August 31, 2008

Grabbing Life by the Horns


On a couple of different occasions, Kurt Vonnegut wrote about his favorite stationery store. The stories were very similar, which now has me wondering if maybe they were all the same story published in a couple of different places, but I was just too stupid to notice. It's been awhile.

            In any case, it seems whenever he needed to mail a manuscript or some business paperwork to his publisher, he'd put on his shoes and walk a few blocks to his neighborhood stationery store, where he would wait patiently in line to buy a single envelope.

            His wife, he wrote, would chastise him (if mildly) for this, reminding him that he had plenty of money, and could therefore afford to buy an entire carton of envelopes if he wanted, saving himself all those trips. He shrugged in response, and continued buying one envelope at a time when he needed one. Strange as it sounds, that trip to the stationery store was one of the great, simple pleasures in his life.

            I can sympathize with that, having just returned from my own neighborhood stationery store where, as usual, I made a single photocopy and bought a single envelope. I don't do this as a nod to Mr. Vonnegut—it's simply the way I do things. Truth is, I don't really like my stationery store much. It's dark and cramped in there. Getting to the self-service copy machines in the back corner requires successfully navigating a maze of shelves and tables and card racks. The aisles are too narrow for two normal sized people to pass each other. Someone has always left a stroller in the way. The copy machines always chop the tops or edges off whatever I'm copying. And unlike Vonnegut, I don't have a terrible crush on the Russian girl behind the counter. The people who work up the street aren't Russian, and they've never been particularly nice to me. While he took great pleasure in waiting in line looking at all the other people around him, I usually want to grab a mechanical pencil and jam it deep into the throat of the person in front of me.

            Yet something compels me to go there at least once a week for some stupid errand or another, and I'm always happy to give them my business.

            I think there are a couple of possible reasons for this. It was the last place I ever stole anything, so maybe there's some deeply buried guilt that's driving me to make my own unspoken reparations. I doubt that, though.

            (Funny thing is, the last thing I stole was a single manila envelope, which I used to mail a manuscript to my editor.)

            Part of it may also have to do with the fact that it's an independent store that's been in that location as long as I can remember. There are so few places fitting that description in the neighborhood anymore. I just learned this morning that my favorite butcher shop—A&S, which has been in that location on Fifth Avenue since 1941—is closing at the end of September because the landlord won't renew their lease. It pisses me off—I loved A&S; it always reeked of cold blood. Now it'll probably be replaced by another fucking Tibetan boutique or child-friendly spa.

            But back to the stationery store. I think the same force that compels me up there once a week is the one that compels me to the grocery store at least once a day. I'll go to the grocery store even when I don't need any groceries, and find myself buying things I've already got stocked up at home. It's foolishness. Yet something forces me outside, no matter how much I hate it. I won't be outside for ten minutes before the urge to murder the next person I see begins boiling in my head. If I see someone wearing a cast on their foot, my first impulse is to stomp on it real hard. I want to tip strollers and impale self-satisfied adults. With each step I feel the muscles of my face contorting into a hideous mask. If I give myself a specific destination like the supermarket or the stationery store, at least I'll have some purpose to distract me for those few minutes until I can duck back inside again.

            I could of course save myself the money and the psychic struggle and just stay inside, but somehow it's even worse if I don't go outside at all. I grow queasy and tight and find it almost impossible to work. I'll sit and play solitaire for hours at a stretch, praying the time will pass more quickly. Praying even harder that I can come up with some excuse to step outside. My guess is that I simply need a reminder of how much I hate it out there—hate the traffic, hate all the people around me—in order to fully appreciate the cramped silence, relax, and get down to work.

            It works, too. A little blast of hate can do wonders.

            It reminds me of when I ate all my meals in the dorm cafeteria in Chicago. Every couple of weeks, they'd serve this facsimile of something they were calling a reuben sandwich. I got it once, and it was shockingly bad. Incomprehensibly bad. Plus I was sick for a day afterwards. But the next time they offered it, and every time they offered it after that, I got it. My reasoning was that I simply couldn't believe that the sandwich had been as genuinely disgusting as it had been that first time—but it always was, and I always got it, and it always made me sick. Nowadays, I miss that reuben. I'd rather not think of it as a masochistic streak—I generally avoid pain whenever I can. I was just being scientific, is all.

            So once a week it's back to the stationery store where I can't see and I trip over strollers to make one copy, or buy one envelope in preparation for something I might have to mail a few weeks down the road.

            It's pretty pathetic—and not nearly as charming and warm-hearted and humanistic as the Vonnegut piece. But there you go.


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