Travel by Bookshop

In Seattle we enter a second-hand bookstore to find a guard cat at the door. Hard to tell if he’s gatekeeper or greeter: he neither blinks nor budges at our arrival. As soon as we step inside we know Twice Sold Tales is our kind of store. Mazes of floor to ceiling shelves snake through four or five rooms in an old house. Walking in we inhale that used book smell of paper and bindings faintly laced with ink and dust. It is an aroma only found in shops with many hardbacks printed half a century ago.

Front door cat at Twice Sold Tales

The literature/fiction section begins with Edward Abbey, a good sign. A faint sound of classical cello fades. The books on books section is of ample proportions, as I can tell from Phil’s murmur of approval. I open a collection of Camus essays translated by Justin O’Brien to find: “Without freedom, no art; art lives on the restraints it imposes on itself, and dies of all others.”

Murmur of voices at the front desk, otherwise silent. We spent the previous day in popular pursuits—Pike Place Market, the throwing of fish, the Ballard Locks—places of crowds and noise and music. Now the quiet is balm. Thank God some enterprises still understand the need for it. Among the G’s, where I happen to find a seat to copy the Camus quote, I see Cristina Garcia, John Gardner, Elena Garro, Elizabeth Gaskell, Amitav Ghosh, William Golding, Grass, Graves, Greene.

A book scout, clearly a regular, brings a box the owner is mostly pleased with, and while going through it, she tells him what she needs. Toni Morrison, David Sedaris—they always sell. Oh, and Dr. Seuss, the tall hardbacks. Adults buy them.

Overheard customer conversation, several shelves away: “Oh, yes. I had an affair with that book myself.”

Later, as the scout’s leaving, the proprietor calls, “1984! I’m out of 1984. I need any of those you can find, can’t keep them on the shelf.”

We plan a bookstore day in every city we visit. It always feels like a more authentic experience of a place, used bookstores being primarily patronized by locals and tucked into neighborhoods tourists don’t visit. Our bookshop day in Vancouver took us to Gastown, which reminded Phil of what San Francisco’s Mission once was. Driving in Vancouver was even more intimidating than Seattle, so we took a cab and the bookstores we visited were within blocks of each other.

A Vancouver institution, MacLeon’s Bookstore

MacLeod’s has been there 45 years and is the kind of packrat place you once saw in every town with second-hand stores. Books stacked on shabby carpet in front of overstuffed shelves, piled in listing towers you tiptoe past for fear of them falling on you. It’s the kind of store that may contain buried treasures, makes you feel like you’re mining a vein. As Phil says, “the hunt is the thing.” Hidden in those mountains is a hardback copy of a first edition in mint-condition dust jacket priced at ten bucks and worth a thousand. You never find it.

Outside the shop’s cluttered windows, a scene was being filmed: one giant spot, computer board, wires and cords, the crew scruffy, mostly in black, baseball caps, headsets. Much standing around, drinking coffee, punctuated by brief action.

The Vancouver stores all have Canadian lit sections and Margaret Atwood aplenty, along with a fair showing of Northrop Frye. You don’t often find him on American shelves anymore, but his impact on the study of English literature was considerable. I don’t recognize most of the Canadian authors. Many books don’t make it south of the border, although the reverse seems not to be true. In MacLeod’s I find a book by my great discovery of the trip, the Canadian artist Emily Carr (1871 – 1945). At the Vancouver Art Gallery, we saw her work and I fell in love with her love of these northern forests. I’m delighted to learn she also wrote:

Be careful that you do not write or paint anything that is not your own, that you don’t know in your own soul. You will have to experiment and try things out…but don’t take what someone else has made sure of and pretend that it’s you yourself that have made sure of it…If you’re going to lick the icing off someone else’s cake you won’t be nourished and it won’t do you any good…

Her painting I lingered over longest was this one, “Scorned As Timber, Beloved Of The Sky.” The next day, driving through Stanley Park’s forest, I glimpsed in a small clearing, towering thinly, that very tree.

Emily Carr, 1936



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Of the devil

In 2017, The Southern Baptist Convention voted against white nationalism at its annual meeting. The resolution  condemns “every form of racism, including alt-right white supremacy and every form of racial and ethnic hatred as of the devil.

In 1961, Preacher called a meeting of choirs and deacons. “What’s this about?” One of the other youth choir members whispered. Preacher paced a bit, like he did when he delivered sermons, telling us how important we were in this matter. “The congregation will take a cue from you. If you stay calm and don’t react, they’ll do the same.” Now we knew what it was about: kneel-ins.

We moved from Daytona to Vero Beach halfway through my seventh-grade year, 1957. Dad was taking a mechanic job at a crop-dusting service, giving up his yacht captain career for the family. Since we left New York when I was eight, we’d moved twice a year to follow his boats. Mom said he could keep doing that, but she and the kids needed to stay in one place. For her the straw was my brother having to repeat the first grade.

In 1939, As a teenager, Mom belonged to a New York Baptist church. She talked about church socials, the Puerto Rican and Italian friends she had there, and a Rican guy she loved dancing with. I have a feeling those boys weren’t Baptists, came for the girls and the punch.

That Baptist church was not like those in Florida, where dancing was prohibited. I don’t think she realized that, or knew Southern Baptists had split from Northern Baptists in 1845 over slavery. She and Dad didn’t go to church, dropped us off for Sunday School and on Easter we got new clothes and all went to a service together.

Easter, 1956, Miami Yacht Basin

In 1957, moving was hard on me too. By the time I’d made friends, we’d move again. Vero’s junior high was my thirteenth school. Perhaps moving had made me an introverted reader. Because even in Vero, I didn’t form the friendships I observed in others—sleepovers and shopping and the drugstore soda fountain after school to drink cherry cokes. The whole scene was inaccessible. I didn’t know my classmates had been raised in Vero, went to kindergarten together, had a depth of connection I never experienced.

As in the towns before, Mom sent us to the Baptist church. At 13, I was old enough for “Afterglow,” a youth ice cream social following Sunday evening’s service. I had my first home-made ice cream—peach—a taste revelation. The youth choir graciously accepted my dubious alto even though I’m apparently tone deaf. I learned enough about scripture to survive a few rounds of Bible drills. “Psalms 24:1,” the drill leader called and we flipped open our Bibles, trying to be first to find it.

In another year or so it was 1960 and boys had cars. We sometimes skipped Afterglow and sped down washboard dirt roads, shrieking as we fishtailed, or drove to the beach to barefoot through the phosphorescence of nighttime surf and make out in backseats. The church helped me transition from being a seasonal migrant to a fulltime member of a community. I’m grateful for that. And for the peach ice cream.

Children don’t question the world in which they find themselves. There were no black people in that 1957 world—not in my neighborhood, not in school, not in church. There were black people, and the downtown department stores that solicited black trade had Colored and White drinking fountains, but no one black was ever in the drugstore where kids gathered after school. I never thought about it. It just was.

In 1961, I found a copy of Richard Wright’s Black Boy in a secondhand store. I was sixteen. Scales fell from my eyes. It dawned on me that black people had been treated in highly unchristian manners. I became aware of distant movements stirring, kneel-ins among them. Black activists showed up to desegregate white churches throughout the south. Preacher held his meeting with deacons and choirs, about what we’d do if a kneel-in came to our church. “We’ll seat them,” Preacher said. “Outside agitators: they won’t come back.”

My beliefs and Baptist policy felt like opposing systems as I sat in that meeting. I said nothing. Nor did anyone in the youth choir. But a male adult choir member muttered, “no nigger better sit next to my wife.” Those around him nodded. How could Christians talk like that? Outraged, I thought, “these people are of the devil.”

I read Emerson, who said why not go to your heart first, stopped attending, never entered a Baptist church again. There is no judgment so harsh as one made in ignorance, whether mine or that of the adult choir.

I’ve learned that people do all manner of evil in the name of religion. Baptists don’t have a corner on that and surely, there were good people in that church. As a reader, I was on my way out anyway. Emerson led to Thoreau and civil disobedience. Wright led to Baldwin and civil rights. My gypsy childhood left my ties to Vero tenuous, easily undone. Queens was more my home than a succession of Floridian East Coast towns.

Southern Baptists finally passed a repudiation of slavery in 1995. Reading about this latest resolution, I thought perhaps the organization was finally coming to Jesus. But at the same June 2017 meeting, they voted to condemn Planned Parenthood. Poor women in need of healthcare can go to hell. My decision fifty-seven years ago still stands.


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Dogs of Whittier

I wake at midnight to dogs barking. Barking in the night is the sound of urban ghetto or rural poverty, evokes the boney dogs of slum backyards and country farms. In film festival shorts we saw last fall, we heard barking as the camera slowly zoomed in on small huddled homes, villages in Nepal, Pine Ridge Reservation, Mexico.

Juan Rulfo’s tough story: No oyes ladrar los perros. Don’t you hear the dogs barking. It is how we know we’ve reached town in the pitch dark of rural night.

When we came here 33 years ago, the neighborhood was patchy, with poor, neglected sections of sagging porches, windows covered in plastic, cars on blocks in the backyard. And there were dogs, in filthy pens and on chains in backyards, or wandering the alleys collarless. My first winter here the dog across the alley stretched its staked rope as far as it could reach, wore a bare circular path, had no shelter, curled into a ball covered by snow. Next door two Dobermans lived in the weedy backyard, were fed intermittently, and abandoned when their owners decamped under cover of night.

When life is a struggle to meet basic needs, people often don’t adequately care for children or themselves, let alone animals. I was a member of such a family for a decade, participated in bad decisions, self-destructive behavior. Children and animals paid a price. Thirty years ago, moving here reminded me of that. Dogs barked neurotically, venting the misery of their exile. I snuck them water and food, took strays to shelters, adopted kittens out of the alley.

My neighbor Bartleby, being walked by one of his humans, the artist Jenn

Now that gentrification is upon us, things are different. The new people walk their dogs accompanied by baby strollers and cell phones, take dogs into the house. My neighbor dogs, Gideon and Bartleby, go everywhere with their owners. Today’s dogs are far from those starved animals that sometimes ran these streets in packs.

Yet I am awakened by the sound of dogs barking. Everyone has privacy fences now, so I cannot identify the source, but some white people leave their dogs in back yards. I say white people, because except for the apartments and one family, that’s all that lives on this block today. In 1984, everyone except for us was black, Mexican and Central American.

I’ve been visiting when people’s dogs start barking outside. My hosts seem oblivious or inured to it, keep talking, check the dog when it’s convenient. Perhaps I’m associating it with my troubled past, but barking rivets my attention like the sound of a baby crying. I cannot focus on conversation until it stops. To me, barking dogs are unhappy dogs. Someone at the Dumb Friend’s League told me that pets being given up bark and meow and whine. Homeless animals are silent. “They don’t expect anything,” she said.

The backyard dogs set each other off—there are four or five of them—hear a cat prowling the top of a fence, or maybe a raccoon. We’ve got raccoons in this city neighborhood, raccoons and foxes and coyotes. The more we encroach on their habitat, the more they must encroach on ours. It takes half an hour for the dogs to subside. Sometime before one a.m. I’m able to go back to sleep.

I kept a log for a while, thinking I might call Animal Control, but never did. The non-stop barking generally lasts no more than an hour. Dogs are not being left out all night. The dog owners I know are conscientious custodians. Still, when the barking erupts as I’m going to bed, I groan, because I won’t sleep until it stops.

Summer has barely begun and I catch myself yearning for winter, when people let dogs out less and the quiet I cherish this neighborhood for reasserts itself. Between the turmoil of our first decade here and this decade’s rush of new residents, we had slowly improving tranquil years. People called the neighborhood “The Whittier.” There was always a place to park in front of the house. Days were quiet and evening events ended by 10. With a few exceptions to prove the rule, even the Section 8 apartments were calm.

Whittier is changing as all urban neighborhoods are right now, because people with resources have decided to live in the city. I’m happy to see Victorian houses restored to their former glory, can’t complain about skyrocketing home values, and have terrific neighbors. We house sit for each other, and I can still coax new arrivals into taking my overgrown day lilies and irises when I thin them. But when it comes to dogs, sometimes it seems like nothing has changed.



Posted in Memoir, Neighborhood | 5 Comments

A Reason For Poems, accompanied by cats

Thanks to Bob Jaeger and apologies to Ada Limón

I’m talking to the cats because they’re alone all day and only have a brief distraction when I come over to feed them. “So how was your day?” I ask. “You were sleeping weren’t you? You look like you were sleeping. What? Am I taking too long? But you can see that your bowls need washing. Patience, you know, is a virtue.”

Ruach appears promptly to eat but I understand I am not to touch her, nor even come near her really. Once I’ve put her food down I back away quickly or she won’t even approach the dish. I am not a real person to Roo. I am a barely tolerable fixer of food and litter box cleaner. I have no illusions. Roo’s real person will be back in three more days. She’s in Ireland, an enviable location.

Liat is another matter, greets me at the door, jumps on the table and taps me on the arm with her paw: “hey, over here. Look at me. I need petting.”

Liat on the table

I can never stay long, but try to bring something to do with me so I will linger a little to keep the cats company. Email to check, a New Yorker essay to finish reading.

Today I brought my phone because Bob sent me poems and I haven’t had time to read and respond to them. I subscribe to one poem-a-day list and Bob subscribes to another. A lot of the poems we read, shrug, delete. We’re tough critics. But when a good one comes along, we send it to each other.

Roo finishes eating, wants no more to do with me, and slinks back upstairs. “If you need me,” she seems to say, “I’ll be in the darkest corner under the bed.” Goth cat. Taking no note of Roo’s departure, Liat wishes to know why I’m not petting her.

I open one of the poems Bob sent and find it square. Ah, a sonnet. I begin reading:

More than the fuchsia funnels breaking out/of the crabapple tree…

Liat bumps her head against my legs, wanders back to her so recently full dish, looks at me as if to say, “see how empty it is.”

“If you are not careful, Liat, you will turn into a fat cat. Come here and I’ll read you a poem.”

Liat demurs. I ignore her and continue the poem anyway.

…more than …cherry limbs shoving/their cotton candy-colored blossoms to the slate/ sky…

“That’s nice, don’t you think? Those pink blossoms against a slate sky?” Liat rubs round my ankles, paces down the hall restlessly, unimpressed.

I sit. Now I am a lap. This is much better. Liat jumps up instantly. “If you’re going to walk around my lap, that’s not really—O.K. settle down. I was telling you that more, more than all those blossoms—”

it’s the greening of the trees/ that really gets to me. When all the shock of white/ and taffy…leave the pavement strewn with the confetti of aftermath, /the leaves come.

“Ouch, Liat, don’t dig into my knees. My knees are sensitive. Those cherry blossoms fall exactly like confetti. Are you even listening? Where’s Roo? Where’s your buddy? O.K. here’s the next part, then.”

Patient, plodding, a green skin/ growing over whatever winter did to us, a return/ to the strange idea of continuous living despite/ the mess of us, the hurt, the empty.

Liat has begun to purr, softly. “Oh, Liat, that bit about a green skin covering what winter did to us almost choked me up.” Liat massages my thigh gently, her front paws spread into furry fingers. “If it can choke you up, it’s probably a good poem.”

I spy Roo’s gray head peering from the top of the stairs. “You like the poem after all, hey Roo? Didn’t want to miss the conclusion? It’s only fourteen lines, you know.” I direct my voice toward the second floor.

Roo on the stairs

Fine then,/ I’ll take it, the tree seems to say, a new slick leaf/ unfurling like a fist to an open palm, I’ll take it all.

“Like a fist to a palm,” I repeat for the cats, demonstrating with my own hands how my fists, clenched tight with the anger ignited by this regime, can unfold into the pacific palms up position. Om shanti, shanti, shanti.

Roo continues to gaze impassively from the stairs, gray head, golden eyes. Liat settles her blue-eyed self more comfortably into my lap.

In these hard times, despite the mess, the hurt, the empty of us, it is good to read such a poem, which is after all titled “Instructions On Not Giving Up.” And better yet to read it aloud with a purring cat in one’s lap.


Ada Limón’s wonderful sonnet, in its proper format and without cat disturbances, can be found below.



Posted in Humor, Writing | 9 Comments