Dear Cheryl: A Wild Night with Sugar and The Rumpus

1. This is how many people read an advice column. Also how many pretty people exist at 7:15 P.M. on Crosby Street. Send letters. 2. Dana Hammer, a writer, with Abby Kulchin, a Philosophy PhD candidate at Philosophy (who finishes Friday — send her cake) and tutor at Brooklyn Institute.

Each time I visit Housing Works its vibe changes to match the event, and A Wild Night with Sugar and The Rumpus was the first time the bookstore looked anything like a club. My Dishmate Ryan and I waited in line outside, repeated our last names to a woman holding a pen and clipboard, got tickets, walked into the dimly lit space. Past the beer line, which was full of former members of the outside line, was a stage with drums and guitars waiting for their musicians, and lights illuminating a giant Rumpus banner, which marked the head of the store like the top of its webpage. The tagline under the logo read “Waste time better.” Rumpy, the magazine’s mascot, was on the banner, stalwart, catching his ass in a net. All of this was to celebrate the release of Wild, a memoir by Cheryl Strayed, more intimately known as The Rumpus’s Sugar, the Ann Landers of all the sad young literary boys and girls. Hosted by writer and Fitzgerald biographer Rachel Syme, the evening was at turns funny, tender, and maudlin — maybe the last because I’d been in the beer line.

1. Paul Lisicky opened up the night. His nicely shaped head is directly proportional to his taste in Sugar columns. 2. Rachel Syme — hostess/emcee/charmer for the evening. Winner. 3. Max Fenton and potential airborne air death.

Syme began the night by introducing Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter Dana Kurtz, who sang a few folksy and bluesy tunes, including one about a dream where “Venezuela looked like Brooklyn/but the streets were twice as wide.” Next, Syme introduced the procession of readers. Each selected a favorite Dear Sugar column and read it to an eager audience that laughed in all the right places.

Paul Lisicky, author of Lawnboy, read an excerpt from “Beauty and the Beast,” a column in which Sugar responds to a man who fears he is too ugly to find love. Sugar answers with the story of her friend Ian, who suffered severe burns as a young adult. Sugar describes the banality of Ian’s life (“He would get a strange kind of slow-growing cancer and a particular breed of dog”) and when he kills himself, she suggests that his death doesn’t stem from his accident, but from his decision “to close himself off to romantic love because of something so superficial as the way he looked.”

1. Emily St. John Mandel and our ghost ships. Her novel, The Lola Quartet, is out soon. Google it. 2. David Gutowski on crazy ex’s who live in a facility for crazy ex’s. 3. Alexander Chee and Mary Beth Williams who jammed by combining two separate Sugar columns into one. Like Transformers.

Emily St. John Mandel, novelist and staff writer for The Millions, read Sugar’s “The Ghost Ship That Didn’t Carry Us,” which she described as one of the best pieces of writing on the internet. Answering a man’s question of whether or not he should change his life by having kids, Sugar advises him to treat his alternate life, the one he doesn’t choose to take, as a “sister ship,” because it is “important and beautiful and not ours” and “there’s nothing to do but salute it from the shore.” As St. John Mandel read these final lines, a woman next to me clutched her chest and gasped.

1. Gabrielle Hamilton and getting a B in Latin. Eff em. 2. Aryn Kyle and Elyssa East, her southern accent, and their superb “greatest hits” of Sugar sentences. 3. Rumpus Editor and Daily Rumpus man Stephen Elliott, on why he loves Sugar.

David Gutowski, founder of books and music blog Largehearted Boy, displayed the sweeter side of Sugar by reading “Known Unknowns,” her hilarious response to a man’s query about his crazy ex-girlfriend and her crazier best friend. Gutowski chose the piece, he said, because part of life is dealing with crazy exes and “if not, you’re probably the crazy ex.” Sugar’s response, which, borrowing Donald Rumsfield’s infamous schema, takes the form of a breakdown of Known-Knowns, Known-Unknowns, and Unknown-Unknowns, brought levity to the evening.

1. The woman, the hiker, the sage adviser Cheryl Strayed, AKA Sugar. She hiked 1,100 miles up the California coast. She beats you. 2. Lucy Morris, a translator of Russian, with Jen Gann, a teacher, and three empty pints of Six Point, listening to Widowspeak’scover of “Wicked Game.” Yes.

Other readers of Sugar columns were Rachel Syme, who read from “Tiny Beautiful Things,” writers Alexander Chee and Mary Elizabeth Williams, who read two Sugar pieces at the same time, Pam Houston, Max Fenton, Gabrielle Hamilton, and Elyssa East and Aryn Kyle, who offered a best of Sugar, which they titled “Welcome to the Church of Sugar, Y’all.” Syme, who claimed to “pretty much do whatever Sugar tells me to do,” would have to be the high priestess.

Finally Stephen Elliott, writer and founder of The Rumpus, introduced Cheryl. Nervous and sincere, Elliott seemed the most gracious person in the room as he described finding Cheryl as he founded the magazine. He praised Strayed for having the bravery to be honest, with a caveat that also works as the lesson of her writing: “Honesty is not sympathy. Honesty is empathy.”

1. Widowspeak plays the classic, and my favorite, Chris Isaak jammer “Wicked Game.” This video? C’mon. 2. At Botanica Bar, Tobias Carroll and Max Fenton display their facial hair’s ability to defy the theory of gravity. Once thought impossible now should stand shoulder-to-shoulder with giants. War is over. Give peace a chance.

Strayed took the stage to bursts of applause like a sovereign appearing on a balcony. Before reading from her memoir, she compared her job as Sugar to Glinda the Good Witch in Wizard of Oz: she tells her “sweet peas,” as she calls her readers, that what they need is already inside them. Strayed read from Wild, the memoir of her eleven-hundred mile hike across the Pacific Crest Trail after her mother’s death and the end of her marriage. Strayed’s excerpt described her meticulous packing preparations, a catalogue of everything she’d have to lug across the trail. Halfway through, she stopped to clarify that the scene was supposed to be funny: “I took a lot of shit,” she explained. “Everyone in Seattle laughed at this. But you guys are from New York. You don’t know what to pack either.” The crowd laughed at the good-hearted abuse.

As the band Widowspeak began playing and the reading ended, I thought that the dominant emotion throughout the evening was gratitude. This was not a book release party so much as a collective thank you to Strayed, whose writing reminds us of the little morsels of hope that exist even in the face of despair.


— Sam Gold [text] is the author of six novels, all unpublished because of obscenity.

— Ryan Chang [photos and captions] is from Orange County, CA and lives in Brooklyn. He is the Staff Writer for The Outlet, and his work has previously appeared on Thought Catalog. He is in the internet here and here.

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