“Withholding.” (100 Acre Wood Children’s Bookstore, Teacher Retirement System of Texas, Unknown Software Company.)

100 Acre Wood Children’s Bookstore–1998-2000–Part-Time Out-of-Print Book Scout and Sales Clerk.  

In September 1998 I started my other part-time job at 100 Acre Wood Children’s Bookstore. In the over twenty years the store was in business, I was the first and only male employee. I worked as a sales clerk, but the main reason I was brought aboard was to search as a book scout and out-of-print book hunter.

My areas of expertise were rare books, older, out-of-print books, and British children’s literature. Indeed, one afternoon I got a call from an exasperated staffer:

–J_____, I thought maybe you might be the one to answer this, because none of us here have any idea what this woman is talking about. This customer says she’s looking for a children’s book. She thinks it may be part of a series. It’s British. Illustrated with line drawings. About a little boy who’s always getting into trouble. Do you have any idea what she’s talking about?

–Yes, that would be the “Just William” series by Richmal Crompton. Hugely popular.

I worked a few mornings a week from 9 to 11, then biked back home, had almost ninety minutes for lunch, then headed over to the school. And I’d usually work at least one weekend day. I seldom had more than ten hours a week, though.

On paper the store had between twenty-five and thirty employees. Most of these were young women in their mid-twenties to early thirties, so there was always someone taking a leave of absence to get married or have a kid. Many of these women were teachers. In the year-and-a-half I worked for the store I only met a few of them.

The store’s owner, Marian Russell, had just finished a term as President of the American Booksellers Association. There was another woman who spent most of her time in the stock room, handling order. Hilda DeCamp, the de facto Assistant Manager, arranged most of the store’s special events, including storytelling sessions and author visits.

I never really had any trouble with Hilda, but I think had I worked more than I we might have clashed. I got the sense that underneath her politeness she really didn’t like me. Because she worked with little children all day every day, she had the annoying habit of speaking to adults in the same manner she spoke to children, in a quiet, overly sweet, somewhat condescending manner, with a simplified vocabulary.

The one and only staff meeting I attended was optional, and unlike the other staff meetings I’d endured  during my working life, this one was a lot of fun. Everyone brought a covered dish, wine was served, and Marian passed out free copies of books. A few people gave reviews of new children’s books they’d read and enjoyed. Hilda talked about a British children’s book that had just been published in the US. It was about an orphan who discovers that he’s a wizard and gets to go to a fantastic school and have all sorts of adventures. I have never gotten over the fact that Hilda scooped me on the publishing phenomena of the decade, especially since it was a British book.    

Two staff members were the wife and mother-in-law of Vic Renzo of the band Overtime, which had just broken out with the Number One hit, “Train Wreck.” There were several mornings when the mother-in-law and I were the only staffers on the floor, so one day I asked her what it was like having a rock star in the family.

I could tell this was a sore point. She selected her words with care and diplomacy.

–Well, for awhile it didn’t go very well. Carrie was working pretty much seven days a week, supporting both of them as well as the baby. I was strongly tempted to ask Vic how much longer he thought he could keep doing this, playing music, instead of working a real job. Then they had the hit, and everything changed, and suddenly I’m babysitting while they go to the Grammy’s. Still, we’re wondering if they’re ever gonna have a second hit….

I suppose the staff gave me points for not having a problem with being the only man in a female-dominated business.  But I was not the ideal male. I never learned how to properly wrap packages, and always palmed that work off onto someone else.

Also, with all those young women on the staff there seemed to be a wedding or baby shower every couple weeks. I was always invited, but that’s where I drew the line—I was not going to attend any showers. I did have a little sense of machismo left in me.

One morning I waited on a woman at the register, and taking her check, noticed it was for a joint account and bore both her name and her husband’s. The husband’s name was “Robert Ayres.”

–Pardon me, but is your husband by any chance related to Atlee B. and Robert Ayres, the architect from San Antonio?  

The woman was totally shocked:

–Oh my God! How could you possibly know that? Robert was my husband’s grandfather and Atlee was his great-grandfather? How could you have known that or even heard of them?

–They’re my favorite Texas architects.

–Oh my god! Well, then you ought to visit the architectural archive at the Architecture Library at UT. They have all their old papers and blueprints.

A year later a book on the life and career of Atlee B. Ayres was published and I had to wonder if my interest got the family to push for something on their ancestor to be written.

The 100 Acre Wood got in so many wonderful books that I always spent more money there than I earned. Staffers were able to check out and take home books to see if they wanted to buy them, but as far as I was concerned, once something crossed over my threshold it was staying. Of course, periodically I had to pay for the items I checked out. On one occasion I got an advance on my pay from the school and bought $700 worth of children’s books from The 100 Acre Wood all at once. I think it was the biggest sale the store made that entire month.

Christmas of 1998 at The 100 Acre Wood was especially fun. I wrote about it in 2005 in “Claus Confidential,” a piece I did for my newspaper column. Here’s an excerpt:

… Fairly early in the Christmas season, The 100 Acre Wood’s owner, Marian Russell, asked me if I’d like to represent the store at a special event. The Hill Country Flyer was having a “Polar Express” party. Children and parents were to show up at the station in Cedar Park, clad in pajamas if they wished, and the train would go up to Burnet and back. Hot chocolate and gingerbread cookies would be served, Santa Claus would make an appearance, and local celebrities would do readings in each of the train cars from the “Polar Express” book. My job would be to set up a small table of 100 Acre Wood merchandise in the train’s dining and gift car. Naturally, I said I would be delighted to go.

I took a friend along, but since sales were slow we didn’t need two guys on duty, so one would guard the money and merchandise while the other went and explored the train. Since I was actually there working on the train and was not a guest I regarded myself as someone privileged, and so wandered into areas that were clearly marked off-limits to the general public. I examined the Pullman cars with a thoroughness worthy of Hercule Poirot, then made my way past the brakemen playing poker in the parlor car, and stood out on the back of the train, smoking a cigar as the rails shot out from underneath me.

When I returned to the dining car an anxious woman, an official from the train, came up and asked if I might do her a big favor. It seems that one of the “local celebrities” (none of whom I’d ever heard of, by the way) had failed to show up. Would I, could I, possibly see my way clear into doing a reading on one of the cars?

Me, do a reading? Entertain the public? Oh, please don’t throw me in the Briar Patch!

I was handed a copy of the book and told which car to go to. I introduced myself as an employee of The 100 Acre Wood. That elicited huge applause, as everybody with kids loved that store. And then I began.

Let me state here and now that I was not specifically doing a William Shatner impression.  No, far from it. But I was definitely channeling William Shatner. I was having to contend with a noisy train and noisy kids. I wasn’t sure how far my voice would project under those conditions, so instead of just standing at one end of the car and reading, I walked…up and…down the aisle…pausing, speaking to my…left…then taking a few steps back and…speaking to my right. Apparently my performance was monitored by one of the organizers, and the lady who talked me into doing the reading said I was the only speaker in any of the cars who made himself heard.

But my crowded hour was far from over. Not long after the incident on the train I was asked if I would play the Fat Man himself at an afternoon event at The 100 Acre Wood. I was, after all, the only male employee on the staff, I was of the correct elfin height, and at the time I wore what looked more or less like “Granny glasses” (as opposed to the Le Corbusier-meets-Harry Potter frames I have now). Thankfully, no one was tactless enough to point out that I also wouldn’t need to wear a pillow under my costume to play the part.

Not since Richard Burton bravely attempted “Hamlet” at the advanced age of 39 had an actor put himself through as much grueling preparation as I did in readying myself to play Santa Claus. Should I dye my moustache so it wouldn’t show under the fake one or should I shave it? Should I put a little stage make-up on my nose and cheeks to appear more jolly? I practiced laughing merrily and going “Ho! Ho! Ho!,” and adopted a rich, plummy accent that betrayed no regional origins.

The day arrived. Accompanied by cheers, applause, and the tinkling of sleigh bells, I descended the stairs to the front room and began working the crowd. Let me tell you, though, the laughing and the “Ho”-ing takes a lot of lung power, and Santa eventually needed to sit his butt down.

Then they began lining up, like favor-seekers at a Mafia wedding, each child with requests. Some kids rattled on and on, absolutely sure of what they wanted. Others got stage fright and couldn’t think of what to say, while their over-eager mothers prodded and prompted them.

One child asked me,

–What are you doing down in Austin so close to Christmas? Why aren’t you at the North Pole making toys?

I was ready for this one:

–Well, I’ve been so busy getting the reindeer ready and supervising the elves the last few months that I needed to take a little break. I have a friend who owns a house on Lake Travis, and I’m staying there this weekend, then going back to the North Pole Sunday.

But a few kids narrowed their eyes and looked at me very closely, trying to figure me out. Then I’d let out a jolly chuckle and their eyes would widen and brighten. Not a few said,

–We already saw a Santa at the mall, but you’re the real thing.

You cannot imagine what it’s like to have a child look at you who thinks you’re the real Santa Claus. It’s indescribable.

Then came the photo sessions. I’m not the most tactile guy in the world. I’m not used to being touched. So when a child would jump into my lap and throw her arms around my neck I’m sure I looked about at ease as Richard Nixon the time Sammy Davis hugged him onstage.

Well, this event was such a success I was asked if I wanted to play Santa again. This time The 100 Acre Wood was hosting an in-store “Polar Express” reading. One of the staffers was to read the book, and at the point where Santa comes into the story, I was to emerge from the stock room, pull a toy out of my bag, hold it aloft, and say one line and one line only:

–The first gift of Christmas!

So for about forty-five minutes I paced around in back, muttering different takes on that one line. One of the other staffers was standing by the curtain and frantically waved,

–J____, that’s your cue!

I strode out to the now-familiar gasps and applause, feeling like Jackie Gleason walking onto the “Honeymooners” set. I surveyed the crowd appreciatively, beaming as only someone who is totally full of himself can…and forgot my line.

The woman who was reading turned to me, and gritting her teeth said,

–Santa, would you like to pick the first gift of Christmas?

Then I got my wits back together, blustered through my line, and stood around like an idiot for the rest of the reading.

More photographs of me were taken that night, though I admit that in them I looked more demented than jovial. No doubt when I finally flip out and take a mountain-climbing axe to my upstairs neighbor for blaring techno on his stereo in the middle of the night, those pictures of me as Crazy Santa are the ones that will appear on “American Justice with Bill Kurtis.”

Many years later,… I landed a temporary job as Assistant Manager of a seasonal discount bookstore. The Christmas rush was bearing down on us in all its savage might. One afternoon I was working the register when a woman and her pre-adolescent son came up with a stack of books.  She squinted at me and asked,

–Aren’t you J___ B______? Didn’t you used to be Librarian at the Augusta Throckmorton School?

I blushed, ashamed to be recognized in such reduced and demeaning circumstances, and admitted that I was indeed he.

She introduced herself and her son, explaining that I used to have the boy in my Study Halls when he was in the lower elementary grades. I vaguely remembered his name, but he had grown up quite a bit in the intervening years, and I didn’t recognize him.

–Well, you have no idea how much turmoil you caused in our household at Christmas years ago.

She continued.

–You see, there was some event at The 100 Acre Wood after school one afternoon, so I picked my son up at school and took him straight there. And you were there at The 100 Acre Wood playing Santa Claus.  And when it was over and we got back into the car he started hitting me with the questions: “Why does our Librarian, Mr. B_____, look so much like Santa Claus? Why does Santa Claus look like Mr. B____? How can they be two places at one time? Is Mr. B_____ actually Santa Claus in disguise?” So all the way out into West Austin I was having to both drive and try to figure out plausible answers to all these questions in a way that would satisfy First Grader logic. And I think I succeeded, but he later told me that for the rest of the time you were Librarian, he would always behave extra good whenever he came into the Library, just in case you really were Santa Claus and were spying on him to see if he was being naughty or nice.

All this time, then, I had a double life and knew nothing about it.

*******    

Though I’d done a bit of data entry in 1992, and took an introductory computer course in 1993, I still didn’t know much about computers, and really wasn’t picking up a whole hell of a lot of information at the school. My true introduction to computers and the Internet was at The 100 Acre Wood, where Marian showed me what I needed to do to search for out-of-print books.

Not too many months before this I was vocally anti-computer, and swore I’d have nothing to do with them. But I changed my tune when I saw how fascinating the internet could be. I started coming in to the store in the evenings to do book search work on Hilda’s computer. I’d work a couple hours, then the other staffers would close the store and go home, leaving me in the upstairs office. After I’d do my official work, the work I was paid for, I’d sign out on my time sheet, then spend many more hours exploring the Internet, and wasting Hilda’s supplies of copy paper and ink cartridges by making hundreds of print-outs.

Our book search service wasn’t very successful. People would contact us, wanting to order a copy of a book they’d loved as a child, so they could give it to their child or grandchild as a gift. But it’s often harder to find an old children’s book in good condition than it is to find an adult book, because children tend to treat their books badly. So I’d locate the book the customer was looking for, and have to break it to them that the book was listed at $50, $100, or more. Nine times out of ten they’d refuse to pay this amount, indignantly pointing out that the book had cost their parents twenty-five cents in the 1940s or $3.00 in the Seventies. They refused to consider such factors as appreciation and collectability.

Once the staffers told me to call this kid named Jerry back. They said he was a real geek and very annoying, and they found him frustrating to deal with. I got ahold of him and he rattled off a list of the  books he wanted me to look for, mostly children’s and young adult fantasy and science fiction titles in hardback. I tracked them all down in a couple weeks, then called him and quoted the prices. He explained that the books were more expensive than he thought they’d be and he didn’t have a job. He could buy a few right now, then he’d try to figure out how to get the rest of them.

He lived up in Leander, which is quite a ways northwest of Austin. Since he didn’t have a checking account or a car, he’d have to ride his bike to some place that sold money orders, then mail the money order to us. When the books arrived we’d have to mail them to him, since he couldn’t bike all the way down to Austin.

I think the first things he ordered were the five volumes of Lloyd Alexander’s “Chronicles of Prydain.” He was giddy with excitement when I called to tell him they’d arrived. He also told me his grandmother was giving him some money for his birthday, and it would be enough to get the rest of the books on his list. In the meantime, he’d make a second order. He sounded like a nice kid, and I had no trouble talking with him.  

Some time after we mailed him the second order I called his house to see if he had gotten his birthday money and was ready for me to order the rest of his books. But no one answered. I called for several more weeks—in the morning, in the evening, during the weekend. But no one ever answered. I didn’t understand what the deal was.

Finally I called and got ahold of a woman with a a strained, impatient-sounding voice. I explained who I was and why I was calling.

–Oh…yes. The 100 Acre Wood….Well, Mr. B______, I’m sorry. I got some of your messages, but I never got around to calling back. Jerry was riding his bike two weeks ago by the railroad track and he got hit by a car and killed.

–Oh…gee….I’m so sorry….

–He was really excited about those books he ordered from you. That’s all he talked about. His grandmother was giving him some birthday money to order the rest of them. He was so happy about what nice-looking books they were.

–I don’t know what to say. He seemed like such a sweet kid from the conversations I had with him.

–He wasn’t a child. He was twenty-two years old.

I felt like I’d had the breath knocked out of me. Sure, I didn’t really know Jerry, but we had bonded somewhat over the phone.

Not knowing what else to do I stumbled downstairs to break the news to the women at the register. Hilda’s mouth fell open and she quickly clapped her hand over it in a gesture I found unnecessarily melodramatic. Everyone seemed embarrassed now that they’d gotten annoyed with Jerry.

Christmas 1999 went badly for The 100 Acre Wood. Around March 2000 Marian told me she was discontinuing the book search service because it just wasn’t turning a profit. By then I was being scheduled to work less and less. Finally they stopped scheduling me and many other people altogether. Marian had her hands full running a bed-and-breakfast in the Hill Country, dealing with a sick father, and flying off to ABA meetings. The 100 Acre Wood moved from the store on 38th Street to a small house on Burnet Road, but closed down a few months later.

*******    

Teacher Retirement System of Texas–1999–3 days–Part-Time/Temporary OCR Scanner.

Since I was not a full-timer at the school, I didn’t get paid during the summer months, which meant I had to look for temporary work. My friend Matt had worked at a personnel agency, so he called it, spoke to a few key people, and got me an appointment. I went over to the agency office, filled out some forms and had an interview, and within a couple days I got a phone call that they’d found me a job on the graveyard shift at the Teacher Retirement System of Texas.

TRS is located in two huge, Brutalist buildings in the east part of downtown. They’re built on a hillside and connected by bridges. I arrived in the dark of night and walked halfway around these monstrosities, trying various doors before I finally found an open one on the basement level. I had to go through a lot of rigamarole with the security guard, who was piled up in a glass-enclosed office, watching TV and reading the paper.

Getting to the actual office where I was to work reminded me of the opening sequence for “Get Smart”–I had to go down all sorts of dimly-lit corridors, down elevators, through a completely dark cafeteria, and down a couple flights of stairs.

The room in which I was to work was vast and filled with filling cabinets. Indeed, I never got to see the room in its entirety because it was kept in complete darkness except for the tiny section where I worked. I think the room may have been underground, but I’m not sure. The only light came from three track lights on the ceiling, a tiny desk lamp on the supervisor’s desk, and the glow from the computer monitors. There was no sound either—no talking, no music, no traffic in the hallway—just the faint click of computer keys, the shifting of weight in office chairs, and sighs. Oh, and unexplained groans from dark parts of the room, probably, I assumed, connected with the air conditioning. The overall effect was of being adrift in a boat in the middle of the ocean on a starless night.

My supervisor was a snooty young black man who spoke with a lisp, and though, judging from his poor grammar and vocabulary he didn’t seem to be very well-educated, he nevertheless regarded me as something of an idiot.

I was seated at a U-shaped desk. The job was to transfer microfilm files onto computers. The work was slow and tedious. After I had more or less gotten the hang of it, though not working at the speed expected of me, the supervisor came over and explained I was to do this task on two computers simultaneously, working the computer on the left-hand side of the U with my left hand, and the computer on the right-hand side of the U with my right hand. Then, while these two computers were processing, I was to do a third task at the computer in the middle.

This was much too much for me. The work was too fast and required a dexterity I did not possess. Worst of all, I had not way of occupying my mind during those long hours. Most of the other workers–there were about five of them—had on headphones and were at least listening to music, but I didn’t own a portable radio or CD player. I couldn’t deal with those vast stretches of nothingness, with no mental stimulation whatsoever.

We got a break for “lunch” around 1 or 2am. I would stumble around until I found the dark cafeteria and buy some junk food, and try to read a section of newspaper I’d fished out of the recycling bin by the dim light of the fire exit sign, or just stare north out the window.

I was released shortly before sunrise and would walk through downtown to my bus stop.

After the third night I could take no more of the mental torture and called the temp agency. I said I just couldn’t go back to that place. The agent with whom I spoke got very sharp and short with me:

–You’re not even going to finish the week?

–I’m sorry, but I just can’t. That place and that monotonous work was just driving me crazy. I don’t mean to be unprofessional like this. Is there any other temp work I could do instead? I mean, you found me this very quickly.

–[Icy now] We gave you this assignment so quickly because it was the only one you were qualified for.

My friend Matt was very upset with me for quitting. He said he’d stuck his neck out for me (for an unskilled minimum wage job) and I’d damaged his reputation with the company (a company for which he no longer worked). When I told him about my conflict with my supervisor, he jumped to the ridiculous conclusion that, because I’d mentioned the guy was black, I’d quit because I didn’t want to work under a black supervisor. I said that wasn’t the issue at all—I didn’t want to work under the guy because he was a pompous asshole. And anyway, I didn’t quit because of the supervisor—I quit because of the kind of work it was and the dreadful working conditions.

*******    

Unknown Software Company–1999– 1 1/2 months–Part-Time/Temporary Mail Room Clerk.

My ancient cat Poose died in July 1999 at the age of twenty. He was really only sick the last three days of his life. I loaded his body into a backpack in the middle of the night and took him to Pease Park for burial, but the ground was too rocky for me to dig a hole. I wound up burying him under a bush on a spot of ground next to a parking lot.

Something just wasn’t going well the summer of 1999. Normally I could find a bad job in a matter of days—Austin was always full of crappy, low-paying, dead-end jobs.  But nothing was shaking. And naturally matters were made worse by my mother nagging me, demanding to know why I’d not gotten a job yet.

One day I spent several hours canvassing Highland Mall, asking at every likely shop and anchor store. But the summer was already well under way by this point and all positions were filled. When I finished I headed out to the bus stop and boarded just before a colossal rain storm hit. There was flash flooding, lighting, thunder—the whole show.

I didn’t think much of this—I just hoped it would end before I got home, so I wouldn’t get wet. But for the simple creatures with whom I was riding this storm seemed to indicate the End of the World. Some passengers got really quiet and wide-eyed. An obese black woman up front began repeating the Lord’s Prayer and the Twenty-Third Psalm out loud, over and over. And the driver announced that this was it—God was finally executing his judgment on the people of Austin for their acceptance of homosexuality.

A few weeks after this spectacle I signed up with another temp agency and got an assignment as the assistant to the mail room clerk of a company that made software used by day traders. The work was pleasant enough. I learned some of the complexities of the American mail shipping industry—and promptly forgot them as soon as the job ended. The mail clerk was a Hispanic from South Texas. He told me about life down there, how his dreams of a college education had been side-tracked, and what Hispanic night clubs in Austin are like. We compared notes on favorite restaurants.

The office was in a nice part of town. I actually liked some of the people who worked at this company. Indeed, I was even invited to come to the company summer picnic, even though it was held a week after my employment there ended. I had planned to go, but some college friends came to town and insisted on getting together. I wound up having a miserable time sitting on an unbearably hot restaurant deck, eating wretched food, being reminded of jokes I’d told a dozen years before, and desperately wishing I was someplace else.  

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