Sunday, December 6, 2009


[The Summer of '69 stories start here.]

"How much are they paying you?"

My dad always comes up with the practical question. Right. How much are they paying me, for this summer job I have lined up at Schoolmaster Books? How would I know?

He always has the good question and I always don't have the good answer.

I worked more or less for free at the school bookstore. They were knocking some undisclosed amount off my tuition for it. That is, it was undisclosed to me by my dad, who was paying. So I earned something, but I wasn't paid as in getting a check or cash.

You want to know how much Schoolhouse Books paid me? Whatever the New York state minimum wage was at that time, that's how much. I don't know what that was, now.

I went back to the shop two weeks after I was hired. Sue was at the counter, so we discussed the first weekend I would be there, in June. She said she and Terri would show me how to do things. I casually mentioned the topic of how many hours it would be, and said that would be times, oh, I forget, what was the pay again? That was subtle, right?

Sue said Terri would show me how to do things! And where was she? No, I didn't ask Sue that. It was in my mind as soon as I came in, and stayed there, but I was going to see if it happened to come into the conversation. It didn't.

I found her upstairs. Terri was emptying a box of new old books onto various shelves. Her jeans had some of that orange dust on them that you get from contact with old leather bindings.

"Hey, so you're going to work here." See that? I knew she was going to mention it.

"Yeah I guess so." Something like that, as if I didn't want to commit to it.

"That's great, I'm glad." This was welcoming. It was more than that in fact. I responded to this nice greeting with a dumb remark. This still sticks in my mind.

"Why?" What, I asked her why? Oh come on... "why". Why was she glad? What kind of question is that? Maybe it was just polite conversation, Joe. Maybe she was looking forward to having another person around. Whatever. Did it really call for an explanation?

Terri just looked at me for a second. But I was about to save. My mind raced. What I was going to do was provide her an answer, and all she'd have to do was agree. Like maybe "because you know I like books too, right?". That's still pretty lame. Luckily she got there first, and dismissed the weirdness with a word: "Funny."

"I'm Terri. I'm really Therése but only my parents call me that." She pronounced it te-RAZE. She held out her hand. The hand was a little dusty from the books but that wasn't what bothered me. I was being invited to TOUCH HER.

Let's pause a moment. This is very dramatic stuff. We could develop a miniseries for a network with a story like this. If it gets any more intense, for cable. We've got a high school boy and girl, together in an upstairs room, nobody's watching, and they are talking to each other. Yes. It's not a hell of a conversation yet, but they are about to make contact. OK?

I did it. I shook her hand. It was small, and warm. Huh. "I'm Joe. I'm really Joseph but my parents don't call me that." I was riffing off her line, for lack of any other brain activity. Wait, I have a followup. "My teachers used to call me Joseph."

"Oh, yeah, mine do too. Well, they call me Therése, not Joseph." Weak laughter from both us.

She had more. "Wait, teachers used to call you Joseph? What do they call you now?" I explained the peculiar "Mister" usage that was standard at the Prep. That in turn led us to what schools we went to.

Terri was a senior at Rosary. Another Catholic school, a few miles up the road. An all girls school.

We almost had something in common. I was getting fascinated by this. Now I wanted to talk to her more.

But she choked it off. "I want to get these shelved so I can get down to the counter. Sue needs to do some catalog. Ummm, OK?"

And the way she asked that sounded familiar. I said sure.

I went to the next room, and I recall looking at the shelves for a few minutes, and not seeing the books, lost in thought.

This story is about change. When I was a kid I had trouble believing that things in the world changed.

As I moved around in the world almost all I saw was buildings and roads and trees that had been there my whole life. The world seemed like a static place. Now that I am older, the world seems almost totally dynamic. Things, and people, follow an arc of existence. They start at a point in time, move forward and change as they go, and then they make an exit.

In my child world view, I was skeptical about the passage of time. I mentioned in Huge Hall that I couldn't accept the date cast into the radiators.

When I was a kid, there was a place I passed sometimes when I rode my bike, where over the course of a couple of weeks, they tore down a very old house, a house that I now think was probably a farmhouse about a hundred fifty years old. I knew somehow that it was a farmhouse, but that idea was so unreal I could not fully accept it, because there was no farm there, only suburban houses and roads. We had done school reports for the Tercentennial of New Jersey in 1964, and I knew that much of our town had been farmland, but I didn't feel it. It was long ago. It was like fiction. It was not connected to real life.

Maybe that's what was wrong with the radiator. It was intruding into real life.

Since then I've liked playing with the idea that the historical world and real world are the same.

I think that's why I like examining old structures, and especially the remains of old structures and roads. Seeing these things convinces me of the reality of what I would read about in histories. I try to see them as they once were and connect their present state with what they were in the past. I'm one of those people who will say, look, this is the actual place where it happened (whatever it was), and it means something to me.

For quite a while I was totally in favor of historic preservation of practically anything. I liked seeing the old things and I wanted them all to remain for other people to see. But now I've moved on from that. I appreciate change.

A building may be put up because it is needed, and it may be well designed, both useful and beautiful. But years later maybe it is not so needed, and the location is ideal for some other purpose. This is not to say that the old building was bad. It respects the building as a functional thing to remove it when it no longer serves its purpose. It says that the building mattered.

I think I was caught up in the idea that you destroy things only when they are useless and ugly.

Did you ever see a sand mandala? Also known as a sand painting. From Wikipedia:

The Sand Mandala is a Tibetan Buddhist tradition involving the creation and destruction of mandalas made from colored sand. A sand mandala is ritualistically destroyed once it has been completed and its accompanying ceremonies and viewing are finished to symbolize the Buddhist doctrinal belief in the transitory nature of material life.

I heard about sand mandalas in college. I had trouble making sense of it, taking so much trouble to create something and then deliberately destroying it as soon as it is done.

But now I get it. Let things go. Appreciate how good something is. Go ahead and create something without taking on the obligation of owning it and keeping it. Remember it.

And know that eventually no one will even have a memory of it. It's the material world. All things must pass.

It's almost wrong to keep photographs of a sand mandala.

But I found that this set ( helped me understand how it feels to work on one. It must be satisfying to dismantle it, like a trouble lifted. I would know that I had made the mandala and that it was beautiful. Doing it is the payoff, not the dead inert thing you end up with when you've stopped changing it.

I wonder how many artists feel like this about their work but can't explain why. I've heard of musical artists who can't bear to listen to their completed recordings and only want to think ahead to the next one they will do.

You'd laugh at me saying all this if you could see the room full of old books and papers I have accumulated. I don't want to let them go.

I even put up an essay about old photos while I was writing drafts of this story. I didn't see the connection when I did it.

I changed when I spoke to Terri. It was the summer of change.

The gull illustrations are by an anonymous artist, possibly Marie Honore Myers, from the small book Each in His Own Tongue by William Herbert Carruth, published by Wise-Parslow, New York, 1925.

The marbled endpaper was found in a copy of Kosmos by Alexander von Humboldt printed 1847. Each sheet of marbled paper is unique. See

[The next Summer of '69 story is In the Year 2525.]

Next time: In the Year 2525.

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