Over a year ago, the café installed two shelves, each about seven-feet above floor level, which display books written by its customers. At the beginning of the week, Annie, one of the afternoon crowd, asked what mine – “something about NY” – was about. She was considering taking it down and reading it.
It had never occurred to me that people would think these books could be taken home and read over bean sprouts and lentils. Plus Annie was of a height where she would have to stand on a table to reach it. Plus of an age where standing on a table would not be recommended.
“It’s an existential sports novel,” I said. “For $5, you can have your very own, personally inscribed, first edition. ‘Superbly written’” said the “Times.”
“Oops,” she said. “I don’t read about sports.”
“Oops, yourself,” I said. “Would you believe it’s about life and death?”
The other morning, I caught a cute blonde eying my display.
“Wanna buy a book?” I said.
“I haf many book,” she said. “And only hef way through “Infinite Jest.”
“I can’t compete with David Foster Wallace,” I said. “You have excellent taste. Are you from Russia?”
“Ungary,” she said. “I am ungarian.”
Just like Zoltan Karpathy, I thought. “Every time I turn around/There he was that hairy hound. From Budapest./Never have I met a ruder pest.”
“I lif Oakland and fur now drife Ooober.”
I gave her my card.
She thanked me. And said he had great respect for authors.
To keep from blending in with the decor, I alternate my J. T. Dockery sign with my S. Clay Wilson. I had that one up when a 60-something guy recognized The Checkered Demon.
“Not too many people remember Checks,” I said. “You a cartoonist?”
“Sometimes. I’m in construction.” He explained how, before sprayers came along, you applied something by hand – plaster maybe – and each guy had his own stroke, so you could walk onto a job and recognize who had done it. “That’s when I knew I was making art.”
“That’s what Duchamp said,” I said. “Anything is art if an artist says it is.”
“I like that,” he said. “Mainly I’m a plumber.”
“We can always use a plumber,” I said. “You got a card?”
He laughed. “On a construction site, you take out a card, somebody’ll say, ‘I’ll show you a card’ and grab a hunk of cardboard and write his name on it.”
I gave him mine. “Vista Print,” I said. “700 for $9.95.”
He took a 5″ X 8″ cards from me. And a pen.
When he came back, the card was folded in two. On the front was a guy in a baseball cap who looked like he might have been a pal of Tubby’s. Inside, it said, “Mr. Bob: Appreciate the Company. Edward S.”
Sold three (“Count ‘em! THREE!”) books.
First, a “Cheesesteak” went to a baseball-capped fellow (“You from Philadelphia?”), from West Chester State, out of Scranton, in town to visit a brother living in Petaluma. “I’ll read it on the plane back,” he said.
Then their Dad, who substitute school teaches, stopped by the table. One of his students self-published, so he was intrigued by my DIY approach. He went for the more age-appropriate “I Will Keep You Alive.”
A couple days later, a woman in her late 60s came over. She’d seen me before, and, it seemed, curiosity had got the better of her. She was a poet, lived in Benicia, an arty town to the north, and went for an IWKYA, less the cover price of her chap book she swapped me.
Then there was “Teddy,” who didn’t buy but was noteworthy. She had a half-inch-high brown Mohawk strip down the center of shaved head, adorned by various tattoos. I could not tell if her speech was garbled or nonsensical or French. When I complimented the flowing black garment, a purple Rorsharch Test-like design on the back, which she wore like a poncho, she told me she had found it. She was most interested in “The Schiz” but had no money.
“Maybe next time,” I said.
In other news…
1.) An editor has raised objection of my description of an Hispanic woman in a piece I submitted as objectionable “racial stereotyping.” This seems to be under negotiation.
2,) Another editor has explained he has maintained silence over for a year or two since itrs submission as having been occasioned by managerial upheaval and budgetary but assures me he loves the piece and hopes to run it.
3.) There has been less success with my “distribution” connection. Instead of responding to my inquiries with excuses, evasions, blame-shifting,pleas for understanding and patience, and – I hate to admit it – lies, he has withdrawn into a veritable Cone of Silence. The next step is on me.
“Guess who I sold a book to? Adele said, when she woke up.
“The Queen of England?” I said.
“Living American female?”
“Fictional Swedish Female?” We were into Season 3 of “Broen/Bron.”
“I give up.”
“Bob Dylan. Want to know how?”
I had to use all my charms. We were in this hotel gym, and he was checking out all the women. ‘How did you get to be you?’ he said. ‘In fact, how did all these people become who they are?’”
“‘I can’t speak for them,’ I said. ‘But if you want to know about me, you can buy this book my husband and I wrote.’”
“‘NYNGHUH,’ he said, making this Bob Dylan sound and face.
“‘Can I take that as a ‘”Yes”?’ I said.
“‘What does that mean?’
“‘It’s lawyer talk,’ his friend said. ‘You just bought a book.’
“‘I have to get it from my room,’” I said.”
Gave away one “Cheesesteak.”
The recipient was “Edward,” the aspiring jazz pianist I had met during high school and from whom I had cribbed the title of the concluding chapter, (His out-of-the-blue phone call five decades later – “Is this Spruce Hill Bob?” – had also provided the name for my press.) I had intended to send him a copy, but, by the time of publication, I had no way to reach him. Now, he had found an old address book and called again – which touched me deeply. [Let me add he appears under his actual name in the Teddy Prendergrass documentary I’d posted about earlier this week and to which he’d alerted me.]
My most notable (non-sale) conversation was with a young fellow wearing a straw cap, bill-to-rear, whom the sign on my table at the café attracted.
He was one class from graduation at the Jazz School, played guitar and drums, lived in an Econoline, and repaired wind instruments to make a buck. “It’s pretty chill,” he said.
When he told me his name, I said, “Bet you’re named for the singer, not the poet.”
“What poet?” he said.
“The one Bob named himself after.”
“Guess I’ll have to check him out.”
What are they teaching kids in school these days?
In other news…
1.) The publicist Adele and I hired for “I Will Keep You Alive” explained that the reason her efforts had ended in zilch was that people found it “too personal.”
Well, it was that. But it’s not like a lot of people are going to escape our situation.
Or as Adele’s sister – admittedly not an unbiased reader said – “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. What could be more universal?”; and…
2.) Coincidentally, our book’s review in “Women’s Studies” reached us the next day. “It is an understatement,” it concludes, “to say how fortunate we are to have two such superb writers invite us to share vicariously in an experience that teaches… US [emp.supp.] so much.”
Swapped an “I Will Keep You Alive” to a college classmate, “The Poet Laureate of Martha’s Vinyard,” for a collection of his recent work.
And sent one as a 66th birthday present to Jimmy, whose last name will immediately come to mind for readers of my second book.
Then there was a “Cheesesteak” sale.
Fellow comes up to my table. Fortyish. Shaved head. Glasses. Orange hoodie. Accent. (Moscow, it turns out.)
“I am asking people’s philosophy of life. May I interview you for yours?”
What was he going to do with them? He didn’t know. I was his second, and the first, he admitted, had not gone well.
I had been waiting decades to be interviewed. I would have preferred the NY Times or even the Chronicle, but he would do. At the same time, it brought to mind the time, senior year, Tank Nuncio, who had a goatee and beret and roly-poley aspect of Friar Tuck, came out of the Oxford Grill and a young woman asked if she could photograph him for a “Best Beards” spread in the Globe. It never appeared and Tank was sure he was memorialized on some Cliffie’s bulletin board: “Biggest Assholes of Harvard Square.”
Still, my stories were ready. I ran him through Adele, comics, finding bliss after surgery, the non-existence of time, Earth being doomed.
“Perhaps another Black Death is coming,” he said. “Perhaps nature defend herself again. Leave not enough of us to do damage.”
We both savored that idea. “What do you do?” I said.
“Complicated. I’d say ‘economics,’ if I had to.”
Between him and his wife and previous relationships, there were five kids and a house in the hills, so it must have worked out.
When he’d learned I’d gone to law school at Penn, he was dumbfounded I’d never been inside its library. “One of the great buildings of the world,” he called it. I had not felt so inadequate since I’d told a great admirer of Abraham Maslow I’d gone to Brandx and never taken his course.
Anyway, Penn… Philadelphia… He knew my neighborhood. That was enough to sell a book.
This time I thought I’d rank them, bottom to top, based on a jambalaya of how well written they were, how interesting, how informative, how challenging, how enjoyable, all percolating in my brain, some predominating in one judgment, some in another, topped off with brief comments ranging from the judicious to the block-headed.
10. Alexander McCall Smith’s “44 Scotland Street.” Recommended by a guy at the health club. He has sound politics but his literary taste I will never seek again. As for the book, what can you expect from an author whose goal is to recreate “Tales of the City” in Edinburgh?
9. Mark Herron’s “Slow Horses.” Recommended by a friend whose politics are suspect but who otherwise has good cred. He compared Herron to Le Carre. But I’d given up Carre after “Drummer Girl.”
8. Ben Schwartz’s “The Truth of Their Life.” I’d known Ben casually (perhaps an overstatement) since the early ‘70s but never knew he wrote. This is his first book, a novella/ short story collection. He sure has mastered what it takes to write fiction – a lot more than I have – and his the longest is better than that.
7. Patti Smith’a “Year of the Monkey.” I much preferred “Just Kids” and “M Train.” Her poetry and imagination are here, but I would have liked more reality. Would probably benefit from a rereading but I won’t bother.
6. Kate Atkinson’s “Big Sky.” Atkinson’s my favorite crime writer – the only one I read now that Elmore Leonard’s gone – and I’d been rereading her Jackson Brodie books in order. This struck me as the weakest but is still darn good.
5. William Vollman’s “Ice Shirt.” Had to work too hard to get stuff out of it. Still, Vollman is always worth chewing on.
4. Kathleen Thanos’s “The Truth of This Life.” Its co-editor swapped it to me at the café for a “Cheeseste4ak.” It is always good to filter the day through a little Buddhism.
3. Anne Tyler’s “A Patchwork Planet.” I used to read every Tyler. Then I stopped. This is the second I’ve picked up off the café’s “Free” shelves, and both have been delightful.
2. Larissa Macfarquahar’s “Strangers Drowning.” I recalled portions from “The New Yorker” and wanted to see what the whole book was like. An intriguing, head-shake inducing look at the quest for living a moral life.
1. Vollman’s “Fathers and Crows.” This completed my reading of his series of novels about the coming of Europeans to North America. This one covers the French, the Jesuits, and the eradication of the Hurons. A clash between madnesses, it seemed. My second favorite in the group, behind “The Dying Grass.”
My latest piece is up on-line at The Comics Journal. Here’s the link:
Sweating the Small Stuff
A painter who proves his ability to render the human form competently has flashed me a valid passport.
William T. Vollman. Imperial.
Vollman had asserted this in, it had seemed to Goshkin, a digressive discussion of the work of Mark Rothko, about one-sixth of the way through a 1200-page study of the exploitation and ruination of the land and people in and around a geographically inexact region encompassing both sides of the California-Mexico border. This study itself had seemed primarily digression, though digression as an all-encompassing, all-swallowing, all-explaining miasma of fact, fiction and surmise. His point, Vollman’s, that a painter who hadn’t mastered this basic aspect of drawing could not be trusted when he elected to communicate through “blotches and squiggles” seemed a bit close-mindedly retrograde but perhaps held a truth. We were all but human, Goshkin knew from 77-years of being, the last eight of which having been particularly instructive since his badly damaged heart had made every day of them a constantly informative surprise; and if a painter, whose job it has been since the Renaissance was to get us on canvas, could not be bothered to learn to render limbs and noses, he might arguably lack the connection to deliver any knowledge worth sharing about our cradle-to-grave existence.
And it seemed a matter of near-divine cosmic connivance that Goshkin had come to this passage only the evening before Ruth and he were to visit an exhibition of the “micro-paintings” of Guy Colwell at Berkeley’s East Bay Media Center
A fellow with a white beard, knit cap, wire-rimmed glasses, work boots looks me over.
“Wanna buy a book?” I say.
“Just spent all my money on coffee and a roll.”
“Maybe next time.”
“I like your titles though. You do all right here?”
“If I sell one book a week, I’m doing good.”
“That’s more’n me.”
“No. That’s why.”
We both laugh.
Michael and Audrey stop by. They say they are on their way to an OLLI course. “You know OLLI?” Michael says.
“Float like a butterfly; sting like a bee?” I say.
“Different Ali. So what’s your best seller here?”
“I sold a ‘Cheesesteak’ last week, so I guess…”
“You think of collecting your ‘Adventures’ into a book? I know, ‘performance art,’ blah-blah, but you ought to.”
“I’m not sure I’ve got the market. Like, my cousin’s photos of her rattlesnake beans with sundried tomatoes and broccoli got seven times the ‘Like’s as my last one.”
. “It’s hard to beat photogenic rattlesnake beans. But think about it.”
“I’ll run it up the so-to-speak flag poll.
Actually word of one sale reached us.
The wife in the family next door, with whom we are friendly but not so’s any of us would say we are actually “friends,” e-mailed that she had read “I Will Keep You Alive.” “I couldn’t put it down. I read it in one sitting. The story is my dad’s story, my mom’s story, it’s our story, it’s a life story. The emotions that you shared relate to everyone’s life.”
We thought that was pretty nice.
Sold a “Cheesesteak.”
The buyer was the abstract expressionist painter I mentioned an “Adventure” or two ago. When he’d come into the café, I’d offered condolences on the passing of Jolly, his activist/artist woman of 30-years, and he’d sat down with me. He showed me some of her photographs and poems and said he had so many stories he ought to write a book. I showed him how I’d gone about turning stories into a book, and he said, “How much?” Since Jolly’d lived in Powelton Village several years before I got there, it seemed fitting.
And I – indirectly – gave away a “Best Ride.” I’d picked “Franny & Zooey” off the “take-one; leave-one” “Free Book” shelves, figuring, “Hey, it’s been over 50-years, why not?”; and even though I had credits-to-burn, the “Ride” on my table had a torn cover, and I thought it might be a loss-leader, stuck in a card, and left it. Next time I came back, it was gone. I have so many, I may keep this up. Johnny Appleseed, me.
In other news…
My copy of “Happiness is Luxury,” the New Zealand journal whose editor’d asked me to contribute, arrived. It had been so long, except for the subject, I’d forgotten what I’d sent him and was delighted to see it contained an early Goshkin. (For those of you who actually read me, this must have been his second or third manifestation.) It’s a handsome volume, with classy fold-out art, some contributors I’ve even heard of (Max Clotfelter, Dame Darcy, Clay Geerdes, Paul Krassner, Willie Mendes) and others whose names alone make me want to make their acquaintance (Ducklingmonster, Sarah Fisthole, Biljo White, Zigendemonic). If you want more information: https://independentwomanrecords.bandcamp.com/merch/happiness-is-luxury-2
So, New Zealand, Croatia…
I guess it’s fair to refer to me as “the internationally renowned…”
The first two-week stretch in which I did not sell a book.
Not even a conversation of note. One street person stopped by my table. (Later he came back because he had found a book by someone named “Levin” on the “Free” shelf and wondered if we were related.) So did the most soft-spoken person I have ever met in my life. If I leaned forward and said “What?” I could barely hear him. He was a “programmer,” tall, thin, bald but bushy bearded. He said – I think – he would return after he settled his cappuccino and pastry but he did not. He sat two tables away and acted like he never saw me before in his life.
Maybe it is because UC is on vacation.
Maybe I have saturated the market.
Maybe I need another new sign.
Maybe it is the nature of the business. This week someone posted at the Authors’ Guild Message Board that Lightening Source has 18,000,000 different POD books available, and Ingram another 750,000 titles in its warehouse. This is not surprising. Two years ago, the median income from writing for a Guild member was $6000, down 42% from 2009. (Income from book sales was $3100, down 50%.) “Full-time” authors’s median income was $20,000. I do better on Social Security – and I took my money early.]
The only response to this post was from a fellow urging members not to give up. All you had to do, he counseled, was publish four novels a year and, in your spare time I suppose, promote them relentlessly.
In other news…
“I Will Keep You Alive” garnered Adele and me a rave e-mail from musician/author (“Rock Folk,” “Ray Charles: Man and Music”), and – in interest of full disclosure – friend of over 40-years Michael Lydon. “So good… so funny… a truly great accomplishment… Super, super, super… Amazing.”
From his lips to the Editor of the NYT Book Review’s ears.