Last Friday, I happened to have a few hours to spare between a morning doctor’s appointment in North Cambridge and an afternoon meeting in Roxbury. With a birthday gift needed for that night and some writing to do, I decided to spend my spare hours at Porter Square Books. I’d buy Kate Atkinson’s new book in the bookstore, then drink some coffee and burrow into my laptop in the cafe.
As I found a space in the crowded Porter Square parking lot, nothing was further from my thoughts than…Carole King?
Not that I don’t think about Carole King. I’m a middle-class white American female who grew up in the 70s. How could I not think about Carole King? I wept through my first major break-up to Tapestry, one of the few albums to which, otherwise helpless in the lyrics department, I know all the words. I also know that Carole King wrote ‘The Loco-Motion” and “Pleasant Valley Sunday.” One of my favorite ever Saturday Night Live skits was the one where Laraine Newman composed “You’ve Got a Friend” as Steve Martin was mugged on her doorstep. I’ve read Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon—and the Journey of a Generation. A few years ago, I even dragged my husband to the Garden to see the Troubadour Reunion Tour, featuring Carole King and her equally-beloved-of-sentimental-white-girls singer-songwriter male counterpart, James Taylor. And I keep the CD of the concert that inspired the tour in my car.
Still, on any ordinary day of my contemporary life, I’m more likely to listen to Rhett Miller, Mavis Staples, Esperanza Spalding, or the Dropkick Murphys than Carole King, and, as I walked into Porter Square Books, which seemed oddly crowded for 11:15 on an ordinary Friday morning, I probably hadn’t thought about her in months, if not years.
I found a coveted seat at the counter, put down my bag, and went to stand in line for coffee. To stand in a very long line, perhaps the longest line I’d ever seen at Porter Square Books. Was the beautiful day inspiring a surge in coffee purchases? Or was something else going on, I wondered, as I noticed that the tables and bookshelves that usually fill the center of the store were gone, replaced by more rows of chairs and benches than I’d ever seen at Porter Square Books, half of them already occupied, even as they were still being set up.
“What’s going on?” I asked the store employee who was handing out chocolates to the patient café line-waiters (if they were giving out chocolate, something was clearly going on).
“Carole King is appearing at noon,” he said, and offered me a chocolate.
“Who knew we made our date on the day Carole King was speaking?” asked one bemused middle-aged white woman to another.
Exactly what I was thinking: who knew?!
Apparently a lot of people.
As I bought my book and coffee, sat down at the counter, and opened my laptop, Porter Square Books filled with more people than I’d ever seen there before. Specifically, it filled with more excited white women between the ages of 30 and 70 than I’d ever seen there before. And, I have to admit, even though I hadn’t known, I was one of them.
Just when it seemed like nobody else could possibly fit in Porter Square Books, someone announced…Carole King!
I knelt on my stool to see her over the cheering heads, at the far end of the store. There she was, just her head too, tiny, with lots of hair, but her animated voice filled the room.
What did she say?
She said “Never be afraid to take a step, because if it’s the wrong one, you’ll do something else.” She said she was born with a gift for music, and she described how she learned to play the piano as a child. She said she knew music theory, which made her feel like it was ok for her to be on the stage at Berklee where she was receiving an honorary doctorate (an honorary doctorate at Berklee? who knew?!). She said, of her book, “I felt I had wisdom to impart, and also bad experiences, so people won’t do that.” Also, “At the end of the day, I will be the person who sang the songs,” and “The word that sums up my life is gratitude.”
She spoke for five minutes, she didn’t sing a note, she answered two questions, and then she announced that she was not going to talk any more so she’d have enough time to sign everyone’s books, and she’d stay for as long as it took. Though I had to leave for my meeting, I’m betting she did.
So that was Carole King at Porter Square Books: crowded, brief, and, really, though she was also enthusiastic and adorable, utterly cheesy. But you know what? It didn’t matter. I suppose I might have been disappointed or even angry if I’d expected more: a reading, a song, even just half an hour instead of five minutes. But I hadn’t expected anything except a birthday present, coffee, and an hour or so to write. Instead, I got a room full of excitement, the closest contact I’ll probably ever have with someone who has given me more hours of pleasure than I can count, and a reminder that you never know what will happen as you go through your day – and, especially this spring in Boston, where we’ve seen too many days of unexpected trauma and disaster, a reminder that sometimes all it takes is the unexpected to fill you with joy.
As I pulled out of the Porter Square parking lot, I put on Carole King and James Taylor: Live at the Troubadour, and, as I drove into Boston, I sang along, every word.