Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Killing Time in St. Paul


It was a retirement party in a neighborhood without a name on the eastern edge of Highland Park in St. Paul. I dropped Hilary off—she was one of the organizers—and puttered north on Hamline Avenue past Randolph and St. Clair to Grand Avenue. On the CD player, alto saxophonist Frank Morgan was spinning an energetic version of Charlie Parker's "Now's the Time." Indeed.

I had ninety minutes to kill before the event got underway, and I had a plan. First stop, Kowalski's Market. It's one of those supermarkets where the lighting director makes more than the butcher or the produce buyer. Low light and dazzling displays everywhere, many types of "artisanal" crackers at $6.50 a box. I noticed that the display sign for one regional brand, Maple Terroir, had been misspelled as Maple Terrior. People in St. Paul do love their dogs, but all the same I thought I ought to tell someone.

There was no one in the booth, so I mentioned the goof to a passing woman wearing an apron, and she seemed pleased. "Oh, you must be an English major," she said with a big smile. It's been a long time since anyone took an interest in what my college major was! No. I  shook my head. "...but I do edit books for a living." Not exactly true, but the woman looked as pleased as punch.  I think I might have made her day.

My "plan" was a simple one: to pick up a box of Wasa crisps. They're sold in France under the name Cracottes; that's how Hilary and I first ran into them and how we refer to them to this day. Old habits die hard, and in any case, the word Wasa connotes those puffy but thick and hard crackers that are difficult to bite through and actually taste and smell like the farm. Cracottes, on the other hand, are airy and light—the perfect vehicle to carry slices of hard-boiled egg with wasabi mayonnaise on a bed of fresh arugula to your mouth—and at $3.50 per box, it seemed like a steal.

I wandered the store with my single item (net weight 4.9 ounces) dangling in a green plastic basket, feeling a little foolish as I watched people ordering quart containers of delightful looking salads from the deli. I briefly admired a sheet cake with a splendid rendering of Mt. Rushmore on top. I pondered the fresh fish sitting in beds of ice in a glass-fronted gondola, took in the strange aromas of fancy soaps in the cleaning aisle, and eventually added a box of Kind bars (net weight 5.2 ounces) to my stash. Why? I don't know. I haven't eaten one of those since the Luminary Loppet of 2016, where they were being given away out on the ice on Lake of the Isles.

Kowalski's doesn't have a self-check. I thought I'd found one, but it turned out I was standing behind an unoccupied cash register. The entry pad was incomprehensible, and nothing was lighting up. The woman at the customer service desk saw me, took pity, and called me over to her counter.

Finally back on the street with my purchases, I headed west on Grand Avenue a half-block to Sixth Chamber Books. I seldom visit bookstores these days--I already have quite a few--but I've been reading Dante's Divine Comedy recently and thought I might come across a mentor paperback edition of the Paradiso—the Ciardi translation.

Besides, I still had 45 minutes to kill.


I had no luck with the Dante, but ended up purchasing two books from the memoir section, Kafka was the Rage: a Greenwich Village Memoir by Anatole Broyard, and Finding Fontainebleau: an American Boy in France by Thad Carhart.  Carhart's other book, The Little Piano Shop on the Left Bank, is wonderful. I think of Broyard as the Adam Gopnik of an earlier era. Both were from French or quasi-French New World cities (New Orleans and Montreal, respectively); both fell in love with New York, had small, seedy apartments, studied art history with famous critics, had plenty of bohemian adventures, and read a lot of books.

Broyard made some money while in the service during the war, and among the first adventures he describes is opening a used bookshop in Greenwich Village.
I had imagined myself like Saint Jerome in his study [he writes] bent over his books, with the tamed lion of his con­quered restlessness at his feet. My customers would come and go in studious silence, pausing, with averted eyes, to leave the money on my desk. But it didn’t turn out like that. What I hadn’t realized was that, for many people, a bookshop is a place of last resort, a kind of moral flophouse. Many of my customers were the kind of people who go into a bookshop when all other diver­sions have failed them. Those who had no friends, no pleasures, no resources came to me. They came to read the handwriting on the wall, the bad news. They stud­ied the shelves like people reading the names on a war memorial.
Others came not to buy books but to tell their stories.
It was the talkers who gave me the most trouble. Like the people who had sold me books, the talkers wanted to sell me their lives, their fictions about them­selves, their philosophies. Following the example of the authors on the shelves, infected perhaps by them, they told me of their families, their love affairs, their illusions and disillusionments. I was indignant. I wanted to say, Wait a minute! I’ve already got stories here! Take a look at those shelves!
      While I pretended to listen, I asked myself which were more real—theirs, or the stories on the shelves ... In the commonplaceness of their narra­tives, some of these talkers anticipated the direction that American fiction would eventually take—away from the heroic, the larger than life, toward the ordinary, the smaller than life.
These excerpts may sound a little grim, but the tone of the narrative is consistently crisp and often funny. In one brief semi-Freudian episode, for example, Broyard inadvertently destroys several corkscrews while trying to open a bottle of wine in Anias Nin's apartment. Just standing there in the bookstore aisle, I got a renewed sense of Broyard's buoyant and  incisive prose, which I dimly recalled from his book reviews in the Times, but I hesitated before making my way to the front desk with the volume. Then it occurred to me that it cost only 25 cents more than the Kind bars waiting for me in the car. And the woman behind the counter had let me use the restroom. Let's give her some custom.

"The owners are here most days," she told me as she was ringing me up.

"I live in Golden Valley," I said. "I rarely get over to this neighborhood."

"They also keep a meticulous record of their stock online, so you should check the website if you don't find what you're looking for. They might have it in storage. They also run a shop in River Falls."

"I think I've been to that shop," I said. "I got a copy of volume one of Walter Benjamin's collected works out there. Are you familiar with his work?"

"I've never heard of him."

"Well, I wouldn't recommend him."

Back in the car, I took the first left turn off Grand, and then a strange thing happened. I thought I was on Hamline, which I was not. I was planning to turn left on Hartford, which would have been a mistake. In any case, every left turn seemed to go immediately down a hill into the woods, which seemed very odd. When I finally looked at the signs, I discovered that I was at the corner of Edgecumbe Drive and Ford Parkway, which seemed impossible. (Nice neighborhood, though.)

Curling west back to familiar territory on Snelling Avenue, I made my way easily to the house, just in time to take a look at Celeste's hand-made books (a head start on one of her retirement projects) before all the guests arrived, and to pour champagne, both white and pink, into an array of tall thin glasses of various sizes and shapes.

Let the party begin!    

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