. I was working before people read anything about me, and the day they stopped reading about me, I was doing even more work.” If Patti Smith had worked as a receptionist, she would have done a damn good job. She would have probably learned to type (I have a feeling that she didn’t though, as it’s clear from her books that she does a lot of her writing in notebooks in coffee shops) and would have been a great secretary too.
I’m not trying to compare these two famous women (honestly, in their own ways, they were both important and interesting); I’m just trying to get at what, in the end, is the thing that’s coolest of all, even cooler than Kim Gordon: doing the work. It’s what Don Draper was always talking about in Mad Men, and it’s the thing that’s getting me to write a blog post every single day this month, even as I worry that I am running out of things to write about, or that no one has any interest at all in my writing anyway. It’s just doing the work.
Over the many years that I worked at various temp jobs as a secretary, I was the best secretary I could be. It is one thing to know that you don’t really have to be good at something; it’s another thing to know that and to do the work anyway. I can’t really think much more about being cool and looking ethereal on the subway (I do not like the subway). It just doesn’t matter that much to me. And so, I will carry on, typing away, maybe getting at that thing I’ve been meaning to say for so long. Maybe at least getting a bit closer to it.