Remember how I lost my notebook two years ago? Well it was found! and mailed back to me! and only a little bit rained on! I’ll tell y’allbout it soon, with pictures. But first, here’s a transcribed and slightly revised bit of scribbling from the notebook, one of many pieces I had given up for lost. Context: I worked at the Strand bookstore in New York for two months in the fall of 2010, and these are my field notes.
STRANDED #1) Why would a classicist in his mid thirties wearing a grey tweed coat & glasses low on his nose looking every inch the up & coming columbia chair of Greek studies sell his entire collection of Loeb editions to the Strand?
#2) The difference between being in the strand as a customer & being in the strand as an employee is in what is visible. As a customer, only books, not people, are visible. As an employee books are invisible and people are everywhere.
#3) There’s a lot to say about the strand’s use of keys to manage employee bathroom trips. For now: this afternoon, shortly before my lunch break, I dashed to grab a key when one appeared on the hook behind the managers’ desk and made for the north bathroom to scrib note #1 above. When I came out, the sad classicist was still selling. But I only went to write, not to go #1 or #2 (aside: writing is #3) The question when I arrived at the commode was, if I’m only here to scribble, & not to eliminate the more regular kind of bodily waste, do I bother to drop my drawers or do I sit on the lidless toilet seat fully jeaned and belted? I resolved to stand & lay my notebook on the flat top of the toilet-paper dispenser.
#4) A man could go mad at the lack of scribopportunity when a worthy thought drops into the sky of his mind like a peregrine going for the kill. But when that man is me and I am on Greeting duty from 5:15 to 6:15, the eyes upon my back—ownerless eyes, but real enough to keep my notebook & pen firmly in my pocket as the falcon dissolves into a gray puddle of feathers and fishbones—Naturally I want to keep it alive, that thought, that seed to be scribbed & so I start to chant a silent mnemonic in my head:
EARS. CANNED RESPONSES. EARS. CANNED RESPONSES. EARS. CANNED RESPONSES. So much to the point that more than a few times, instead of the obligatory “Hi, welcome to the Strand” I may have burst out “EARS. CANNED RESPONSES.” Here concludes STRANDED #4 & I don’t remember what those two mnemonics were supposed to preserve.
#5) Everyone has a list. As in, “Have you read ANDROID KARINA?” (sic.)—“It’s on my LYST”
#6) He or She who designed the metal shelves with L-shaped corner supports did not have bookstores in mind. Who was responsible for their use in the strand clearly did not, either. IRONY
#8) I was late this morning so I’m staying till 6:40 to make up the time and I’m hiding it out in the bathroom Tee hee!
#9) In kindergarten, we used the drinking fountain: “Can I get a 1-2-3 drink, Mrs. Spoor?” we would wheedle. The idea being that the drink limited to a count of 3 for each child meant the line moved efficiently, fair shares were understood, & time wasn’t wasted. “It’s not a 1-2-3-4 drink,” the kid behind you would snap if you overslurped your 3 by the tiniest fraction. And sometimes even the entire line would count in unison “One…two…three.” (Next.) “One…two…three.” And so for each drinker, in a dwindling chorus, a sextet, then a quintet, a quartet, increasingly awkward to be counting aloud as comrades disappeared & the awful truth emerged, that you were in that cold place where no child ever wanted to be: last in line. The “caboose.” To this day, I count in my head while drinking from a fountain but I never stop at 3, especially at work. Because the lesson I really learned from this is what an excellent waste of time it can be to take many trips to the water fountain and drink to a count of 20, 25, 37. The more you drink, the more bathroom breaks you must take (making sure to take a 20-count drink before & after each pee), during which you scribble STRANDEDs in your notebook & best of all, you’re super-hydrated all day!
#12) A bookstore called The String? Might as well call it the yarn, the thread, the floss, the twine, the strand, the fiber.
#13) Poetry bleeds through Mystery from Richard Aaron to Dick Francis
#14) A vociferous pigeon lives in the wall by the Mystery section or perhaps inside one of the two enormous vents, great gray square boxes with filthy red-bladed fans & crumbling fanbelts, remnants from the building’s past life as a factory
#15) The day is easier to swallow when I’m holed up in Mystery all morning. As I shelve Aaron through Francis I pick up random poetry that has bled through from the other side of the shelf—but I only permit myself one poem at a time, two if they are very short. For word has it that reading in this bookstore is highly discouraged.
#16) Greeting: a scripted drama. I, leading male, have a single speech, HI WELCOME TO THE STRAND. The ensemble has a variety of responses depending on the actor. We get THE TRIPLE TAKE, the CANNED RESPONSE, and THE SUNNY DAY most frequently. Yesterday we discovered after a unique performance featuring a visit from my ladylove that this drama’s audience is THE CASHIERS.
#17) The Cashiers are usually audible all over the entire main floor—in Mystery, the vociferous pigeon harmonizes to “NEXT PERSON IN LINE!” KA-CHING
#18) The drinking fountain snatches my nametag (hung from a red lanyard looped around my neck) & doesn’t let go—then the Strand really has me by the throat.
#21) STRANDED, strung-up, threadbare, roped-in, twine shine crine-in-the-rine.
#23) Note the gradual takeover of the Strand by “merchandise.” Display cases of rare books are being replaced by kitten mugs and model MTA trains and Air Forks One. When did bookselling become chotchkieselling?
#24) Today at lunch I walked to the NYPL at Jefferson Market ate half my sandwich on the way there wrote a poem & walked back eating the 2nd half. Dad used to walk to Tower Records during his lunch hour when he worked at Denny’s in Sacramento, my Dad about the same age I am now. Speaking of lonely: time to go Greet.
#25) Me: Hi, welcome to the Strand.
Woman: [cynical laugh] THANK you! for that SINCERE greeting!
#26) Sometimes while Greeting I take a close look at the bits of flesh attached to the sides of people’s heads to make sure they are ears
#27) I need caffeine
#28) Shelving tonight=walking around with 1 or 2 books for a few minutes, placing them back on the carts, picking up 1 or 2 other books, repeat
residue in a drained drinking glass, residue pools again at the bottom of the glass no matter how well you drain it
THE STRING: Sometimes I wonder would I not rather be the string curled up lying utterly disregarded but warm in the quiet gently rocking darkness of a hip pocket where I can hardly distinguish myself as a string, the string apart from all these woven strings or fibers threads that make the pocket wall. Just as the string must wonder, would it not rather be me with hands to touch & voice & words to profess love for any warm beautiful being that comes in smelling range? I love you, string. I know. I love you too.
STRANDED #29) Remember the woman who complained that the Strand moves things around every time she comes in—with such urgency that you’d think she comes in twice a week to find each time the whole store all done over—when in fact I’ve been here a whole month and so far nothing much’s changed except the rising chotchkies. Good to keep in mind that this job is just one drop in a very large bucket.
#31) A 60-year-old dried out sunfaded dust jacket splits at the creases over the boards of a clothbound book so covered in dust (the ancient powdered skin of so many neglectful owners) that its silver-boss lettering is simply gray… Brittle paper shatters like the dry skin of onions
#32) Remember, the dust I wipe off the books with a blue rag is mostly powdered human skin. Do they ever wash those blue rags? The dust from the rag gets on my hands & in my nose, I sneeze it, inhale it, ingest it. Human skin in my stomach, my nose, under my fingernails. Skin of how many humans?
SPITTING ON THE WALLS OF THE HOUSE
THE HOUSE WHOSE WALLS THEY SPIT ON
THEY BUILD THEIR WALLS & HOUSES OUT OF STUFF THAT COMES OUT OF THEIR INSIDES
#33) To the woman who gave me a triple take upon entering the Strand while I stood Greeting at the door: In almost less time than it took you to push open the door and take three steps down the front aisle of the sales floor no less than thrice have you dismissed me. The first look might have been accidental: your eyes slid across me like searchlights over an empty yard. Then snapped back those eyes for a second dip in the bucket that is me: IS IT HUMAN? those eyes cried, and I hurl my line like a javelin into your heart HI WELCOME TO THE STRAND! But your eyes have already marbled along the wall by the time I reach the third word, I couldn’t even hold your attention for the THE, what kind of orator am I? none to speak of
But then for no apparent reason you pause you go out of your way to stop and give me the third, a brief silent frown
#34) Tonight I need to give NOTICE.
#35) I’ve Given Notice but I’m still stranded until the 25th (the 24th my last day) that means 12 more work days, 3 more paychecks, 96 more hours of my life
#36) The theatrics of Greeting
#37) The biomechanics of buyback, receiving, sorting, shelving
#38) Where fictionS End
#39) How many non-fictions?
#40) Have they ears? Are they all ears?
#41) Lines spoken out of turn:
- “You’re welcome.”
- “Thank you.”
|Typical two-page spread of the regained notebook. Things to note: water marks; overuse of capitals; fantasy floorplan (in which I imagined my apartment’s common area to be 3 times its actual size).|
#43) Music falls from the ceiling: selections from the TimeLife 100 Classical piano tunes vol. 1 (that banging Tchaikovsky concerto, etc) as well as Gershwin’s Rhapsody (one of those NEW YORK tunes)
#44) Never go to the Union Square Trader Joe’s on a sunday evening—Becca & I tried it & were vanquished by the line & knocked a green apple AND a green bunch of bananas on the floor and did not pick them up
#45) I see books misshelved & lying on the floor and I do not pick them up
#52) The answer to the most often-asked question: Second floor, back-left corner by the children’s section (keep my seat!)
#53) I was an hour late this morning
#54) I am, again, “using a key,” as they say. Going #3. Having opted as I often do to sit on the pot, unbelted, jeans piled on top of my shoes, nothing coming out of my body but these scribbles.
#55) My last lunch was supposed to be an occasion to treat myself, so I’m eating at the university restaurant. This is the first time I’ve ever sat at a diner counter. I ordered from the cook!
Two months ago I ate here with David Chandler. It was raining as I waited for him under the scaffold in front of the Strand. I didn’t work there yet.
I know exactly where I left that umbrella.
I was sitting on a barstool holding the umbrella (red) collapsed,
unbundled because it was still dripping
I dropped it on the floor next to my feet—the floor was black
but maybe only because it was dark in the place, the way painted lips turn black in black & white movies
I have no idea where it was, the stool beneath which I left the umbrella
#56) How fitting that my last Strand should be directly under the cruel condescension of Fred Bass. Neil’s is a limitless impatience. Richard’s is a cold disdain. John’s is a disgruntled indifference. These four my taskmasters these two months.
#58) How to get paid for my last hour at the Strand without working for it:
* Hide in the bathroom
* Walk around with handfuls of books pretending to shelve
* Hide in Mystery and read Rimbaud
* Stand next to a customer and pretend to be helping
* Simply stop
* Take my 15 minute break at 4:55 to avoid being called up to cover Trevor’s lunch at the buyback desk
#59) It’s 6:10pm on 11/24/10 & this will be the last time I write in the employee bathroom at Strand & I have nothing else of interest to scrib