[Part three of the new adventures of Michael McGeraughty on his quest to re-discover America]
5. Resolution 451
My new year’s revolution
The rain had begun with little warning, announced only by a lift of old leaves from the trees closest to the road tossed skyward on invisible gusts and then a sudden darkening of the sun by the belly of a dark cloud just visible in the trough of road ahead. Within moments the windshield wipers had difficultly clearing the class and I slowed to a more reasonable crawl. A car behind immediately gave me a horn and then passed impatiently into the oncoming lane, forcing another car to stop.
Just ahead on my side a blue plastic sheet that appeared to be covering something stationary, parted at the middle where it was now obviously pulled over a backpack and a red beard and rain mottled glasses. A bare arm gestured at me with thumb wagging. I hit the blinkers and stopped.
The fellow slipped his pack off and opened the door, while rolling the water from the blue sheet as if he had practiced that move more than once, and tossing it to the floor of the cab along with his sleeping bag, he stepped up with the pack landing in his lap. He was not a small man in girth and the pack pressed against the dashboard. The beard was ridiculous.
“Where are you headed?”
“As far as you can take me.”
He was staring at me oddly. I was questioning my sudden impulse to pick him up. Being alone in the cab for the first time in days revealed one of my weaknesses. I like to talk. And there was no one to listen. Deirdre said I was even talking in my sleep at the campsite in Geneseo.
The fellow was looking at me, expecting an answer I suppose.
“What’s your name?”
Well then, Angelo, you may want to reconsider that. I didn’t expect company all the way to Idaho.”
There was a pause and then the shaking of his head that loosened a spray of raindrops from the beard. But some of what I had first thought to be rain remained and I saw that it was gray.
He wiped his glasses on an already darkened handkerchief and says, “Really! You might be on the wrong road for that. The interstate’s back there.”
“No. I know where I am, pretty much. I’m going blue highway as much as I can. And I’m not headed straight. I’ll likely see the Gulf of Mexico before I see any snow.”
There was a dramatic blowing of air. “Smokes!”
“No, I don’t smoke; not anymore.”
“No. I can’t afford it either. But I meant ‘holy smokes.’ You’re on an adventure then.”
“I am that. I hope.”
The fellow looked at me for another uncomfortable minute. I assumed he was in awe of my grand project, and I didn’t want to strike any poses.
He finally said, “You’re nuts, you know. This truck is at least thirty years old.”
“You’re pulling a trailer.”
“About 4500 pounds, give or take the load.”
“How many miles is that to Idaho, do you figure?”
“I’m looking at twelve thousand, again give or take. That’s going out. I don’t know if I’ll be coming back just yet.”
He shakes his head again. More rain falls. “Jesus Christ and little fishes. I’d sure like to tag along as far as you can stand me.”
“I don’t know,” I said, but I was thinking that I didn’t need to talk quite that much, and I had been imagining a series of such picaresque characters, each with their own stories to tell.
His voice rose.
“I wouldn’t need to sleep in the trailer. I have a tent.”
“No room in the trailer, anyway. But that’s gotta be a small tent if you have it in that pack.”
“Big enough, for a fat man and a book.”
I sat there, waiting for the traffic to open up enough to re-join the procession.
“I’ll think about it. But you should know, I was looking forward to a mosey.”
He rocked in his seat a bit as if laughing to himself. “Been tied down too long in the shop. Wanna stretch your wings.”
“Yes, sir, way too long . . . But why did you say ‘shop’?”
“Because, I recognized you right off.”
I checked him out again.
“Do I know you?”
“No. I only came down to Charles Street occasionally. And I didn’t have the beard then. Well—or maybe a few inches on this belly. I haven’t been down that way in a couple of years. But I heard you were closed. It was in the papers.”
The traffic opened and I played the clutch and the gears until I was doing about thirty-five.
“So, Angelo, what do you do for a living?”
“Nothing, now. I used to teach.”
“Why did you leave?”
“They kicked me out.”
There was no more rain when he shook his head this time.
“Nineteen years. I had tenure. But that’s all bullshit. Legally, they have a buyout clause. And it’s not Santa Claus. All they have to do is accuse you of doing something immoral. Then they can bankrupt you while you defend yourself or you just give it up.”
“What did you do?” I was listening for hesitation—something that might tell me he’d been hitting on co-eds. That sort of thing.
“I was teaching a course on the American Revolution. I had a segment about the importance of religion to the Founding Fathers. I’d been teaching that course—the same course—for almost nine years. I had full classes. The administration wanted me to tone it down to be more inclusive. I said look at the syllabus. I was just trying to cover the historical facts. So, they canceled the course. I raised a row. They canceled me.”
He said this rather quickly, as if it had been repeated many times.
“What are you doing now?”
“I thought I’d see a little bit of the country. See how far I can stretch that buyout money. I’m a city boy. I was raised in New York City. I don’t know a whole lot about the country except for a little bit of Florida and Boston.”
“You planned to thumb a ride the whole way?”
“I don’t have a car. I don’t even have a license. I grew up in the city.”
I had to think about this.
After a while, he says, “So, what are you going to do?”
“I am thinking about it.”
He shakes again. “No. I meant, what are you looking for on this expedition? What’s your purpose?”
“There’s not just one, I guess. I’ve seen a lot of the country over the years— driving my kids everywhere I thought was worth seeing. But there was always more than I thought there’d be, and places we didn’t go . . . Do you have any kids?”
“Not that I know of. Things didn’t work out that way.”
“What are you, forty? Fifty?”
“There’s still time. I know a fella who started a family when he was fifty-four.”
“But there’s a missing ingredient in there.”
“Yeah. But that could always happen.”
He sighed at that. “I suppose. I’m a little old-fashioned for most women,” then waved his hand in the air as if erasing that part of the conversation. “What else? What are some of the other things you want to do?”
“Well, there’s the books. I want to sell books here and there to pay for the gas.”
He turned awkwardly and looked through the small window into the enclosed bed of the truck.
“You have a lot of books back there? What kind of books?”
“All kinds. But that’s just the stuff I’ve been buying along the road. I’m afraid it’s building up. I’m going to have to get more aggressive about selling some of that. No. Most of it’s in the trailer. I have it set up back there so people can browse.”
He was seeming shocked into momentary silence.
“Wow! How many do you have?”
I wondered if his enthusiasm was genuine. I shouldn’t have.
“Well, there’s about a thousand back there, plus the ‘451.’ About 1500 total.”
“Well, that’s another thing I’m doing. I have this project. I call it ‘Resolution 451.’ ”
I was a little unsure about getting into it. My mind was on the traffic and getting off Route 20 and onto 62 in the outskirts of Buffalo. The signage wasn’t very good.
He says, “So, what’s this ‘Resolution 451’ business all about?”
“Not a business. Just a revolution. Like a New Year’s revolution.”
“You mean resolution.”
“Well, yes, but it’s a revolting matter to have to deal with after all the ages.”
He didn’t bother to smile at the attempted humor. “How so? What’s the matter?”
When my mind is on other things, I can get flippant. “It’s about time for the peasants to revolt. That’s all. Past time, I think.”
“To save books from perdition. They’re being destroyed, removed, replaced, expurgated, and abridged. Banned! All while libraries are busy giving up the wealth of their collections for space to install machines that’ll be out of date in ten our twelve years—machines that operate software that’ll be useless in five or six. The arbiters of political correctness are getting rid of anything that does not meet their approval, altering texts they don’t like. Writers of a hundred years ago are being judged by the standards of today as if today’s standards are eternal. Special interest groups are removing books they disagree with. And all the while the publicly funded colleges all assign the same texts and publishers are refusing to publish books that don’t fit with their political templates. Our literature is being lost to morons who read Twitter feeds.”
So, I missed the connection, and I was still on Route 20 and I decided to stay the course for the time being. There were always other roads.
“Wooh! Except for the Twittering, that’s always been going on. It’s the way it always was.”
“Yes, but no. The market has always been there with diverse opinion to soften the blow. It didn’t matter that certain publishers or bookshops refused to carry some books, an audience could always be found for something different. Today, with the new dependence on a few tech giants, Google and Amazon alone can make a book or an author ‘disappear.’ The half-dozen large publishers that remain are dependent on Amazon and Google to survive. Outside of Barnes & Noble, most of the independent new bookshops are vanity projects, solipsistic trust-fund wallowings, but they still all carry most of the same books. It’s a joke.”
“How about the used bookshops? You had a lot of good stuff, as I remember.”
“Most of them are run by old guys like me. Baby boomers, still reliving the sixties and seventies. Marginal, at best. We can’t afford to save ourselves, much less the world’s greatest literature.”
That stopped the questioning for a time. Lake Erie was on our right, and the sky above was broad and textured by the weather. Oddly, the surface of the lake appeared to be flecked by dark in the way the ocean would usually pick up the light.
Finally, he says, “So, what’s your plan?”
“No plan, really. just a resolution. Just that . . . There are still hundreds of millions of old books out there. Most people who read books already have a good collection of their own. What if the tens of thousands of devoted readers purposely collect a library of their own favorites and formally accept the responsibility of caring for them and passing them on to the next generation? Resolve to do it! 451 books can become millions of volumes preserved, each collection unique, with all those tens of thousands of different ideas and opinions about what’s good and what’s not. Better than that, because these will be ‘old’ books and were published before the current arbiters of good and bad started their high-tech book burnings.”
He rocked in his seat.
“Ah! so’s that why you chose ‘451?’ Because of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451?”
“Yes. But in that great novel, each of the book-lovers memorized a text. A nice conceit. But this is not 1953, and many of us don’t have the faculties to memorize text that way. And more than that, there are just so many wonderful books to save. These books have already been printed. They are out there to be preserved.”
“Why don’t you just make a list?”
“Because, I don’t know most of the best there is. I only know of a small fraction. I know what I like, but my tastes are not the same as yours. The more people that participate, the more of the best writing will be saved—not as judged by some academic who has studied how to study but chosen by those who love the books in their own right. Not every wonderful book is War and Peace. A good mystery, a western, a collection of humorous stories, they all serve their own part in civilizing the mind and heart.”
He was staring out at that dark-flecked water, looking a little sad at the eyes.
He finally says, “You think 451 books is enough?”
“Likely not. But I think people shouldn’t become overwhelmed by their possessions. 451 books is about twenty boxes worth and they’ll fill a couple of 3’ x 8’ shelving units. Most people can deal with that. And it will take some time for them to assemble; to pick and choose what really matters to them. Too many books might overcome the spirit to carry through with the resolution, which is just a promise to yourself, after all, to preserve and protect.”
He studied the idea against the sweep of the wipers.
“How do you intend to reach people with this bright idea?”
“Word of mouth. Emails. Facebook messaging. Whatever works.”
“So, you’re like, one of those Christian missionaries that went into the wilderness to convert the natives. You’re on a mission. That’s what this is really all about.”
“No…Well, … Just a little, maybe.”
6. The razor’s edge razor
I had seen FBI cars on a couple of occasions before, white Ford Expeditions with low numbered license plates. They had raided my bookshop using several of those, and blocked Charles Street long enough in the process for everyone to see. Several times, as Deidre and I made our way through Massachusetts, I had noticed a white Ford Explorer. The thought popped then that they might be following me, but I had ignored the understandable paranoia. I hadn’t noticed that white car again in New York State, but a black one had passed a couple of times when we were in the state park near Geneseo.
Since I had picked up Angelo, a similar Ford Explorer, but black, had been in the rear-view mirror almost continuously.
It had stopped raining and the sky had broken up, looking the way ice would in an upside-down river, but it was too warm for ice. The drama of that pulled at the eyes.
A few miles before the Pennsylvania border a State Trooper flashed his lights at us. We were between two empty cornfields, so I took my time pulling over so that we were closer to an open farm stand and a house. I wanted potential witnesses to whatever was going to transpire. The Trooper blared his warning horn before I had finally stopped.
He approached on foot, slowly, and spoke before he was actually at my window. “What’s with you,” he says. Why didn’t you stop?”
I lied, “I thought you just wanted to pass,”
“Get out.” No ‘please’ about it. He was not pleased.
Angelo said nothing. I said, “Sure,” and we both stood on the gravel shoulder of the road behind, between the trailer and the police car. Another State Police car pulled up after his and two troopers got out and approached from either side, hands on their belts, looking us over intently as they passed. They had not yet asked for my driver’s license or registration but both troopers from the second car and the one who had spoken with me immediately began to search the trailer and the truck. I looked back down the road, and I could see a black Ford Explorer sitting there between the fields.
This entire time, Angelo had not said a word. He looked pretty grim. I was suddenly worried that it was him they were after. I was hoping he wasn’t carrying a stash as they emptied his backpack. When I suggested that this might take a while and we should walk over to the farm stand, the first Trooper stepped out of the trailer.
“What are you doing?”
“I was going to get some apples. Do you want one?”
“Don’t be a joker.”
“I’m not joking.”
“License and registration.”
I took out my wallet and gave him the license and as I was pulling the registration from the glove box when he held his hand out toward Angelo.
“I don’t drive.”
Before coming up with it, Angelo pulled out a tattered leather wallet stuffed with odd scraps of paper and fished around in the crevices, while the trooper shifted his feet with impatience. The other two troopers were pulling the boxes out of the truck bed and opening each one.
I started to walk over to the farm stand again.
“Where are you going?”
“You’re a little casual about all this, aren’t you?”
“I’ve been through it a few times now. Not on the trip, but at my bookshop. It takes getting used to, but it’s a lot easier than getting angry.”
“You sell books.”
“I sell books.”
“Where are you taking these?”
“West. I’m peddling.”
“You have a permit?”
“Most places in America don’t require a permit to sell books. Not yet. But I ask wherever I can.”
He studied Angelo’s ID. “This is three years old. Is this your current address?”
“No. I don’t have a current address. You might say I’m looking for a home.”
“What do you—did you do for a living.”
“I’m a teacher.”
The trooper went back to his car and started calling the information in. I walked over to the farm stand with Angelo.
An older woman—older than I—came out the door of the house and went in the back of the stand, wiping water off her hands onto a full apron. She was heavyset and sun-darkened and her graying hair was pinned back by brown plastic combs.
“What can I do for you fellows?”
“I thought I’d buy some apples.”
Suddenly, I see that she has perhaps a dozen different hand-lettered labels on strings over the tables.
“What is the best eating apple you have?”
“We have Macs.”
“Everybody has macs. Do you have something else?
“I have some Braeburns in. They’re more tart.”
“Can I have a bag of those? And a pint of honey. And I see you have fresh bread. Do you have cornbread?”
“I make a buttermilk cornbread. A dollar a square.” She waved at a covered pan. I looked. The squares were pre-cut and not small. My mouth started watering.
“I’ll have two of those. And a quart of milk.”
“The milk is in glass bottles and it’s not homogenized. You’ll have to leave a 50-cent deposit.”
Suddenly Angelo spoke up. “Make that two quarts. And two more cornbreads.”
When she had bagged all this and I had paid her, Angelo handed me a five.
His face had totally brightened. “A feast!”
The proprietor wiped her hands again on her apron and then looked out at the police cars.
“What are they after?”
“I have no idea.”
“If you’re carrying any pot, they’ll find it.”
“We have nothing but books.”
“Books?” She studied the sign on the door of the cab. “What kind of books?”
“Used books. Old books.”
“You have any Zane Grey?”
“I’m all out of Zane Grey. But I have half a dozen by Elmer Kelton.”
“My husband loves Zane Grey.”
“Kelton is even better.”
As we walked back over the road, she followed us and went into the open door on the trailer when I pointed at the Kelton titles that were close inside there. The State Trooper who had called in our information was back again.
He says, “What did you guys do?” He actually looked back down the road to the black car as he said this.
“Nothing, that I’m aware of.”
He handed my license and registration back and then looked suspiciously at Angelo.
Then he says, “You don’t look like a college professor.”
Angelo hunched his shoulders, “Well, I’m not now.”
I handed the trooper three apples and said, “She says these are the best.”
He actually smiled before he took them. The woman bought The Day the Cowboys Quit for her husband.
And then we repacked the truck.
I had intended to get into Pennsylvania before stopping but there was a public beach and park with the gate open when we were still in New York, and I pulled into the enormous empty parking lot there and Angelo and I sat at a picnic table and ate our feast. A fine sun-warmed breeze was blowing at our backs and on out over Lake Erie. The sky was hazy now with moisture. Beyond a couple of signs on a post in the sand that said: ‘No Dogs’ and ‘No Lifeguard on Duty,’ a man was walking his dog at the water’s edge.
He had hardly spoken since we had started up again after the farm stand, but suddenly Angelo says, “My luck, I get a ride with a terrorist.”
“What made you say that?”
“It was in one of those stories your girlfriend wrote.”
“She wasn’t my girlfriend then.”
“She sounded like it. She was on your side all the way.”
“That’s what got her fired.”
“So why isn’t she with you now.”
“She was. I dropped her off at the bus station less than an hour before I picked you up.”
He nodded at that a moment as he ate.
“Bad luck. Sorry about that.”
He studied the haze as if he could see something more than a few gulls that had taken an interest in us before asking, “What did you do?”
“I advocated rebellion against this police-state we’ve been so busily growing.”
“No. I know about that. I mean, what did you do to piss off your girlfriend.”
Where should I begin? Her own words came back to me.
“I guess it comes down to the fact that I can’t help being the fellow I am.”
Angelo rocked on the bench as he had before in the truck seat.
“That’s serious. That’s really serious. That’s probably what attracted her to you in the first place. Now she can’t take it anymore.”
“My wife—my ex-wife—left me for just about the same reason. I was the same exact guy when she divorced me that she married. She thought I would change.”
“It’s a puzzle. If they liked you enough to love you, why would they want you to change.”
“Exactly. It should be a razor.”
“Like Occam’s: The simplest explanation is usually the best.”
I had been considering something like that while I was trying to keep my head during the closing of my shop. Why had they gone after me? Me, of all people. I don’t even own a gun—not anymore.
“When I get depressed, like it was during the mess with the Feds, I’m more prone to think of Heinlein’s razor, “You have attributed conditions to villainy that simply result from stupidity.”
“That’s good. But your girlfriend isn’t a villain. She probably just doesn’t really understand you.”
“I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe she knows me too well. I know I love her. I can tell that, but I can’t tell her what the hell it’s all about . . . I think maybe Goethe had a razor for it: misunderstandings produce more wrong in the world than deceit and malice. That’s a razor, isn’t it. I can understand that much.”
Angelo says, “Maybe it all boils down to old Murphy. Anything that can go wrong, will, and at the worst possible moment.”
So, I had to come back with, “Or Mr. Voltaire, who supposedly said: at all times, the bad abounds, and the good is rare.”
Immediately, he says, “A razor is good for shortcuts, but too often will lead to lazy thinking and a trespass onto softer ground. They can be dangerous and should be handled carefully. And no matter how appealing, they should never be given to children.”
He was having his fun. I asked, “Who said that?”
He shrugs. “I did.”
“It’s a little wordy for a good razor. Not sharp enough. Given the subject matter, I’d say something like, “Most women have contempt for men they can manipulate but become bored with men who won’t change.”
“That sounds more like Confucius.”
“Well, he was razor-sharp, wasn’t he?”
The black Ford was parked on the road at the entrance when he left. Two healthy young fellows were leaning up against the fence there as if to keep it from falling over. They did not bother to follow us further.
7. The tethering,
The end of the beginning of
Pennsylvania is a lot of hills. Piles and piles of hills, feathered by gray and leafless woods parted by farms gone dormant with the prospect of winter coming; heavy woods where farms once flourished; tall and ancient trees alone where houses once stood; pastures bracketed from the road in monotonous regularity by telephone poles heavily burdened beneath the strapping of electric lines, and telephones lines, and cable TV lines, and fiber optic lines—the chains of our modern imprisonment.
Oh, you say, the wonderment of technology gives us access to the world beyond our small lives. No, I retort, it obscures the wonderment beneath our noses.
I say something of the sort and Angelo grunts in agreement so there is no argument to be had. I must argue this with myself.
Old Highway 8, the plain asphalt cracked and tarred and shiny beneath a weak sun, trails off to a distant farm with the way marked only by homemade placards for pumpkins and Indian corn and honey, then rejoins with the newer version that is all properly traffic-lined and guard-railed and caution-signed, with all the worried makeup of modern civilization, and after I am beyond that diverge I wish I had stopped and turned back down that road not taken. I imagine that there are stars to be seen at night, away from the spoiling light of cars, and a field where we might have stopped. after buying a homemade pie and getting good directions.
The newer road cuts and levels its way through the land, while the old road follows the humps and vales to the ancient farms that hide there, tucked away from the noise of the big trucks and traffic. Again and again in passing, I see unused farm equipment parked close to the road and it finally occurs to me, a city boy, that it might serve to tell the neighbors what might be available to rent. I am happy for these presentations of farm life. Glad to be out of the troughs of trees that make short distances so much longer with little punctuation of human habitation. Those woods can go on a long way, just one twisty trough of trees after another.
I see a Smiley Hill Road. Why Smiley Hill, I wonder? What history? Perhaps, just because there is humor in it.
One of several reasons I have been trying to stay off the big highways is so that I won’t have to strain my old truck by going 65. The breaks on the truck are okay, but I know that stopping extra weight can be a trick. I figured 50 is my cruising speed. But on the smaller roads, some hills are bigger than others and the grading is not so fine. Not that we couldn’t see the forest for the trees, but it’s nicer to see a few more farms with a vernacular house built to suit the taste of someone of long ago, or a faded barn sign for Mail Pouch chewing tobacco billboarded over peeling red paint, or a village or two with an odd name to comment on like ‘Tidioute,’ which I wanted to see but was out of our way, or an old ‘Rexall Drugs’ sign with antiques spilling out the double doors, or an Esso sign high above an empty lot overgrown with ragweed and abandoned cars that you can’t quite make out the model of through the rust.
I didn’t want to go through Erie, so I headed south down Route 89 toward Wattsburg. Then I figured we’d turn onto Route 8 toward Union City. The appeal to me there was that I’d never driven either road. But, then there was Route 77, which seemed too damned straight for a Pennsylvania Road, at least on the map, so I stayed on Route 8. This flanking would at least keep us out of Pittsburg at the bottom of things, and Youngstown to the west, but all of it was so that we could eventually meet up with the old road that follows the Ohio River, something I’d always wanted to do. River roads are just more interesting than second or fifth growth woods, and they are usually fairly level.
But before that, I wanted to see a little something more of things around the area we were in, so we found a good campground at the State Park just south of Titusville that was set into a neat woods. I got a flame going in the fire pit as soon as I had cleaned up, and thew some charcoal in with that for grilling hotdogs and then sat in the trailer with the door open so I could watch it while I wrote up the day’s events. Angelo set up his little red tent on a thick mat of pine needles close by and immediately took a nap.
Earlier, I had asked him to call ahead to make sure the campground was open.
He said, “How would I do that?”
“Don’t you have a phone?”
I had only recently been imagining out loud to Deirdre that one day, not so very long from now, such concerns will seem archaic. We will all—each of us—be attached to a computer ‘guide’ via some small chip implanted in our heads at birth.
Angelo hunches his shoulders, “Don’t need one. No one to call. No one to call me.”
“What if you got hurt?”
“It would hurt. But why would I want to call someone and tell them about it?”
“Maybe you’d want to get some help?”
He remained still, closing his eyes against the sun on the windshield. “Could happen, I guess, but there aren’t many places I go where I couldn’t get help without a phone and I usually don’t go to places like that, anyway. There’s no good coffee in places like that.”
“You have a point.”
He adds, “I just call all of that ‘tethering.’ The whole system is geared to keep you tethered, now. My idea is to break the tether . . . That’s what you’re trying to do too, isn’t it? It’s the only way, to feel a little freedom in life.”
I had had the same exact thought myself.
“But I’m thinking lately that it may already be too hard for most people. They want to be tied. Secured. Connected. They may say they want their liberties, but when push comes to shove, they want security more.”
He is falling asleep while sitting up, head back on his jacket, but manages to say, “I’m with you there,” without rustling his beard.
I’m noticing Angelo naps a lot. I suspect it’s because he doesn’t sleep well in his tent.
Given the time of year, it was not a very busy campground, but after a short while someone else pulled into the space next to ours. They had a shiny new Airstream, with the aluminum still too bright to the eyes even in the waning light, and a new-looking white Ford pickup. That put a damper on my creative thinking.
It wasn’t long before the fellow in the Airstream came around to talk. He was tall, with an athletic build and short-cropped hair, wearing a brand-new looking Penn State sweatshirt, jeans with a folding crease, and white sneakers, as if he had just walked out of a shopping mall dressing room somewhere. He’s also wearing a clean Phillies baseball cap that might have just had the tag removed. Being so close to Pittsburgh, I figure he forgot what part of the State he was in.
He says, “Looks like you have a lot of books in there.”
At this point, still less than a week into the journey, I’ve heard this exact phrase more than a dozen times. I had yet to think of something witty to say in response, so I just said, “Yes, sir.”
“Is this a traveling library?”
I had already heard that five or six times as well.
“No. I’m a book peddler.”
“You sell them? Can I look?”
Now, of course, all the alarms are going off.
I say, “No. Not just here. I can’t be selling here in the campground, but we’ll be somewhere down the road in Titusville tomorrow. Maybe you can catch us there.”
He leaned in the door to look. I can see he has a heavy beard that he shaves pretty close.
“Can you make any money selling books?”
At least eight or nine people had asked me that.
I say, “No. Not really. It’s a hobby.”
Now, at this moment I was thinking he was an FBI agent, but he could just as well be with the IRS. They can be tougher.
He says, “Where are you from?”
I said, “Boston. How about you?”
“Is that where you’d rather be, right now?”
Blank-faced, he asks “What do you mean?”
I say, “Nothing … Are you on vacation?”
He nods, “Yep.”
“Where are you headed?”
“Just out to see a little of the country … You alone?”
I say, “No. What kinds of things are you hoping to see.”
He suddenly seemed uncomfortable and leaned back out of the door to look both ways up the side of the trailer and at the truck before he spots Angelo’s tent in the gloom.
He says, “Whatever we come to, I guess.”
I say, “Have you seen Niagara Falls yet?”
“It’s big. Worth the trip.”
He now clearly has something else on his mind.
“Yeah. I’ve heard … Talk to you later.”
I cooked the entire package of hotdogs because I had the idea that Angelo might want a little something to eat after his nap, and I had nothing better to do now that I had been disturbed with other concerns. Angelo was awake shortly after dark when I’d built the fire up again with the wood I’d picked up at the campground store. A cold damp fog had drifted in and the fire was just what we needed. I pulled the camp chairs out of the back of the truck, and we settled close in. But he only wanted one of the hot dogs. It must be true, as he had mentioned before, pasta was his nemesis.
Angelo says, “What did the FBI fella have to say?”
I think he said this just loud enough so they might hear and decide to go away. I’m beginning to appreciate his sense of humor.
With the fog, our voices had the sound of being contained in a darkened room. As of yet, I had not seen the other person who was in the Airstream with our athletic neighbor. They had not built a fire of their own and the shades were drawn so there was nothing to see through the windows.
Suddenly a women’s voice came into the ‘room’ as if she were right next to us.
“Excuse me. Do you have some extra matches?”
She looked to be dressed in her own clothes—a comfortable flannel shirt and jeans that were not creased.
I said, “Sure,” and gave her my spare box of wooden matches, then said, “I have four or five hotdogs here that need eating. You and your friend are welcomed.”
This seemed to catch her off-guard, so I added. “If you have a couple of camp chairs you can bring’em over and sit with us. It’s a chill night. I have some buns in the package there and mustard to go with it. The relish is something local that isn’t as good as it looks.”
She finally says, “Thank you. I’ll ask George.”
Two minutes later they are both back with chairs and a six-pack of Budweiser. She was carrying the chairs.
Now, I cannot explain the look on Angelo’s face in those two minutes. He was as shocked at first as if a gun had been fired. But by the time our neighbors were back, he had a smile on his face that was cat-like. I think he had been quick to pick up on another old razor, unspoken: ‘Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.’
They introduced themselves as Fran and George. I can’t stand Budweiser, but I told them it was welcome because I was out of beer. We hadn’t passed any stores on the way to the camp.
George tells us, “It’s a pain to buy alcohol around here. Not like New York.”
Fran rather deliberately took the pack from George and broke out cans for the four of us. I immediately got a sense that there was some contest going on between them and I wondered if Fran outranked George, but George was not listening. He seemed to be that type. Over the years in the shop, I’d hired one too many people to help who were smarter than me. They might have been, but they didn’t know a whole lot about books or bookselling.
George says, “So, I seem to remember there was a bookstore in Boston that had the same name as what’s on the doors of your truck.”
“Yeah. That was mine.”
“Not there anymore?”
“No. They closed us down.”
“Landlord raise the rent?”
“Not exactly. It was really the FBI that did it.”
George turned to Fran. From her smile, she appeared to be finally getting the idea.
She says, “What did the FBI do?”
I say, “It was in all the papers. They thought that I had some kind of revolutionary group working out of my shop. Bookselling might have been revolutionary three hundred years ago, but it’s pretty old hat now.”
“What kinds of books were you selling?”
“The same as I have in the trailer, just a lot more of them.”
“Seems odd they should target you?”
“Maybe not. You know, ideas are dangerous. If the right idea catches on, it can be revolutionary.”
She gives this a moment’s reflection before saying. “What exactly was your idea?”
That required a laugh.
“I’m afraid I’m full of ideas. No telling. But the one that seemed to bother them most was the idea that people ought to speak freely and read what they want.”
Fran says, “Sounds innocent enough.”
I say, “No. Not to a fascist. Authoritarians are always afraid of free-thinking.”
This brought a brief silence until George finally says, “There must have been something else.”
I said, “No. Not a thing. That was it, as far as I know.”
In the course of this conversation, they both consumed two of the hot dogs and buns. When only one was left on the paper plate, Angelo gave in and ate it.
Angelo says, “There’s a lot of that kind of thinking going around these days. They always say what they’re doing is necessary for some reason or another, usually the public welfare. But it’s all the same. Basic fascism, 101.”
George says, “Do you work for Michael?”
“No. I’m happily unemployed. I used to teach. Now I’m doing some wandering. Good for the soul. Michael just picked me up on the road yesterday like a wet dog.”
Fran says, “Where did you teach?”
“Really. What did you teach?”
“Actual history, but they wanted me to teach politics.”
She immediately came back with, “It sounds very fortuitous that you two met.”
Angelo laughs. It’s a low sort of ‘ho, ho, ho,’ laugh that I’ve already heard several times before. “I think so. As long as Michael can put up with me, I’m along for the ride.”
“I meant that you seem to have a similar cast of mind.”
“Right. I think you’re right. But not the same. That’s what makes it interesting.”
I took that as an opportunity, and asked her, “What do you do for a living?”
She pauses to sip her beer and answers, “You might say I am a data processor.”
I say, “I thought machines did that sort of thing these days.”
“They do, mostly, but they can only process what’s already known. I’m paid to process the data in order to figure out what’s not yet known.”
This seemed like a very interesting way to re-describe some sort of investigator.
I said, “Who do you work for?”
“Rand Corporation, out of New York, not California.”
I turned to look at George. He seemed puzzled. I was guessing that Fran had gone off-script. How would he pick up the line, I wonder?
I asked, “What do you do, George?”
To his credit, he made a good choice.
“I’m a cop. New York City Police Department.”
Somehow, I knew this was true as soon as he said it. He didn’t strike me as an inventive sort. And I had a guess about the unit he worked for.
“What do you do, exactly?”
He sat back.
“Well, that’s very interesting. When you mentioned that your bookshop was closed down, and why, I was trying to remember if I had heard anything about that. We get all kinds of reports. I’m assigned to what they call an ‘anti-terrorist’ unit.
Without hesitation, I say, “Now, that’s gotta be interesting work. I can’t imagine working for the Rand Corporation can be quite as interesting as that.”
Fran actually laughed. “You’d be surprised. But you have to know a little about what you’re looking for, otherwise, it becomes a waste of time.”
George says, “Where are you headed after this?”
“West in general, but no place in particular.”
“Are you going to open another bookstore if you find the right place?”
“Likely not. As I keep saying, it’s a different world now. The days of the little bookshop around the corner are gone. It’s easier for the authorities to control the internet so that’s the way things are going.”
I thought that might be a good breaking point and said I was pretty exhausted from the day and I needed some sleep. They thanked us for the hospitality and folded their chairs. Angelo wanted to read so I left the fire burning and turned in.
In the morning, the Airstream was gone. Angelo said they had pulled up stakes before dawn.
I didn’t think the tether was broken, exactly, but maybe it had gotten a little longer for the moment.
8. Metaphors and Semaphores
Writing letters—that is, writing letters with a pen on paper and sending them through the mail—is an interesting thing to be doing in these times. I was prompted to do this now by the thought that the FBI would be reading my e-mails and talking amongst themselves about how boring they were. I certainly wouldn’t be saying anything really important in an e-mail in any case. But with Deirdre gone, I was immediately taken with the possibilities of expressing myself to her in some way that I had not managed to accomplish with her sitting beside me. The fact is, I find it a lot easier to talk about some odd thing or another that has occurred to me than anything that might be considered personal.
I used to write Margaret letters. Everyday. That was when she was right next to me in bed. It seemed natural and she thought they were charming, and I think it helped her understand my madness those first years. But that seemed to wear off. When I finally noticed that she hadn’t opened several, I stopped writing them and that was more than thirty years ago. Now the impulse to write has suddenly returned—though the first letter was perhaps a bit long.
I wondered if, by writing letters to her I might dissipate my desire to write otherwise, or work on my stories, but it’s proving the opposite. I start writing to Deirdre and a thought develops, and pretty quick I am on to something.
In his introduction to Social Change and History, Robert A. Nisbet begins with the thought-provoking statement, “No one has ever seen a civilization die, and it is unimaginable, short of cosmic disaster or thermonuclear holocaust, that anyone ever will.” Now, you know you are reading one of the great—perhaps the greatest—sociologist, and a learned historian so you cannot take this as lightly as you might a quip by Howard Zinn or Jered Diamond. You must confront exactly what he is saying, and because you know he is trying to provoke, as any good teacher might, what he is saying must be true.
I have many times posited what I believe to be a fact, that the Republic is dead. And in this line, I had just been thinking, with a little inspiration from Mr. Nisbet, that perhaps it was necessary for the Republic to die in order for it to live again. I wrote this to Deidre. I immediately heard her voice arguing in return, ‘Well then, unless you think you are Jesus Christ, you had better leave the cadaver where it is and go look for something else to be nuts about, otherwise, it’s called necrophilia’ And she may be correct in that. But America is not Lazarus, and a nation might have a second life. Greece certainly did just about that in Byzantium.
In this fantastic essay on metaphor, Nesbit goes a long way to making the possibility probable. It may be a little uncomfortable for those of us on the cusp of this particular moment to accept the death of our culture, but we might, as much as we are able, make the most of it. After all, we are here to see it! The death of one civilization and the birth of another.
Perhaps it’s all organic after all, alike the vegetables at that woman’s farmstand. Maybe it’s all about birth and growth and decay and death.
I said as much aloud to Angelo this morning.
He said, “That sounds like some weird sort of schadenfreude. You’ve been hit by a bus and you’re taking pleasure in your last moments, considering that you’ve never done it before, to rejoice in the subtleties of dying.”
“But we have no other words for it! There’s no other terminology for the end of history. Look at that tripe from Francis Fukuyama. He regurgitates Marx as if he just read him yesterday in an effort to avoid the better metaphors that might make sense of his own confusion. He wants his Marx and his Darwin too. Darwin wasn’t a Marxist! Marx sees history as a linear progression toward a worker’s paradise. Darwin would only envisage an evolutionary change to meet the demands of survival. Darwin would see a new life evolved from the old in whatever way worked best.”
Angelo isn’t interested.
“I don’t think any of it is in our control. It’s all we can do to save ourselves.”
I don’t have a strong argument against that attitude. It is basically libertarian, so it is sensical to me. But it is pretty selfish in the worse way. Short term.
“If you had children, you might look at it a little differently. You want something better for them than chaos, mayhem and holocaust.”
And that put a damper on the conversation all the way to Union City.
I sold a dozen books or so at a curbside in front of a Woolworths that had long since closed. The space itself had been re-occupied for some time by a Walgreen’s Drug store, but the old Woolworth’s marker was embedded in the cement of the sidewalk and if you look at the peeling paint above the window you could just make out the ghost of the old ‘W’ on the brick beyond where the metal Walgreen’s sign begins. Knowing the importance of Woolworths to my youth, this re-inspired my darker thoughts about the passage of time.
How am I to understand the end of these things that are precious to me—perhaps only because I knew them in my youth, but that I think are even more important now because they are part of my philosophy. A Woolworth’s was just a ‘five and dime.’ But the consistency was comforting. The smell inside was the same in New York, or Boston, or Union City. You always knew you could find something you had to have. A cap, or gloves, or a ball of string and a kite, or candy, or a goldfish. It was your choice.
A fellow showed up with the usual question, “Do you buy books,” and I gave him the usual answer, which he ignored completely, and he returned a couple of hours later with a dozen boxes of the typical dross of mid-twentieth century reading, battered and soiled, and about twenty books that, given their nice condition must have once belonged to a maiden aunt. These were the original publisher’s editions of Angela Thirkell and Nevil Shute novels in their dust jackets that I was happy to see and probably over-paid for just for that fact. Then I opened a couple more boxes of books from the back of my truck and priced them and put them out before another thought occurred. If I shifted the boxes in the truck bed just so, I could make even more space there.
When Angelo returned from his wanderings about town, I suggested to him that when we got back to the campsite, that if he wanted to, he could sleep in the back of the truck with the books.
Angelo says, “I was hoping you’d ask.”
“Why didn’t you say something.”
“I wasn’t sure yet that you were happy with taking me along.”
“I didn’t think I had to say it.”
Which is what makes letters somehow better. You can say things you are just not inclined to say otherwise.
She meant well, of course. She was only doing what she wanted to do and that was good enough for me, in most cases, but she had really done it, this time.
A middle-aged woman of considerable size came up to me in Titusville and asked, “Are you the ‘Travelling Bookman’ I read about in the paper this morning?”
I was actually standing next to my sign on the sidewalk at the time, with the back of the trailer open, about half a block from a small restaurant where I had just picked up a cup of the ‘Best Coffee in Oil Country.’ When I had ordered the coffee the women at the counter had given me an odd look and I had noticed everyone else at the tables, mostly a middle-aged lot as well, staring in my direction, but I assumed it was because I was the stranger in their midst.
I said, “I guess, I am. But how did you guess?”
She had a copy of the Titusville Tribune in her hand, with the story just below the fold.
‘Travelling Bookman searches for lost world of books.’
This was not a headline that Deirdre would have written, but at least it was drawn from the gist of her story, including the extra ‘l’ in travelling, which I am sure she used because I was prone to as well. I stood there and read it before handing it back, perhaps slightly in shock.
The woman had a small felt tip marker in her hand. “Will you sign it for me?”
She seemed so earnest in her request that I did it without further thought, and then she turned and, as much as a person of her size might, she practically ran back to the restaurant. What actually surprised me most was that she did not ask to look inside the trailer.
Angelo showed up a few minutes later with a copy of the same paper.
He says, “Your lady friend is back at it.” and reads the lede out loud right there on the street, “ ‘You wouldn’t look twice at the old camper-trailer. It looks like something you might see from the corner of your eye in passing, nestled in a back yard with weeds thick around the cinder blocks supporting a rusting metal hitch. The pale blue and white paint is peeling from the aluminum shell and catches the sunlight in places when it moves, drawing the eye. But inside is another world.’ ”
This was pure Deirdre.
Soon after that, I had half-a-dozen people waiting at the back for the three or four already inside to finish browsing, and it stayed that way through lunchtime, before I could close up and escape.
It appeared that the Boston Post had run another of Deirdre’s pieces as a follow-up to the larger epic of our lost battle of the past months to keep the old shop open, and it had been noticed by a wire service and then reprinted from there in the local paper.
I called Deirdre that night. She did not apologize.
“Serves you right,” was what she said, in the tones of a scold. “I called them on last week about the idea. It practically wrote itself in the plane. It was a bumpy ride so at least it kept my mind busy.”
I had to tell her, “You wouldn’t believe it. They still read papers out here. They’re slim and full of supermarket ads but when I went into the coffee shop, half the people there had a newspaper in their hands. It looked like a scene from the 1970s.”
She couldn’t take this lying down, as she was in bed at that moment and about to turn out the light.
“They probably have poor television reception in that area or else the store coupons were really good.”
“Yeah, well, I figured I better call you now before they put me in the clinker again.”
“Why? What did you do?”
“Nothing. But the judge might read the papers too.”
She gasped; not a common trait for her.
“No! Didn’t you talk to Marty yet?”
“I called him as soon as I got back. I wanted to make sure there was nothing else I should add to the story. There are no warrants for you. Nothing! The judge never put through a court order. The raid on your shop, and all the questioning, and the night in jail when you were getting ready to leave, all that was just intimidation. All of it was ‘Pursuant to an ongoing investigation.’ You were detained as a ‘potential flight risk.’ But now, apparently, ‘you are free to move about the country.’ I think—He thinks, they want you to lead them to whoever was using your shop as a ‘front.’ That’s what they called it: ‘A front,’ for potential terrorist activities. He thinks they’ll be keeping an eye on you.”
This took a moment to digest.
“They stopped us in New York. The police did. They searched the trailer.”
“Who is ‘us’?”
“Angelo. He’s a former BU professor I found hitchhiking in a rainstorm, just after I left you off. He is a nut. We get along pretty good.”
“Well, I’m glad you’re not alone. Why did the police say they were searching you?”
“They called it a ‘traffic stop.’ There was no warrant. But, there was one of those cars we saw before, sitting down the road, and then we saw them again when we stopped to eat.”
“That’s all hand washing. The FBI does favors for the locals and the locals do favors for the FBI. That way they don’t have to run around as much. But make sure the Professor isn’t packing any illegal substances. They’ll bust you for anything they can.”
An elderly gentleman in Mercer wanted to tell us all about his experiences as a peddler after the ‘war,’ while I sat on my stool on the sidewalk, trying to stay warm in the sun because it had turned colder and with the door on the trailer open, the wind was keeping that rather cool. Because he looked ancient, I wrongly assumed this had been the Second World War that he was talking about, before he informed us that he was a Vietnam Vet. He was probably not much older than me.
‘Back in the day,’ he said, he had driven much of the Mid-west in a converted school bus with his girlfriend—whom he avowed several times was the ‘love of his life’—and selling goods he had bought in one place and sold in another. He said the Amish farms were great resources for this. Because I thought the story was incomplete after an hour or so, I had to ask, what happened to his girlfriend. “Oh,” he says, “She’s fine. She kicked me out this afternoon so she could have some of her friends over. She hates it when I start talking to her friends.”
I sold just one book there and that was to a young man who was going to college in Grove City and happened to notice us. He bought my only Karl Popper. He said it was to irritate his philosophy teacher.
Our next camp after the stop in Mercer was a near miss. The campground was closing for the season, and we had made it on their last day. Or maybe it was the day after. In any case, the proprietors, a thin fellow likely in his sixties and his younger and healthier wife, had just read about us and seemed overjoyed at our arrival. Perhaps that was because we were the only ones there and they needed company. They spent a couple of hours talking to us while we grilled some ‘Yoder’ sausage and a couple of other items we picked up at an Amish farm earlier, having taken the elderly gentleman’s direction.
But there seemed to be a theme in the area: the buxom and younger wife of the farmer, a rather sinewy and sunburned man, had tried to get me to buy all of her well-read romances because her husband had forbidden her to buy another until she had gotten rid of the ones she had. I had politely refused. But the sausage was fantastic, and the couple at the campground were full of advice on the best roads to take to avoid the cities. The husband bought all the Nevil Shute titles I had just acquired, and the wife bought a combined volume by the Bronte sisters. Our gas for the day had been covered and the food as well.
[Stay tuned next week for another heady episode]