Sitting in the window of the B. Dalton bookstore on New York’s Fifth Avenue, Georgelle Hirliman peers over her spectacles with the aplomb of one who has all the answers. She’d better have them, because here come the questions—a handful just plucked from an envelope taped to the plate glass outside. With barely a glance at the crowd staring in at her, she selects a query (“Is life, in fact, a bowl of cherries?”), retypes it and adds her reply: “Yes, and like cherries, full of pits, with a tendency to cause diarrhea when overindulged in.” An attendant tapes the Q&A to the window, facing outward. Another citizen has inquired, “When someone tells me to get lost, why don’t they say where?” Answers Hirliman tartly: “Because they don’t want to find you!” That goes up on the window too.
Playing “Writer in the Window” is not exactly a living for Hirliman, a 47-year-old published author from Santa Fe. The work pays only about $50 a day, and even though things are looking up, “I’m getting full of fame but no fortune,” she says ruefully.
Still, she maintains, “It is the truest work I’ve ever done.” And that includes stints as a radio host, waitress, secretary and even a call girl. (“I can’t say making love to men for money is great; it was great money.”) Finally, last summer, Hirliman, who is now single, climbed into a Santa Fe bookstore window hoping to find stimulation for a novel (her previous non-fiction work, The Hate Factory, was published in 1982). “I put out a sign that said ‘Help Me Cure My Writer’s Block—Give Me a Topic’ I did get four pages of the novel done, but I found I couldn’t concentrate because the questions people asked were so overpowering.” Having typed answers in nearly 20 windows in Santa Fe, New York and Portland, Oreg., Hirliman hopes to visit at least 15 more cities and write a book revealing “what people are curious about in these testy ’80s.”
Already she has some observations. “Men in Santa Fe don’t read,” she says. “In New York the men are more androgynous; the feminine is bred into them, and I’m glad to see it.” Writing in windows “has sharpened my one-line talents. You need them everywhere in writing today because people’s attention spans are limited.” Hirliman likes to give straight answers, but when asked the meaning of life—her most common query—she turns philosophical, replying, “The search is more fun than the answer.” She knows the truth of that better than most.