Wednesday, March 05, 2014

`Many Forgotten Human Curiosities'

Andrew Rickard at Graveyard Masonry has posted an excerpt from a book previously unknown to me (as most of his books are, for which I’m grateful) that might have been lifted from my life forty years ago. E.M. Martin in Wayside Wisdom: A Book for Quiet People (Longmans, Green & Co., 1920) describes an old woman “in Workhouse bonnet and shawl” who furtively reads Pascal's Pensées while standing in front of a second-hand bookshop, “lost to the noise of the street or the mud that splashed upon the pavement.” In 1975, I worked for nine months as a clerk in Kay’s Books on Prospect Avenue in Cleveland. Eight years ago, shortly after launching Anecdotal Evidence, I wrote about the experience, and just two weeks ago I received a comment on the post (eight in eight years!) from a former Kay’s patron. 

Most days I worked on the second floor, a sprawling arrangement of tables and shelves holding Mrs. Kay’s stock of science fiction and mysteries, veterinary medicine, political science, mathematics, The Anarchist Cookbook, biography, Civil War history, economics, pharmacology and Iceberg Slim novels. Martin’s anecdote reminded me of two customers, both deserving of remembrance and understanding. The first was a young black man usually dressed in checkered bell-bottoms, platform shoes, turtleneck and knit cap, even in summer. His efforts to appear cool and street-smart were no match for his drug habit. He twitched and sweated and always looked worried. Mrs. Kay never disguised her contempt for blacks of any variety, let alone junkies, and if our patron slipped past her perch on the first floor and walked the long concrete stairway to the second, he was safe for a little while and would stand by one of the rotating display stands and read Iceberg Slim, sometimes for an hour or more, until his connection arrived. They would retire to a far corner, invisible to us, and conduct their transaction. The young man never caused a problem. We never suspected him of theft, spoke to him or learned his name. He wanted to read Iceberg Slim and get high. 

The other memory concerns a man whose name I do remember, though I won’t use it. He was fifty-ish, white (exceedingly pale, in fact), and always dressed in suit and tie, rain coat and homburg. In profile he reminded me of an anemic Dick Tracy, and he might have passed for an insurance agent or Methodist minister. He was expressionless and never made eye contact. I didn’t mention that much of the second floor at Kay’s was taken up with stacks of old magazines and the pornography section. The latter consisted largely of racks of paperback books subdivided into genres (B&D, S&M, shemales, enemas, etc.). This was uncharted territory and made me squeamish. Our man in the rain coat, who always arrived mid-afternoon, went to the bins of old skin magazines from the fifties and sixties – softcore, black and white, and always rather sad. There he would spend an hour or so, leafing through the pages, murmuring and, as he grew more agitated, hitting himself on the chest and face. He never bought anything and seldom spoke with anyone other than himself. We left him alone, partly out of fear, I suppose, but occasionally Mrs. Kay would come upstairs and chase him out of the store.

Based on Andrew’s post, I took Wayside Wisdom from the library. In the first sentence, Martin speaks well of “that greatly abused person, the wayside tramp.” I know nothing else about Martin, who seems to be a more wistful, genteel descendent of greater forebears, Cobbett and Borrow. Think of the young man and the middle-aged man in the bookstore forty years ago when reading this sentence, the one that immediately precedes the passage selected by Andrew: “For through the doorway of such shops pass, in the slow procession of the years, many forgotten human curiosities; and the seller, waiting expectant among the books he has learned to love, never knows to what strange adventure the day may not give birth.”

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