Read Old Man Scanlon



16 October 2017

In my high school days I spent uncounted hours in a Providence bookstore, gone these dozen years, browsing the stacks with intent to buy, and, until I understood the odds, hoping to meet like-minded girl-nerds. I had no idea that the more you strive and search for happiness outside of yourself, the more elusive it grows. And I overestimated—we’re talking orders of magnitude here—the attractiveness of an aura of cool intellectuality, and, more crucially, my capacity at 17 to deliver it. Needless to say, my library grew faster than my social circle, not that that was a bad thing.

Though battered by Amazon, my affinity for bookstores endures. They are on my short list of places in which I can stomach shopping, right there next to hardware emporia and wine shops. Even so it gave me pause last year when Cheryl suggested we spend Black Friday afternoon at the newly-opened establishment two towns north. First, only a damn fool goes shopping on Black Friday; second, my impression without actually having seen it was that this bright, shiny, brand spanking new bookstore might be a little too trendy for me.

Its orientation toward the modern, away from the antiquarian, jibes with its physical newness. I’m uneasy that I’m not quite young enough to be in the target demographic, but it’s liberating not to be subjected to ads for back braces and catheters. The place is overtly cheerful and laid back. I’m glad to see a local business well-attended, and I can still navigate the aisles, relieved that there’s no gridlock, no subway-packed hell. I see smart phones—where do you not?—though also people wedged against shelf ends engrossed in actual books. I try to cling to my misgivings, but the place wins me over.

It’s a bookstore cum café, with a compact and well-crafted menu of soups, salads, and wraps. Cheryl and I decide to make it a day on the town, opt for salads, and find the last seat in the house. They rack up points by not deprecating meat, and their espresso claims your attention. We fortify ourselves for a serious expedition.

Now that I’ve deemed the place worthy, I’m dying to apply my bookstore litmus test. It’s simple: how much Balzac do they have? My teenage nirvana had a good foot of Penguin Balzacs. Here, I’m disappointed to find only a single volume of stories from the Comédie Humaine, but in compensation there are a half dozen volumes of Dickens, plus Tracy Kidder and Paul Theroux to boot. A bookstore I went to a week later had neither Balzac nor Dickens, but several Jane Austens. My test is subjective, yet flexible; hardly any bookstore fails. It’s hard not to start a virtuous circle: the more you read, the more attractive all bookstores become.

Cheryl and I wander as our separate whims take us. My neck, knees, and eyes are not as flexible as they used to be, so fighting gravity along row after row of tall shelves is not an unalloyed pleasure. An unoccupied comfy chair beckons—you might know it’s that kind of bookstore. I heed the call, sit, tell my feet they’re welcome, and close my eyes to throttle back the brain inputs a bit.

For a scant second I feel a hand on my knee, and a woman tells me, “Don’t fall asleep.” I do not know her, and she has touched me. My aura of cool intellectuality dissolves, failing me yet again. I think I replied along the lines that I was tempted but would resist. The exchange may have continued for one or two more rounds, but I don’t remember. If I did, I would certainly still be going over the words, again and again, testing meanings, inflections, nuances, and especially insinuations.

Seldom do I need to ask if I’m the target of a seduction attempt. “Never” is more accurate, but I’m as vain as any man. Is “Don’t fall asleep” a pickup line? There’s a good argument that it’s clearly not, but we hear what we want to hear. The thing for me with pickup lines is that if they’re obvious enough to be unambiguous, then they’re unattractive. The proper level of ambiguity must be calibrated with care, and there are so many variables to consider.

The touch is the crux. I am aware of every touch. I take every deliberate touch personally. Does a touch on the knee signify more than a touch on the shoulder? Touch complicates things for me. I can dismiss words, but not a touch. Touch catalyzes meaning from words that signify nothing.

I’ve never had a problem with medical contact—a special case of deliberate touching—in its gamut from immodest to uncomfortable to distasteful, but touchy-feely alienates me. Yet I’ve gotten better about that; I’ve mellowed, and I actually notice. Though I no longer take my personal space quite so seriously, I still do not willingly choose to make myself emotionally accessible to the random stranger. People whom I’ve known since puberty or before are now free to hug me without repercussions.

I’ve eked a year of idle speculation out of this incident—no one I know is so frugal he can wring as much mileage from a fantasy. It’s time to lay it to rest without regrets, and I’m pleased that it had no chance to mushroom into a sterner test of character. If I’d interpreted “Don’t fall asleep” in my usual bloody-minded literal fashion, I’d have recognized it as a selfless public service and no word of a come-on, an assertion of connection and belonging. Had I nodded off, the bookstore zone of hipness would have been rent by the gaucherie of an old guy snoring and drooling. Sometimes it’s a moment of grace when a thing doesn’t happen.