When I returned for good from my years in Africa, my life before, understandably, seemed something of a dream. I tried to reconnect, but it was sometimes difficult to bridge the gap between the U.S. of 1991 and that of 1984, when I had first flown from New York to Lomé in Togo. One of the things I tried to do to readjust back was to pick up the strands of my reading, strands that I had dropped for the sojourn while entering on an entirely new sort of reading and experience.
Some of the novels from that earlier time I remembered only poorly, perhaps a character or two or a feeling I’d been left with on finishing, but I wanted to find them again, for I had been in a period of discovery, reading books by people like Denis Johnson and Lucius Shepard, whose names I did, at least, remember. I wanted to regain what once I had and refresh myself while following what I had abandoned now that I was trying to make myself at home in New York once again.
One of the books I wanted to find no longer had a name. At least, not one in my memory. Nor did it have an author. It did have a publisher, though, Vintage, had been a paperback original, had appeared in 1984 soon before I left, and had a cover including an open window with a blowing curtain. It was a wonderful book, what I could remember of it, and I dearly wanted to find it—something that might take five minutes today on the internet but that, with the technology of the day, was nearly impossible.
Or so I thought.
Maybe I should mention one thing: I had been a drunk when I left for Africa, had been for a decade and a half. When I came back to the States at the end of 1990, I had been sober for a year. In some ways, I wanted to break completely with my old life, but I also wanted to understand it. Exploring what I had been doing could, I thought, help.
So, it was on more than just a whim that I stopped into Gotham Book Mart on East 47th Street. I had known the store from my year in advertising, working for an agency on Madison Avenue just off 47th, and believed that, if anyplace could, Gotham might be able to aid me in locating this book.
“Maybe you can help me,” I said to the first clerk I found after stepping down onto the first level of the store. “I’m looking for a book, but I don’t know the title or author, only that it was a Vintage paperback original published in 1984 and had a window with a curtain on the cover.”
Rather than laughing me right out of the shop, the man motioned for me to wait. He disappeared for a moment then came back with a scraggly fellow about my age—which was then about 40—in tow. I explained again what I wanted as this new person listened intently and nodded.
“Look around for a bit,” he said, “and I will see what I can find.”
I wandered upstairs, not expecting much.
Within five minutes, he found me, a paperback in his hand.
“Is this it?” He held up Kathryn Kramer’s A Handbook for Visitors from Outer Space. I stared at it, speechless for a moment as memories of the details of the book came flooding back.
“My god,” I finally sputtered, “it is.” I grabbed the book, thanked the man, plunked down some money and ran back to Brooklyn with my treasure.
Three years or so after that, I was working the counter in the front gift-store part of Shakespeare’s Sister, the establishment a partner and I had opened about a year earlier. Next to me was the hallway leading to the café in the back. It was a Saturday night and the place was hopping but the crowd had thinned out a bit as it usually did when the films started rolling at the movie house across Court Street there in Cobble Hill. A customer and I were talking about strange experiences with books, so I related my little tale. I liked telling it, after all (still do, and have blogged about it before).
A man stopped to listen. I assumed he was simply waiting for a table to open up in the back so never paused. At the end, though, he spoke.
“I’m the one who found you that book.”
I stared at him, my mouth open, and then we all laughed. The man and I introduced ourselves—his name is Nick—and he told me that he was a writer but made no money off of it so worked here and there.
We were interrupted, at that point, by silence from the back. We turned to see what was going on. Everyone, we saw, was staring at the barista who was walking slowly down the hall toward me, stooped over and with a puzzled look on her face. On the floor in front of her was a snake, gliding toward where Nick and I were standing. The snake stopped and curled up. I carefully made my way around it, got the plunger from the restroom and trapped it beneath.
Later, when things had returned to normal, I looked around for Nick but he and the woman he’d been with had disappeared, leaving, I assumed, for a late showing across the street.
I didn’t see Nick again for close to twenty years. In the meantime, I had returned to teaching and had closed Shakespeare’s Sister. I was also writing quite a bit now and did not have time to manage the place any longer. The college where I had taken a job is in downtown Brooklyn, not far from where the store had been, so there were quite a few there who remembered it, some of whom I also remembered. So, I was not particularly surprised to run into Nick there.
After all, we had a history of coincidence. It turned out that he had been tutoring there part time for some years but, as the tutoring center was quite removed from the English department and the school is rather large, our paths had never crossed. He recognized me first one day as we both happened to be entering the main building.
We talked, and still occasionally run into each other.
Our lives are completely different from what they were almost thirty years ago, when first we met, but there is a strange consistency, too.
We may change, and the telling may, too. But the story remains the same—and it is the story that binds us.