Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Twenty-Cent Meatballs

While you lingered in the age where your future had more to do with wonder and amazement than doubt and acceptance, two of your favored places out of the classroom were the pool hall and the used bookstore.

You sought life affirming skills in each. Your role model in the first a chunky man in his early sixties who sported a boyish haircut, rumpled-but-expensive clothes, and an eye for the trajectories of the billiard table, that pocketless arena where the carom, bank shot, and applications of spin caused you endless speculations and fantasies wherein you owned a home in which there was such a table. Indeed, your ability to own a home with such a table in its recreation room was predicated on your ability to engage the pursuit of three-cushion billiards. Such skills at such a table would surely provide you with the skills and strategies of the storyteller you sought to become. 

The key to this fantasy was the appearance in it of some visitor to this make-believe home with its make-believe billiards table. A visitor who would shake his head at you, offer up a patronizing "Tch tch, boy. They done sold you a table with no pockets." Whereupon you would set up the three balls, present your cue to the object ball in such a way that it would cascade off three sides, then kiss the other two in a seamless display, to which you'd reply, "Don't need no pockets to play this game."

There were a few role models for the used bookstore venue. If you had to pick one, it would be the owner-manager of the one at the extreme northern end of La Brea Avenue in Hollywood. The magic of this place included the fact of an award to anyone who browsed its interiors for more than four hours. A card--no plastic or credit cards at the time--whose printed message proclaimed its value of one spaghetti dinner at a nearby Italian restaurant. This owner-manager always wore a suit. Probably his only suit. Blue. Gabardine rather than serve. A red necktie. The owner-manager's face made owlish by large, horn rimmed glasses. His manner serious to the point of emphatic. He'd see you enter and he invariably pointed to a series of aisles toward the rear. "Fiction. Over there."  Knew his customers, he did.  Name of Sid.

The fiction was divided into types. Mystery. Science Fiction. Fantasy. Romance. Western. Historical. Mainstream. The largest of all these, and the cause for you remembering Sid after all these years and, indeed, the reason why you had so many spaghetti dinners at the nearby Italian restaurant--the largest division of all: Literary.  Time after time, Sid followed you, guided you to this section. In the greatest probability, Sid knew of your hopes of becoming a writer whose books would be shelved under the category Literary from information you'd let slip during earlier conversations.

In retrospect, you like the idea that Sid knew of your ambitions because of his prescience; he could sense it in you without the need to be told. Not that your books would ever end up in used bookshops. Your books would, once bough and read, become treasures to be kept. Forget that only a year or so ago, a friend found a book of yours at a used-book sale, a book inscribed to the then chairman of a department at a university wherein you taught.

Sid became a surrogate teacher, urging upon you books by authors he said you needed to read, were you ever to realize your dreams, the literary equivalent of being able to navigate the no-nonsense expanse of the billiard table. In a real sense, this was your first experience with genera. Before then, all fiction was a part of a glorious entirety.

When you were a student, you learned to distinguish the genera, almost as you learned to see how various racial and social groups had traits you would later learn were the stereotypes you needed to avoid if you were to see individuals for what they were rather than what they represented collectively.

In your earliest associations with editors and literary agents based in New York, you learned the better word for genera--category. "You write category fiction, do you?  What category do you write?"
You wanted to say "All." Indeed, through a series of pseudonyms, you did.

Personal finances--or their lack--and accident--one of the governing principals of your life--caused you to take up teaching in your early forties. You were pleased with yourself for your then observation that "all fiction is mystery fiction."

Some years later, your pleasure increased when you observed how "All fiction is speculative fiction because it is based on a what-if as related to a mystery."

Earlier this year, you observed to an editorial client, "All fiction is speculative, mystery-based, and that functional aspect of science fiction, the alternate universe." How pleased with yourself to recognize how each fiction is the author's own vision of this enormous elephant in whatever room we chose to inhabit.

When you tendered the free-spaghetti-dinner card from Sid to the waiter at the Italian restaurant the first time, you were told "You want meatballs, you gotta pay extra. Meatballs cost twenny cents each."

The first time you heard this, you knew only too well you barely had enough to cover a tip for the waiter and the twenty-five cents for a pack of Camels, having already spent two fifty on books at Sid's.  There is a price for everything.

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