07/30/2013 11:12 am ET Updated Sep 29, 2013

On Death and Bookstores


Originally posted on Medium:

Once a long time ago I worked at the Barnes & Noble on 82nd & Broadway because I thought if I had to have a job it might as well be in a bookstore and I also thought I liked the Upper West Side. Turns out I was wrong on both counts, but like most wrong things, it took me a long time to discover the wrongness and even longer to turn the wrong right.

One day on my way to work I was walking south on Broadway and like a born and raised New Yorker, I was properly ignoring all traffic lights and pedestrian crosswalks. This was before the time of iPods and after I broke my discman, so I was walking unaccompanied by music. I used to walk while reading, but I was hesitant to take a book with me to my bookstore job always fearing I would be wrongly accused of stealing which would lead to my unjust arrest and representation by an incompetent public defender and eventual imprisonment and loss of my NYU scholarship. It's always a fucking Dostoevsky novel in my head. I was walking, just me and my eight million New Yorkers, and the traffic and the noise and the bike messenger who got hit by one car and then run over by another and whose brain fragments I noticed on the street with just enough time to step over them and not get my shoes ruined. It's amazing how quickly everything stops, more amazing still how much doesn't.

I stopped long enough for the ambulance and the police and then I continued walking to work and spent the day at the information desk helping people find "that book that was on Oprah."

People die in bookstores more often than you think would happen when taking a job at a bookstore. It happened twice during my time there, both times like this: Someone walks into a bookstore. Wanders around, maybe gets a cup of coffee. Gathers an assortment of books. Is lucky enough to find an open chair. Sits in the chair. Dies. Is dead in the chair until someone who has been scoping out the chair notices the guy she thought was sleeping is maybe not sleeping. Goes to the information desk and says, "Hey, I don't think that guy is sleeping." And she waits for the ambulance and watches the body get taken away and you think it is out of concern, but really she just wants the chair. And then she sits in the dead guy's fucking chair.

Shortly after I left Barnes & Noble, I began referring to it as Death Row. "I thought you would love working at a bookstore!" is something I heard often. "Me, too!" is something I used to say back. But I didn't love it. I loved books too much to not be bothered by the many, many customers who didn't. I couldn't help but be offended by what choices people made. And this was before teenage vampires and suburban-friendly S&M. But the truth was, I was too affected by the dead strangers I associated with that place. I couldn't quite grasp walking into a bookstore and not walking out. I couldn't not see the once bloody sidewalk I passed each day to and from work.

I wasn't cut out for a job on Death Row.

Or the Upper West Side.

But that's another story.