SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
June 20, 2010

These People are Animals

 

My apartment is full of crap: thousands of movies, hundreds of musical CDs, cassettes and vinyl records (which I keep around even though I no longer own a turntable), stacks of dead technology, and books. I’ve never tried counting the books, but they run floor to ceiling, often stacked two or three deep. They’re stuffed into book cases, milk crates, and in piles wherever I can find room. Can’t read them anymore, but there they are, and I keep picking up more.

            Add to that fundamentals like a desk and a bed, and getting around in here can be tricky sometimes. I don’t even have room for chairs—which, on the bright side, cuts down on visitors, and discourages those who do show up from staying very long.

            In and amongst all the crap, tucked neatly into an already crowded corner and effectively blocking access to a closet, were several boxes of old books. These were useless, unloved books I boxed up and shoved into the corner several years ago with every intent of getting rid of them some day.

            Most of the volumes in the boxes were unremarkable and dull. I couldn’t remember where many of them had come from, or why I even owned them in the first place. There were French and German textbooks, catalogues from late eighties art exhibits in long-defunct Philadelphia galleries, political pamphlets, mid-fifties sociology books (one entitled Wayward Youth), a few awful novels, grossly outdated books on the prison system and the publishing industry, a book by blind showoff Tom Sullivan about raising crippled children, bad cartoon anthologies, a 1964 cookbook with terrifying color plates, art books, and perhaps my personal favorite, Strange But True Bowling Stories. I felt kind of bad dropping that last one into the discard box, but to be honest, the library simply did not contain a section for bowling books.

            Well, a brain fever struck me recently and I finally decided that after all these years I needed to get rid of those damn boxes. Trouble was, I wasn’t sure what the hell to do with them. All the used book shops in the area had shut down. The boxes were too heavy to carry very far. I knew no one with a car who could help me haul them anywhere. And besides, being well familiar with the used book business, I could guarantee that most of those books would be rejected anyway. So as usual, I opted for the laziest way out—I’d just carry them down the front steps and leave them on the sidewalk for the scavengers to paw through.

            That’s the thing about this neighborhood—people leave the best crap on the sidewalk, free for the taking. Not just books, but clothes, furniture, electronics and assorted housewares. There are websites devoted to the things people have found on the street around here, and a neighbor of mine has furnished his entire apartment with things he’s found within a four-block radius.

            Funny thing I’ve noticed about the books people leave out. You’ll find a lot of cookbooks, a lot of computer books, and a lot of children’s books. But every once in awhile you find a box of literature and philosophy. Dickens, Plato, Marx, Hardy and the like. You know they were things some guy had kept around since college, convinced he would get around to reading them someday. Until of course that one day when he gave up, admitted he was just fooling himself, and dumped them on the sidewalk to remove the reminder.

            So anyway you find a lot of quality material around here, and my hope was that when I put out the boxes of crap I’d fool them all into thinking it was good stuff and not, y’know, Strange but True Bowling Stories.

            So I snuck down stairs at seven Sunday morning before anyone was moving about. I didn’t actually want to be seen doing this. I dropped the boxes on the sidewalk and scampered back upstairs.

            Two hours later I stepped outside again to run some errands. Blowing around on the sidewalk were several things that looked like pages from a book.

            When I reached the boxes, they seemed untouched—except for one book. Lying atop the others was a new hardcover. I picked it up and opened it, to find that someone had apparently ripped several pages from the book and thrown them on the ground before dropping the book back in the box.

            It was clear this was no accident. My dad, see, likes books by crazy right-wing radio show hosts, so I bought him one only to discover that he already had it. Not needing the book myself, it went in the discard box. And now half of it was blowing around the street.

            It was typical for this neighborhood, where the residents take their extremist tolerant liberalism seriously. If they encounter anything that offends them (like, say, a book by a conservative), their first impulse is to make sure no one else encounters such a spiritual affront. If they don’t want to read it, well then by god no one else should either—even if it takes a little littering to make the point.

            Yes, well, I could go on with the rant that erupted in my head when I first saw this, but you see where it’s going. Something about “hilarious sanctimonious hypocrisy,” and such. I shook myself free of it, and headed down to the drug store. I left the torn-up book where it was, figuring I’d clean it up when I got back. Or maybe I wouldn’t clean it up at all.

When I returned half an hour later, an old man was stooped over, digging through the boxes. I said nothing, just went upstairs and let myself inside. I hate being bothered when I’m digging through someone else’s garbage, so I just let him be.

(Some of us, see, can still mind our own goddamn business, and let others mind theirs.)

At about three that afternoon I went downstairs to clean up what was left. It was supposed to start raining and I needed to start drinking, so I figured I’d better get all that shit out of the way. I was hoping there wouldn’t be too much left, but given the quality of what I’d put out there, I figured there might be. I also hoped passers-by hadn’t dropped too much trash in the boxes. They do that, too.

            When I got downstairs, I tapped each of the boxes with my foot. Then I picked up the first one and shook it. It was empty. No trash, no books, nothing. Jesus—I wasn’t expecting that. I picked up the other box and shook it as well. There was one book left, but no empty bottles or used tissues.

            These people are animals, I thought. They’d taken the old textbooks, the sociology books, the pamphlets, the art catalogs. They’d taken High School Journalism (1956) and Strange but True Bowling Stories. Someone had even taken that ripped up book by the silly conservative nut. What a bunch of idiots!

            The really funny thing is that the one book left behind was the one I assumed would be the first to go—that stupid Tom Sullivan book about raising crippled children.

            These people were stupider than I thought. I tossed the empty boxes and the book, deciding that I’d try the same thing the next weekend. I still had some seriously awful crap upstairs that needed dumping, and now it was clear these people would eat it up.

 

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