In 1996, I spent a week in Austin job hunting, to no avail. I had a great time, spent a lot of money, bounced a few checks, and wound up starting a cycle of debt that would last a year-and-a-half. I also caught the final flowering of the slacker culture of which I’d been a part earlier in the decade. When I returned two years later, Austin was a very different city.
I kept bouncing checks. I couldn’t keep up with my huge bounce fees. Finally, the President of my bank, who’d been on the short list as possible pall bearer candidates for my father, sent me a letter:
–Mr. B____, this is no way to do business.
Eventually, I got caught up, paid everything off, and closed the account.
I’d paid well for a collection of books on the British monarchy for my history section. But after six months, I was the only one who’d purchased any of them. When the divorce of the Prince and Princess of Wales was announced, I figured it would be a good time for a mark-down display.
I cut pictures of the royals out of magazines and posted them around the shelves. Over a picture of Diana in a big tiara I had a balloon that said,
–“I’ve lost my title—everything must go!”
A sad Prince William asked,
–“Mummy, is it true our books are being marked down half-price?”
And she replied,
–“Alas, Wills…Half-price…or less!”
The University hosted a two-day Borges conference right before my birthday. I couldn’t believe the fates had conspired to finally shine upon me and give me such an amazing present!
I attended both sessions, dressed up in a coat and tie.
There were a lot of undergraduates there. It turns out professors in the Spanish Department were giving their students extra credit to attend.
I hung on to every word. In fact, I knew the material so well that I anticipated what the speakers would say and repeated it to myself thirty seconds before it came out of their mouths.
I asked excellent questions and got to shake the hands of people who personally new the Great Master.
Before the second night’s session started, however, I noticed the Master of Ceremonies conferring with one of the speakers at the end of the room. The MC kept looking up and pointing to me. Then the MC and the speaker both looked at me.
The MC came over to my seat and leaned over and whispered,
–Professor So-and-so needs a Borges poem for his lecture—how you say– “The Poem of the Gifts.” Do you have that in English translation.
–I have that in three different English translations.
–Oh, good! Can he borrow it?
–I’d be happy for him to, but they’re in my home, and it’s a few miles away, and I came here by bicycle.
–Oh, don’t worry. I’ll get you a driver, if you could please get it before the conference starts.
Shortly thereafter, a graduate student came to my seat, announced she was my driver, and I got up and followed her. Everyone in the audience was looking at me and wondering,
–Who is that guy?
On the way out to the car, the grad student seemed impressed with me, and tried to engage me in conversation.
–So, what paper are you delivering tonight?
–Oh, I’m not delivering a paper.
–What university are you visiting from, then?
–I’m not with a university.
–You’re a Borges expert, though?
–I’m huge Borges fan. But I’m just a clerk at Discount Book City up the road.
We got to my apartment, I ran in, got the books, we returned to the conference, the grad student gave the speaker the books, he looked through them, then frowned.
It turns out the MC had garbled the request. The speaker didn’t need a translation of “Poem of the Gifts.” He needed “The Other Gift.”
After the conference the speaker chatted with me and suggested I start an academic journal of Borges studies, but I’m sure he was just pulling my leg.
The MC invited me to a party in College Station. All the conference speakers would be there, important faculty members, some grad students. Argentinian music would be played and Argentinian food and wine served.
But I didn’t go. I felt embarrassed about myself and my low station. I knew if I biked that far wearing a suit I’d just arrive looking sweaty and messy. Instead, I just went back to my apartment.
Bert installed an intercom to connect the register with the Buy Counter. Andy and I immediately started playing with it. I called back to him, reciting some of Lilly von Shtupp’s lines from the song “I’m Tired” from “Blazing Saddles:”
–Zare alvays coming and going and going and coming…
And Andy called back and finished:
–And alvays too soon.
Billy and I were working the Buy Counter when a young man came in with some materials he wanted to have appraised, but not sold. It wasn’t our policy to do appraisals, but it was a slow day, so we agreed to take a look at what he had.
When this guy was a boy in Calvert, Texas his grandmother lived next door to an old lady who was the illegitimate daughter of the man who founded the town. Though she was shunned by her relatives, she outlived them all, and wound up inheriting all that was left of the family wealth. A spinster, she lived in her father’s large, somewhat run-down Victorian house, rather like Emily Grierson in Faulkner’s “A Rose For Emily.”
This guy used to mow the old lady’s lawn, and he got to know her pretty well. The house was full of antiques. An upstairs bedroom was furnished with an eight-piece suite of furniture made before the Civil War by Prudence Mallard of New Orleans. Unfortunately, the old lady let her cats stay in that room, and varnish and finish on the furniture had been ruined by decades of cat piss and shit.
The library featured beautifully-bound editions of the complete works of all the standard authors beloved by proper Victorians: Dickens, Scott, Hugo, and Dumas. When the lady got too old to live in the house by herself and was preparing to move into a nursing home, she gave this guy many of her books, and so now he wanted to know how much they were worth.
The two books he brought in to us were interesting enough, but what caught my attention was a scrapbook. The scrapbook itself was a sample book for a Victorian coffin salesman. Lithographs of the elaborately-designed coffins were printed on heavy, slick paper. The scrapbook clippings were glued onto these pages, and referred to four disasters—the Galveston hurricane and flood of 1900, a flood in Texas’s Brazos Valley in 1908, and the sinkings of the “Titanic” in 1912 and the “Lusitania” in 1915.
This was fascinating stuff. There was an original menu from the “Mauretania,” the sister ship of the “Lusitania.” The articles on the ships seemed focused only on the wealthiest victims. But the piece that interested and moved me the most was a telegraph sent from Galveston relatives of the Calverts shortly after the hurricane:
–-ALF AND KIDS SAFE STOP ALL ELSE LOST STOP
I told this fellow he was wasting his time bringing these materials here. While we did sell old books, we really didn’t carry paper ephemera, and we couldn’t give him the price these articles were worth. He would be best-served taking his stuff to one of the leading rare book stores in Houston, or possibly a larger city, such as New York.
January 1997: Bryan/College Station is hit with an ice storm. Greedy Bert wants to open the store. He calls Rita, who says,
–Personally, I’m of the old school. I think you should stay open unless there’s a major holiday or a major disaster.
I tried to ride my bike to work and quickly realized the folly of that. I used it as a walker the rest of the way.
We open up. We have six customers the entire day. Anybody with any goddamn sense is at home, not risking their lives on the streets.
In the afternoon, before going home, Bert tells us to close early, at 9pm.
9:01pm. We start to slide the sign from “OPEN” over to “CLOSED,” when Bert turns into the driveway, jumps out of his truck, his face stricken, and pleads,
–DON’T CLOSE YET! DON’T CLOSE YET! DON’T CLOSE!
He’d heard a weather report. The ice storm was letting up a bit. The temperature was getting a wee bit warmer. Greedy, penny-pinching Bert decided we should stay open that one last hour juuuuuuuuuussst in case a customer took advantage of the improving ice storm conditions and showed up.
No one did.
Bert was a big believer in having regular staff meetings. The business books he’d read said all major businesses had them, so by-God, he was gonna have them too.
The problem was, Bert really didn’t have much to say. There really wasn’t much call for a monthly meeting. Still, he scheduled one a month, on Sundays. Many was the Saturday I saw a yellow legal pad on his desk with the writing,
MONTHLY STAFF MEETING AGENDA
Often he’d be up late on Saturday night trying to think of something to talk about. This infuriated me.
I insisted that on meeting days I be scheduled to open. I didn’t want to have to get up early and come in on a day off, and I didn’t want to have to get up early, bike to the store for the meeting, bike back home, bike back to the store in the afternoon, work an eight-hour shift, then bike back at night.
The meetings were uniformly useless and pointless—a complete waste of time.
Two things happened at each meting: 1) Andy would bring doughnuts or kolaches for a much-needed sugar high, and 2) Bert would ridicule Vincent for arriving at the meeting late, because he’d been at Mass.
One meeting we finished earlier than usual, and I had a powerful need to use the restroom before the store opened for the day. While I was doing my business in the employee restroom, the pipe in the sink started making a rhythmic thumping sound:
–Ka-thudda ka-thudda ka-thudda ka-thudda ka-thudda….
Everyone was still gathered around in the Stock Room. I heard Autumn say,
–What the fuck?…What the fuck’s he doing in there?…Is he…?….Oh my God, I think he’s jacking off….
I drew the moment out for as long as I could. The pipe kept thumping:
–Ka-thudda ka-thudda ka-thudda ka-thudda ka-thudda….
Finally, I stood up and flushed, washed my hands, looked into the mirror, mussed my hair, pulled up one end of my collar, untucked part of my shirt, then threw open the door:
–WELL, I DON’T KNOW ABOUT YOU PEOPLE, BUT I’M READY TO START THE WORK DAY!
We had our parking lots repaved. Bert discovered that there was a lid that covered an old gas tank under the parking spaces in front of the store. When Rita heard about this she gave orders that it be covered with asphalt, because if they’d reported it, there was a chance that OSHA would step in and want the store to pay all sorts of money to have the tank removed or cleaned. Buried and forgotten about was better, in her opinion.
Preston finally calmed the fuck down and realized that I actually knew a thing or two about books, and that I wasn’t going to suddenly leave. He actually became a pleasant co-worker and showed some respect for my knowledge. He thought he’d found a copy of the second edition to “The Scarlet Letter,” and I explained to him why it was that he hadn’t. He seemed rather impressed.
At least twice Bert suggested we have a “Work Party” –the idea being that one night, after we closed at 10pm, we’d stay several hours later, the people who hadn’t closed that night would come in, Bert would spring for a late dinner, and we’d work the rest of the night, finally getting caught up on all the work that we’d left undone.
We basically had a worker’s revolt and flatly refused to do it. Eight hours of hard physical work, followed by several more? Then some of us would have to open the next morning with no sleep? No way in hell. And the nature of our business was that we’d never really get caught up. There would also be more boxes of books to price, more stuff to mark down, more stuff to toss.
And as I pointed out to everybody, Bert was so cheap he’d probably order one cheese pizza for the whole staff, along with a one-liter bottle of Coke, set it up on the Buy Counter, spread his arms open wide, smile, and say, “Enjoy!”
No, we weren’t going to fall for that.
Regina was friends with a large black gal named Mona. Bert was sweet on her. Whenever Bert was acting especially crazy we’d ask Regina to ask Mona to go to Bert’s house and sleep with him. It always seemed to calm him down.
One night Mona came into the store right before closing, and a new employee who didn’t know her tried to get her to leave. Regina called out,
–Oh, you can let her in. She’s okay. Mona’s practically a store employee as it is.
–Yes, she’s with our Service Department.
Bert’s people-managing skills left a lot to be desired. If anyone on the staff complained he’d usually respond in one of two ways:
in imitation of a crying baby, or
–Deal with it!
I got a ticket. I ran a red light on my bike. The campus rent-a-cops made a big deal out of it. I waited while they ran my ID. I stuck my hands in my pockets because I was getting cold.
–SIR, I’M GONNA HAVE TO ASK YOU TO REMOVE YOUR HANDS FROM YOUR POCKETS SLOWLY!
Jesus, these idiots thought I was packing?
They gave me my ticket and my ID and said I’d checked out. They explained the process. They finally stopped talking. I sat back on my bike saddle and put one foot on a pedal and prepared to leave.
–You can go now, sir.
I shot them a look that said, Yeah, I kinda figured that out already.
A young yellow dog followed me home from work one night. I was afraid to leave him at the store, since were faced the busiest street in town and the dog didn’t seem to understand that vehicles were dangerous. I left bowls of food and water outside my front door that first night.
When I woke up I heard the dog yelping in pain. The Middle Easterner next door was beating her with a coat hanger. I brought her inside.
Yellow Dog caused much havoc. Poose was scared of her. Fred was jealous and annoyed. Yellow Dog tore things up. She chewed furniture and doors. I looked for the owner. I looked for someone to take her.
Bert came back from a vacation. He said he’d take her. This proved to be a mistake.
Bert was just beginning a mental breakdown. He started getting phone calls from neighbors and the police, saying his dog had gotten loose. He’d scream, and drive off to fix things.
Bert came in one night on his day off. Yellow Dog was standing in the back of his truck. She ran inside the store. Bert came unglued and started screaming obscenities at her. He yelled at her to get in the truck. She did so. She looked at me. She remembered me. She gave me a look that said,
–Why did you give me to this cruel man? Why do I have to stay with him instead of you?
I’ve never forgiven myself.