Going to the City for Noises, Smells, People - and Books
WE live on an isolated hill several miles inland from the Pacific Ocean, a place so free of artificial light that we can readily see the Milky Way when we moonwatch; a place so empty of human noise that we hear the calls of a night owl more clearly than the slap of tires on wet pavement. Occasionally, though, I long for the noise, smell, and anonymity of the city. I pack up my present work and carry it two hours into Portland where I spend time in the downtown library using the microfiche and making up s tories about the other library patrons - like the young man slouched against the card file. He wears a leather jacket decorated with a shiny hand-painted white guitar. "Born to Rock" is spelled out in neon green on his right sleeve.
About lunchtime, I head down the front stairs of the library, past the mothers and babies in the children's book room, past old men playing chess, their gameboard precariously balanced on a cement wall outside the front doors, past the men and women leaning on shopping carts full of their belongings. I get a coffee at the deli across the street where the owner and I chat for a few minutes about business.
Heading to a used bookstore that's a staple for city trips, I pass by a window display in an art store where my children and I have spent rainy afternoons looking at bright-colored chalks and paints. Hundreds of mugs, identical in shape and color, form a pottery pyramid. On each cup are the words, "How Will You Make Your Mark?" I think of this question as I walk north and pass by tired people sitting on stoops, by an old man asleep in the back doorway of a used record store, by empty faces on bodies that
cave in under thin clothing.
When my son is with me, he regularly gives anyone who asks some of the change he brings to the city. I usually walk by and then agonize over how to help, how to make a difference for men and women forced to ask for money for one reason or another - never feeling at peace with any of my answers. My son spends no time worrying about where the money will go, if he should or shouldn't give it. If he has it, he gives it and skips off ahead of me. He's more concerned about hopping over the cracks in the sidewa lk than he is in his recent benevolent behavior.
The bookstore buyer, John, is outside the store. He wears the same rainbow-colored suspenders that he's worn since the day I first saw him rubbing the covers of rare books as if he touched the most delicate of fabrics. I ask him for a book by Maxim Gorky. He navigates the uneven floors of the shop like a sailor who has learned to remain upright on turbulent seas. He goes right to Gorky. "This is by far the best," he says as he pulls out a small red edition of "Mother."
I tell him I'm looking for journals too. "A friend of mine told me that Dorothy Wordsworth wrote a wonderful journal," I say. He brings the first three fingers of his right hand to his lips and kisses the air as though he is remembering a sumptuous meal.
"Wonderful, wonderful," he says, "Dostoevsky too," and he brings his fingers up for another kiss.
I feel a familiar grief as I remember that in my lifetime I will never be able to read all the books that call to me from the sagging shelves.
Uptown, at the historical museum where I've parked my car, art posters are on sale. I find one called "Homage to William Blake," a drawing of a gnarled leafless tree surrounded by the poet's work. As I weave in and out of tight aisles toward the register, I bump into a couple standing so close together they move forward as one body when I come behind him. His black and her white skin frame a wall poster advertising a current exhibit "Strength and Diversity - Japanese American Women, 1885-1990." Between t he faces of the couple is a picture of a Japanese woman holding a sleeping child. The woman's eyes, forever solemn in this photo, catch and hold mine.
THE car smells of coffee and old books. As I head west over the small range of mountains that form a natural barrier between the city and its untamed neighbor, I think of stories I want to tell my children at dinner. They've gradually forged in me a space to carry details, a place to hold all the funny and sad stories I didn't notice as much before they were around. They've taught me to pay more attention to bookstore smells, the cracking sound when you open a new book, a dart through traffic on busy cit y streets, as well as the thrush's morning song, a breath of wet salty air, and a holding of each other so tight as to almost stifle a next breath.
Can I show them the mugs as prism-like reflection of color and thought? Can I explain the despair in the eyes of the Japanese woman, the smile on the deli owner's face? Like an enlargement of a single life, the city holds dark and light and all the shades in between. It holds the excesses of wealth and the ache of poverty.
Somehow my children have learned to embrace the diversity of it all with more grace than I've yet to discover.
In the car I practice the deli owner's laugh when he tells me about a favorite customer. I know my daughter will like this story. And I remember how the bookstore owner raised his hands crisply to his mouth - just so. My son, who would gladly spend the rest of his life in a bookstore, will appreciate this image.
I want to bring something home to my children for saving me in despairing times with their songs and dances that celebrate life, something for sharing their collections of details that had, for most of my life, passed me by. I want to give something back to them for answering the question, "How will you make your mark?"