Monday, February 13, 2012

Psychedelic Rabbis and Religious Highs

Barnes and Noble at Union Square always had a cozy feeling best enjoyed during the winter. The Seventeenth Street location is the most fun of all the locations. She doesn’t seem snooty like the one on Fifth, and not so old like the ones down on the lower east side. The atmosphere is similar to the one on Avenue of the America’s where there may be no bathrooms, but there is comfort.

Like a cute wallflower that’s destined to be the main attraction, Barnes and Noble at Union Square has such an appeal because it’s surrounded by the simplicity of the farmer’s market. Where out of print dvd’s can fit in your book bag and free hugs come to you as soon as you win one of the chess games that are set up like a row of dominoes. Squeezed between the AT&T store and Sephora, there is something about this tall, slender bookstore that stands out. She is the girl-next-door of bookstores, and it is ecstasy to be inside her.

As an aspiring writer and all around nobody living in obscurity, Barnes and Noble was more of a sign than a store. She was like the lighthouse. When I was there I was surrounded by shelves upon shelves, floors upon floors of people who had all made there way through the hassles of writing, rewriting, editing, agents, publishers, promotion, and finally the public. I got to see the thousands of people that had turned their dreams into a real industry.

So it came as no surprise when I found myself standing in the café looking for a seat that I would never find. That’s the one downside to Barnes and Noble. There is never a chair to sit in at the café. The smell of fresh burnt coffee surrounded by high cholesterol sweets and overpriced sandwiches -probably a day old- made with canned lunch meat and garnished with a jaded employees spit, all conspired to create the perfect surrounding for a starving artist.

Truth be told, I usually sat in the astrology section. An earthy type employee with hair, as if by magic, changed in shades of red and brown, would always tell me to move. She looked like the type who had too many cats and most likely talked to “angels”.

I would then resort to the section on the fourth floor where most of the book signings took place. It served as positive reinforcement. I used to like to picture myself on that stage saying witty things while people stood in line to buy my thirty dollar hardback book that would sell for a dollar in about a year or two. On this particular day though, I would have settled for a chair at the café’. This day was a day that would prove to be lucky.

It was a solitary chair that sat semi-facing me. The chair bore a similar experience to asking a girl out to the yearly snow ball dance in high school. You see her from across the room, partially looking, partially acting all nonchalant. You can’t stop looking at one another, but you take your time going up to her cause your nervous that she might already be taken.

Well the chair was free and not really a part of any table, so I sat on it. I was browsing through a magazine and a book that I would skim for just the dirty pictures, when I saw a young lady carrying a plate with a large chocolate cupcake on it. I still remember the powdered sugar on top. In her other hand was an accompanying coffee.  She balanced her own set of magazines under one arm and had on a book bag. I saw her looking around the room facing the same consequences that I had to deal with when trying to find a seat.

“Here, you can sit here. You look like you need it more than I do,” I said.

She used a country-girl smile on me, the kind that needed no actual “thank you” to come out, but got the point across. She took the seat, and I stood for a moment feeling like a boy from a John Updike short story.

A few steps away sat man with gristle skin and a heavy jacket for which I can not recall the color. It did look like dense concrete that encased him for being inside a warm room. He moved his stuff off the chair across from him and looked over at me. 

 “Would you like to sit down,” he said.

 “Okay.” The chair felt just like the one I gave up to the cupcake girl.

“You know in all the years that I’ve been coming to this Barnes and Noble, I’ve never seen anyone do what you just did,” he said.

“Oh really?” I always like it when I stick out to somebody.

Upon closer inspection, I could see his thick glasses, balding head on the top, but long white hair that drooped out from the sides and back, much like a Maltese living in the wild. He kept his hands folded around his tall cup of coffee that was more like a dance partner than a drink. He would whirl it, caress it, and move about his lips in a calm fashion though.

“Yeah, most people don’t want to give up their seats. You must not be from here, how long have you been here,” he asked.

“About two years,” I said.

“That’s not a bad amount of time. Are you thirsty, do you not have any money? I don’t mind buying you a cup of coffee if you like,” he said.

“That’s kind of you, but I’m good on money. I usually like to just come here and read, but I saw her with food. She actually paid, so I figured she should get a place to sit,” I said.

“How noble,” he said.

 His two words would become a catch phrase of mine.  

“What are you in New York for,” he said.

 “Well, I wanted to be a writer. I got some articles coming out, but it’s all small stuff,” I said.

 “How do you support yourself. You don’t have to sleep on the streets do you,” he asked.

“Uh, it’s not quite that bad. I live with my brother in Brooklyn, and I have the proverbial day job,” I said.

“You know I used to write myself. I’ve published some articles,” he said.

 “Really, that sounds cool. You have any advice,” I said.

 With honesty leading the way I was hoping that he was someone in publishing that I could maybe foster a relationship with. My mind instantly went to me sitting at my desk in front of an electric typewriter. I was dressed in sixties fashions with a loose tie and cigarette in my fingers for some reason. I was leaning over my desk telling a mail boy how I got this job.

It all started with a sacrifice of a chair and some small talk, I would say.

Stay tuned for part 2...

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