Wednesday, June 10, 2009

An Example Remembered

I've made reference here before to the many insane folk who frequent the bookstores. Traditionally, the insane are afforded a certain indulgence, so long as their interior disquiets are not externalized too loudly. There has not been a bookstore in which I've ever worked, and I've worked in many, that has not had a regular cast of supporting eccentrics, hangers-on, day loungers and lunatics. I do not count in this number the occasional dozer or the regular readers, for whom the bookstore counts as a quiet interlude in their regular routines. These we call customers even if they never buy the magazines they read or purchase a book. Neither do I suggest that those with behavioral anomalies or other overt signs of disability are in any way risible. We have many regulars of whom we are genuinely fond, whose daily struggles, while occasionally challenging for us, seem to require an admirable, even inspiring level of concentration and self control.

The running girl was, in some ways, one of these. For years she came regularly to the store, spending the better part of the day, reading, conversing largely with herself, though not always. She was a disconcerting presence for those that sat near her though, as periodically she would spring from her chair and jog the length of the store and back. After a reading by the author of a popular science title, I once heard her arguing a point of evolution with two others in attendance. She clearly had the better of the argument -- until she felt compelled dart off and back, to the evident astonishment of her interlocutors. She seemed quite unperturbed when, on her return swing, she found them gone. I wondered at the interior resistance to her compulsion that had allowed her to sit through the lecture, and to then hold her own in a fairly long conversation afterwards, before finally trotting off 'round her usual circuit. We have not seen her for quite some time now.

It is not the delusional or the frighteningly unhappy I am thinking of just here, rather it is the gentler folk for whom the bookstore is a quiet refuge. There are, for example, the sweet tempered old homeless men, seeming survivors of an earlier comic type, the gentleman-hobo, who, in their cardboard belts and duct-taped shoes, sit reading "Scientific American" while sipping an abandoned latte, and who become as familiar to the bookstore as stray cats. Then there is the poor soul with the Hitlerian mustache and bangs who comes nearly every day to work on his colorful numerology charts at a cafe table, and the two elderly friends who likewise arrive every morning with their wheeled suitcases and who argue the day away together, in whispers, take their modest lunch together, arguing, in the cafe, and close out the store together before taking their unintelligible argument to the bus stop across the street. There are also the elderly ladies whose lives have wound down into a circular daily neighborhood routine that includes stepping into the bookstore on hot days to cool off and on cold days to warm up, who place orders for books they will not in all probability buy, but will put on ever extending "hold" between visits. And there are those so much in need of contact and conversation, they will, less happily, invent questions without context for the staff at the information desk. Among my coworkers there are some heroically patient clerks who will indulge these individuals whenever time permits.

Among the unfortunate yet happy souls I remember most fondly from my days at Stacey's Bookstore in San Francisco, was a harmless little homeless fellow whose mountainous cart was kept for the most part by either our main entrance or in the alley behind the store. Season in and season out, he wore layer upon layer of thick wool coats and blankets belted tightly at roughly his waist. Beneath these, it was assumed, based on the hollow of his eyes and sunken cheeks, and his surprisingly delicate hands, he was probably as thin as a whippet. He chewed the stubs of abandoned cigars with such teeth as he had and smiled constantly. He spoke an all but unintelligible language of his own invention, though there was English in it, but did so with such a very friendly sound as to endear him to the staff whose greetings he returned happily, after his peculiar fashion. He felt a certain proprietary pride in the bookstore, though he seldom set foot inside, and was always quick to try to chase from our door, as best he could by flapping and mumbling, anyone he perceived to be making trouble. He did not much like the police and even the sight of a passing security guard out for a lunchtime stroll generally sent him and his cart flying. Once, to my dismay and amusement, he interjected himself between two suited men of grave dignity, talking loudly at the entrance to the store. They clearly assumed he was begging, and, unable to ignore him, tried to wave him away. He held his thin hands not out but up between them and smiling, first at one then the other, hissed a little. His actual purpose, I at least realized, was to hush them, as he seemed to feel they were being entirely too bellicose. Eventually they simply moved on and he seemed well pleased. Generally though, he was as quiet as cat.

One very kind coworker made a special point of befriending the little man in the many coats. This bookseller, himself thin as a first book of verse and a little bent with age, worried that our unofficial doorman had not enough to eat, and that he was exposed cruelly to the winter weather, despite his unfathomable layers. I witnessed their conversations with some pleasure as the little homeless fellow seemed to enjoy being scolded nearly as much as he enjoyed the regular small gifts made him by this kindly clerk, who in his turn, being a bachelor, seemed to enjoy to opportunity to fuss about someone more obviously lonely than himself. Once, at Christmas, the suggestion of a gift appropriate to the season and to the special needs of our friend on the sidewalk was made. I myself, never being so good an influence as I might have been, once bought him a pretty good cigar, which he accepted from me only after considerable protest. He took it from under various coats, intact and unsmoked, to show me he had kept it treasured for days if not weeks thereafter. I rather doubt he ever smoked it. Our friend's particular friend hit on the idea of buying the little fellow a proper raincoat. When it rained, one of the tarps that otherwise concealed the mystery of his worldly goods in his cart was unstrapped and used as a cover for his head. Our coworker decided this would simply not do and a small collection was made among us and quite a good rain poncho, big enough to cover all his coats, and with a hood capacious enough to cover his various hats, was purchased and presented to the man with the cart. He received it with joy, wreathed in smiles, and shook the hand of his benefactor vigorously. The little fellow had been ill for some time before this gift was made, had in fact been hospitalized we eventually learned, with, as I remember, pneumonia. Not long after, when the skies were pouring rain, his particular friend rather angrily enquired what on earth he had done with his new rain-gear, as he stood out in the weather in just his usual soggy coats and blankets. Quick to show he had meant no offense, he undid a few straps from his cart and produced his gift, still carefully folded and still wrapped in the paper in which it had been given him. Again, he smiled proudly as he sheltered the rubber poncho under the store's awning for fear of getting it wet.

I know no more what ever happened to the little fellow in the coats than I do the running girl, or sadly, for that matter, if the little fellow's chief benefactor from the bookstore is still among us. What a good and kind man my coworker was, and is still, I do not doubt, if he has been spared. I learned a good deal from the company and humanity of such booksellers. I should only hope to be so understanding and benevolent myself, or at least to meet with such kindness should I ever find myself so much at the mercy of strangers and weather and the police.

I think I should count on bookstores just as so many about me now do. There are rare and gentle people to be met with in such places. May there always be hereafter. May I be one. May you.


  1. Oh my God, that was Igor! The little homeless black guy! Do you remember that Robert and Rod brought his cart up to the third floor to store when Igor went into the hospital for pneumonia?

    Igor had a fascinating story: he was schizophrenic, and when he first manifested symptoms as a teenager living in Alabama, his parents put him on a bus to San Francisco with $50 in his pocket. He was sixteen when he first started living homeless in San Francisco. I think - if he is still alive - he would be well into his 90s.

    Wow...thank you for this memory!

  2. What a touching post, and heart-breaking comment by clindsay. Can you imagine what might have become of the man if treatment and options were available then as now?

    I often wonder things that like when I wander the big cities choked with people; the ones muttering to themselves and the others who pretend to ignore it.

  3. Brad, although you do so love to play the curmudgeon some days, your heart is as big as anyone you have described here! And not to worry as you will no doubt always have a place to park your own shopping cart among us.

  4. What a beautiful post. Once I worried that one of our own bookstore's "gentle refugees" was scaring a customer and her small children with his loud voice. After he left, our customer told us we'd won her business for life because of how we'd treated the man. Such is the humanity of bookstore customers too.

  5. My favorite customer when I was a bookseller was a poorly-educated black man who frequently smelled of pot and who struggled with literacy -- but he had a kid and he wanted better for his kid. So he tried to look for tutorial books, especially about math, and he didn't have a lot of money.

    I always wanted to spend the time with him even though he could typically only afford one book because that book meant EVERYTHING to him. For so many of us, it's Just The Next Book.

    That next book was the book his kid's future was going to hang on, until he could afford the following book and his kid was ready for it.

  6. Thanks to everyone for commenting, and for sharing your memories.