HE MISSED THE FIRST CLASS. In fact, he missed the first three. In his place came an emissary, a small, solemn fellow who cocked his head and closed his eyes and explained how Mr. Baldwin has been detained in Paris. I was nineteen, and had only a cursory understanding of who "Mr. Baldwin" really was. I'd read Giovanni's Room, and passages of The Fire Next Time had been drilled into me by a zealous Marxist high school teacher, but really I was fascinated, and not a little appalled, by whatever it was that allowed someone to blow off his own students so comprehensively. "Mr. Baldwin" was late. In fact he would show up only five times during the semester's allotted sixteen weeks, so what was I doing sitting in a classroom with someone I won't name, but whose own credits amounted (at least as I measured them then) to a single novelization of a famous Blaxploitation movie? This wasn't the person I'd come to study with, for whom I took a thirty minute bus ride every week from my own campus to Mt. Holyoke College's. There were fifteen people in the class, three from each of the five schools in our consortium. We'd been chosen by lottery. And week upon week, we'd go and we'd wait and at last James Baldwin's factotum would come in and apologize, sort of, for the great man's absence.
I don't really remember anything about his classes, this substitute's, except that they involved a great deal of silence and contempt. His, presumably, for our soft, white entitlement, and mine, entirely premature, for his failure to be someone famous. My entitlement was my contempt, in other words, which made his fully justified. I recall the whole mode of those classes as being essentially oracular, and though whatever he said, this oracle, this substitute prophet, is lost to time, he seemed to spend the few hours every week closing his eyes and intoning something, various things, about the Art of Fiction. I do not remember turning in any writing, those first few weeks. I do not remember being asked for any. This class was, nominally, a workshop, but it became for a while a sort of dispiriting, faithless church. We were told things about how to write. We wrote them down, I think. These words were, by implication, Baldwin's. But we never knew for sure.
Eventually, he came. At the beginning of the fourth week, I straggled down the waxy hallway and found — for whatever reason, I was early — James Baldwin, standing on the threshold of his own classroom as if he were confused about whether he should enter it. There was no one else there. And of course, I recognized him, slowed down so that I could light a cigarette, which at the very least would prevent me from doing or saying something stupid, would give me something to do besides ogle the famous writer. He came over and he took my hand and he cupped it between both of his own so that he could, likewise, use my match. He didn't say anything. And he didn't release my hand for a good fifteen seconds. The moment had a frieze-like quality, and was also a form of automatic seduction. I was charmed, by someone whose charm felt general. He took me in, by which I mean turned those bulbous eyes in my direction, and then introduced himself finally. It was an intimate moment without any intimacy in it. I'm not sure I've ever mattered less to another human being.
This last observation is speculative, and like all observations of the famous, it's at least minorly embroidered. I recall ...