I: Help Wanted

As it so happened, on one of those long, lonely afternoons when there’s nothing to do, and even less chance of finding anything to do, that I found myself on Telegraph Avenue, amongst the hippies, dippies, yuppies, and the incoming class of fresh-faced UC Berkeley freshmen, exploring the used album stores and the pizza parlors. I had no reason to be there. I never feel comfortable there. I feel that I stand out like a sore thumb, and I probably do. But I go there anyway, not for any particular reason, but who needs reason when you have nothing to do with yourself? Maybe I wanted to run into someone that I knew, some face from the past, with whom I would be forced to share the obligatory, sad and optimistically truncated relations of our past years’ experience, of what we had been through since last meeting, and where we found ourselves that day. I sincerely hoped not. But it was always a risk in densely populated areas.

Anyhow, there I was, and I’d reached Telegraph Avenue’s terminus at University, and I drifted over to the other side, onto the UC Berkeley campus, and down a flight of stairs to the lower level of Sproul Hall, and into the campus bookstore. I hadn’t realized it until I was walking through the double glass doors, but this was the only bookstore in Berkeley that I hadn’t visited yet. Yes, I had been to them all, and then some. Maybe my arrival at Telegraph Avenue held some purpose after all.

The interior of the Bears’ Lair, as this bookstore and its adjoining student pub are called, was as crowded as were the streets outside. I ducked into the crowd. I eased my way back into the stacks, keeping my head low, avoiding eye contact. On either side of me, ordered and managed and scholarly, stretched the product of entire lifetimes consumed in the pursuit of profit and enlightenment, packaged and presented to a public that, in all likelihood, would never enjoy its benefits. Even when I had nothing to read, the experience of walking through a bookstore always did me well. I found a book I recognized, but had never read.

Don’t worry, this was all a part of my routine. It really was not out of the ordinary.

I held the book closed in my two hands as I stood before the shelf. I opened to the first chapter, and I started to read. 

But it wasn’t long before a near by, friendly yet authoritative voice interrupted my concentration:

“Hey. Hey, buddy.”

I didn’t respond. I hoped that the voice wasn’t directed at me.

“Hey,” the unfamiliar voice said again, closer now. “Hey. Hey, buddy.”

I looked up, the book open in my hands.

I was greeted with a disarming grin, beaming from the face of an individual roughly my own age, and one whom I vaguely recognized. He was black. Black people are the masters of disarming grins. He was clean-cut with a close shaved head, standing tall and bright and alive in crisp blue jeans and the distinctive Cal Bears shirt that was the bookstore’s uniform. A laminated photo ID hung by lanyard from around his neck. His grin told me that I had nothing to fear.

“Hey,” I said. My clear-cut not-studentness blinking around me like a flashing neon sign.

“Um. Do you need help finding anything?” he asked, but still with that no-harm-meant grin.

“No,” I shook my head.

A couple other kids shouldered past us. The college kids, the kids who were supposed to be here, the only kids who should be shopping for textbooks in late August.

“You sure?” he asked, his grin taking on a strangely intimate element of concern.

“No, really,” I shook my head, a little too vigorously. “I’m just, you know, looking.”

“You aren’t a student here are you?”

“Well, uh, no,” I grunted.

Jig’s up. Let the orders to vacate commence.

But no, I was wrong. His grin stayed strong and bright, almost as if he were expecting this.

I wasn’t sure what to think. Did he really honestly want nothing more than to know more about me? I couldn’t quite believe it. I must stand out even more than I feared.

He nodded at the book.

“What’s that you’re reading?”

I closed it so I could show him the cover, though out of habit I kept my thumb marking the page I was at. Not that I was going to finish reading the chapter. Even if he did decide to let me be, which, if experience taught me anything, was unlikely, there was no way I’d be able to bring myself back to the happy absorption I’d left off.

“The Denial of Death,” he read. “By Ernest Becker. Huh.”

I watched him. His grin faded and left a shadow of careful understanding in its place. I’d seen that sort of understanding before, too. Usually it didn’t survive the first major confusion.

“Why you reading that,” he asked, “if you don’t even go to school here?”

I shrugged.

“It’s interesting,” I said.

“You like psychology textbooks?”

“Some of them.”

“Funny.”

“Well.”

“Something particularly fascinating about this book?”

“Well,” I shrugged, and I gave him the first answer that came to mind, though it wasn’t strictly the truth: “Not really.”

For some reason, this made him laugh, and his grin became genuinely genuine.

“The reason I came up to you…” he went on, “is I recognize you from somewhere.”

“You do?”

“You live in Berkeley?”

“Yeah I do.”

“I thought so. I think you were a customer somewhere else I worked.”

“Oh.”

And now, strangely enough, I began to experience that distantly familiar, and not wholly unwelcome sensation of reciprocal curiosity. His good intention, his attitude, it was infectious. Now I wanted to know about this guy too. I wanted to know where he knew me from and why he was being so decent to me.

“Where else have you worked?” I asked, in effort to please.

Sure enough, he withdrew and his grin wavered. I’d gone too far. I always do that.

“Well, I was waiting tables over at Homemade Café for a while last year, last summer,” he offered, a perfectly normal response, a perfectly popular restaurant.

No, that wasn’t it.

“I also worked at Barnes & Nobles on Shattuck,” he continued. “Before they closed it down.”

That must be it.

“That’s it, isn’t it?” he said.

“It’s possible.”

I said no more. Yes, that was quite as far as I intended to pursue that particular story line. I’d been quite relieved when that branch of Barnes & Nobles had closed down. There had been a period of time, a few years, to be honest, where I couldn’t walk down that particular stretch of Shattuck Avenue. Each time I did a sense of impending embarrassment would douse me in cold sweat, only to relieve after I’d safely crossed the street. Luckily I only did so a couple times. 

If this guy recognized me from Barnes & Nobles, I was in for it. I tried not to give anything away, but he must’ve noticed something in my reaction:

“Why do I recognize you?” he persisted, his grin in danger of disappearing altogether. “Were you a regular?”

“I’m… Well. Yes. I mean, I’m a big reader,” I managed, “and I like bookstores. I like books, you know? I don’t always buy them, but I like to read them.”

“So I saw you in there?”

“Yes.”

“Huh. You must have stood out.”

“I guess cause I was browsing so much. Eventually they told me that I couldn’t come back.”

This right here had just been a perfect demonstration of a half-lie facilitating a full lie. I’d surprised myself at my skills at improvisation.

But this guy did not appear fully satisfied. His smile faded and his eyes slitted. He shook his head, ever so slightly. A silence held and became awkward. Then as if coming to a decision, he raised his eyes to me again with grin freshly renewed:

“Most Berkeley-ites don’t come to this store for browsing,” he said.

“I’ve never been here before.”

“Why are you here now?”

I shrugged. I should have been lost for an answer, but this is what I said:

“You can’t find textbooks like this anywhere else.”

“That’s true,” he laughed. “I guess that’s cause nobody wants to read them.”

I flushed.

“Well,” I said.

He smiled again. He took a few steps back.

“I hope you have a good day, Jonathon. Take as much time as you need.”

Gratefulness washed over me like a dash of water.

“Okay,” I said. “Thanks,” and I meant it. This was one of the nicest things anybody had done for me in a long time. I didn’t know what to do with it. “Thanks a lot.”

“Don’t worry about it.”

Man, what a cool guy.

“My name’s Trevor,” he said, stepping forward and extending his hand.

I looked at it. I looked at him. This was strange. This was encouraging. He didn’t think I was so bad. Black people often have this initially accommodating quality about them, sometimes so drastic as to verge on condescension, though that didn’t seem the case here.

I reached out and shook his hand.

“And what’s your name?” he said slowly, emphasizing “your.”

“Jonathan. Jonathan Billings.”

“Okay,” he said and laughed again. “Have a good day, Jonathan. You seem to be an interesting cat. It makes me feel good to do right by an honest book lover. Maybe next time you come in you can buy something then.”

He clapped me on the shoulder. Companionable and manly and wholly un-homoerotic. What a great gesture. What a cool guy.

I turned after him as he passed, and indeed, he walked fast and assured and turned the next corner in the stacks with just as much assurance, his mind already resetting to whatever challenge life would offer him next.

And I could tell, by the freedom and un-warranted friendliness in his very posture, that Trevor was a student.

Huh. How about that. I guess you never know what a given day will bring. Maybe I was alright after all. Maybe it was okay that I was in the college bookstore even though I didn’t go to school here. Maybe it was okay that I stood out and could do nothing about it.

I stood a little longer with the book. I even considered opening it up again. It really was a good book. I really was getting something out of it.

But then I saw another lanyard-wearing employee approaching, and I realized it was time to make myself scarce.

I replaced The Denial of Death on the shelf, and I left.

And yet, later that week, I chose to return to the Bears’ Lair. In terms of my routine, this wasn’t too out of the ordinary. After I found a bookstore I liked, I generally kept going back until my welcome was fully worn. Usually it was attached to a specific book that I’d found and for some reason felt compelled to read there, at that specific location. If I had a copy of the book myself or if I checked it out from the library it wouldn’t be the same. I don’t know, that’s just the way it was for me during this period of time.

But that didn’t hold true this time. I didn’t even think about The Denial of Death when I went back to the Bears’ Lair. I think it was the novelty of this place. It was like stepping into another planet, crossing University Avenue. A world within a world, a world within my world. College students do have their own way of living, and I could see why it was no accident that they removed themselves from the rest of us in order to live it.

How strange then to find myself so strongly drawn back to them, back to the one place in my city where I would feel the least comfortable, where I would stand out the absolute most. Maybe it was my subconscious, reaching for one last way to kick-start me. People talk of the subconscious as if it’s smarter than the person, outwitting us at every turn, making us guess. According to Ernest Becker and the rest of the philosopher psychologists, it knows a lot about the world and about ourselves that we don’t. According to them, you have no choice but to respect your sub-conscious. You never know what it’s going to do.

I was reasonably safe. As long as I avoided overt eye contact they would probably allow me my space relatively un-judged. For these first few days at least, they were the intruders here, not I. They still had that automatic humility about them.

I wandered into them. Me, in all my pseudo-hippy glory. They walked by me and around me. If they had any opinions about my messy mop of hair, my dirty jeans, my muddy shoes and my overall ineptitude in terms of personal hygiene, they were politely reserved in expressing them. I found a textbook on European art history. I found a reading chair by the wall and I took a half an hour and I read a chapter. I even thought of buying it. More like I thought about what it would be like to be able to buy it. Because no, that wasn’t an option. I have enough to get by, but I don’t spend easily. I probably could buy it, if I really wanted. But then there goes half a week’s unemployment check.

After about an hour, I stood up. I wasn’t sure what I was doing here. I didn’t even really want to read these books. I knew I was really just here to watch the students, and I was starting to feel creepy about it. I felt that people were starting to give me looks. I was starting to worry about the employees, who I was sure had marked me already as a person who did not belong. Of course I couldn’t keep this up forever. I’d forgot how strangely it painful it was, this routine. I remembered that Barnes & Nobles had not been an anomaly. There was a reason I never returned to the bookstores after I was finished going to them.

Anyways, for now I’d had enough.

I put the textbook back where I’d found it, and I headed for the exit.

And there, taped to the glass doors with the bright sunlight shining on beyond them, (somehow I must have missed it on the way in), there was a sign. A sign that until not too long ago was a fairly common sight, but was now a testament in and of itself and whose conspicuous absence was a dire indicator of the collective adversity faced by so many others like me. Even those who have jobs. These days, everybody pauses a moment when they see these signs.

Orange block lettering, black background, white border. Blank white strip underneath the letters, where the details for the position should have been, but weren’t.

‘Help Wanted’ is what the sign said.

Help Wanted.

Isn’t it always.

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