Pocket Books

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“Where are the Pocket Books?” I asked the clerk in the large discount department store. I was killing time while my parents were shopping elsewhere. A common occurrence.

“Ladies’ handbags are over there,” the salesperson pointed across the expansive space. .

“No, no. Paperback books,” I quickly corrected. I was humiliated that I had incorrectly asked for paperback books by the brand name. I didn’t know that the publisher was just the first of many imprints to produce and distribute pulp paperbacks. This wasn’t the first time I’d made the mistake. I soon found the section of rectangular repositories of information and other worlds. I couldn’t afford hardcover books so I waited impatiently for them to be released in paper. I loved perusing the racks of new releases.

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In junior high I won a contest the prize of which was paperback thesaurus. I didn’t really want it so I managed to trade it for one I did: Elizabeth Taylor by Elizabeth Taylor, published in 1967. Having followed the controversial filming of Cleopatra and admiring her recent roles in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and The Taming of the Shrew, I devoured the movie star’s autobiography. I vividly remember learning of her intense dislike for the appellation “Liz.” She preferred to be known as Betty Burton.

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Another memorable book was The Bridge at Andau, James Michener’s nonfiction account of the 1957 Hungarian Revolution. The paperback was passed around my pack of pubescent boys as if it was pornography. I think we were less interested in the political events, more titillated by detailed depictions of torture. I went on to read many Michener tomes, including The Source, Hawaii, and my father’s copy of Tales of the South Pacific.

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He had lent me his well-loved copy and told me that it was an adult book, so that if I encountered anything I didn’t understand, just ask and he’d be happy to explain it to me.
I kept coming across a phrase that I knew was nasty but couldn’t figure out exactly what it meant. I finally summoned the courage to ask my dad.
“What letter does it begin with, “ he wanted to know.
“S,” I said shyly.
Armed with the appropriate volume of the World Book Encyclopedia as well as a dictionary, we sat down. “What’s the word?” he asked gently.
I couldn’t bring myself to say it out loud, so I pointed to the page.
“That’s the word?” my father wanted to be sure.
“Yes,” I confirmed with trepidation. “Is it bad?”
My father tried unsuccessfully not to laugh. The word was: “so-and-so”.

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Another book that severely derailed my attempts at self-education was David Reuben’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (*But Were Afraid to Ask). I was 17 when it originally came out in 1969 and didn’t know not to believe everything the “doctor” said, specifically about homosexuality. It turns out I wasn’t the only teenager struggling with his sexual orientation who was misguided. Fortunately I ignored his “information” and discovered my own truth. By then I was able to laugh at Woody Allen’s wacky 1972 film “adaptation”.

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I devoured movie tie-ins. I remember Funny Girl (Pocket Books), Thoroughly Modern Millie (Bantam), and (surreptitiously) Reflections in a Golden Eye (Bantam). I didn’t distinguish between novelizations of feature films, often with “16 pages of photos from the upcoming movie,” and adaptations of bestselling novels. When I learned that the Sound of Music was based on the real-life Trapp Family Singers, I bought a paperback of Maria’s autobiographical account, justifying my purchase by writing a report entitled “The Trapp Family Singers and The Sound of Music”.

Now paperbacks proliferate. There are mass market and trade paperbacks, paperback originals, and who knows what all else. In American Pulp: How Paperbacks Brought Modernism to Main Street, Paula Rabinowitz investigates the role of paperback books in democratizing access to literature. I may not have been scouring the wire racks at drugstores and bus stations, but I sure did love me my “pocket books”.

Birds of a Feather

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Yesterday afternoon I happened to look into the backyard, which I do frequently. Through the screen door I could see that my fountain was filled with birds. Often a hummingbird is darting around or sometimes two or three birds are frolicking. (I don’t know what kind, despite having bought a card to help identify them).

Yesterday there were over a dozen, maybe twenty, cavorting in the fountain. And then I noticed the trees surrounding the yard were alive with lots more. There may have been as many as one hundred, of various species. It looked like a scene from Hitchcock’s The Birds. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I tried to take a picture, in vain. I wanted to somehow be certain that it was really happening. Then all of a sudden, in unison, they lifted up out of the yard and soared across the sky. An amazing moment of whispered grace. I thought I had witnessed a spiritual moment, and perhaps I had.

This morning when I went down to nap in my hammock, I discovered that there was indeed physical evidence of their visitation: the hammock with covered with bird shit.

A Blessing in Disguise

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It’s not often one can say that a flat tire was the best thing to happen to me today.

I was already late, having run an errand on the way to pick up friends for a drive to Bolinas, and from there to Oakland. Not the best time to have another driver honk and point to my tire: you have a flat. I immediately pulled over to take a look. Damn! It was totally collapsed. I was nowhere near a tire shop or even a service station. I alerted my friends to the situation, then called AAA.

Yes, I was in a safe space. Yes, I had a spare.

I waited impatiently and expectantly while cars whizzed past. Finally a bright yellow truck rolled up from which alighted a dark skinned young man, smiling. I was grateful to see him. When I told him I was trying to get to Bolinas, he asked: “To watch the fight?”
I didn’t know what he was talking about, until he explained about the boxing match “of the century”. Everyone was excited that Floyd Mayweather had finally agreed to fight Manny Pacquiao. He was going to watch it on television with friends at his mom’s.

He might as well have been speaking a foreign language. I feigned interest, realizing that he and I moved in different worlds. Akin to the AT&T representative who recently failed to fathom that I wouldn’t be interested in a discounted bundle that included cable because I didn’t watch broadcast television, “not even the news when you get home from work?”

The mechanic said he could fix the tire, quoting me a price of $30. I gratefully agreed.

He effortlessly began to remove the tire and pulled out the big nasty screw that had caused the flat. He obviously knew what he was doing and enjoyed his work. Suddenly our conversation somehow shifted. He mentioned karma, yoga, and his Black and Salvadorean parentage. His brother’s arrest for drug trafficking, how his mother’s prayer had saved him from the penitentiary, but INS immediately deported him back to El Salvador. At first I was just being friendly.

As we chatted he told me about how he had played sports, and had been offered multiple college scholarships. But as the youngest male, because both his older brothers weren’t able to, he was obligated to provide for his mother and younger sister. He went to work, a deferring his dream of playing sports professionally. We talked about the evils of alcohol and pot, racism, sexism, and junk food. We compared notes on how San Francisco was changing: housing, traffic, and homelessness. Without rancor, he recounted repeated experiences of racial profiling. This good-looking guy was an angel, beautiful inside and out. I admired — envied — his self-assuredness. We acknowledged overtly our differences: his skin was brown, mine was pink; he was 24, I was 62; he was straight, I was gay. So many insignificant differences. None of that mattered. We understood — and moved through — the universe similarly.

In less than an hour the tire was fixed, but something more had taken place. I can’t quite convey the power of our unexpected connection. I was impressed with his way of making manifest what might be called “Tikkun Olam.” Literally.

A moment of – dare I say – grace had occurred. And not just because he rescued me from the side of the road As he replaced the tire, he assured me that his repair work would hold, but gave me his name and number, repeatedly insisting that I should call if it didn’t. As I offered him $40, he was appreciative and we shook hands. I couldn’t stop marveling at this magnificent young man as we both drove off in separate directions.

Postscript: The trip through the GGNRA to Bolinas was beautiful, as was most of the route over to Oakland. We were going there to see a musical, directed by my partner’s high school drama teacher with whom he had recently reconnected after forty years. A high school production of “Hairspray” at Bishop O’Dowd High School. Whatever. But I had experienced an opening. I was different. Set in the early 1960s, the show was sexy, and smart, with catchy songs and lots of heart. It was a wonderful production, nearly as professional as the touring company I’d seen some years ago. As I watched, I wept, continually. Something about its young, talented, multiracial cast, its theme of integrating the Corny Collins dance show, and its all too timely setting of Baltimore, the site of yet more racial unrest in this country where it continues unchecked. I was heartened by the thought of a religious school promoting acceptance of difference, risqué language, and cross-dressing.

Maybe there is hope for the world after all.