I needed Susan Eisenberg to ask me, "Do You Know Where You're Going?"

Exterior of the Grolier Poetry bookshop in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Last month, I traveled alone to Boston to present my communication studies research at a three-day undergraduate conference at Harvard University. I have a love-hate relationship with solo travel because I have social anxiety and it can be difficult to push myself to leave my hotel room. The first day of the conference, I befriended two medical researchers from North Carolina who invited me to go to an art museum in Boston with them that evening. I felt a sense of relief over not having to make my own plans.

After the last speaker session, we filed out into the premature dark of winter in Cambridge. Unfortunately, the other two researchers were wearing uncomfortable shoes; they had to go back to their hotel and change. I told them to message me when they were leaving and we could meet up at the museum. As I walked back to my hotel, I felt hungry, tired and alone.

I waited an hour for a message from the other researchers, but none came. At this point, I was starving. I decided to give up on art, too fraught by past experiences to reach out to the people I was supposed to meet, and instead buy myself dinner on my college’s dime. I googled restaurants in the area and discovered a local ramen spot a mere fifteen-minute walk from my hotel. Just up the block from the ramen place was a poetry bookshop. What luck! As an English major and poet, I felt compelled to stop there briefly to browse before dinner. Pushing myself to my feet, I peeled on several layers and headed out onto the damp streets.

After walking for several minutes, I reached a crossroads. At the corner of the street I needed to turn down to reach the poetry bookshop was a massive, brightly lit bookstore. It looked so warm and inviting I almost caved and entered, but a small A-frame sign on the sidewalk stopped me. It read, “Grolier Poetry Book Shop. Est. 1927. Oldest all poetry book store in America” with an arrow pointing down the street. With only a half hour left until close, I turned towards it.

Grolier Poetry Book Shop Sign
A folding sign with an arrow on it points
the way to the Grolier Poetry Book Shop. 
The door to the Grolier was thick wood with foggy glass in the center. I fought against it to enter, blowing in with the wind. I was surprised to find myself standing practically in the center of the book shop, which was the size of my kitchen. Floor to ceiling bookshelves sagged with the weight of thin poetry books. In the center of the floor sat four rows of industrial beige folding chairs. A young employee behind the counter welcomed me.

In the back row of folding chairs sat an old woman with a warm face. “I like your coat,” she said.  
Half hearing her the first time, I directed a “thank you” her way and took off my headphones. Looking around, I saw a microphone at the front of the shop and gathered there was a reading taking place soon. Unsure if it was open to the public, I made my way to the back of the shop and began browsing. The old woman again said “I like your coat, it looks warm."  I turned to face her. 
Glancing down at my thick wool coat, I thanked her again and told her I got it at the thrift store. “I guess you’d have to,” she said, “seeing as they were very popular when I was young.”

We talked. She asked if I usually came to these readings. I admitted I was from Minnesota, in town for the Harvard conference. I held my breath for her reply, as I knew some locals have a fraught relationship with the university. She asked which building it was held in. All I knew was that it was the philosophy department. She told me her husband worked as a philosophy professor at Harvard for many years, but he passed away a few years ago. I felt warmed by her presence, the smell of books, the poetry atmosphere. "I’m a poet," I said, and offered my name. She had a granddaughter named Carly in Arizona who didn’t come and visit anymore. “I’m Carol,” she said, before being suddenly swept away from me by more regulars and old acquaintances entering the book shop. Suddenly, I was on the outside again.

As more people began to filter in and greet each other, I grew convinced this was a private event. But then, two people a few years older than me entered, looking unsure of themselves. “We reserved tickets online,” they said and the intern behind the counter nodded at them to take a seat. I rose to leave, a question in my eyes. The intern told me I could stay, that there were still a few seats available. I sat back down, people watching in my wool coat.

Eventually, a man went up to the mic. He introduced himself as Kevin Gallager, editor of Spoke 9, the newest volume of the Boston-based literary journal Spoke. This was a combination reading and book launch. He introduced the three poets who would be reading their work and then said a special thank you to Carol and her family for allowing them to continue to host events in this space. Carol, my Carol, was the owner of The Grolier. Her philosophy professor husband was none other than Ifeanyi Menkiti, who bought the book shop in the early 2000s, saving it from being demolished. 

The first poet to read was Susan Eisenberg, an older woman with white hair and a spark in her eye who was introduced as one of the first female construction foremen in Massachusetts. She started with her poem “Do You Know Where You’re Going?” :

When I ushered for plays, there’d always be patrons

who’d rush past where I stood at the entry door ‒  

Waving tickets in the air to let me know

they needed no assistance finding 

the seats that were theirs. Subscribers. 

Most met my, Do you know where you’re going?

with a confident nod and a palm 

held out for programs.

But sometimes that simple usher’s question had 

a different read, landing like a fishing line into a deep 

private pool that rippled at the disturbance.

A disarmed face would surface: an intimacy.

Then we’d laugh.

When I’d entered the Grolier, I quite literally didn’t know where I was going. I was directionless in a big city, wondering whether to weather the art museum by myself or take a chance on the bigger bookstore. The poem’s question, “Do you know where you're going?” had the same feeling to it as Carol’s earlier, “Where are you from?” Both presumably simple questions led to existential answers, the creation of “a disarmed face.”

This is my final semester of undergrad, and my friends, family and strangers are all asking what my plans are after graduation. Unable to answer their questions, I find myself returning to this poem. The brief “intimacy” between the poem's speaker and the lost patrons evokes society's pressure to have everything figured out at 22, at 18, at 10. I am graduating college with the same degrees I attended for: English and Communication Studies. 

A person walks the streets of Cambridge at night.
And yet, when faced with the planned ambiguity of my degree, I do not know where I am going. As a student from a low socioeconomic background, I am not a “subscriber” with a “confident nod.” However, the second stanza of Eisenberg’s poem reminds me that there are ushers in life outside of the theater. Humans are social creatures who need to give and receive help often, and even when I travel solo, I will always meet people like Carol to share a “laugh” with. Sometimes not knowing where you’re going is the greatest gift because it leads to an endless possibility of destinations.



Works Cited

Eisenberg, Susan. “Do You Know Where You’re Going?” in Spoke 9. Kevin Gallager, Ed. MadHat Press, 2022. 


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