Encountering Lucia Berlin

by Nina Ellis

I first met the American short story writer Lucia Berlin 13 years after her death, in the summer of 2017. I walked into City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco and found her posthumous collection on the staff picks table, resplendent in its mango-coloured cover. It has a great title — A Manual for Cleaning Women — and it is staggeringly good. ‘The Campus laundry has a sign,’ says the narrator of ‘Angel’s Laundromat’, the opening story: ‘POSITIVELY NO DYEING. I drove all over town with a green bedspread until I came to Angel’s with his yellow sign, YOU CAN DIE HERE ANYTIME.’

Berlin is darkly funny, as sharp as she is warm. Reading her prose that day felt like coming home. I was worn out from years of teaching secondary school and I ached to be convinced that life was beautiful after all. Berlin’s blend of hopefulness and cynicism hit me hard.

That was a summer of bright memories, which seem to glow now against the grey of locked-down life. I was visiting the Bay Area for my grandmother’s 90th birthday, with my parents and sister. I remember the smell of Grandma’s house, the empty pool in her retirement community, the sparkling pavement on my morning runs. The blue of Dad’s hearing aid, crushed into the road where he’d accidentally dropped it. Grandma’s Danish fridge magnets: You can always tell a Dane, but you can’t tell him much. The yellow quilt on my bed. The American cheese.

I decided to visit City Lights that morning partly because of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, but mostly because I’d spent several days with my family and needed some time to myself. I wasn’t even that keen on the Beats, back then — this was before I did my MA and fell in love with the American counterculture. So I told my sister I’d be back in an hour and followed my phone map to Columbus Avenue and downhill, past laundromats, Italian restaurants and surprisingly expensive hotels.

The bookstore was easy to find. It took up most of a block and had CITY LIGHTS BOOKSELLERS & PUBLISHERS printed across it in capital letters. I asked a man in a backpack to take a photo of me outside, and I’m looking at it as I write this to see what was in the windows that day. There was a display on the Russian Revolution to the right of the door and a montage of exhibition catalogues to the left. In the photo, I’m standing between them in my orange capris and white plastic shoes, grinning.

I think Berlin would have approved of that outfit. Her favourite colour was bright pink.

Inside the bookstore, I exhaled with relief. I love my family, but sometimes you need to get lost in a crowd. That’s one of the things I miss most about the pre-pandemic world: being able to slip into a mass of people and become anonymous. And City Lights was very crowded that day — even the books on the walls were stuffed into their cubby holes. I turned right and wove through a roomful of fiction, with shelves featuring different independent presses. Soft Skull. Akashic. New Directions. Beyond them was a chair, and the staff picks table where I found Berlin.

Comparisons are often drawn between short stories and photos. Henry James wrote to Robert Louis Stevenson in 1888 that he wanted to take ‘a multitude of pictures’ through the ‘small circular frame’ of his short fiction. Like photos, stories are brief, bounded, and preserved in collections. Like photos, stories often capture vanishing moments. Berlin’s fictions are experiments in transience: many of her protagonists are suspended between places and times. The housekeeper on the bus in ‘A Manual for Cleaning Women’. The girl on the plane in ‘Itinerary’. The older woman on the BART train in ‘Temps Perdu’.

And yet that encounter with Berlin’s work in City Lights was not transient — it stayed with me. I brought A Manual for Cleaning Women back to London and wrote my MA thesis on Berlin’s laundromat stories. That opened doors, which opened more doors, and now I’m writing a critical biography of Berlin for my PhD thesis at Cambridge. I want to remember the moment I picked up that collection because it mattered, and so I’ve tried to capture it here. Like Berlin’s short stories, it was fleeting, but it changed my life.