Sunday, November 29, 2009


[This is the first Summer of '69 story.]

I should tell you about Terri.

At the end of high school, I decided I should probably get a summer job. Probably. That was the situation I was in. You'd think my parents would have told me to get a job to help cover my imminent college costs, but they didn't. I don't know why.

There was a certain degree of difficulty to it. We lived in a small town in Rockland County, and I had not learned to drive. My mom was home, but with my four younger siblings to deal with, I felt like she had enough to keep her busy. My first choice was to check the shops in town that I could walk to, for HELP WANTED signs or some other clue. I might even have to speak and bring up the subject with somebody, if worst came to worst, but maybe that would not be necessary.

My favorite shop in town was a used bookstore called Schoolmaster Books. It filled most of a nineteenth-century wood-frame house that was once, so they said, a schoolmaster's house.

From the porch you came into a large front room the width of the building, and there was a back room, and more rooms upstairs. It was hard to see the interior detail with all the bookshelves and store cases, but I know the front room had a chair rail with a wooden wainscot below it, and the back room had a great ceiling made of thin wooden boards in a beautiful dark wood color.

It wasn't totally books. They had some small old toys and games too, but while they attracted my attention they were not what I came for.

Most of the books they had didn't cost much, but just the same I didn't have much to spend, so I had to consider carefully and wait till I saw something really good. I picked up a handful of books that I still have.

Look at this. The Rand, McNally Standard Atlas of the World., 1890 edition. Not everyone has one of these. It must have been my most expensive purchase, at a staggering (to me) price of $17 according to the pencilled notation on the flyleaf. The pages are about twice as large as my scanner, so I went outside and took a photograph of it so you can see it.

I could go on, but this is not what I wanted to tell you about.

Another reason I liked going Schoolmaster Books was the high school girl who worked there. I guessed that she was my age. I didn't dare actually talk to her and ask. Remember, all boys school. It may have helped me concentrate my way into good grades and Columbia College, but it did not help me concentrate when confronted with one of them.

I have set the scene. Now picture my younger self as I went in, just kind of casually looking toward the sales counter, Joe Cool, you know, maybe the girl is there, maybe not. The other possibility was that the owner, a nice grey haired woman, was at the counter.

But that just meant the girl was lurking inside the shop to startle me at any turn. She might be dusting or moving things around or whatever they needed done. I don't mean she was actually lurking for that purpose. But she might as well have been. Wow what excitement this was. I mean it. It really was. It didn't take much.

Then, when I did see her, I'd just kind of glance toward her, maybe looking at her shoes or something, and then ignore her. You might think I should have smiled at her and said hello. But if I did that, it might be rude or make her uncomfortable. Better to just barely acknowledge her presence and let her go about her business unmolested. That would be kinder. I wanted to be a fine person to be with.

This was my way of thinking at the time.

One Saturday around May, I was in there and found an old Red Book Street Guide to New York (with map) or something like that, for a couple of dollars. As I was paying the owner, she told me she was looking for someone to work there that summer. Just like that. All she knew about me was that I liked picking through books and bought one once in a while.

I took my life in my hands and spoke to her. I mean, after all, I was a kid. What did I say to shopkeepers besides "I'll take this" and then "thanks" for the change, if I even said that? If I said that much, it was an improvement over silently putting a thing on the counter and offering money and silently taking it and the change away. Was I a weird kid? Some days I think I was, and then I see kids acting the same way now when I'm in shops, and they don't seem weird. They're just kids.

So. I spoke to the owner. I told her that in fact I worked in a bookstore at school and that I had been wondering about what I would do for the summer.

I thought to myself that I would now be in a position to bring her one of those "references" or "recommendations" that I had heard about. My hard work at school would now pay off, because I would be able to get someone to write that I did a good job.

However the owner, who told me her name was Sue, and I could call her Sue, did not ask for a reference. She was willing to take me on just like that, on my word that I would show up starting in June. She called "Terri" to get the girl to come down and watch the counter. That was her name! Now I knew a secret about her!

I went back to the little office room with Sue and filled in my name and address and phone number and social security number and maybe something else. Sue checked when I would be out of school and able to work weekdays, and she asked whether I could do some weekends just before school ended. Apparently the shop was busier in the summer and especially on weekends. I had not noticed.

Obviously, on my way out, I could have said something to Terri. If I had said, "hey, I'm going to work here this summer", it would not have been out of line, would it? That would have been all right.

I didn't though. But I was bold enough to look at her face and nod my head toward her. She almost smiled. Then I was out the door.

As I walked home I realized I would need to deal with Terri in some way. Or would I? An awful thought came. Maybe Terri was taking another job! Maybe I was her replacement!

That still wouldn't be so bad. I liked books, and I liked the store, and Sue seemed nice, so I was going to be in pretty good shape anyway. That's what I told myself. But I was full of uncertainty.

This could have been straightened out very quickly if I had risked saying something to Terri as I left. I thought about how it could have played out.

What a bitter disappointment it would have been if she had said, "oh, good, I was worried what Sue would do without me", and I would have had to act calm. Imagine if I said, "oh you're leaving? too bad". Where would I go from there?

On the other hand, what if she had said, "oh, good, I'd like to work with you" or something. That would almost be worse! What would I say? "Great, I'm looking forward to it"? What do you mean, that would have been OK?

Once in a while I hear someone remark that it would be great to be a teenager again. NO. No it wouldn't. In the name of all that is holy, no. I never want that to happen. I'm glad it is impossible. If you're a mad scientist, invent something else.

By the time I got home I realized what an impossible situation I had got myself into. Sue must have told Terri that I was going to work there. That meant Terri would know the next time she saw me, and I figured she would say something. Girls are good at talking. I knew that. She'd say something about it. I had only put things off by slipping out the way I did.

I didn't go there the next Saturday. I never went every week. It's true, the books were all one of a kind, and you never knew what would turn up, but the inventory didn't refresh a lot in one week. So I had an excuse for not going back immediately. I could put off the reckoning.

Here is something I didn't know until later. Terri was expecting me the next Saturday. She thought I would come by even though it was only one week later. She even brought lunch and ate it outside on the porch, instead of going down the street for something like she usually did, just so she would be there. I never guessed it. I don't mean I thought of it and dismissed it as ridiculous. I mean the idea that this would happen never even occurred to me.

I never found out whether the two of them had spoken ahead of time about offering the job to me.

Of course I could not stay away forever. I needed to see what new old stuff might have come in. And I had to schedule those weekend hours in June with Sue. That was why I had to go back there eventually.

[The next Summer of '69 story is Mandala.]

Next time: Mandala.

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