Strange Bookfellows: Literary sympathy from an accidental encounter

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Back in the early 1980s, when I was living on the South Side of Chicago, I used to take long strolls through empty weekend early mornings whenever I could. Sometimes–given the weather and if my workload allowed it–I would walk for hours. I didn’t really have much else to do.

Usually, I’d walk along 57th St., past all the bookstores and dry cleaners and the neighborhood’s only record store, then down and around over by the Museum of Science and Industry, then across the rickety footbridge spanning Lake Shore Drive. Despite the addition of a chain link fence to prevent jumping, that bridge was always a little iffy.

Once safely across, I’d find myself on the shores of Lake Michigan. To my right was a sad and narrow gray beach. To my left was something called the Point–a manmade peninsula constructed from huge stone blocks in the 1920s. It jutted out some fifty yards into the lake. Though there was a narrow strip of grass and trees that ran the length of the Point, I tended to stay away from that, choosing instead to test myself on the blocks.

The decades and the savage weather off the lake left the blocks cracked, pitted and uneven, so crawling in and around the Point could be treacherous–especially during the winter, and in the dark–so I had to move slowly. I liked it out there, though. I could sit and read, or stare at the water. Even on the weekends, no one ever came out there until much later in the day. That surprised the hell out of me–but wherever I’ve lived, I’ve always been able to find normally busy places that, at certain hours or on certain days, remained completely free of people.

I was out there particularly early one spring morning. It was still dark when I left my room, but by the time I made it out to the Point, the sun was just beginning to peek up over the water. Everything was still as I carefully picked my way along the stones. I could barely hear the traffic on Lake Shore Drive. Even the water was quiet. I sat down and leaned back against one of the blocks.

I’d been there for some minutes before I heard a voice behind me say "Hello."

I jumped, nearly screamed, turned and looked for the source. It took me a second before I saw the silhouette of a man sitting on the next row of blocks up, just a yard or two away. I hadn’t heard him approach, and, quiet as it had been that morning, I certainly would have. That meant that I was the one who walked out to where he was sitting, and sat down just a few feet away. I hadn’t seen him there.

With some horror I realized that this must’ve seemed like an invitation to him. Or at least awfully strange. Still, he let me sit there for a good long time before saying anything. I’d been in situations like this before, and knew they never came to any good. No one knew I was coming out here. There was no way in hell they’d ever find the body.

"Hello," I replied. "You startled me–I didn’t see you sitting there."

"Oh," he said, "I’ve been here all night, I guess. I like to come here when I’m in town." His voice was slow and slurred. At first I thought he might’ve been mildly retarded, then I figured he was just drunk. The accent was unmistakably Midwestern, though I couldn’t get any more specific than that. From the sound of it, I guessed he was in his mid-30s.

"Yeah, it’s pretty okay," I said.

There was a long pause before I finally asked, "So… What brings you to town?" (I’ve never been the most brilliant of conversationalists.)

He lit a cigarette (he smoked Winstons, I would later notice), then explained that he was a studio musician–a bassist, more specifically–who was in town to record something for some new jazz album. He told me that he’d appeared on a bunch of jazz albums.

I’d heard a lot of similar stories from bums over the years. I also didn’t care too much about jazz at the time, so I said, "Oh."

"I do a lot of soundtracks, too," he added. That caught my interest.

"Really?" I asked, not really sure why I wasn’t running away yet. "Anything I might know?"

"You know that movie California Suite?" he asked. "I was on that one."

That’s when I became convinced that he was telling me the truth. I couldn’t think of anyone who would ever lie about his connection with California Suite in order to impress a stranger.

We talked about movies and soundtracks for a bit–favorite composers and what-not, when he noticed that I was carrying a book.

"I see you’re carrying a book, there," he said. "You a student?"

I had to admit that I was. I don’t remember now what book it was, or for what class. But I always got more reading done out at the Point than I did around the dorm.

"I didn’t go to school much," he confessed. "I guess I started playing music early, and just stayed with that. I still read what I can, though. I love reading."

"That’s great," I told him. "Not too many people do anymore. You’ll probably get a better education that way, anyway."

"Yeah, the guys I play with are always makin’ fun of me because I spend all my time in the library. Wherever I go–I travel all over, New York, here, L.A.–first thing I do, I always find the library."

"Yeah? What sorts of things do you like?" I don’t know what I was expecting from him. I guess I wasn’t expecting too much, being as I was at the time a University of Chicago smarty-pants.

"I like Stephen King," he said. I guess that was no surprise. But then he added: "And Milton. Paradise Lost? That was a good one. Shakespeare, too. He was good."

"Yeah," I said, thinking that now he was completely full of shit. I could buy the California Suite gig, but couldn’t much see him poring over The Winter’s Tale.

"I just read another good one, too, just recently. It was by this guy named Gowth."

I racked my brain for a minute, but couldn’t come up with anything. I shrugged at him. "I’m afraid I never heard of him," I had to admit. "What did he write?"

"Yeah, it was real good. It was real old, and I couldn’t understand all the language, but it was about God and the devil, and they make a bet. And then the devil tricks this guy into selling him his soul–"

That’s when it hit me–Gowth.

"Oh!" I blurted. "I know now–you’re talking about Goethe."

"Ger-ta? Is that how you say that?"

"Yeah. It’s a German name."

"Ger-ta," he mused aloud, as if trying to store it away. "I’ll have to remember that. I liked that book a lot. See, I don’t get a chance to talk about this stuff much with anyone. Like I said, the other guys just make fun of me."

"That’s too bad," I said. And it was. There was something profoundly sad about this man and his predicament. For some reason, I suddenly felt like I wanted to talk about books with him. In a way, we were in the same situation. I was surrounded day and night by people who talked about books, but their goal wasn’t to better understand the books–they just wanted to impress you, prove that they were smarter than you were and make you feel bad because of it. They didn’t give a good goddamn about what they read. It didn’t touch them in any way. It was just a means to an end–whether it was brown-nosing a professor or arguing you into the ground over some minutiae. That’s why I didn’t talk to much of anybody there (and most of the time, nobody at all).

This guy, though, was reading because he wanted to. Not to prove anything to anyone. Quite the opposite–he was forced to keep it a secret. That’s why he didn’t always know how to pronounce some things. The Germans and the Greeks gave him the worst trouble.

We sat there for about an hour that morning, neither one of us moving from where we began. We talked about Plato and Sophocles (or "Sop-Hokles"), about Chaucer and Moby Dick (which, to be honest, I had never finished). Apart from Stephen King, he didn’t get much past the 19th century, it seemed. I suggested a few things to him, which he wrote down on a small piece of paper he had in his pocket.

Then, as the sun climbed higher above the water, he stretched, and pushed himself to his feet.

"Well," he said, "I should probably get going. I have to be in the studio in a couple hours, and should probably take a shower first."

"Good luck with that," I told him. "The session, I mean."

"Yeah," he said. "And thanks for the suggestions. It was real nice talking to you."

"Yeah, same here." I never got his name, and he never got mine.

He climbed up a few rocks to level ground, then headed back towards Lake Shore Drive, and a world where he wouldn’t be allowed to talk to anyone about the things he’d read. Half an hour later, I closed the book I was reading, stood up myself, and did the same.


Jim Knipfel’s latest book–and first novel–The Buzzing (Vintage, $12) has just been released. Here’s what Thomas Pynchon had to say about it: "The Balzac of the bin is at it again. With this paranoid Valentine to New York–and to a certain saurian colossus noted for his own ambivalent feelings about large cities–Mr. Knipfel now brings to fiction the welcome gifts which distinguished his previous books–the authenticity, the narrative exuberance, the integrity of his cheerfully undeluded American voice."

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