Strolling Down Memory Lane, A Book Under My Arm

Thursday, May 4th, 2006, 9:08 pm

The other day I talked about one of my favorite books, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon. I read it for the first time right after I graduated from college, at a time when the story reasonated a bit too deeply with me. I left Happy Valley not knowing what I was going to do with my life (still waiting to figure that out), I’d made the mistake of falling in love with two people at the same time (in my case two girls, unlike Art Bechstein), and here I was back in Pittsburgh, living with my parents, wondering why I’d gone to college in the first place. Still trying to figure that out too.

Back then my library would paper-clip little slips of paper inside the back cover so people could write down little comments about what they though of it. The slip was divided into four boxes, each box big enough for one, or maybe two words. When I checked out Mysteries there were two “reviews”. One said, “Good!”. The other said, “Great!”. The world before the internet and Amazon and blogs was a much more succinct world.

I blasted through it in a single day, and when I was done I was rather sad, for a number of reasons. First of all, it’s rather a sad book, bittersweet and touched with what Chabon calls “the ruinous work of nostalgia”. I found myself thinking about my college days, all that fun and adventure, and how quickly they’d passed. And I thought about the two beautiful girls I’d left behind. Well, to be honest, they left ME behind. But you don’t need to know that.

What also made me sad was Chabon’s gorgeous writing. He wrote Mysteries when he was 24; I read it when I was 22, and trying to imagine myself as a writer. And I knew I’d never be able to write as well as that. I consoled myself with the fact that I knew I had some talent, but when you’re 22 and just out of college and the two girls you love have waved goodbye and you’re living with your parents…it felt like piling on.

I read Wonder Boys and A Model World and Werewolves in their Youth, the books Chabon published after Mysteries. But I still haven’t read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, the book that won Chabon the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. I’ve checked it out of the library twice, but never cracked the cover. This is partly because I don’t read as much as I used to, the Internet and writing takes up more of my time. But I have to admit that I feel a bit gunshy about reading what is probably another ridiculously brilliant book. My ego is filligreed with all sorts of cracks and fissures.

My library is accepting donations for their yearly book sale. The last four years or so I’ve been a giver, not a buyer, and this year will be no exception. I’ll probably lug four or five boxes packed to the ribs with paperbacks and business textbooks and CDs I’ve never listened to. Reducing my material possessions seems a path to enlightenment and serenity–and anyway, if I ever want to read any of these books again I can order it from any library in the city and have it two days later. I don’t need them on my shelves anymore.

I’m actually recycling many of these books, because I picked a lot of them up at big book sales or flea markets. Books for a quarter, a dime? A few bucks in my pocket could fill up an entire shelf. During my senior year at Penn State I stopped at the Hetzel Union Building (or, as it was so cleverly nicknamed, the “HUB”) during the last day of one of these book sales. I’d picked up a dozen the day before, but as I wondered the tables piled high with parchment I saw the sign announcing the terms for this final day of the sale. They had stacks of paper grocer bags, and the price was a buck for each bag of books. Fill one to bursting, and it was only one American dollar.

I had a ten in my wallet. I spent a good two hours culling the best of the picked-over tomes and squirreling them away in my paper bags. I filled four of them. I handed over my sawbuck, felt richer after I was handed my change, and scurrried out of the auditorium like a thief.

One problem. Books are heavy. Very heavy. And they have sharp corners. And I don’t have superhuman upper body strength, not then, not now. The 10-minute walk back to my apartment become something of a Death March. One of the bags tore apart and spilled literature all over the lawn. I stuffed as many as I could in the book bag slung over my shoulder, redistributed the others as best I could, and waddled my way back home. I think that was the only time I ever rode the elevator to my fourth-floor apartment. When I was sober, I should add. When I got home and dumped all those books on the floor, it was like a kid emptying his sack filled with Halloween candy. I stacked them on the table like you’d stack chips after winning a huge pot. With relish.

I love books. Loved them since I was a little kid. My dad has these enormous shelves packed and stacked with paperbacks–mostly science fiction which, unfortunately, I never really developed a taste for. I vividly remember going to the library with my first-grade class and each of us got our own library card. A rectangle of stiff, light-blue paper with a thick metal blank set in the upper right hand corner. My full name, alas (Euuuuuuugene) written in black Magic Marker. On that first visit each of us was allowed to check out one book–while everyone else picked something with more pictures than words, I selected a hardback novel in the pre-teen section, which I chose because it had a cartoon picture of a zooming hockey player on the cover. I bit off more than I could chew–even though I was a precocious reader it was too advanced for me.

But I made many, many, MANY return visits to my library, which is the same one I go to today. A few years after I got my card later I remember walking to the library from my house, a pretty decent hike along a treacherous road and through some woods and back yards. We stopped at a five and dime first for provisions (Gobstoppers for me) and then walked over to the library. I got there all by myself. I had a library card. I could take out any book I wanted, whenever I wanted. It wasn’t quite as big a deal as getting my driver’s license or losing my virginity, but it was close.

As I’ve sorted through my books and decided which I’ll donate and which I’ll never part with, I thought about the books that made the strongest impression on me. Certainly The Mysteries of Pittsburgh did. The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien–that certainly did. I read the short story by that name for a literature class, and one day I was dawdling through the stacks at Pattee Library and came across the book. I picked it up off the shelf, flipped through it, and took a seat at a study carrel. It was early Februrary, it still got dark around 6PM, and I sat in that chair for three hours straight. When I finished I sat there for a good bit more, just thinking. It was about 8PM, I was hours overdue for dinner. I got up, gently slid it back onto its place on the shelf, and headed home. It was dark, and drizzling, and while I remember those details (and remember that when I got home my roommates had already had dinner and there was leftover pot roast waiting for me) I don’t remember passing a single person the whole way home. I’m sure I did–State College didn’t suddenly turn into a ghost town. But no one on the sidewalks registered. I had too much to think about. If you haven’t read it, it’s a brilliant book. It’s not just about Vietnam, or war. It’s also about the elasticity of truth, about the true power of storytelling. I wrote the best paper of my college career about that book–althought the B+ I received made me so angry I nearly reported my prof to the Engligh department, as her criticism led me to believe she hasn’t read my paper but instead used some tired feminist rhetoric to “prove” that War is Bad. I also wrote about The Things They Carried on my GRE essay, which I got a perfect score on. Those three hours along in Pattee marked me for life.

One thing I really missed about leaving Penn State (besides the thousands of nubile young women) was being able to walk everywhere. I love to walk, but finding a place that’s both stimulating and fairly flat is hard sometimes in Pittsburgh. But now I’m in luck–every day I walk from my shuttle lot to my building on the North Shore. I walk along the Allegheny River, where there’s a path that turns into a wide, concrete promenade at PNC Park. It’s a nice walk, the skyline spread out before me, ducks and geese doing their avian thing, and very few people to interrupt my morning (and evening) reverie. There are a few homeless people who hang out along the river, especially right below the Clemente Bridge, where there’s a big covered space that come Memorial Day will house a place where you can rent canoes and kayaks. Walking past there during some especially cold March mornings there would be up to a dozen people sleeping there in that relative shelter, huddled inside their sleeping bags. Jesus, they must’ve been cold. None of them have ever bothered me.

I walk under four bridges along the way. A railroad bridge I don’t know the name of, and then the Carson (9th Street), Warhol (7th Street) and Clemente (6th Street) Bridges. One day as I passed under the Warhol Bridge I saw a blanket stretched among the steel beams atop a massive stone support. Over the days more items accumulated up there–a small chair, the kind you might see paired with a first-grader’s desk, and books. Whoever was living up there was using the girder as a bookshelf, stacking a number of paperbacks and some leather-bound volume pulling away from its bindings. It’s too high for me to see what the titles are. Actually, it’s something of a mystery to me how the person living up there (if anyone IS still living up there) gets up and down from his perch. A ladder doesn’t seem practical, someone would steal it…maybe he’s a rock-climber.

Memory plays tricks on us. Sometimes it’s a practical joke–we bump into a long-lost love after years apart and we can’t remember her GODDAM NAME. Sometimes it dazzles you by pulling a quarter out of your ear. It happened like that for me while walking to work a few weeks ago. It was a beautiful morning, the sky brilliant blue, and I idly wished I could spend the day outside, maybe toss a line in the Allegheny and catch myself some breakfast. I passed under the bridge, saw those books and the blanket that gave the tenant his privacy…and as though hit by a thunderbolt I remembered a fantastic book I read as a kid, a book I hadn’t thought about for 25 years but one that I dearly loved.

After work (and a quick catalog search) I drove straight to the library and went upstairs to the children’s section. In the days since I was a customer the kids’ section was greatly expanded, and I’ll admit I felt a little bit weird looking through the stacks with a bunch of six-year-olds. I remember the shelves reaching halfway to the clouds, but now I had to stoop to see just about every title.

The book I looke for, and eventually found, was My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George. The book is about a boy named Sam Gribley, who leaves his home in New York City and lives for a year in the Catskill Mountains. He makes a home out of a hollowed-out tree, raises a falcon chick to be his hunting partner, and learns how to be totally self-sufficent out in the wild.

When I read the book as a kid, I couldn’t believe that this boy just left his home and family behind and went to live in the woods. And his family were FINE with it. How fantastic would that be? What little boy hasn’t dreamed about running away from home with a knapsack over his shoulder and having great adventures?

Most of the book is about Sam learning to survive. He learns to make a fire with his flint; he traps animals and harvests plants; and he hollows out his tree. That tree-house, which was big enough for Sam to sleep in and actually had a chimney and fireplace inside, was the focus of many idle daydreams when I was a kid. Right up to the point where I realized girls weren’t so icky after all.

Re-reading the book as an adult I was struck by how certain parts suddenly sent me back to my childhood. Like, Sam learns to grind acorns into flour, and he often eats acorn pancakes and blackberry jam for breakfast. I tried that, harvesting acorns from a huge tree by my bus stop. The results, which came after Herculean labor, were absolutely disgusting. Do not try that at home, kids, at least not without a bit more research than I did.

Sam runs away from home, goes to live in the woods…and his parents are cool with it. Today, even if they WERE cool with it, there would be a massive manhunt and Rita Cosby and Greta Van Sustren would be on every goddam night talking for two hours about that poor missing boy and his horrible parents. In fact, reports in the papers about a wild boy living in the mountains do get people out looking for him, and in the end Sam’s whole family comes out to see him. He’s happy to see them–as time goes on he wonders if he WANTS to be found, so he has an excuse to go home–but instead of taking him back Sam’s family decides to STAY with him. I remember being very disappointed about that–having mom and dad and ten siblings around would remove all the romance of living by yourself in the woods.

I did not know until I read this new paperback edition of the book (the picture of Sam on the cover looks so much like me at 13 that I’m thinking of filing a lawsuit) that, 30 years later, George wrote a sequel titled On the Far Side of the Mountain. I’m hesitant to read it–I’m afraid it might spoil this perfect little memory from my childhood. There’s also a book titled Frightful’s Mountain, which is written from the point of view of Sam’s falcon. I’m not sure if I’ll read that either. But I probably will. I have a niece and nephew who are about the same age I was when I read My Side of the Mountain for the first time. And while I don’t know if putting ideas of running off to the mountains is a good idea, it doesn’t seem to have done me much harm. I’ve always loved the idea of living somewhere quiet and solitary. After re-reading My Side of the Mountain, I see why that idea is so deeply rooted in my memory.

I heartily recommend you read the books I just talked about at such self-indulgent length. Do that and I’ll feel I’ve accomplished something. Me, I’m gonna go read the book I got out of the library yesterday–The Complete Short Stories of Raymond Chandler. Probably won’t read all 1299 pages tonight. But according to the slip of paper clipped to the back cover, these are “excellent short stories”. I think I’m in good hands.

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5 Responses to “Strolling Down Memory Lane, A Book Under My Arm”

  1. Dave Says:

    My Side of the Mountain. Thanks for the wonderful flashback. 5th grade, Aaron V. and I spend our lunchtime recess planning our own yearlong excursion into the deep woods (maybe 20 acres, but we were young) that proliferated his backyard.

    But, alas, our parents only agreed upon a Friday night – Sunday morning gig. And I think his parents checked on us too. I’ll also admit to eating, but not bringing, half the box of Twinkies.

  2. Daddy Says:

    Great fucking post.

  3. gracie Says:

    Today is the perfect Friday to skip out of work early and go to the library. I haven’t done that in ages and for the life of me, I don’t know why. Thanks.

  4. madscratch Says:

    Hey Gene,

    Long time reader, first time commenter. Excellent post. How about Larry Brown? “Father and Son” is a fantastic book.

  5. Joe Says:

    I had completely forgotten about how much I loved “My Side of the Mountain” as a youngster until I read about it here. I hadn’t thought about that book in probably 14 years.

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