Friends Who Checked Out Early. #1. Billy Nimble.


Billy Nimble was a fat contract cleaner. I don’t mean he’d show up at your crime scene with a vat of acid and a hacksaw no, he’d come to your place of business and get his bucket and little Hoover out and clean it. I have no idea how he got the contract to clean the book superstore I was a manger in but there he was at seven A.M. Monday morning chipper as hell. We stood there with our steaming coffees, shaving rashes and stinging eyes staring down the barrel of another eight-hour retail shift and here was Billy skipping across the industrial carpet with earphones and a shit-eating grin, cleaning the hell out of the place.

In the winter months the Mall opened early so the seniors could get a decent walk in without freezing their buns off outside.  Our store was attached to the Mall at one end. As opening time approached, they’d gather on the other side of the massive glass doors and start moaning and banging to be let in – at five of – because our exit on the other side of the store was closer to the car park and they didn’t want to walk back though the cold. They’d bang on the glass, mouths agape, drooling, their numbers growing as opening time approached. It reminded me so much of Dawn of The Dead that I actually shivered and broke out in goose flesh.  But here is Billy, waving to them grinning and sweaty, mouthing, “It’s not time yet!” and pointing to his tiny watch dug into the flesh of his chubby wrist. He reminded me of one of the dancing hippos in Fantasia, massive and comical but with surprising grace. He had Nike running sneakers with a super fat sole squashed down at the balls of his feet and still thick at the back and sides. He tiptoed quickly everywhere, which was how I came to give him the name, immediately and without thinking; Billy Nimble. He had a wife and a new baby girl, which went a ways to explaining his extreme energy and happiness on the job. A new father, getting things done, making plans. He was guileless, happy and comfortable with his enormous girth. His jokes were bad but he did a great job in the toilets, which can be hard to clean after speckled bits have hardened overnight.

Halfway up the Cape (they’d say ‘down’ but we’re traveling North here) the highway terminates and if you want to go further you come off the rotary and merge into this four lane road, two lanes north and two lanes south. Now, if you’re on an errand and your destination happens to be at the other side of the road you have to slow down and come to a standstill in the fast lane, usually without a light, so that you can wait an eon to finally make the left turn you need. You’re out for ice cream, root beer or a floaty for the pool, maybe you need gas the for grill. So you are sitting there and you’re in peril. Is there a guy barreling up behind you?

It’s hard to come off that highway and drop your speed by forty miles an hour, especially when you’re late for work and the radios cranked and it’s so easy just to stay in the fast lane and forget that the road is studded with hidden cop cars. If you’re a tourist or just a bad driver you might not ‘get’ that in order to get where he’s going the guy in front of you has come to a complete standstill, you have stay alert and be prepared to merge back into the slow lane to get past the guy. Well there are plenty of tourists and plenty of commuters on the Cape and its hard to be alert when you’ve just come off of twenty miles of pre-dawn, featureless highway. That’s why the locals called this stretch of road, Suicide Alley. Because if you had to use it often enough there was an excellent and very real chance that you’d die on it.

I pulled into the coffee shop at Wellfleet and overheard two locals talking about the latest casualty; a local woman just running errands, rear-ended by a tourist, died instantly. “Thank god the kids weren’t in the car.” You’d be in a bar and hear about some fisherman that went out to Orleans for cigarettes and never came back. They want to keep the upper (or is it lower?) Cape nice, understandably, no chain stores, tall buildings or unsightly stop lights every few hundred yards. And it does look super nice. I guess they figure the mounting death toll will encourage local drivers to be more cautious. But bleary eyed vacationers in their Porsche SUVs, how are they to know they are seconds away from vehicular homicide? That the road they’re on, from a safety perspective, makes no fucking sense whatsoever.

So yes, you’ve guessed by now that Billy Nimble checked out early on Suicide Alley and left a young wife and a baby girl. They didn’t take him to hospital, he went like a bulb in a garlic press, they had to hose him off the twisted metal ball that used to be his jeep.  It was hard for me to accept the news at first. ‘He was just here! So young! So alive!’ the usual tropes.  They told me, ‘He’s dead.’ quite matter-of-factly when I asked what this nondescript Hispanic lady was doing Hoovering in front of the writhing sea of living dead on the other side of the glass; oldies with canes, in diapers, zesty biddy’s that had sixty years easy on Billy. I guessed the boomers must have played it safe back in the day, embraced the cold and gone the long way around. Slow and steady wins the race, go long on GE.

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The independent bookstore lives! Great Salon article on thriving Bookstores.

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Apple e-books Price-Fixing

NPR article.

“Five major publishers were accused of colluding with one another and Apple.”



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Net Giving

In the run up to Christmas 2011, in a moment of weakness and against my better judgement, I opened my checkbook and actually Gave To Charity.

I fell for it because it was a children’s charity. My thinking is that if you’re an adult in need of charity, barring an act of God or geopolitical concerns you may have brought it on yourself, but kids are different because they’re not the ones in charge, or so I reasoned and when I saw the ad on the side of a bus stop, I dunno, maybe I was in a schmaltzy frame of mind in the run up to the holidays but I said to myself, ‘Ah, look at this poor little toe headed pike! This is something I really can and should do something about.’

I’m not going to say which children’s charity it was for reasons that will be come clear in the next paragraph or so. So I sent them a check, not a huge check, less than a decent bottle of wine in fact, but something and then something else a week or two later. Then the thanks rolled in. Now I’ve worked in direct mail, I know what these packages cost to produce. A tri color multiple page piece of mail with a tchotchke in it might run to 75 cents or more. I did not appreciate getting an expensive ‘thank you’ in the mail because the cost of it just took a bite out of the money I had just sent them. I understand that whatever it is they send you after a donation has been proven to produce repeated and better giving, but not from me. I’d already set them up as an electronic payee on my online backing, so I didn’t have to sit down and write the check out. I had a plan to give in small increments over and over again, in the long hall perhaps making a difference.

Then the deluge came. Of course they had sold my info! I was a tried and tested giver. How much for? I have no idea. Pennies? Dollars? So they made a bit of cash to put toward what I’d already given.  But then I stared getting expensive please from all kinds of charities, all worth while and noble, but how could I possibly send money to all of them? I felt guilty. With each new glossy pamphlet or sheaf of mailing labels my initial donation was getting smaller and smaller. In comparison my net giving was slipping into the red. I was now uncharitable! The cost of all this direct mail was eating away my donations. I was now actually taking money from the needy by not consistently keeping up with all these expensive pleas. I either had to up the ante or stop altogether. If I sent money to all of them would the volume of this costly mail on my mat then increase exponentially? Ah! Then I hit on the solution. Anonymous giving. Word to the wise. Efficient giving is anonymous giving.

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Apple, publishers agree to settle EU e-book price-fixing inquiry

Apple, publishers agree to settle EU e-book price-fixing inquiry.

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The Amazon Effect | The Nation

Great article on Amazon & Publishing.

The Amazon Effect | The Nation.

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What could they be sinking?

We all have that one irrational thing that just scares the living crap out of us. Or that one irritant that gives us the keebles so bad, we’d do anything to get away from it. Winston Smith was petrified of rats, elephants of mice. I have a normally placid friend that will physically attack in an effort to stop you molesting that squeaking Styrofoam. Indy hates snakes. Do water bugs bug you? Nails on a blackboard? The list is endless. Me? I don’t like a wooden ice lolly stick touching my cold teeth as I’m finishing the lolly, it freaks me out, so does peanut butter stuck to my soft palate, here panic ensues. Some people really hate birds, when they see one they go, “Ehhhch!’ How inconvenient that must be, with so many birds hopping about these days. I really hate wet wool, especially if it’s trying to get on me. But these are just things that make me shiver with disgust and revulsion, like that hugely popular song; The Wind Beneath My Wings; it makes my skin crawl but it’s not going to give me a heart attack. But what about those things that literally terrify you?

blimpMy mother, for instance, is deathly afraid of blimps. When she sees one in the sky (usually because some, thrill seeking, family member has pointed it out to her) the reaction is immediate and hilarious. First she will sink to the ground as if the earth itself is tipping over, then she starts to wail and point and weep, clutching at the knees of the nearest bystander. ‘Keening terror’ I think they call it. The blimp provokes such a profound fear in her, such a catastrophic sense of dread that she is helpless against it, to the point where, if a real threat came along, let’s say a rapidly approaching, grinning, ax-wielding, blood-soaked maniac in inmates pajamas, it wouldn’t get her off the sidewalk during a blimp sighting. In terms of evolutionary psychology, these irrational terrors can’t be helpful to our chances of survival. Pathological behavior, like too much sat fat, isn’t good for you; unless she knows something about blimps that we do not? But wait, surely these irrational terrors are simply a veiled fear of death? You can’t just fling yourself on the ground and scream, “Ahh, I’m definitely going to die one day in the future!” They’d cart you off the nearest loony bin  mental health facility. Far better to say, “Oh sorry about that! I’m feeling much better now. Such sinister things those dirigibles! They gimmie the willies something awful, so they do!” Yes, mother has shown us fear in skyful of zeppelin.

So what’s mine? Ok, I’ll tell you. Although its pretty stupid, I’m already breaking out in a cold sweat thinking about it. Kind of the converse of hers really, it’s being in the water, with something big. No other people in the water, just me. It could be a pool, a pond or a lake, could be the ocean, any body of water really. It might be a whale, or a wreck. A submarine would be particularly terrifying (shaped a lot like a zeppelin!). Its just being in the water with something that has way more mass than I do and I can’t really see it too well and I can’t run away and if it starts moving, I might get sucked under and drown. This gives me a fear akin to falling from a great height and seeing the ground rushing to meet you. And I was a competitive swimmer! I have swum alone in pools and lakes and ponds and oceans. Sometimes I did feel the approach of terror, but I’ve never swum next to a ship or with a whale or a sub and I’m not likely to start now.

The reason I got to thinking about my greatest fear is because I saw this woman freaking out down by Lincoln Center. I was sitting on the median strip passing a few moments before an appointment. The median strip down on that section of Broadway is particularly clean as they have these guys constantly sweeping and spraying and wiping everything. I guess if you’re paying $500 per square foot a month for your yogurt-free-yogurt store front you might as well have a dude with a big blue rolling bucket making sure the benches are yogurt-free-yogurt free as well. She exploded onto Broadway coming east off of 61st street. ‘Not another damn movie shoot while I’m trying to enjoy my crabgrass flavored yogurt-free-yogurt. Dam it all to hell!” I looked around for the camera, but there wasn’t one, no one carrying a massive silvery disk of fabric, no thick black wires over the sidewalk, no impatient hipsters with walkie-talkies and Bat Utility Belts. This spectacle is for real! Now why should that be surprising to me? People who scream in the streets are very common in NYC. You can’t throw a wooden lolly stick without hitting a whacko chemically challenged outpatient having a heated conversation with his ‘absent’ friend or enemy, nemesis, freaking giant rabbit whatever. But this one was different, she looked like she hadn’t been insane earlier in the day. It looked like it had just happened, she’d just this minute, snapped.

It was the shopping bag she was carrying that made us nervous. By ‘us’ I mean me and my fellow onlookers, because she had an audience almost immediately. I looked around to see if anyone else was watching and they were, we were scattered over Broadway in a pensive constellation, some closer to me other perhaps a block away but we were all looking at her, some chewing their thumbnails, some holding Lattes loose and forgotten at their sides.

chanel-paper-shopping-bag-profileIt was both crisp and creamy this bag. There was obviously something expensive in it, a cardigan or a dress maybe or slacks & it had a great logo, French Royalty care of Beverly Hills. ‘Ohh, she’s been shopping today, before this all started!’ We thought to ourselves.  She turned on her heel, did an abrupt 180 and continued raving in the other direction. A guy on his cell leapt out of her way, as if she might bite him. Not yet thirty, she had black slacks and a white headband, a nice jacket and shades jammed into her brunette hair. She was screaming, literally at the top of her lungs.Are you fucking joking? ARE YOU?” She’d already shredded her vocal chords, the volume was incredible, (there was a ping back from Gracious Homes across the street) but even so, you could hear she was only a minute from loosing her voice. It was hoarse in just that way, husky with tiny bits of sound dropping out. Instead of bringing it down a notch she continued to scream as loud as she possibly could. “NO. NoNoNo. No!” Another 180, spinning, almost loosing a heel this time, completely wild & unaware of her surroundings. We were looking for the earpiece. ‘Is there an earpiece? I don’t see the earpiece. Oh God, let there be an earpiece! She must be on the phone. She’s just having an argument with her boyfriend. She was shopping so she must have been OK earlier. The phone rang, there was an argument…’  It was disturbing, as I’ve said because she looked like one of us, she wasn’t an out-patient, not homeless, not whacked out on street drugs. ‘She has a job & some taste. She’ll be fine when she settles down,’ we thought. Yeah but clearly she wasn’t just angry, she was psychotic & about to get run over. Damn it! She’d been one of us a minute ago, just another grazing gazelle, keeping calm and carrying on but now she was one of them; carrion. And if it could happen to her..

straight-jacket   It went on and on, up and down the block, screaming, bouncing off cars. I stopped looking for evidence of her phone, there was no phone. Eventually she stayed in a straight line and moved uptown. Unconsciously we all took three steps in her direction, keeping her in sight for just a little longer. Her screams grew fainter, “WHY DON’T YOU JUST GO?” had been her mantra for a while now. Sobbing, “Why don’t you just GO?” the fight was leaving her. “WHY don’t you just go?” her voice was almost gone now. Begging, pleading. Really wanting an answer.

    What happened to her? When she’d gone, I started thinking about this news story that due to my special fear, had scared the crap out of me several years ago. It was about two men, a father and son, who had gone SCUBA diving in one of the Lochs in Scotland. They had some experience but were not really up to the task of a pitch black dive. Just a few yards down, they were unable to see their dials. Thinking they were level they actually began to sink steadily. Imagine it; you think you’re ten yards down enjoying yourself but actually you’re forty yards now seventy-five yards below the surface of a frigid loch. You might feel a bit out of it at one hundred yards down. Something nagging at the back of your mind, like a phone call you were supposed to make. But you’re enjoying a quiet reverie and sometimes you just have to let these things go. You’re back in that great place you used to go to with friends, it was always sunny in the garden area and you laughed so hard the beer came out of your nose .. Wait, have you noticed a certain pressure? And which way is up by the way? Do you then just slip away peacefully to that sunny, summer beer garden with smiling friends or is there a moment of sudden panic & realization? Does a little light come up on your dial? “While You Were Away.. you passed the point of no return”. Do you then start to thrash and beat uselessly for the surface far, far above? Are you incensed? Thoroughly pissed that your life disappeared like a full monthly Metro Card simply misplaced somewhere? One minute you were treating yourself to that Prada bag you’d had your eye on for a while and next thing you find yourself strapped to a gurney in Bellevue. We’re not really built for this modern life are we? We may see many more of these snappings & thrashings in the dark days to come. That’s why I never go shopping.

    But you know what? Now that I come to think of it, she must have been on the phone. Maybe she just needed to blow a fuse, get it off her chest. It could have been building for weeks I’ll bet. She’ll be fine. They say Yoga does wonders.

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Startling innovations in democratic publishing.

crocA few months ago in the post, Kindle: The New Slush Pile, I talked about how publishers were offering old school deals to authors who had achieved significant sales on their own with the e-books format. Now, rather than wading through old manuscripts or polishing promising talent, a patient editor simply lays motionless & partially submerged on the riverbank, waiting for a juicy,                                                                            trending e-book to come waddling past.

More as an experiment than anything else, I decided to upload one of my own stories to Amazon, without a platform, just to see how it all worked and what would happen. Privately I was willing to accept the possibility that based solely on word-of-mouth and an enticing blurb, my story would generate staggering sales on the Kindle, gain the attention of a huge croc and spark a six figure, three book deal. But it had to be really good.

There are a handful of  short stories that in the imagination, seem to tower over all others. Somerset Maugham’s Rain, comes to mind, Fitzgerald’s Babylon Revisited, The Rocking-Horse Winner, A Clean Well Lighted Place, A Half-Skinned Steer. Stories that hack into your brain like a heavy blade, leaving an indelible scar of certainty about one thing or another; terrible truths usually. Profound stories that unspool perfectly, like unbroken lines of calligraphy; idea, style and execution blended flawlessly, like Hanzo Steel. 


Bit of a tall order for me then. But I dug around in the deeper recesses of my hard drive and in-between a complaint letter to Nynex and a text file on how to use the Command Prompt, I found a decent candidate. A story that if you smacked it hard enough it might ring or at least produce a pleasant clang. So I polished it up and copy edited it to the best of my ability; which, as I’m sure you’ve noticed.. and logged on to Amazon.

Its pretty easy I have to say. You fill in a form, upload your work without format or page numbers, pick a price point, (just 99c) write the blurb, choose a cover and Bob’s Your Uncle. It’s fun actually and hell I’d even say a bit exciting. I hit upload & sent my baby out into the world. Well the margins were all screwed up and the text was in two different colors, my fault not theirs, but it worked. I then immediately Tweeted to all 15 of my followers and pasted a share on #fb. What happened? Nothing happened. Of course nothing happened. Zip, goose egg. Phrases like ‘still born’, ‘lead balloon’ and ‘D.O.A.’ came to mind in the weeks that followed. No one bought it. Well that’s not true, my mum bought one and she said that Mrs. Simmons from number 32 said that her son Dave, who has a good job now doing something with milk said that he’s going to get her a Kindle for Christmas and then she’d definitely get one as well, so that’s two. So only a few thousand to go before I can attract a publisher’s attention. ‘Well, hardly any of my friends have Kindles.’ I told myself but that didn’t explain the total lack of interest by the millions who do. How could a story like mine; spelled correctly, fairly interesting, with that unmistakable clunk of truth, fall through the cracks entirely? In the end I had to accept the conventional wisdom that even if your story is pretty decent, without a platform it’s not going to sell. For every Fifty Shades of Gray, there are fifty thousand shades of well, invisible.

A while later I found myself at the Wix Lounge watching a panel discussion, hosted by Pubslush, on how un-established authors should develop their on-line presence, garner fans and present an appealing on-line persona – build a platform. There were reps present from Goodreads, Tumblr and Penguin, as well as successful e-book authors. The tone was light and upbeat, the panelists were on topic & their comments were pithy. They interacted well with the audience and bantered gamely with each other. Projected on the wall behind us, was Twitter feed highlighting the main points taking place in front of us. Cool. The talk was enjoyable & informative. The was advice excellent. The only problem really, was the audience.

Sure there were a few Young Turks sitting in back, balancing their Air Books on torn denim knees with one eye on the Twitter feed, but up front it was mostly the harder of hearing demographic with their Biro’s and spiral bound note books. “What did she say? She Feets during lunch?” The panel remained patient and kind, like a group of hip volunteers at the community center showing retirees how to email their grand kids. Not that bad of course. This crowd had grasped email and knew how to find the Huffington Post but when this cutting edge panel of funsters got into the specifics of how best to blend your use of FB, Twitter & Tumblr, their expressions started to look a bit vague. They stopped scribbling all together and started talking amongst themselves when the panel took a question, from the back, on whether it was OK to say “Fuck” on your Blog. (Ans: Fuck Yeah!).

It’s hard enough for me to get my head around the mechanics of building a platform. I can’t imagine what its like for the American Graffiti generation. I used to think that writing required 300 hours in front of a typewriter, some schmoozing and an exemplary query letter, but now I see it’s Hipstermatic photos of photos on my fridge at sunset, an endless stream of thought provoking musings and frantic after hours encouragement to an @person I’ve never actually met. But its ok, I’m willing to do what’s necessary from now on. I get the whole mutual back scratching thing, I do and I’m sure I can develop ‘relationships’ without eye contact or body language. Seems a little ‘autistic’ but if that’s what it takes to get published. Right?

So, for those who dream of finally seeing their words for sale the good news is that your writing no longer has to be superb enough to get past some fussy old editor. The bad news; its pretty much ‘do it yourself’ in terms of the marketing. No one’s going to build that platform for you! And if you want the prestige of a print deal, you better get selling. Now this is where Pubslush comes in.

When the discussion wound down the hosts finally gave their pitch, it was a good one. This is how it works. I think. You write a book, you go to Pubslush and you upload a blurb about it, an excerpt and maybe a video pitch to boot. Then visitors to browse the prospective titles. If they think that your story is something they might like to read, they pledge to buy it if, it ever gets published. When a thousand people have pledged to buy it. Pubslush publishes it. Simple. Brilliant. Let the people decide. A prepaid, guaranteed audience. This could really help with building your platform. You can direct your contacts to the site and get exposure to Joe Public as well. I know you can reach a thousand pledges! Your work is that good! But, you only have 103 days to do it. After that it’s goodnight Saigon & let someone else take a shot.

tron-fat-guyWhat a great option for unpublished authors. Personally I’d be uneasy, because there seems to be little or no filtering. It appears that they’ll take anything the public can produce, throw it up there and see if it sticks. These books may get scanned for obscenity or hate mongering but there seems to be zero quality control, which sucks for the genuinely talented writers on the site who deserve to be read. But it is truly democratic though, which is cool, I guess. But two minutes on the site and already you’re dodging floaters. Actually if you’re anything like me; the kind mean spirited jerk that likes to watch epic fail videos on YouTube late at night and if you’re kind of literary snob as well. You’ll really get a kick out of the earnest bad writing on display here. If prose that is clichéd, hackneyed, unintentionally funny and grammatically incorrect, gives you the giggles, def check out it, yeah? My guess is that sooner rather than later, a much bigger company will buy this great idea and the new owners will start vetting submissions. So give it a try now Tron tribute writers and may the odds be ever in your favor!

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I moved into my new place in Washington Heights a few years back. The building on the next block, facing Broadway, is one of those massive, featureless apartment buildings with permanent scaffolding all around and a heavy rotation of store fronts. On the corner there was a chinese restaurant with a ‘C’ rating and Nixon era linoleum. The teller was stationed behind perspex and the door to the kitchen was made of iron bars. Next door was a drug store run by indians which closed at 5PM. Then came the cell phone store and then the Yemeni “Deli” which sold mainly beer, loosies and TP.  The cell phone store was abandoned a while back, the lights remain on and all the free standing marketing materials are still there, even the Visual Display Unit, a huge, propped up cell phone that shows the company’s great money saving deals on its screen, is still in the window and still plugged in, running through their offers and services with attractive bullet points. On the floor next to the cell phone is a black garbage bag full of paperwork; the full extent of the clean up. The deli closed because, as it turns out, they had no liquor licence. The Chinese place and the Drug Store both leaped two stores to the left, leaving two grimy shells vacant and what do you think moved in? Another hairdresser ? A taxi dispatcher? Nothing? No; a Bookstore! That’s right. My God, I thought, in this neighbourhood the rent is so freakin low, even literature can be profitable.

It turns out that the abandoned drug store had always been a drug store. When they moved down the block they took their awning with them and underneath was one of those cool, old timey signs made of deep tin letters filled with neon. ASCOT DRUGS.  This is where the bookstore moved in.

storefrontAt first it had the kind of selection you might find going for .25 cents a throw on a folding card table at a New Jersey yard sale at four PM. The window was chaotic – a few books thrown onto a vegetable rack. But gradually things improved and I picked up three classics for a buck each there last night. Word-up  is (in their words) a multi-language, general-interest bookshop committed to promoting literacy & community-building in Washington Heights. By hosting workshops, literary readings, and musical engagements for kids and adults, we do our best to support and fortify the creative spirit unique to our diverse, Uptown community. And it looks as if they are succeeding. It’s a warm, inviting place with a small stage in back and there’s something going on there pretty much every night. Poetry, live music, readings. OK, it’s subsidized and its employees work for free, so it’s not a business in the strictest sence but still, they sell books, so hey..

It appears that in areas that do not have astronomical rent, like Greenpoint, established smaller bookstores , selling both new and used titles are, if not exactly thriving, at least staying the course. Hopefully as the big bookstores continue to collapse under thier own weight, more new stores will be springing up in the cheaper zip codes & neighborhoods trembling on the brink of gentrification.

Also there seems to be a hard kernel of readers who point-blank refuse to use the Kindles and Nooks that arrived unbidden in their Christmas stockings. They distain technology & prefer The Feel of the Real. Is this a big enough demographic to sustain a new wave local booksellers or is this the last hurrah before we bend to the inevitable and books become Kind of a Luxury Item?

Comments? Any great new bookstores out there that we should know about?

CODA: Word Up closed its Wash Heights location in Sept 2012.

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Norman’s Outburst.

I remember exactly the hour that I abandoned my childhood dream of becoming a Biology teacher, because it began as the most boring hour of my life thus far and ended with Norman’s famous outburst. It was double ‘A’ Level Biology on a muggy Thursday afternoon at my local junior college. The usual suspects were all there, we’d spent an hour or two at lunch time drinking in the Red Lion. We wanted to continue drinking and just like we did every week, almost said, ‘to hell with it’. But we believed we had to get our ‘A’ levels or we’d more than likely be stuck in crap jobs for the rest of our lives. It was this thought and this thought alone that dragged us back across the big, soggy common field and up to our white, airless room for one hundred minutes of the Krebs Cycle.


It was the Krebs Cycle that finally killed it for me really. All through school Biology had been my best subject. Not an attentive student at the best of times, biology and geometry were the only subjects in which I excelled. Biology: big friendly organs with clearly delineated functions all working together to keep us going. The science of life; what could be more fascinating than that? Terrific! Thinks the young me, I’m not going to be wringing my hands thinking about what I’m going to do with my life. I’ll stick with this easy subject that I enjoy and end up teaching it to kids like me who also enjoy it; Lovely.  But ‘A’ level Biology isn’t like ‘O’ level Biology. ‘A’ level Biology is essentially Chemistry and Chemistry is hard, and so boring.

We piled in, hot, beery and sleepy and sprawled on the desks waiting for the teacher to show. There was me and Rob and Martin was there too. Martin was a few years older, twenty-two or maybe even twenty-three! He was a messy red head, doughy but handsome with pale skin and clammy hands. He dressed always in layers of faded, threadbare cotton. With his famous, voluminous, day-glow orange Marxism Today newspaper sack slung over his shoulder with Kicking Against the Pricks scrawled across it in black marker. Martin was a committed Socialist and had been approached by the other committed Socialist, (our Psychology teacher) who was always trying to get Martin to mail pamphlets and vote and stuff like that. Martin was the one who knew all about the Beats, The Velvet Underground & Camus; things that sounded really great. He’d grown up in a Council House and was the most exotic person I knew.

“Look buy Lust for Life.” Martin was saying now. “It’s an A plus plus album, Bowie produced. It’s only four quid right and if you don’t like it, I’ll buy it off you.”

“Ok, fair enough.”

“And get Half Man/Half Biscuit as well.”

“I’m not getting Half Man/Half Biscuit, its shit, I’ve heard it.”

“Shit? They’re the last absolutely genuine..”

As he’s extolling the virtues of Half Man/Half Biscuit, I’m in a chair and Martin is on a table, in front and slightly above me. His legs are open and there’s a rip in the crotch of his trousers. I can’t help noticing he’s wearing baggy, hairy, flesh-colored underpants. Then I make a face like Stan Laurel gradually assimilating a new piece of difficult information. “Ah! Those are not underpants.’

Norman walks in. He’d been in the pub too, but not really with us. “Hello chaps.” he says in his usual nasally, patronizing tone.

“Norman.” We all reply.

Norman wanted to get into the Royal Air Force. He wanted to be a pilot, a fighter pilot. This was his dream, his passion, he wanted it more than anything, but it was never going to happen. To put it simply – he wasn’t smart enough. But Norman did have the persona of an RAF pilot down pat. He had the smart, clipped tones of a well-heeled, upper-middle class airman.  His back was ramrod straight, shoulders thrust back and rigid, he had a short back and sides with a big mop of black, fly boy hair up on top and of course a soft, tan, leather flyer’s jacket with applets’ and a flap for the hat and everything. All that was missing was the pencil moustache; missing perhaps because he didn’t want to draw attention to the big nose and his two, quite prominent, front teeth, which gave him a bit of a rodenty look.

Norman was not well liked, because although he was personable enough, he looked down his nose at us, condescended along class lines; as if he were an enlisted officer and we were just rowdy squaddies. He treated us like clueless no-hopers, when it has him that had applied and failed again and again. But he wouldn’t give up. It was the RAF or bust for Norman. We couldn’t even tease him, as ridiculous as he was; there was no point of entry for our sarcasm or ridicule. He was always unruffled by any kind of ribbing we gave him, his time with us was simply a means to an end, there was nothing going to stand between him and his dream. Our opinion meant less than nothing. He was, in the end, too bizarre to tease. He couldn’t even be niggled over the fact that he never had a girlfriend, although he had systematically asked and been turned down by every girl we knew and a bunch that we didn’t. “Nice girl, too bad, her loss”. As crazy as he was, I guess we had to reluctantly admire Norman’s great British, stiff upper lip. In a weird way, he was the real thing, but this bogus calm, this pathological conviction that he would one day be joining the RAF… Well, the center could not hold; success was impossible. The first crack was about to appear.

The week before, Martin had let it drop casually, “His dads a plumber you know?”

“F#@k off! His dad’s an accountant or something isn’t he?”

“No, he’s a plumber. They live on Bogton Road.”

“But what about the accent? Did he go to public school?”

“No, he went to school round here. It’s all bollocks, it’s all just an affectation. He’s nuts.”

“Wow.” Was all I could say.

guinessHow did Norman get like this? Well, my guess would be that at some point during his formative years, ill with the Measles or the Mumps and home from school on a dreary Wednesday. His parents must have stuck him in front of the TV with an eider-down and a jug of orange squash. Two PM on BBC 2 and the feverish Norman is staring at the wobbly intro to a classic British war film, The Battle of Britain or The Dam Busters, one of those where young men casually embark on suicide missions for king and country, “Chocks away Ginger!” The life of a brave pilot during wartime really appeals to Norman’s addled brain. ‘This is what I want to be when I grow up.’ Norman – chip set.

The teacher shows up five minutes early and apologizes for being late. She’s a tall, thin woman from some foreign, commonwealth country. Her florid blouse is buttoned to the neck, there’s a brooch, her perm sprayed to within an inch of its life. She gets stuck right in and after sixty seconds I feel like I’ve already been there for half an hour. The only person listening is the kid who will end up going to Oxford; the nutty guy that trots out long, un-solicited passages from Shakespeare. His hair is so black and his skin so pale that when he shaves, his face is blue. He looks like a dog that had to be shaved for an operation. Blueface is down with the Krebs Cycle today, he gets it. The teacher is jazzed that he gets it and now they’re both excited. I don’t get it. It’s impossible to understand. I’m never going to understand and I don’t want to hear about it anymore! My whole career plan is going up in smoke. How did this subject get so crap, so fast?

An hour later and we are only halfway through. I’m literally counting the seconds on the clock above the teacher’s rigid hair. Finally I feel myself drifting. I’ve abandoned all hope of understanding the Krebs Cycle and just have to count on it not coming up in the final exam. The room is too warm and the beer is working on us. I glance around and see that more than half of the class, Norman included, are drowsing in their seats. Ms. Rigid’s voice is becoming a drone, as if she’s murmuring now in Farsi. A fat, lazy bee comes in through the window and then goes back out again. In the distance I can hear the giant lawn mower, trundling up and down, the smell of fresh cut grass reaches us, so nice. Wait! The tone of her voice just changed, she’s asked the class a question. Must concentrate, something polynucleotide what?

Here it comes, bubbling up through Norman in his semi-conscious state, and the answer is; “GONADS!” The word is flung out of him like a rock belched from Krakatoa. “Gonads!” he shouts, in his perfect, golden age of British Cinema accent. A little hasty – I have to be first! A bit ecstatic – I’ve got it right! Wholly without his usual composure, Norman, half asleep, has just yelled out, ‘Gonads!’ by mistake during a quiet class on respiration. Startled fully awake, I look at Rob, I see shock on his face too. We stare at each other. ‘Gonads?’ Rob mouths the word for me to confirm. I nod and I can see the beginning of a massive grin breaking across his face. I start with a chuckle, how is this possible? This is priceless. Oh my God. I can’t believe it. ‘Gonads’ – how perfect. Laughing harder now I glance over at Martin who, instead of sharing in the glee, has decided to milk the situation perfectly and is simply nodding slowly with a look of concern and gravitas – sad, but of course we knew this day would come. nutsAll laughing eyes are tuned in Norman’s direction, could he have been joking? Was he serious? No; he was half asleep, even better! How bizarre! What kind of crazy, dirty, confused little dream had Norman been having? And just conscious enough so that the teacher’s question had worked its way in and just out of it enough to yell out the answer without any checks and balances in play.

The teacher looks put out for only a second. “No.” she says, which should have been doubly hilarious but because of who she is, it sucks the laughter out of the room and Blueface immediately trots out the correct answer. I finally join the others watching Norman. He’s trying, not very hard, to smile. He looks confused, he’s trembling. There’s a light sheen of sweat on his face, he looks both vulnerable and hateful the dual emotions of humiliation and contempt play around his quivering mouth. Is it possible that he’d simply glimpsed Martin’s nut sack as he entered the classroom? Were these the Gonads that crept into Norman’s subconscious, or did something very private just spill out in a very public setting? He was usually so careful, so restrained, almost wholesome – this would taint.

The class settles down and an hour later it finally grinds to a close. Afterwards in the student union café, there is an endless, hysterical analysis of Norman’s outburst. We go over it again and again, like the Zapruder Film, looking for clues.”Of all the things he could have yelled.” Say’s Rob, ”He yelled gonads not pyruvate, the right answer by the way, not help or mother but Gonads!”

We tried to imagine what his little waking dream must have been about. What was the question he heard? Maybe a game show, with a Diana Dors/Betty Grable type of USO broad cooing: “Ok boys, I want fingers stroking the buzzers for this last question; now we know it starts with the letter G, that should narrow it down for you. We’ve got a dead heat remember so the hunk who answers correctly now, wins and becomes a fully trained RAF officer and will almost certainly ravish me and go on to save hundreds of British lives and be decorated by the Queen herself in a private ceremony at Buckingham Palace, with cucumber sandwiches and free gold bars to take home afterwards. OK then; ‘Every brave RAF fighter pilot must have a sturdy pair of these in his cockpit before takeoff.”

The real question is probably lost to us now but the answer was definitely wrong. Norman would never be wearing the goggles of an RAF man, I believe he eventually followed his father into the plumbing trade. I barely managed to get a passing grade in ‘A’ level Biology and soon enough I escaped, flying out of that white, airless room forever.

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