Dad only did it the one time, raise pigs. There were three of them all from the same litter. He brought them home, built a pen, and told us explicitly not to name them. These were not pets. These were or would be hogs. Meat. Not pets. The pigs were money, an investment, not pets like the dogs, the cats, the ponies and horses. Don't get too attached. Think of them like the chickens. None of us much cared for the chickens which were dirty, dumb, work. Think of the pigs like that. The pigs were work. It was Dad of course who eventually named the pigs Curly, Moe, and Larry.
Always hustling, my dad. Always looking not for a way to get over but just to keep on. He worked in a factory. He sold cars in the yard, sold dog feed, heavy wooden picnic tables, dog houses, eventually antiques and junk. Had chickens for awhile and sold eggs. And just the once, three pigs.
"Smarter than dogs," he told us and we -- I -- did not believe him. The pigs would eventually follow him very much like dogs, huge filthy dogs, wherever he went outside. He would talk to them and they would answer. No idea what they found to talk about. Perhaps they discussed mortality, utility, sacrifice, the weather. I wanted nothing to do with the pigs, or Dad's rescued raccoon, or the hunting dogs, or the bloodhounds he had for awhile. I wasn't a dog person. Not an animal person. That was my Dad, likewise my brother, my sister. Animals understood them and they loved the animals. Dad grew up on a farm mostly. He was never without at least a dog. For years he rescued rather sad, often elderly horses. He and my sister loved the horses. He got me an irascible pony once. We did not get along. We did not become pals. Even my mother, a town girl, eventually, briefly had a dog until the beloved Buster got hit on the road. "Never again," she said and meant it. We had a barn so cats just were.
I don't much feel the need to defend my rejection of domestic animals. It seems to me that there are plenty of people in the world to love a dog. I have friends to this day who will never be without a cat for very long despite the vet bills, the ill tempered harassment in the wee hours, the stains, the stinky food. I like people with children, I like children, I like dogs, generally. I can appreciate the symbiosis without feeling the necessity myself. I am glad of all the good parents I know, all the people devoted to their pets. (Blame the false equivalence on the pet people. I'm not the one talking "fur-babies.") I respect the people willing to devote themselves to animal causes and the people devoted to the care of other living things. I understand the mutual benefit, I've just never felt the need.
I know Montaigne had a dog. I'd bet Shakespeare was more of a cat person -- though how would we know? Just an instinct, but I've always pictured a cat trailing ink across the desk, hanging out in Shakespeare's rented rooms in London, maybe haunting the wings in The Globe. Blame Robert Lawson, the author of Ben and Me: An Astonishing Life of Ben Franklin and His Good Mouse Amos, Mr. Revere and I (about a horse,) The Fabulous Flight, etc. Very popular children's books in my childhood, popular theme, narrating animals. Still works. People, grown people, love that shit. As an adult I'm not much for talking dogs, or crime-solving cats, but I get it. Animals make humans, actual and fictional more interesting. For me, and for me as a bookseller it's like heterosexual romance, or dystopian science fiction, or gastronomical engineering. I don't begrudge people much. You want to better understand laundry? Study beetles? Buy a book. Enjoy. And I am willing to concede, at least anecdotally that people with children know a love unlike any I will ever experience, that people with pets are, if not generally better than the rest of us, then perhaps at least less likely to be crazy. (Exception noted: the animal hoarders. I think we can all agree that that's just gross. If you can't use your kitchen because: kittens, chicks, dog shit, you are a bad person.)
Also worth registering that in my experience every relationship involving a parrot is inherently creepy. Yes, birds are funny and parrots are smart (like pigs?) but that is some ugly, aggressive, codependent, imprinting going on right there. The only pets I've encountered that I have actually wished away altogether if not straight to Hell? Two gray parrots who made life miserable for anyone not their human -- the human who happened to own the bookstore where I worked for a time. Made hot, cranky toddlers sound like singing angels, those wretched birds. Messier in every way too. I remember listing used books online and describing "parrot damage." Never again.
Someone asked me what was my best Christmas in retail. I've never hesitated before. 1986. I was managing a little branch store near the Stock Exchange in San Francisco. We were only open during the day because after the Exchange closed and the banks closed an hour later, the whole neighborhood emptied out like there was a daily evacuation order. There were a few bars and restaurants that stayed open later, but generally the place was a ghost town after six. Every year there was an internal debate about extending the bookstore's hours for the holidays. All booksellers are cockeyed optimists. Whatever our individual politics (generally more liberal than not) or religious feeling (?) as a rule we have great hopes of the Christmas Season -- something we have long since learned to stop calling December. Even people who don't buy books buy (bought?) books in December. Think about it. What else is dry, fits in a suitcase, is both more personal and less likely to disappoint at least in theory? One asks a bookseller what's popular, what Aunt Gertrude might like, what to get a six year old one does not know well and a bookseller will have an answer. Dads like books. Girls like books. That's the way people think (thought?) and who are we, those of us in the trade to dissuade people making such potentially profitable assumptions?
For any who weren't there or do not choose to remember, the eighties were hideous: the big hair, the big glasses, the leg-warmers and tracksuits, the triumph of bubblegum pop, the VHS revolution, the greed, the Reagans, AIDS. Everything is eventually laundered by nostalgia and I'm sure there are people reading this who will defend Nu Shooz and Murder, She Wrote and aerosol deodorants. There are people somewhere in the world who still love the cave woman novels of Jean M. Auel. As I hope people might have stopped saying by now, you be you.
What I remember about the eighties generally is by no means all bad. I found a fella, made a home together, got a job I liked, made friends, marched, volunteered, lived a pretty good life in the most beautiful city in America. I also remember a generation dying unnecessarily all around me, fear, prejudice, yuppies. Those were new then; the young urban professionals. Hard now to imagine a time when the world didn't cater to the every whim of young people with money. Back then the country was still unapologetically being run by old white men. Still is, but back then they didn't bother to pretend otherwise, or to much care what the rest of us might think about that, or the damage done. They owned The Shining City on the Hill, the president, Ford Motor Company, manifest destiny. And the yuppies? The yuppies weren't so much the children of those old white men as aspirants to to their money and power. And lots of people -- lots -- thought that was a good thing. Honestly, millions of young people read The Official Preppy Handbook and completely without irony started dressing and thinking like WASPS because that was the way to get ahead; become the power that oppresses you, conform to the dominant culture's rules, adopt the shibboleths and display the totems of the class that broke your grandpa's union and kept your parents out of the country clubs. For God's sake, there were black yuppies, immigrant yuppies and Jewish yuppies, gays. It was mind-blowing to think that the children of the hippies and the daughters of the failed Equal Rights Amendment all went to work in suits and sneakers and voted Republican after Nixon, but they did.
And in the bookstore I was managing, the yuppies were my customers. There were still the honest office workers; bank tellers, secretaries, maintenance and construction workers who bought our books and browsed our magazine racks on their lunch hours. Working people buy what they need where rich people browse, and ask for discounts. Still true. Oh, executives from Haliburton might order 500 copies of the latest management manual to help their minions Get to Yes or Un-limit their Power or be more like that ruthless jack-'o-lantern, Jack "Chainsaw" Welch. There was good money in that sort of thing, those corporate indoctrination orders, but not to be counted on. The yuppies were the big news in the eighties. Yuppies spent their own money on ridiculous alcohols and smelly cigars and designer crap and yes, expensive books. Yuppies bought books to display on their glass and chrome coffee-tables. They bought expensive computer books and fine editions and elaborate gardening books for their mothers. They bought Tom Clancy and Judith Krantz and self improvement books and futurist screeds and books about the economic rising of Japan and oh so much. And they paid retail and did not bat an eye. The yuppies were perhaps the last generation who attached status to books, who conspicuously consumed print and read on the train. (And when in their thirties and early forties they finally had children, they all taught their kids that reading was important, like soccer practice and flute lessons; regularly scheduled leisure. Books were an activity! Arrange them by color! Then the internet happened to us all.)
Weird to think I might miss yuppies even a little bit, isn't it? In the first place they are of course still with us only now they are very much the old white Republicans they strove to be, even the black ones, the Jewish ones, the gays. What I miss about them is the money they spent in bookstores, specially when they were drunk and they all seemed to drink a lot. Thus what I've always described as my favorite retail Christmas, the year before Black Monday, the last real hoorah of yuppie excess, Christmas, 1986. Amazon wasn't even in Bezos' garage then. Computer screens were black with acid green print that burned one's retinas. People Christmas shopped by going to stores. Those were the days!
I was alone that last extended hour after we would normally have been closed.
The idea of holiday hours was already quaint. It assumed a working population that still had a quitting bell and Christmas bonuses. Working in the Financial District and who our customers were made holiday hours silly, but we did it anyway. I didn't have the heart or the budget to make anyone else stay for that last hour from seven until eight, Christmas Eve. I stayed. I smoked, I'm ashamed to say, and read and I probably started planning post-holiday returns. At the last minute they came, three young male masters of the universe, yuppies to the tips of their black leather lace-ups. Drunk. Happy. Late. They had money and they were ready to spend.
Not exactly wise men in the state they were in and much as they might have fancied themselves kings, they came not bearing gifts but in search of them, last minute, unthinking of the hour. (Later, the whole "just in time" management thing? that had to have been a yuppie. It was a lifestyle; the way they ate and drank, the way they made and spent money, presumably the way they made love.) There were three of them, so let's call them Curly, Moe, and Larry. Moe was their obvious leader, bossy and a little mean. Curly was a little fat and the only one who was anywhere near to being as funny as they all thought they were. Larry was put upon and a little homely and probably the drunkest of the bunch. Moe came into the bookstore because we were the last shop in the neighborhood that was still open. The other two came with. I'd never seen then before and I'd never see them again. They weren't very nice. I was... the help. They kept asking me my name and then forgetting it. They thought it was weirdly hilarious that I was working by myself on Christmas Eve. Moe decided then and there that he wanted a book to give for a present, something nice. Didn't care what really. I went through my usual paces, trying to get some idea of who the book was meant for. A girlfriend? A relative? A boss? Doesn't matter and it didn't much at the time. I made a few suggestions.
Here's where the magic happened.
Everything I suggested? Moe said "yes." So I made more suggestions; art books, novels, history. All good. He'd take one of each. Everything Moe got, Curly and Larry had to have it too. Three of everything. (That's how long ago it was, the bookstore had three of nearly everything.) I got bolder. I suggested the most expensive books in the shop and told them that these were the most expensive books in the shop. They actually found this information exhilarating rather than off-putting. If I didn't have three, they would fight over who got to keep the one I had.
I don't remember what they bought. Doesn't matter now, as I've said it didn't much matter then, at least to them. Expensive. That was what mattered. They actually spent more than a thousand dollars apiece. On books. In 1986. For a lark. A thousand dollars in that little store was a good day. This was a very good day indeed. After probably half an hour, when the boys started running out of steam I called them a cab and helped them load in their purchases. Took awhile. No idea if the books ever made it home with them. No idea if come the morning they ended up giving anyone anything out of all those shopping bags. I didn't even wrap the books! Who knows, who cares? The books were nice. The boys were not. I call them "boys" now because I am old. At the time they may have been older than me. I was pretty young to be managing even a small, satellite bookstore. They certainly behaved like boys, kids with credit cards and no curfew. I must tell you that at the time, I did not feel bad selling those books to those drunk guys. It was exhilarating. One doesn't have much chance to be ruthless in my line of work. I killed it. It was the eighties.
Hogs. Meat. Money.
My father didn't drink. Always said he knew too many mean drunks, like his brother. One Christmas when he was still working at the car lot, before he took the job at the mill, my father got drunk. Actually, the owner and the other salesmen took him out and got him drunk, on purpose. By the time they brought him home we all crowded agog around Mum in the doorway as they unloaded Dad, our first dishwasher, stuffed animals bigger than his kids, a miniature pool table, lord knows what all. Mother the family economist was not pleased. We were thrilled and probably a little scared. Kept the dishwasher and the miniature pool table as I remember. The owner of the car lot evidently knew a guy. Great price, honest. Nothing but bargains. Never saw Dad drunk again.
I should finish the story of the pigs. As pigs do, they all got to be enormous. My father could clean and butcher game. Don't know that he'd ever butchered a hog. He did not talk about it the day it happened. It was winter, I think. While he was at work and we were at school, Dad arranged with the Amish to come out and kill and butcher the hogs. I remember coming home to find the business largely done. Most of the meat was sold. The Amish took cash, the skins, the offal and the blood. I remember the blood in a big zinc metal tub that it took two men to lift. I'm sure we ate at least some of the meat and none of us any the wiser, except maybe Dad. I did not choose to think much about the meat we ate.
Like I said, Dad never raised pigs again. It was a lot of work and it wasn't cheap. Moreover I don't think he much cared for the killing even though he was an avid hunter and we regularly ate what he shot. He was always quite reverent when he talked about the woods and the animals he killed and brought home. He detested waste, and cruelty, and the disregard of nature. (He could never understand how I could look at a perfectly good dog and not want to know it better or how I'd never learned the names of flowers.) That I suspect was his obvious mistake with the pigs, getting to know them too well. Maybe not. Maybe I'm the one being overly sentimental. I don't know that he saw any contradiction in wanting to understand an animal, to be kind to it, and also intending to eat it. If this was indeed something he discussed with the hogs I will never know. I should think my father too much of a gentleman to worry a pig. If he asked their pardon that last morning I'm sure he did so in such a way as to spare their feelings as much as his. In my father's world view, we are individually responsible for the harm we do, even if the harm seems to us necessary. When he arranged the death of Curly, Moe, and Larry the hogs, he did so in such a way as to make their deaths as quick and efficient as he might. Again, he didn't spare their lives but he tried in his way that they should not suffer unduly. I think he thought being there himself would only make it worse. And yes, maybe he thought to spare himself what he could. I can't think any the less of the man for not wanting to be there when the hogs died. I believe he loved them.
We do rather too little of this, our species, love the things we eat, respect the thing that feeds us. We expect consideration without extending it to other living things. We not only assume the right to eat the world around us but also to be understood to be better than everything we eat. We refuse our own complicity in waste and exploitation, consumption, and are deeply shocked by the very idea of consequences. Not because we are unaware, mind, but because our awareness somehow elevates everything we do. Top o' the food chain. We are not humble, humans, are we? (If humility were natural to us, religions wouldn't need to jaw about it so.) Most obviously, we are maybe too removed now from our food. Not an original thought, I know, but think about the distance we will go to not acknowledge that our chicken was a bird before it was nuggets, that people picked our tomatoes, that gasoline and plastic came from the ground, that if the end of us is indeed nigh it will be a suicide. It is easy to forget what our fathers knew. His life was not much like mine. Rather, I've made mine as unlike his as I could.
Seems I'm just as slow as the rest to know the value of the things I've been given or at what price they've been purchased. (Does that make me a yuppie?)
We also, some of us, move through the world as if every dog should love us, every clerk defer, and every hog be happy to be our ham. And it is not just to the natural world we feel ourselves entitled. Art and culture and literature are things to which we can lay claim so long as we can afford the subscription, the canvas, the rights. As Americans we are taught that we deserve anything for which we are willing to pay good money: Picassos and extra plum sauce and automatic rifles. Everything is be owned. If there's anything we can't have it is because someone must have got it first. Or they're keeping it from us, the bastards. No easy thing then to not be everything we might remember disdaining in others.
Even though it is basically what I've just said, it isn't right to call the yuppies pigs, because it is unkind, and not just to the pigs. That was the thing about the eighties, it made it harder to be kind, as well as hip to be square. Maybe every generation comes of age when it decides it needn't be new -- or nice -- anymore. As I was coming up everything old was not just new again but it all came back with harder edges, less give. What was the "Reagan revolution" after all but reruns and reaction? What was Ronnie himself but an Eisenhower emptied of character, content, humanity? As a young man I watched indifference to the suffering of others become a winning political strategy, an economic theory of expanding inequality put ruthlessly into practice, the triumph of selfishness as a moral and ethical good. I mean there were always cranks and capitalist fanatics, but who knew they were setting the economic agenda for my adult like? In the eighties American went mean rather than mad, or rather admitted we were always mean, and did it with a smile. Suddenly everything we were and had been led directly, naturally and inevitably to Ronald Reagan, deregulation, dead fags, flag lapel pins, the end of communism, and the barbarism that would culminate in Trump. Hard to be unaffected. Seems I wasn't.
So it is I think that for years I could unselfconsciously describe that last Christmas before Black Monday as my best. Made a lot of unexpected money that night. Also, in a small way, got over on the yuppies, right? Oink. I am no little ashamed of having told that story so often. Maybe make this the last time.
The very next Christmas after Black Monday, we stayed open late again and to even less purpose. Again I was left largely alone. Made no money at all. That last hour open on Christmas Eve exactly one customer came in. Wasn't a customer actually. It was just a guy who came in to get warm. I think he was a bus driver. I remember a uniform. He asked if it was okay to just hang out a little. I said sure, but I'm sure it annoyed me a little. Nobody had a phone on them them. Bookstores did not play music. It was deathly quiet. I smoked. I coughed. He cleared his throat. Finally I told him I had to close because I did. He said thanks and slipped out. I closed out the register, turned out the lights, locked the door and caught my bus home.
Which Christmas was worse, now I think about it.
So now I have to reconsider my answer, don't I? Also? I had thought that my worst Christmas ever was when I was furloughed during the pandemic. Wasn't sure there would be a bookstore or if they'd have me back. I spent Christmas Eve at home. All day. Didn't talk to anyone. Barely spoke to my husband. Nevertheless we ate well. We were warm, safe. Plenty to read. So maybe I got that wrong too.
Maybe we are no better off than when we do the least harm and take only what we need. I might have learned that at home. Maybe I forgot. Maybe we all do, now and then. The past is dangerous place. Go in thinking you know just where you'll come out again and that isn't necessarily true, is it? Now I wish that I had at least told that bus driver Merry Christmas. Maybe I did. Don't remember.
The other day I saw a guy in my neighborhood, a guy roughly my age, walking three dogs that I sensed were either not usually his responsibility, or at least that this task was unfamiliar. They were small dogs and at least one of them, a dachshund, looked rather elderly. The walker wasn't being obviously impatient; he wasn't tugging their leashes or yelling at the dogs. He just trailed after them as they roamed the sidewalk. The man did look tired. It was very early in the morning and he was not dressed for other work, or the weather. Typical of Seattle in the summer he was wearing flip-flops and shorts with a heavy hoodie. It was cold out, a little wet. I guess the guy looked like somebody doing somebody else a favor. Not a dog person. I'll say that. What made the scene memorable was that he had one of those blue plastic bags people use to pick up poop and he already had it on his free hand, which he held almost above his head, like he was either unsure of the usual procedure or was trying to remind the dogs of why they were there.
"How 'bout here?" I heard him ask every time one or more of the dogs stopped to sniff something. "How 'bout here?" They seemed to pay him no mind, the way dogs don't. The last thing I heard him say when they turned my corner and went out of my view was, "I have things to DO."
Don't we all, brother. I do sympathize. Still not a dog person myself. At least the guy was trying. I admire that. (And that bush in my front yard that the dachshund found so intriguing? That's rosemary. The one next to that is a hydrangea. Trying, see?)