II: Breaking Routine
It’s not that I really needed the money. With the income I received from unemployment, I saved about a hundred dollars a month. And I was only on about week forty. I still had about sixty left to go. My routine was solid and sustainable. It didn’t cost much, and it didn’t ask much of anybody. But I knew it wasn’t right. I knew I couldn’t do it forever. More accurately, I was worried that I could do it forever.
It had been a long process, falling away from the world. Graduating high school had been a big step, but that had been more than five years ago now. And even by the time that came about, the disconnect had already begun. I’d already felt one foot out the door, though I had no idea in which direction this would take me. And then, over the years, it only accelerated, with fewer and fewer friends, fewer and fewer responsibilities. My mom raised me, a single parent household. She’s a lot like me. A drifter. She drifts. She usually appears hardly aware of the world around her, and, well, after school ended, well, she just drifted away. It didn’t make too much a difference to me. I’d always suspected that I never really needed people anyways. I’d never been happy. What was happiness anyways? Who would even know how to attain such a thing? I was never gonna be rich. I’d forgotten how to have fun. I suppose it could all boil down to chronic lack of ambition if you really wanted to put a label on it.
So, here I was, thinking about a ‘Help Wanted’ sign. What was I doing here?
Again, I couldn’t quite say. Now that I think about it, more so than anything else, I believe that it was Anna Karenina. Yes, the 900-page tome to end all tomes, one of the several mammoth books of Russian God wisdom, which I read one week in a single sitting. That’s right, and while from a different person this might sound like a point of pride, in my case it was anything but.
Reading was an important part of my routine. I read to live. I read to learn. I read to recall what it was like, back in the day, when I used to write myself, back before I realized the pointlessness in doing so. I read every day. Hours and hours and hours. No joke.
But in all honesty, more so than anything else, I read because I had nothing else to do, because at this point in my life, I had little chance to look outward, and looking inward was my only alternative. It was a prop, just like TV is for others. A mind-numbing, time-killing activity.
It wasn’t until Anna Karenina that this truth struck home.
It was a library book, this copy of Anna Karenina. I liked library books when they weren’t defaced. When they were defaced they depressed me, especially if the target was a book such as Anna Karenina. This book was not defaced, but it was an old edition. It hadn’t been checked out in more than eight months. I opened the first page, day one, and I started to read. “Happy families are all the same…”
I woke up in the morning. I made myself breakfast. I checked my mail. I returned to my room, and I opened the blinds. I watched the square light of summer sun, same as it had been the last two years, catch on the wall, and then trace itself across the floor. I’d purposefully given myself a sunburn on that square block of sun once, just to see if I could. I did this for a week.
I read. I turned the pages. I raised my eyes and I watched the block of sun. I turned the page. I heard footsteps in the hall, passing my door, and my mind leaped to wonder if they would slow if they were listening in to me. My neighbors scared me sometimes.
Turn the page. I got up and got myself some water. Returned to my room. Sat down on my bed. Turned the page. Turned the page. Turned the page. The block of sun disappeared, which meant it was time for dinner. I closed my blinds, and made myself some dinner.
I’d been doing this, more or less, for quite a while now. Different book, different day. About 220 pages a day. I was educating myself about the world through the walls of my apartments, and through pages of these books. This is what I told myself. I was reaching enlightenment, and near absolute solitude is nothing if not good for exactly that. At least I was doing something, I reasoned. There were some people out there who never did anything at all.
But that’s the thing, I wasn’t doing anything. I was compromising with myself because I was terrified, and I didn’t even know it.
But here’s the kicker. Here’s what tipped me off how dire I had allowed my situation to become: I read Anna Karenina in four and a half days. And when it was done, I didn’t remember a word. Not one, single word. Not until Anna’s suicide. That’s what it took to shock me out of my stupor. A fucking suicide. When Anna killed herself I blinked and I flipped back through the preceding eight hundred and fifty pages, wondering what I had missed.
And that’s when I raised my eyes, and I looked at my bookshelf. My wonderful, wonderful bookshelf, with all those titles and worlds and words and peoples, a collection I’d been building for years, my own library in the making, a living monument to who I was. But I wondered now, how many books here had I paged through without even reading the words my eyes passed over.
No. That I couldn’t stand.
This was wrong. This was fucking wrong. If I couldn’t read, than what the hell could I do? What the hell could I do?
This required action. This required change. This had gone on long enough.
If this were literature, the literary types would probably call this an epiphany: the moment where the hero realizes something that will cause change in his life. Epiphanies often happen near the end of short stories. It seems pretty convenient, if you ask me, writing about epiphanies. For the author that is. He can write these epiphanies, but at the same time reserve for himself the right to terminate the story immediately afterwards. James Joyce’s The Dead, often posited as one of the best short stories ever written, ends with just such a moment, where Gabriel realizes that his wife has this romantic memory that he himself could never hope to live up to. The story ends with the reader wondering what awkwardly mundane conversation he’ll conceive of next to put the moment behind them. Because it’s after the epiphanies happen that the real story begins. Because now it’s up to the hero to try to change his lot by his own skill and determination, and it is very much an open question whether or not he will have wherewithal to do so.
So I had to make a choice. Either I act, and change my situation, or continue on the way I’d been going, and continue to drift further and further away from shore. This is perhaps what brought me to the Bears’ Lair. My subconscious coming into play, full force.
So I guess you could say that Anna Karenina changed my life, though, if you were to say so to someone without supplemental explanation, they would perhaps come away with an impression quite contrary to what actually happened.
When I returned to the Bears’ Lair a few days later, Trevor was working behind the front counter and there was a pretty sizable line in front of him. I fled to the back of the store to gather my courage. Managers like job applicants to know something about the workplace beforehand. So I would take some time to observe my surroundings and prepare my pitch. I actually had a pretty solid professional background if I could actually present it coherently and in a manner to impress. I’d spent a lot of time volunteering in my middle school library, way back in the when. I worked at the Border’s in Emeryville before it closed down, and I’d spent so much time in Barnes & Nobles that, for a period of time, I might as well have been an employee. I’d stocked shelves at Target in my high school freshman year. I really was a good match — as long as they didn’t find out why I was banned from Barnes & Nobles, or why I was fired from Border’s, which, admittedly, could still be a pretty big problem.
I wandered the floor for maybe half an hour. I perused the shelves. I took my time and I enjoyed myself. I kept my eyes open and a smile on my face. I picked out a large artbook of Van Gogh prints. The pictures inside alive and glowing in colors vibrant, glossy and bumpy to the touch like the original paintings. The famous portraiture of the tortured artist’s apartment, ensuing pages of detail insets, a chair with a cast off shirt, a window to the outside world with a stray wisp of cloud passing through it. The fruits of a lonely imagination. A book that could always teach you. A thing of pure positivity.
If I worked here, I would have access to these things whenever I wanted them.
And that’s when, sure enough, began to feel the urge. I should have known. A powerful-yet-subtle ignition in the space just below my throat, burning, growing, impossible to ignore, a miniature volcano. The Van Gogh book lost its importance as a work of art. The colors on the cover blurred to indistinction, and the words on the pages lost their coherence. It became a thing of possession that I couldn’t put down. I wanted to take it into me and possess it in more ways than were possible. I wanted to make it more than a simple inanimate object, to bring it in and make it a part of myself, like a suicide bomber’s vest. I’ve read books that say that for most people who share this tendency, it attacks them like a nervous tick, a little pseudo-mechanical compulsion. That’s not how it is for me. When the urge comes up in me, I feel more powerful than at any other time in my life.
I looked both ways down the aisle. I was alone. I checked the ceiling for cameras. I didn’t see any. I opened the book fully and sighted down the spine for security strips. There were none. It would fit under my shirt. I was wearing jeans and a belt and I had a loose-fitting hoody in my backpack. I could do it easily. And then I would have something new to be proud of, something else to pass the long, dull nights lying in bed, listening to the walls and the traffic out my window. It would make such a great addition to my book shelf. I could already see it there, lovely and expensive and mine.
No. No. No. No.
I slammed the book closed. It made a clapping sound.
I couldn’t. I shouldn’t. What did I need another book for? To read it and forget it and set it aside and continue on how I’d been doing? No. I needed to change. I’d had my epiphany. I needed to write the next pages now.
I set the book back on the shelf, then I left the aisle in a hurry. I marched towards the front of the store, towards Trevor, towards destiny. A pretty brown haired girl in sweat pants and a tank top smiled at me as she walked by, and I tried not to double-think myself as she briefly corrupted my attention.
Trevor was standing at the cash register closest to the door. There was a small clutch of girls gathered on the opposite side of the counter, smiling and moving in that way they do, appreciating Trevor’s banter. I had to remind myself not to get dispirited if they didn’t act the same towards me. That was a whole other problem, I shouldn’t even hope to worry about that yet.
I had just come so close to closing the door on my entire future. The urge, just now, it had been a near death experience. I had quite nearly just doomed myself, it had been that close. I was far enough from shore now that I could barely see it. Yet here was a lifeline. I had no choice but to grab ahold of it, or live with the consequences, let myself fall wholly into what I was becoming.
I approached the counter.
When Trevor saw me, he made an expression of slight recognition.
I cleared my throat and said “Hello.”
“Hey…” Trevor smiled, pointed at me, extending index finger from raised thumb. “John? Right?
“Right, Jonathon, how’s it going?”
“Yeah, Trevor,” he grinned, big-toothed, disarming. “What’s going on?”
I hesitated to answer. His girls considered me suspiciously, then they turned away.
“Well,” I said, laser-focusing on Trevor (but not too much!!). “I was wondering. Did you ever figure out where it was that you knew me?”
Trevor shook his head.
“Cause I was thinking, how long have you been in Berkeley?”
“About six years.”
“You’re in grad school?”
“Masters in chemical engineering.”
“That makes sense,” I swallowed. “You’re a few years older than me. I grew up in Berkeley, I’ve worked all over the place. Did you ever go to the Borders in Emeryville?”
“You mean before it closed down?” he smiled. Borders had only been closed down a few months. Trevor was trying to make a joke. Trevor was nervous.
“Yeah, before it closed down.”
“I guess I did,” he said.
“Okay, I used to work there.”
“Uh-huh.” I swallowed again. “I’ve also worked at Target. I volunteered at the library in middle school and I’ve landscaped with a professional gardening crew. I like working retail. But I really like books. I like bookstores, libraries, places like that.”
Trevor nodded. He itched the cleft of his chin. He saw it now, why I was here. I kept my head up and my back straight.
“Okaayy…” he said.
“I saw the sign on the door,” I continued.
He nodded. He looked over my shoulder.
“Excuse me, Jonathon,” he said, giving somebody a raised nod.
I scurried to the side, I’d been holding up the line.
I took the place the girls had vacated at the counter to Trevor’s right. I waited for the happy, well-scrubbed kids to make their purchases, and I tried my hardest not to look like an unemployed local. Man I was keyed up. Every muscle in me, every thought every sense. I was noticing everything around me in absolute clarity.
When the line died down again, Trevor took an over-long time fiddling at the cash register. I stepped forward and he spoke to me without looking up from the register:
“So why’d you stop working at Border’s?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I was in high school, I guess I got bored.” (Half truths are the best foundations for a good lie.)
“I really like bookstores,” I went on. “I like being around books. I know a lot about them.”
“Are you asking for a job here, Jonathon?” he asked without looking up.
“Yes. I am.”
“Have you ever worked for a UC before?” he asked.
“No, but I’ve worked in retail. I know how to work a cash register. I know how to stock shelves, use a price gun and read a stock list. I can even shrinkwrap. Also, I know a lot about books.”
“Yeah, I believe it. I could tell that soon as I saw you the other day, that you were a book person,” he said, and I knew right then that I was doing good, I knew right then that he liked me.
He kept one hand on the register and turned towards me. He tapped a rhythm on the hollow metal.
“Let me get an application,” he said, and knelt down into the shelf beneath the register and produced a single double-sided sheet of paper with the regal UC Berkeley coat of arms in the upper right corner and a plethora of lined spaces and boxes underneath.
“It’s not full-time, it’s thirty hours,” he said.
“Okay, just fill this out,” he said.
“Alright, I can fill it out here.”
“You need to list your references and your work experience.”
“That’s fine. I remember them.”
“Phone numbers? Addresses?”
He laughed. “Well go ahead then, I guess. But maybe you’re overqualified.”
I took the paper from him. “I’ll just go take one of these chairs and use a book to write on. Can I borrow a pen?”
“Sure thing,” he handed me one, then he leaned towards me, that disarming grin a little more honest, a priest passing wafers.
“But listen,” he said. “Don’t give it to me just now. I’m not gonna be making the hiring decisions. I’m the floor supervisor, the manager’s not in today. Come back tomorrow, and ask for ‘Berto.”
“Dagoberto, he goes by ‘Berto.”
“That’s the best I can do for you. If you make a good impression you might have a chance for an interview. But we’ve been getting a lot of applications.”
There’s no way to gauge a stranger’s sincerity. Trevor knew this. He’d given me an inside track, and he’d given me his attention. But he hadn’t yet given me his endorsement, and I had no way of knowing if he would. His smile, while honest and forthright, carried with it the threat of disapproval, of needing to know more about me than he’d learned thus far. Even he who took pride in his magnanimity could not help but draw pleasure from the power of the employed. Probably there are few who can.
“Thanks,” I said. “I mean that.”
“Oh that’s alright. Do what you gotta do.”
“I’ll just fill this out.”
“You do that.”
I nodded and retreated back into the store. I selected an appropriately sized hardcover book, and I found a reading chair. I sat down, crossed an ankle up on my knee, and rested the book on the joint of my knee and thigh. I smoothed the application out steady on the book. I put pen to paper. The names, addresses and phone numbers of my prior workplaces unfurled out from my hand down through the pen, easy as water falling downhill, and when I blinked and looked up, the store had emptied around me, and the application was complete. I put it in my backpack, and I left.
When I returned the next day, I was wearing my best clothes. A pale blue collared shirt, tan slacks, and black imitation leather wait shoes that could’ve passed for dress shoes, at least by my reckoning. I’d combed my hair, maybe for the first time since I’d had my last job. I’d showered and shampooed, and I’d even used a neighbors’ conditioner, naively left behind in the common bathroom. It felt good to look good, like I were prepared, like I were making progress, like I were a different person already. I might as well have been a student.
Trevor wasn’t at the counter. There were three cashiers, and they were all women, and probably none of them were named Dagoberto.
I didn’t want to give them my application. That would ruin my only edge. But I didn’t want to linger either. I didn’t want to lose my sense of purpose, my tenuous hold on normalcy.
So I stutter-stepped and started back into the bookshelves. What else could I do?
Over the last couple days, and for no reason that I could strictly pin down, I’d come to really want this job. I had to own this want. I told myself it was good. I told myself it was normal. I told myself to go with it how I would go the urge, to use the sense of urgency, the sense of real danger to my advantage, because when it comes down to it, I was in danger. I’d seen the edge in stark relief, only a few dozen feet from where I was standing now.
An hour later, after I’d read about 20 pages from a randomly selected book, I went back to the front of the store. Standing behind the counter, a few paces removed from the cashiers, there stood a shortish, copper-skinned man with a pony-tail tied back behind his neck. He was leaning forward, propped up on one straight arm with hand flattened on counter. He was reading through some papers held in his other hand. There was no mistaking the solid, imposing carriage of the retail floor manager.
I opened my backpack, and produced the application, neatly paperclipped to a crisp and clean manila folder. I took one more deep breath, and I approached the counter.