“Either this man is dead or my watch has stopped.” ~Groucho Marx
Time’s a helluva thing. I labor to mitigate its impact during my daily runs by utilizing the artful restructuring of measurement. An 8-miler is really just a 1-miler repeated 8 times, thus I reassure myself upon the completion of a relatively facile mile that this need only happen 7 more times and then my modest suffering is all over. Apply this manipulative technique to, say, a healthy individual’s lifespan, and a 10-year chunk of 80-years can get one pretty damn near the finish line, even if one is not so inclined to race in that direction. But then, regarding time, forward is still the only way one can move. In that sense we may sometimes act & think like runners in a race, searching for a way to master time & distance, but ultimately the universe treats us like warm-blooded sushi on a conveyor belt who are unaccountably shocked & chagrined when we discover that it’s our turn to be devoured.
Today READ Books turns 10-years-old, yet I’m not so damn sure that a celebration is in order. Certainly one attains pleasure in enduring; but when one endures over a span of a decade, many participants expire.
David P, one of our original repeat customers, was an erudite gentleman & raconteur. I couldn’t talk to him much about books, because he read highfalutin fellas such as Wittgenstein & Russell whom I like to think are way above my head. In that sense I was like a pusher, procuring for the man materials that I pledged to never sample myself lest they hurt my head and/or expand my consciousness. Our common ground was people whose acquaintanceship we shared, most often people who taught school in Eagle Rock where David’s youngest son preceded my oldest by a decade. He enjoyed telling stories—and I enjoyed listening to stories—about a particular ERHS math teacher who, when they met at quadrennial parent conferences, would stare dumbfounded across his desk at David and lament: “Do you know, sir, that there are students who do not appreciate the pertinence of calculus in the world?”
Being a Wittgenstein aficionado, David indubitably appreciated the bemused sorrow of the adherent to abstruse knowledge. Anyhow, Mr. P’s weekly visits to READ Books were eventually replaced by a half-year’s absence; when one of our mutual acquaintances came by the store, I asked her if she’d seen him recently. Cancer, undetected in its early stages, travels fast in its latter stages. David P was, so far as we are aware, READ Books first mortality. We’ve missed him.
David had lived near the Eagle Rock Community Garden, whose manager, Mike W, was also a habitué of READ Books. The self-proclaimed “Irritable Gardener”, Mike’s literary pleasure was Dumas and, in addition to grouchy gardening, he enjoyed the analogously solitary activity of writing. Sidelining as the editor of the TERA Newsletter, Mike wrote a pleasingly articulate & accurate article about our bookstore. The especially vigorous sexagenarian often walked the two-mile distance from home to us. Also an avid basketball player, Mike described himself as the world’s only 5’8” power forward. Subsequent to his prolonged absence from READ Books, we once again found out from mutual acquaintances that one of our favorite customers had been stricken with cancer. Mike passed away in 2016, no doubt wondering (amongst other things) what the hell was about to happen with this Trump clown.
Sean didn’t read much, but he sorta wrote. He lived with his lady friend in a pick-up truck that, much to our neighbors’ chagrin, often found itself squatting in the parking lot behind our bookstore. The inhabitants of said truck ostensibly felt entitled to sleep on our property because Sean, when he wasn’t locked up in the pokey on account of drug use or larceny, sometimes performed odd jobs for the tax accountant next door to READ Books (until she accused him and his lady friend of larcenying them, though that’s neither here nor there). Our landlord didn’t grasp their parking logic, and insisted that they park elsewhere.
After moving their vehicle to (one hopes) a more welcoming space, they continued to frequent our shop: Sean’s lady friend in an effort to sell us books that she usually yoinked from the free book pile at the library; Sean— probably conflating the disparate occupations of literary agent & bookstore proprietor— hoping to interest me in the recondite prison novel he was writing in a spiral notebook. There were spaceships and shanks and aliens and non-consensual sodomies and plenty of pen drawings in the margins illustrating these concepts & activities. There were no paragraphs or linear ideas or intelligible sentences. Mattered not. I am not a literary agent.
So one day Sean’s lady friend strolls into the store, dumps a pile of books on my desk, and casually states: “Did you hear Eli died?”
“No,” I admitted. “I sure didn’t. Who the hell’s Eli?”
Turns out Eli was Sean. Or Sean was Eli. He had a pseudonym and a brain tumor. Apparently his lack of access to chemotherapy allowed him to maintain his robust physique, but one night he passed away in his pick-up truck with a decent head of hair and not much else. His lady friend is still in the neighborhood, bringing us books that we don’t really need in exchange for a few bucks here and there.
Though admittedly ambivalent towards Sean/Eli, my wife & I were very fond of another addict we knew through the bookstore. As I recall, it was not on his first visit to the store that Teo invoked his relationship with Hemingway. It might have been his second. This dapper, pasty-skinned man with the aristocratic, faintly English accent told us how his parents had often hosted the great writer at their Spanish villa. Since we live in a damn bookstore, it took us all of two minutes after his departure to fact-check a Hemingway biography in which we found a photo of a man sharing Teo’s last name and then some. There he sat in black & white—the same aquiline nose & heavy brow as his son—drinking wine at a Spanish table in Malaga with a white-bearded Papa.
The books Teo sold us were never ordinary. He would park his dilapidated Mercedes in the red zone out front, saunter inside smelling like a 5’10” cigarette, and deferentially request that I carry his crates inside since he had a bum ticker weakened from decades of liquor, drug & nicotine abuse. His literary esoterica was often so obscure as to be worthless, though occasionally the kind of obscure harboring financial potential. Sometimes he traded his books for some rare, signed tome we were selling. Sometimes he took cash and showed up at the store a few weeks later looking as if he had been on a particularly hairy bender. On one occasion he borrowed several books from our display case without informing us, only to return them several months later with a rather convoluted story & a bruised conscious. He had impeccable manners, expensive taste, no job that I knew about, a variegated education, and a sentimental warmth & candidness that rendered his sins—such as borrowing things that were not his—venial.
It was not surprising when he showed up to the store some fifty pounds lighter than he had been a few months earlier, with a pace-maker to boot. It was a little surprising that he had gone cold turkey on the cigarettes. Even with consideration to his 4th quarter efforts to extend the grim reaper into overtime, Teo was our first customer/friend whose death we anticipated.
Last month I went searching for him on-line & found a website in memoriam. Through photographs I was able to trace his life in reverse: from the dapper, vitiated man of culture dining in an expensive Los Angeles restaurant; to the hip teenager posing in 1960’s Windsor as if he were Rod Argent, or a young Martin Amis; to the guileless child in Spain looking as if he’s about to be warmly embraced by a shirtless Ernest Hemingway. This child is unmistakably the same man I knew (bold & vulnerable, intelligent & lost), but only one-lap into what will be a race too brief. He will be modified, amended, augmented & diminished by busted relationships, drugs, food, money, death, and books. But before that he was a child and everything that entailed. Like everyone & everything else, he was once brand new.