Growing Up Around and In Books
I recently heard one of those constantly upgraded, trend-predicting, hi-tech spokesmen saying "print" books are a thing of the past. The NEW "book" is going to be digital--floating around in constricting broadband air to be downloaded as you want to read them. These books will not be free--they will be patrolled by an ASCAP-type way of collecting royalties. He said every day a new type of digital reading device like the Kindle is being produced or researched and redeveloped or evolved. Ugh.
I can't imagine a living space without bookshelves full of books. I started collecting books in college and by the time I moved to New York City, my wife and I combined had a library of 2,000 books. I've never lived in a house or an apartment that didn't have bookshelves. I can't imagine life without solid-bound book-type books you can hold the thickness or thinness of in your hands--I mean, come on, I want to hold a book in my hands when I need it--either to read it or glean something informational or inspirational from it. I'm sitting and writing and reflecting and suddenly I'll recall a passage from a book--I like to jump up and find the book on one of my bookshelves and spin through it looking for that certain bit of writing I was recalling and wanting to read again.
I grew up in a world of books. My grandmother on my mother's side was a poet, novelist, and best of all, my hometown's head librarian when I was in the growing-up stage of turning from a kid into an adolescent with sprite curiosity, a curiosity that was solely mine--a curiosity I liked to amuse on my own time in my own private place, which when I was a kid was my room at home or back in my grandmother's apartment going through her little library--or else running down to her big library and socking myself away back in a quiet corner of the stacks at one of those narrow little desks with the green-shaded reading lamp attached up over it--and to sit in the wonderful silence and loneliness of that great book depository and dive off into a book, either one I'd been meaning to read or just one whose title attracted me as I prowled the different stacks--the History books, the Art books, the Biographies, the Fiction, the Nonfiction, the Geography books, the big books of maps of the US and the World, the Science books...and also the different magazines and the newspapers from all around the USA.
Later, I was a junior in high school, after my grandmother had given up her head librarian job to marry a rambling man from New York City (a true old-line New Yorker asshole), my brother, who at the time was the sports and amusement editor of my hometown newspaper, one day gave up his journalism career to buy the only bookstore (at that time) in my hometown. I was there the day my brother took it over. It was a marvelous day. All the literary geeks from my hometown gathered there that day for coffee and teacakes (large puffy vanilla-wafer-like small cakes). It was also the day my brother hired me as the official store janitor.
And what a wonderful place that store was to hang out in for a weird sort of shy but curious kid like me. Two long high-ceilinged walls flowing back into deep building space from a large front window, walls carrying shelves running from floor to ceiling crammed full of books, newly released books, reference books, Bibles, the Classics, shelves full of mystery books and detective novels, encyclopedias, and the lending library. In front of the check-out counter was a big Webster's International Dictionary so big if you bought it you could also buy the maplewood stand it sat on. Down the middle of the store were long library tables full of books, one holding displays of the NYTimes Bestseller list books, one housing the latest children's books (these were heavy Dr. Seuss days), and two tables loaded with used books. In a glass case to the right of the check-out counter were the stamps and stamp-collecting albums and supplies. The guy that stocked my brother's stamp counter was a big jolly man from San Angelo, Texas, named Ted who always greeted you with a hearty "By golly, how're'ya doin', so nice to meet you again or if I've never met you before then I meet ya now, my friend." But Ted knew stamps and he introduced me to stamp collecting and The Philatelist magazine that was crammed full of articles about stamps but more importantly to me tons and tons of ads of dealers with all kinds of stamps for sale. I had access in the store, too, to the latest Scott Stamp Catalogs, both world and US catalogs and several other price guides.
Another character from San Angelo who came in the store one day was Dr. Ben K. Green. A pageant-like "doc" character from an Old West melodrama. He fit that bill to a T. He was a real doctor, he claimed, with a degree from the Royal Academy of Medicine in London, though that was hard to believe given his appearance. He was also a horse trader, he claimed, and then as I later found out when I got into the pigeon raising and racing business he was a pigeon fancier, a fact I one day discovered from reading The American Pigeon Journal to which I subscribed and in it was an advertisement for Dr. Ben's pigeon lofts in San Angelo. But Dr. Ben, through my brother's connections, later became one of Alfred A. Knopf's bestselling authors. Through my brother, this Knopf editor was shown one of Dr. Green's tales published in a Southwest Review. Then a bit later, this Knopf editor got a limited edition of Dr. Ben's first book that was published by the Encino Press that was blessedly owned and operated by my brother's good friend in Austin, Texas, a man who would go on to become a big-time producer, director, and screenwriter in Hollywood.
That Dr. Ben K. Green was a bullshitter deluxe was a given fact. You couldn't trust anything he said about himself, except in his written stories (he said he orally wrote them using a tape recorder--I've often wondered if books written like that shouldn't be classified as long speeches), where he seemed to be the real thing. His stories were fun reading, kind of cowboy thrilling in a personal tradin'/schemin ' way of Texas tall-tale telling. He grew up in the same area of Texas my brother and I grew up in--the same area where our families came from, too. It was an area full of great bullshitters who had a way with written words--from that fading Old West culture, that time of cattle ranching and trail driving and lonesome cowboys and horse thieves and horse traders and Comanches still going around raiding and scalping and shiftless cattle dealing and a chance to still be a cowboy, even though by then you were more a drugstore cowboy than you were a working cowboy (vaquero). My brother and I grew up hearing the vociferous remnants of that Old West time telling their stories of trying to survive on those high plains, those flat treeless landscapes that ran for miles and miles and acres and acres, and talking about the times they hung out with the Earps, with the Dodge City marshals, with Wild Bill Hickok or with John Wesley Hardin and William Barkley Masterson--and some of these Old West gunfightin ' legends lived out what lives they had left in Texas. Or they'd brag about being kidnapped by Indians and maybe raised as Indian kids. Chief Quannah Parker whose tribe lived just up north of this part of Texas had a white wife, Cynthia. Or they'd brag about trail drivin' for Mr. Goodnight. Or they'd brag about drivin' cattle up the Old Chisholm Trail that ran right smack-dab through that part of Texas. Or they'd brag about hangin ' among the famous Buffalo soldiers that at one time were stationed at a fort just north of my hometown. My brother being so much older than I was had been closer to these remnants of that culture. It had infected him more than it had me and he stayed behind in Texas and tried to write about that Texas time and Texas place while I couldn't wait to escape that past and I went off to college in faraway cosmopolitan Dallas and after Dallas with a college degree under my belt and a wife looking to me for sustenance and security, I left Texas for good--never to return to the Lone Star State to live--though I'll admit, I did keep that Lone Star culture as a part of my now Lone Wolf preferred existence.
But growing up like I did in the literary world of that world did affect me. Did mold me. Did set me straight on a course I have followed right up until this minute I am sitting at this Mac typing out this post for this damn blog whose space to me is as flat and treeless and wide-open as those plains and deserts from which I sprang. And that part of Texas produced some damn good writers: Larry McMurtry; Larry L. King who wrote "The Littliest Whorehouse in Texas"; John Graves (From a Limestone Ledge; Goodbye to a River); Elmer Kelton (The Time It Never Rained); Benjamin Capps (A Woman of the People); Len Hall (The Existentialist Cowboy blog--see the Blog List); and one of my heroes, the late J. Orlin Grabbe; Dr. Ben K. Green; my brother. Surely such a close-tie literary experience touched me, affected me, and surely that culture is present in my own writing--I mean growing up around books and in libraries and bookstores no matter the location leads to higher plains of both thinking and living.
Here's Dr. Ben K. Green's Wikipedia entry: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ben_K._Green
And oh what other wonderful characters frequented that book store. My favorite group of "book store characters" was one that congregated in the book store's back room every weekday at lunchtime. This group consisted of a gaggle of my brother's male friends, two corporate lawyers, a telephone company executive (his family got rich off a bean dip they later sold to the Frito people for millions), an oil-man-actor who ran my hometown's "little theater" group, a man named Ward who was an ex-fencing great, and a geologist named Escar . Every weekday at lunch these guys had Tom & Bingo's barbecue joint send over barbecue sandwiches and two gallons of draught root beer to that back room where over lunch they discussed books, movies, women, sports--and pretty much in that order, too. Oh the worldly but also intellectual attitudes I learned from those guys.
I was there the day Escar the geologist held us spellbound with the story of his latest personal dilemma, a story of how it was he decided to divorce his wife (her name was Helen; I still remember her name after all those years) of 15 years. He said the last time he slept with Helen the evening had passed in the usual manner: he came home from work same as ever, then they had dinner same as ever, then they fiddled around same as ever with whatever until it was bed time, when they both retired to the bedroom and the king-size bed they shared every night same as ever. He said she seemed depressed before bed but there was nothing unusual about that since she was depressed all the time anyway in like a normal way for her. Escar was especially tired this night and he quickly passed out (zonked out) while she was still up reading a magazine. He said it was deep in the middle of a deep sleep when something started irritating him. It was a clicking sound in his left ear. Still in his deep sleep it seemed faraway, distant as things are distant in the hypnagogic state. Gradually though as the clicks kept repeating, kept getting louder, kept coming closer, they finally jarred him awake. The clicking noise? He popped up off his pillow and wheeled over just in time to see what was making that clicking noise in his left ear. Why, it was his wife, Helen, making that sound. How was she making it? Why she made it by pulling the trigger over and over on a .38 revolver he said she kept in a bedside table drawer for protection when he was off on one of his geological expeditions that lasted for months sometimes. That was the clicking sound he'd heard in his left ear in the middle of that night. What happened was, Helen had the barrel of that revolver against Escar's left temple. The clicking sound was her pulling that revolver's trigger over and over in rapid succession. No bullets in the gun? Yes, the gun's chambers were fully loaded--but luckily for old Escar, the damn thing was misfiring--there was something wrong with the firing pin. "I got out of bed, ran out to my car as I was and I drove like a bat out of hell over to Raymond's motel," Escar related. "And the minute I got to my room, I called my lawyer and told him to start the divorce proceedings that very day." Grounds for the divorce? Mental cruelty.
I also was impressed by the many book salesmen who were coming in the store constantly, one especially I enjoyed coming around, a guy named Warren from New York City who represented Random House. And one day Warren flew in especially to show my brother a page from the original Gutenberg Bible...I swear...and I knew the look in my brother's eyes as he studied it...and later I heard my brother negotiating with this salesman over the price...and later I knew my brother bought it...though I have no idea what happened to it. It wasn't in my brother's possessions when he died. But this is the kind of intrigue that influenced me to eventually try my hand at "serious" writing...and serious reading.
Next door to the bookstore was a magazine stand and tobacco shop that had once had a horse-betting parlor in its back room--the old wires were still in place on one of the walls--even an old blackboard they'd posted the winners on was still used to block a window in the bathroom. One day my brother proudly announced that he had bought that store and was going to knock down the wall between it and the bookstore and combine the stores. And there was great joy on that day, too, when my brother further announced that I was going to be in charge of the magazine stand and tobacco shop for an hour every afternoon after school (and all through the summer, too) and all-day Saturday; plus I was still the book store janitor.
Learning experiences. I can't count all the life experiences I learned working in my brother's stores. One marvelous thing for me was my brother hired young women to work as his bookstore assistants--young and attractive women. As an original member of the bookstore staff--as the janitor--I got to know most of these young ladies in a more than proper way. Most of the time it was a fairly good-looking young high school boy flirting with these "older" girls--they were all high-school grads, two of them graduate students in college. From one of these girls I learned to overcome a fun-spoiling timidity; from another of these girls I learned to be prepared in terms of college and learning and grasping knowledge and future thinking--plus from her I found out I was very attracted to very smart women. And from the last girl who worked for my brother I learned close social skills and how to treat girls and thereby seduce girls--yes, she taught me seduction. Ronnie was her name; from Montana; married a soldier at 17 and came with him to my hometown's large Air Force Base. He had dumped her when she was 19 (only 2 years older than I was at the time) and that's when she came to work for my brother. Ah, those extremely bright young women--they took over from my being reared by my mother, her sister, and their mother, my grandmother--the Pioneer Woman Triumvirate, I called them--those against whom I rebelliously turned to run in flight right into the charming arms of these brilliantly smart and very free-willed older girls who I worked with in that book store.
And the magazine stand and tobacco shop was fun, too, because it gave me a little power with my high school friends. Everyone at my high school knew my family, especially my brother but also everybody knew my father by his business and the fact he ran around my hometown in a yellow Cadillac convertible wearing his favorite garb, an old Coca-Cola shirt-jacket worn opened over an olive-drab GI-issued tee shirt, a pair of Air Force fatigue pants he'd acquired when he worked for the Army Air Force in WWII, bottomed off by a pair of alligator shoes (the book salesman from New York City, Warren, who really liked my father, had brought him as a gift), topped off with a genuine official Roy Rogers straw cowboy hat whose sides originally showed Roy Rogers himself on the back of a raring up to full high-hoof Trigger. To remedy this rather childish-silly Roy on Trigger stencil, my clever dad spray-painted the hat in an especially illuminating silver paint. On those days when the high plains sun shone unimpeded straight down and burning on my hometown, it reflected as though a halo off my dad's silver cowboy straw. So, yes, all the kids in my high school knew my dad. And yes they knew my brother, too--first as a sports reporter--and a lot of those kids had seen me with my brother at hometown sporting events--I was his scorekeeper in those days and went with him to the high school and college football games where I sat with him up in the press boxes and spotted for him and kept track of each play on the diagram sheets with which the athletic departments supplied the press corps before each game--and to the high school and college basketball games where I sat with him at the court-side press table and kept score while he typed out his coverage. Some of my more street-level high school kids had seen me with my brother at the rasslin' matches--one time there making me famous when the local favorite, Dory Funk, Sr., threw Ivan Kalmakoff , the Russian Bear, who was evil and hated by one and all, over the top ropes to send this hairy bear of a man crashing down on the press table, knocking my brother one way and rolling into me the other way, knocking me down on the floor and then falling on top of me--he smelled like beer--and I shoved this old man (and he wasn't young then) off of me and to my surprise it was easy and the Russian Bear fell back effeminately into the crowd--and I was cheered wildly as the Russian Bear was mocked wildly for letting a high school boy kick his ass.
So I was already well known around town thanks to my father and brother but when word got around that I was working for my brother in his new book store, I became even more popular--and then when they found out I was in charge of the magazine and tobacco shop on Saturdays, they turned me on to a way I could make some extra money. You see, I had access to cigarettes--and nearly every kid I knew, especially the boys, but some girls, too, smoked cigarettes but store owners wouldn't sell to kids since my hometown was in a DRY county (no booze) and proudly boasted of having over 100 different churches for such a small city. But cigarette smoking was a male status symbol in those days and smoking males proudly displayed their cigarette packs by wearing them looped up in their tee-shirt sleeves, or prominently displayed in a shirt pocket. There was nothing more James Dean-macho than whipping out a pack of cigs and sliding one out, putting it in your mouth at just a certain angle then whipping out your Zippo windproof lighter and whipping it once down against your blue jean leg to open it and then whipping it back up that pants leg to whirl the firing wheel against the flint to light it--done in one fell swoop like the old outlaws having a gunfight--drawing fast. We called it the "Gary Cooper method" (the movie "High Noon" was out and Coop's role in that movie had a profound influence on easily amused high school boys) of Zippo firing and the absolute coolest way ever invented for lighting a cigarette true. So what I got to doing was stealing packs of cigs from my brother's stock and selling them at high school for fifty cents a pack, where they sold retail for 25-cents a pack. Sometimes I was honest and put half of my take in the magazine stand/tobacco shop cash register, though sometimes I needed a new LP or a new shirt, so I would keep the whole take. For one whole school year I did quite well with my cigarette business.
Also in the magazine stand/tobacco shop I met another bunch of real-life characters just the opposite of the book store characters. Though it was called a magazine stand, it was also a newsstand. We housed our newspapers on a specially rigged rack that hung on the store's brick front just outside the front door. It held 10 newspapers--both the hometown morning and evening editions, plus the Fort Worth and Dallas morning papers, the Wichita Falls, Texas, morning paper, the San Antonio Light, the Oklahoma City Daily Oklahoman, the New York Times Sunday editons that got to us on the early Monday morning mail train from Dallas-FortWorth, the Wall Street Journal, Barron's, and at the bottom of the rack on the sidewalk with a brick on top of them was a stack of The Racing Form (a holdover from the days when the joint was a horse-betting parlor--horse betting had been made illegal in Texas after WWII--though at one time, they had horse races on the Fair Park Racetrack in my hometown--my uncle took me to my first horse race when I was a jerky little wide-eyed curious 8-year-old).
The magazine stand characters included a scrubby little jittery dude we nicknamed Jake Leg. He had what oldtimers called "the jake leg," meaning he had trouble controlling one of his legs when he walked and one of his arms also "jaked"--or shaked, a condition brought on by the consumption of alcohol--except not distilled and purified alcohol, but rather pure grain alcohol, especially the kind found in Jake's favorite source of it: Aqua Velva men's shaving lotion. And we had a notions shelf behind the cash register counter and yes we kept a good supply of Aqua Velva up on that shelf. Yep, I'd see Jake Leg comin' up Cypress Street from T&P Park down by the train station where he spent most of his days. I'd see him coming towards me from my high stool I sat on behind the cash register, which was up by the window and just beside the "Winston Tastes Good Like a Cigarette Should" neon sign that hung and buzzed its gaseous sizzling as it advertised the day away and into the deep nights (sometimes we left all of our neon signs (cigarette signs mostly) on all night long--they gave a Christmasy effect to that end of Cypress street--made it like a Vegas street with the Paramount Theater just across the street with its marque lights flashing and blazing and the drugstore on the corner's neon signs blending in--and the Trailways Bus Station cafe's always on neon sign hanging out over the sidewalk--made the street for one block merry and bright.
Another character was this woman we called Queen Christine. Queen Christine must have weighed at least 300 pounds. She weighed so much that when she would arrive in front of the stand in her chauffeur-driven Cadillac and the chauffeur got out and came around to open the door for her, that Cadillac took a definite dip toward her side of the car, and when Her Majesty rolled out of that car, I swear, it looked like that Cadillac was surely tipping over to fall against the front of the store. Then she'd take about 5 minutes propelling herself--on her canes--into the stand--not allowing the chauffeur to help her--not allowing anybody to help her--into the stand just to get a pack of Herbert Tarryton cigarettes, several different newspapers, and a sack of Red Man chewing tobacco. The minute she faced the cash register she expected a greeting: "Good day, Miss Christine, and how may I help you today?" You already knew what she wanted and you had 'em ready for her already, but this routine had to be followed or she would turn around on the spot and waddle back out to her Caddy shouting to her chauffeur, "Take me to Zeke's, there's no one working in here today." If you happened to lose her like that one day, she'd be back the next day guaranteed. I never "lost" her--I loved seeing that Caddy pull up and the ritual begin. I mean the other customers had to stand aside as Queen Christine came in to do her daily business--even on Saturdays--we were closed on Sunday, known as "the Lord's Day" in my hometown.
Another character was Doctor Cyrus N. Ray. Doctor Ray was a real doctor, an osteopath, but he was also a fairly well-known archeologist and anthropologist. As an archeologist he had national acclaim back in the 30s for his discovery of what was referred to as "Abilene man," a series of fossilized bones the Doctor had found digging among the remains of what had once been an ancient "Indian" village of Clovis or Folsom man remains.
From the Table of Contents of a 1933 volume of the Texas Archeological and Palentological Society Bulletin--that's old Doc Ray, the second listing:
- The Importance of Texas as an Archeological Field, by Dr. Warren King Moorehead
- Multiple Burials in Stone Cist Mounds of the Abilene Region, by Dr. Cyrus N. Ray
- Notes on Five Texas Crania, by Dr. Ernest A. Hooton
- Excavation of Saddleback Ruin, by Dr. W. C. Holden
- Flint—Its Occurrence, Composition and Patina, by Henry E. Elrod
- Sandals of the Big Bend Culture with Additional Notes Concerning Basket Maker Evidence, by Victor J Smith
- A Metate Factory in New Mexico, by Eileen E. Alves
- Some Pipes of East Texas, by A. T. Jackson
- Some Archeological Fields Near the City of Mexico, bv Col. M. L. Crimmins
- Field Notes and Reviews
- Secretary-Treasurer's Report
- List of Members
Dr. Ray was a several-times-a-week regular customer of the magazine stand. We also regularly put magazines and newspapers back for him, always his Scientific American, and his weekly Wall Street Journal, and his New York Times Sunday edition. Ever since my brother bought the magazine stand I had waited on Dr. Ray. He was a man of few words. He always had a very serious concerned look on his face. He never smiled. He was always wearing what seemed to be the same suit, a light blue suit, its jacket pockets always stuffed with papers that stuck out of them--some newspapers, but others looking like just sheets of typing paper--envelopes, too. He would come into the magazine rack area and go through several different magazines before finally coming over to the check-out counter and asking for his magazines and papers we were holding for him. He'd pay and then exit.
So one day the cigarette lighter repair guy was up front drinking a Dr. Pepper and talking golf with me when Dr. Ray came in. The cigarette lighter repair guy told me, "Keep your eye on old Doc Ray. Let me show you something...." And with that he sped off toward the back of the store. Directly I heard this soft whistling coming from that direction. And Dr. Ray heard it, too. I watched him as instructed. First his ears pricked up and turned fiery red. Then a very stern look came over his face and he turned toward where the whistling was coming from and stared for the longest. Then the cigarette lighter repair guy whistled again and the Doc started moving military like toward that back end of the store. When he saw there was no one back there, he rushed over to me and demanded his put backs, frantically paid me, and then rushed out of the store. The cigarette lighter repair guy came back up to the front laughing his ass off. "Old Doc Ray. He believes whistlers are spies out to spy on him and eventually do him in. He'll spit on you if you whistle any where near him in the street." "Spit on you?" I asked. "Yeah, spit on you--like you pass him on the sidewalk whistling, he'll follow you and spit at you. I've been told if he's carry something with him, like an umbrella, he'll also take a swing at you with it."
I never saw Doctor Ray spit on anybody, but once more after that I saw him react to a whistler one day in the magazine shop--a sailor had come down from the Trailways Bus Station up the street from the store to get a magazine. While paying for the mag, he noticed an emu-skin tobacco pouch we had on display in our pipe and pipe accessories case. When he asked me how much the pouch was and I told him $25.00, he let out a whistle before saying, "Wow, that's expensive." I immediately looked at Dr. Ray. He was starring meanly at that sailor. I supposed the dude being in uniform had saved him from being attacked and hit by a couple of Dr. Ray's well-aimed loogies--but though the Doc looked ready to attack and spit something about the sailor held him in check. Dr. Ray was patriotic perhaps. Perhaps he'd even been in the service in one of our World Wars. I supposed the old Doc couldn't believe a member of the U.S. Navy could be spying on him--though what better get up to wear had this sailor been a member of that secret society out to spy on and eventually do away with the good Doctor Cyrus N. Ray.
All About Dr. Ray From the Handbook of Texas: www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fraqq
And that was a part of my experience with books and a library and a bookstore and a magazine stand and a tobacco shop. But then one day, my brother, a little downtrodden, and I knew he was in financial trouble, announced to the world of my hometown that he was selling his bookstore to a guy from New York City who had plans of moving the store to a new location (in fact, he moved it into the building that housed my father's picture frame and mirror shop). The magazine stand and tobacco shop were to be closed for good.
The bookstore's and magazine shop's last day was a very sad day for me. I would surely miss the work, the popularity it brought me at school, the power it gave me, and of course the many characters and their tales and advices and quirks I had met and established a connection to over those two and a half years--all of which made a profound impression on me--and had a lot to do with my future, though at the time I didn't know that.
I've always been at home surrounded by bookshelves--my mother even had a magazine rack in order to display her collection of magazines built into the wall of the great sunroom my parents built on the back of our house--a rack filled with seemingly every magazine my mother had ever bought or subscribed to since she was young--she saved them like they were treasures.
And for the first 18 years of my life I was around books and magazines and newspapers and pipes and pipe tobacco and all of the brands of cigarettes and the guy who repaired cigarette lighters (his name was Cullen) who sat in the back of the shop at his little workbench with the magnifying glass that was also a light and all his various plastic boxes that held his lighter parts. And I had access to all the magazines and I especially always read every new issue of Down Beat and Metronome the music magazines that at that time were devoted exclusively to jazz--and jazz by then had become one of my soul's fondest pleasures and my own mental eagerness to learn all about jazz and the jazz men and women and even articles on how to play jazz on various instruments--this when I was learning to play jazz piano. I also read Scientific American, The Atlantic Monthly, and The Saturday Review regularly. AND, also, I had access to the "pounds of butter" we kept hidden under the cash-register counter--"pounds of butter" being the code word for the nudist colony magazines (Sunbathing magazine was one I remember) and one or two Tijuana Bibles leftover from the old magazine shop owner's day. Now memories are flooding back upon me. The Coca-Cola ice box that held all those wonderful soda pops. The many big round glass jars of Planter's peanuts or Tom's roasted peanuts or Lance peanut butter and cheese crackers. Or the little oven we heated up the packaged sandwiches in. Or the many boxes of cigars we kept in the big cigar humidor that sat to the right of the cash-register counter.
Six months after my brother died, I received several boxes of things he'd left especially for me. In one box I found several items from the old book store--paper sacks with the store's name on them, for instant--and from the magazine/tobacco shop I uncovered an old wooden cigar box. A Max Seller cigar box. Max Seller cigars were made by the M. Trelles Company of New Orleans. We had one customer for Max Sellers, an insurance man named Max. He'd always come in the shop saying, "A box of Max Smellers, please, Wolfie Boy." The box is made of cedar wood. There is still some bits of tobacco in it. The only object in it was a penny that had been "smashed," as we put, by a train...you put the penny on the railroad tracks as the train was approaching, then when the train ran over the penny, you went and found it and showed it off proudly the next day at school. My brother had put this penny in it I was sure. It was he who when I was 10 taught me how to put pennies on railroad tracks. I could barely make out the date on the penny. It was 1923, the year of my brother's birth. It's odd, isn't it, how relative all things are.
By the time I enrolled in college, my brother's book store was a thing of the past. The guy from New York City (Bill) who bought the store became tolerant of me hanging around his new store, which was right next door to my dad's shop. I talked New York City with him. I knew a bit about it since my stepgrandfather was a New York City native, but oh how I longed to come to New York City after I'd have long talks with Bill, sitting in that old chaise-lounge, yep, the same one from my brother's store--the one on which the wonderful Ronnie had shown me the basics of how to seduce a woman, oh how I wanted to be in New York City. What broke up my friendship with this guy who'd bought my brother's bookstore? One day I came in to talk NYC with Bill and my eyes immediately landed on a new book he had displayed prominently. It was Mezz Mezzrow's Really the Blues. The minute I saw it, I had to have it, but it was $7.95, a price that was way too expensive for a kid like me. So what I did, I talked Bill into letting me take it home and read it, which I did. It took me only three days to absorb that wonderful book from stem to stern. When I took the book back to Bill, I was expecting to get into a long discussion of the book, and jazz music, and jazz in New York City. Instead, Bill took one look at the book, opened it haphazardly and then turned on me with a vengeance--that same New York City asshole attitude I'd already experienced with my New York City stepgrandfather. "You, little son of a bitch," this NYC asshole said meanly and extra-loudly. "You've ruined this book...look!" I had unconsciously marked my various stopping places in the book by bending down the corners of the pages. "I can't sell this as new now when it's obvious somebody has read the book already...bending down the fucking corners...didn't you learn anything working with your brother? I'm sure he has never bent down a corner of page of a book however old it is. You don't treat books like that." That day I walked out of that bookstore really hurt but pissed off, too--like I say, I was already tolerant of that New York City asshole attitude--but it had embarrassed me so much, I never again set foot in that store nor did I ever again say even a "Hi" to Bill--and I saw him several times after that. Hell, out of meanness, I even coaxed his strange but beautiful New York City daughter to go to the drive-in movies with me. As a result of that one date--and I really dug her, too--and she thrilled me with her urbanity--she let me tongue kiss her and encouraged me to feel her breasts--but more thrilling eventually was the fact that during that one date she introduced me to the World of the Beats--the Beatniks as they were ridiculously called (because of Sputnik, by the bye, in case you didn't know)--to the poetry of Ginsberg and Patchen; to Kerouac; to Spoken Word recordings; the practice of chanting; to coffee houses; and the art of playing the bongos. She and her brother were Beats. They both wore berets. He, a kid now mind you, smoked a pipe. They both wore black all the time. I only had one date with her, then I went off to college and though I returned home on breaks and such, I never saw any of that old crowd from those book store and magazine shop days. My brother by the time I went to college was moving to Dallas to renew his journalism career with the big Dallas afternoon newspaper.
And then I went off to college--that's what you did in my day--you "went off to college"--and thank the Lawdy Lord I "went off" to this college. The reason I picked the college I finally went to? In the catalog one statement jumped out at me: this college's library was the second-largest library in the Texas university system--next to the University of Texas Library, which all Texans knew was second only to Harvard in the number of books and important collections it had.
My first day at college, my parents drove me there, I was wide-eyedly amused by all the wonderful buildings that you drove through to get to the administration building where you registered, etc., a building that copycatted Independence Hall. Why, Independence Hall? The whole time I went there, I never heard. In fact, no one but me even noticed the damn building looked like Independence Hall, but it did, dammit. My first question I asked of a student guide was, "Where's the Library," and she pointed across the street from the Ad building, "that's it over there." And it was a huge building. And it looked like a library, too. I could see the stacks through the buildings big arched windows. I couldn't wait. The minute I got my Library card, I headed over there. It looked and smelled and tasted like my grandmother's old Carnegie Library--the smell of books--and the people who live in the library--and my first trip back into the stacks of that swell library, I met a girl...a tall beauty of a girl, sitting reading a book of Tennessee Williams's plays at one of those same-old narrow library desks with the green-shaded reading lamp hung over it. She wanted to be an actress, she said. "I'm GOING to be a writer," I proudly told her.
for The Daily Growler