Around two o’clock in the afternoon on a bright and chilly Chicago Thursday, a man in a black wool overcoat, scarf, and leather gloves walks into my bookstore and begins to browse without so much as a hint of acknowledgement that another human being is present. So I, sitting behind the cluttered, lifeworn counter on my faux-oak perch of a stool, return the favor and pay him no nevermind.
All I notice, out of my dispassionate peripherals, is that he browses the tables at the front by the big windows and the scuffed wood floor creaks in spots beneath him, alerting me to his movements as I settle back into minding my own business and withdraw all but the slightest investment of attention in his whereabouts and doings.
The recent bestsellers, the latest arrivals, the used and rare—I hear each pause, each shift of weight. After a few minutes of pauses and weight shifts he settles into the old leather sofa against the far brick wall and I glance up to see that he holds open a used copy of The Captive Mind we’d recently acquired from a university student purging her required readings from the winter quarter. The cover and about a third of its pages are curled back and held fast and firm by the four fingers of his right hand, while his invisible thumb steadies the arrangement like a prop. I wonder what page he’s on, as if knowing would afford me some trace of insight into the nature and quality of the moment, some sense of his intentions. He seems less concerned with the big questions, though, as he does with seeming to seem concerned, skimming page after page with an air of thoroughly mastered nonchalance. He could look right at me.
But he does not, and I politely resume ignoring him, though my eyes continue to dart his way every few every few page turns, merely because he’s there, merely because it makes me wonder why I feel the need for our mere moment to be about something, why I feel that couch was not placed there for sitting but merely to signify an invitation to sit which no one in their right mere mind would merely accept. This is a store, motherfucker. And I am here, minding my business.
On one of these darts our eyes meet and he speaks without disrupting his situation in the slightest, lifting his gaze but not his head. “It’s ok, I’m a writer,” he says, reading right through me and turning the whole thing upside down. I say nothing, only stare, more into myself than at him. Only those words. Only that glance, then back to the page. Only in Chicago, I think.
Only in Chicago would two complete strangers sharing nothing but an ordinary corner of our concrete and commercial cosmos operate so instinctively on the verysame wavelength of reckoning and exchange, acutely aware of any attendant incongruities and what their amelioration might could perhaps probably entail. I mean cost. In NY or LA, since no other cities really matter here anyway, he might could perhaps probably be permitted to sit in that couch untroubled for hours, reading peacefully without anyone second-thinking or double-taking beyond, perhaps, vaguely ogle-wondering who “he is,” leaving him quite free from peniurious eyes subconsciously peeling his off the page to request the sort of explanation sought by mine: what are you doing and what do you want, fishing for intent, grasping for purchase.
Only in Chicago would we both with an innate transactional sensibility recognize that this establishment was no library or park but, in fact, a business. Only there would never be a writer in Chicago, not only a writer, so I keep my narrowed eyes upon him, whoever he thinks “he is” because there’s no one here but us, all of us feeding the monster, outsiders first.