Letter No. 64: Includes incidents in two bookshops, lots of hellos, and some personal disappointment.
I was browsing in a suburban Washington bookshop when I became aware of an insistent voice. Someone across the room was repeatedly saying hi. Not to me, but to everyone who came down the three stairs that led to the fiction/poetry/essays section. The voice was a bit too loud and insistent and its tone did not match the age of the young man issuing the greetings. He looked to be in his early 20s, wearing sunglasses and ill-fitting clothes, his face displaying some acne and a gap between his front teeth. He had my attention as he approached one stranger after another and said, “Hi!” The closest he came to a conversation was an uncomfortable silence, to which he’d respond, “Well, good-bye then!” delivered with the same enthusiasm.
When I was in my early 20s, one day I watched a trio of teenaged boys in yet another bookshop. They looked great, tall and smart with long hair and edgy black leather jackets. It was mid-December and they were in the store to buy each other books for Christmas. I looked at them and thought, I would have killed to be a guy like that in high school. I was an awkward young man who oscillated between wanting everyone to leave me alone and yearning to be part of a tribe. In my imagination, this tribe was always a loose confederation of smart, artsy, funny, hip people who orbited various cool places and stayed up late and hated their day jobs and drank too much and had creative side gigs. A couple of times, I found what I thought I was after. I was embraced by some lovely people, but always managed to feel apart at the same time. I’d get comfortable and then begin to pull back. It was maddening, and only much later did I understand that the central issue was the many years it took me to become at ease with my true nature. I was as bad at introducing myself to myself as I was at introducing myself to other people.
Now and then when I was 22 or 25 I would force myself to approach strangers in social or business situations to start a conversation. It never went well. But I’d do it again and again because I thought it was a thing that a grownup should know how to do. How hard could it be? Everywhere I looked there were dozens of otherwise dim people who seemed able to strike up a conversation with anyone. They could chat up a hamster, ferfucksake, what was my problem? At some point as an apprentice grownup I resolved the issue by simply giving up. You can’t be embarrassed by failure if you don’t try.
This all could be painful on occasion but I’m not really spinning a tale of woe because I benefitted from a paradox: despite being a bit of a brooder and prickly about my independence and prone to awkward introductions, I still attracted people. I might have been a doofus, occasionally a jerk, and always ready to go off by myself, but I still had some wonderful friends. My path to emotional adulthood was a random walk but I finally got there, though to this day I rarely initiate conversations. I now find it easy to talk to almost anyone, but don’t expect me to get things rolling. You move first; I only play the black pieces.
(All that said, during my 40-year career as a journalist I became a very good interviewer. Go figure.)
Back to the guy in the bookstore. Over 20 minutes or so of watching him work the room, I never heard anyone be rude to him. A couple of teenaged girls laughed at him, but discretely after he’d walked away; they weren’t mean, they were uneasy. But for all of our surface courtesy, we engaged in a silent dance of avoidance. We steered clear of eye contact and kept a bookcase between us when possible. He’d hale someone by Mysteries and we’d slide over to Poetry. “Hi!” rang out from Essays and we took a new interest in Fiction A-F.
Book lovers shopping for books turn inward. The silent solitary aspect of reading obtains even when we’re looking for what to read next. We could be the most garrulous person in the nonfiction section but we still don’t welcome an intrusion by a stranger. I wish that were the reason no one responded to Hi Guy.
It wasn’t the reason.
When I was a kid, kind adults might say of someone, “He’s not quite right.” Or, “He’s a little simple.” Hi Guy was not quite right. There was nothing to suggest he was there to buy books. I think elsewhere in the store was someone who looked after him; that person was doing the shopping and Hi Guy had been brought along. He approached strangers in the way of a chatty 5-year-old—innocent, guileless, without reservation, friendly as a puppy. Somewhere along the line his emotional or intellectual development had stopped, or at least slowed to a crawl. He was a child in a grown body.
What bothered me then and nags at me still is how the rest of us behaved. No one was mean to him, except we all were mean to him. Why could not one of us spend a few minutes with him, saying hi back, chatting about nothing, then for a graceful exit remembering we needed to check something in Biography in the next room, have a nice day, bye to you, too. His life might not be easy, and whoever loved him probably had a lot to worry about. All he wanted to do was connect with someone and all we wanted to do was step away from him. Not see him. Pretend he wasn’t there. Had he actually been a puppy we’d have all stopped to pet him, but we couldn’t be bothered with Hi Guy, a puppy in dark shades.
I’ll not offer an explanation. It would just be some banal bullshit dressed up as insight about our atavistic fear of the Other blah blah blah or our discomfort over “how easily that could be me” blah blah blah. I’m not wringing my hands either. It was one small moment where I could have done better, should have done better, life moves on. Maybe next time.
But just in case there’s such a thing as quantum entanglement of minds, a sort of emotional spooky action at a distance…Hi Guy? Hey, how are ya? Looking for a book? Yeah, me too. Take care, now. See you next time.