How do we see, in a jumbled scene of thousands of books stretching from one edge to the other of our peripheral vision, the name of a college professor on the binding? Do we store a cache of known names in our minds, just in case we might see them again? Are we each a bit like Sherlock Holmes, in our ability to grab tiny clues? Why, then, do we lose our keys when we put them on the kitchen table? How come I can’t find the new jar of mustard in the fridge? Was I actually looking for this professor’s name because I am always looking for his name on the bindings of books?
The human mind is better at searching for things that it recognizes than software is. I was prowling around the Strand Bookstore the other day, and a book was there in front of me on a shelf and the author was one of my college professors. I have run into his books in bookstores before, and I do not kid you to say it has been the bargain bin at Barnes & Noble on two occasions, and I always sneer at them. My specific memories of him were of drinking tea at his house because he had invited a famous (and terrifying) author to come talk to us lowly undergrads and of getting a B+ on every paper I ever wrote in his classes. I guess I could tell you about his head and his hair and his nose and his glasses (oblong; thick, brown tonsure; prominent; round tortoiseshell), and I can hear his quiet tenor voice intoning about Yeats in a way that made me never want to hear about Yeats again. I stopped working and started playing in his classes, taking scary risks on papers (writing an essay at my typewriter in the hour or so before it was due). I never “got” him, if you know what I mean by that. I don’t think he “got” me, either.
Turning around I was facing a table of influential non-fiction books and found a stack of paperback copies of Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. It was colorful and inexpensive, and I picked it up and turned it over. I only buy a fraction of the books I pick up in bookstores; I couldn’t say what fraction. What needs to be on the back to get me to take it home? In this case, a Picador edition, rave reviews from Studs Terkel and the New York Times were enough. There’s a day-glo school bus on the cover, with “Further” as its destination.
I was a little kid in the 1960s, and my only memory of the world outside of my little life before about 1976 is of my brother recording with his cassette tape recorder President Nixon resigning on TV. I do remember some of the big 6th grade kids being very scary when I was in kindergarten, but I was afraid of everything then. The hippies had long, long hair and crazy, crazy clothes and they were almost as menacing as crows or old people. I love addressing things that scared me as a child.
I have plowed through reading The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test like I’ve got a quiz on it tomorrow. I have re-read passages, read passages aloud, sought people out to share it with. Tom Wolfe tried to capture not just the people and the actions, but the sound of it, the rap of it, and the aesthetic (if you could call it that) of the Merry Pranksters. I think Wolfe delivered more than a sketch, but the full experience of what it was to be “on the bus.”
And you must know, dear Reader, that the bus was called “Furthur.” Beyond societal norms, beyond good spelling, beyond normal perception, that’s where they were going. The cover illustration is wrong. The spelling was corrected by an artist or editor who didn’t get it.
If you take the Harlem Line on MetroNorth and get off at Purdy’s, there is a town up in Westchester County called North Salem. This is no real town in the typical sense of the word, but a town in the sense of a corner of a county. A map shows spots like Grant Corners and Peach Lake and Salem Center. When you drive around (and if you have anything to do at all you will be driving around), you see signs that say Waccabuc (which is fun to say silently to yourself) and Golden’s Bridge and Cross River. The signs are the official green road signs, so I presume they are intended to inform, but I find them very confusing. The only way they make sense to me is to view them as labels, as if the section of the road requires a branding strategy, so drivers will never mistake it for another stretch of competing road. Old Salem is not to be confused with South Salem, Katonah is not to be confused with Bedford Hills, and so on.
I think that places which can be reached by a commuter train are probably suburbs, even if there are dirt roads and tractors, which I consider to be two of the tell-tale signs of a rural area. I see more SUVs here than I do pick-up trucks, and the cyclists wear shiny spandex.
Having been here less than a week, I know no one here but the realtor who arranged for the rental, and the three administrators I spoke to in an effort to enroll my son in school. I have a P.O. Box, which I check every day and it is almost always empty. One day I did have one piece of mail: it was from the U.S.P.S. informing me of the failure of the change-of-address I attempted from our prior address. It seems the temporary apartment in the city is a business, and only they can forward my mail. I also noticed the other day that the post office hours have changed to now include an hour’s closure for lunch, from 1:15 to 2:15. This lunch closure is perfectly timed to coincide with the end of school at 2:10, so that it is impossible to check your mail on the way to school: it must be checked after.
The timing of the afternoon school pick-up always sends me into a panic, since it is a full fifty minutes before it ever occurs to me that I might need to go pick him up and eighty minutes before what I consider to be a reasonable time to end the school day. I usually emerge from my mid-afternoon stupor at 2:15, realizing I am already late. Soon, I should look into the yellow school bus thing, since it seems to be an option. Sometimes I follow them all the way in to school in my efforts to deliver the boy by 7:28 am.
I am not the only mother that drives her child to school here, nor am I the only one who picks up after. A line forms at pick-up time, starting by 1:45. Few parents interact with each other at all in this line, and while I have been tempted to introduce myself to the driver of the next car in line, I have not done it yet.
Monday mid-day I took the dogs for a walk. We got a good long look at a huge turkey vulture pecking at a carcass in the road and spied quite a lot of chipmunks. It was a beautiful late summer day. We were passed by a few cars. For the first time since we’ve been here, I felt like it might be tolerable to be here for a few months.
Within a quarter mile of our rental house, we passed a woman with a small dog on a leash. Her dog grew noisy and excited about my two, and I offered to come over and introduce them, since mine are “friendly.” “Friendly” is a password among dog-owners which I have come to understand to mean “my dog probably will not try to rip your dog’s head off, probably,” or “my dog will jump on you and leave muddy foot-prints on your jeans.” One of my “friendly” dogs has a history of being quite nasty to other dogs, and it has only been since she spent three days a week at doggie-day-care in New York City that I have re-assessed her ability to greet other dogs reliably.
The dog we met was feisty and full of himself, which no one finds surprising in a small fluffy dog. My dogs were polite. His owner and I chatted briefly about dog temperaments. I introduced myself.
As it turned out, I was introducing myself to my landlord.