You keep DOING these things to me. No sooner do I write up some of the odds and ends of stories I find in the banana boxes than another load of narrative comes along.
Part of the problem is that, unlike Paul Harvey, I never get to know The Rest of The Story. A nice paperback came in all about modern life in the American West. It is signed by the author, but that’s nothing compared to what the person who bought it did. There are evocative paintings of the American West (as seen by someone who lives in the Midwest: marvellous sunset over mountains with cacti in the forefront) with a long inscription about their enduring friendship and many many wishes for great good fortune for the recipient, who is moving west in search of fame and fortune.
So what happened? Why is the book back here in Chicago? Did he leave it behind, to be passed from hand to hand in garage sales in the decade or so since the inscription? Or, after a while in the west, did he decide he couldn’t live without the person who painted inside he book, and came back east again to be with her? Yeah, I know, but it’s the sentimental time of year. Could just as easily be that she found out he was really moving west to live with a pole dancer he’d met online, and never sent the book in the firs place. The thing is, of course, that the poor Book Fair manager doesn’t ever really find out.
And what about this one? It’s a book about true friendship and always being there for each other, and it has a warm inscription…maybe. It could just be a really, really sad story. It is inscribed “To Penni: Thanks for always being there. Love, Penni.”
Well, um, yeah. Maybe it’s a mother and daughter with the same name and nickname, huh? Or two kids who met at college because they both misspelled their name the same way and hung out together for years afterward. Or is it somebody who saw this book and thought, “Well, SOMEBODY ought to buy me a Christmas present” and bought it for herself? And in that case, why give it away? She broke up with herself? What’s a manager to think?
I’ve really been working on this book from 1965. Nice book by Ben Hecht, in great shape, and out of it falls this Polaroid, which can be recognized instantly as having been taken in the Towner Fellows’ Lounge at the Newberry. Two men are standing in front of a case, one holding a program, one holding a cup. A passing expert was able to read the text on the program, which dates the picture to an H.L. Mencken Centennial celebration in 1980. The man on the left has been identified as a linguist who did work here, while the man on the right is…oh, you know…he used to work in…saw him all the time…um, sure, his name was…you know.
I don’t, because I wasn’t at that party. I also didn’t know there was somebody at the Newberry who went around with a Polaroid camera, taking black and white pictures. Apparently, there are dozens of these things in the archives. What I want to know (besides the name of the man on the right; he can’t really be John Cleese, as suggested by one expert, can he?) is who took the picture away that evening and stuck it into a book in which Ben Hecht remembers his days as a protégé of H.L.Mencken. Did these books come to me from the man on the right? In that case, why didn’t he get a receipt, so I’d know what his name is? (The man on the left passed away shortly after I first came to the Newberry, so it can’t have been his book, can it? Anyway, I’ve decided he doesn’t exist. No one outside Hollywood is named Raven McDavid.)
People ask me if I read all these books as they come into the Book Fair. Can’t. I’m too busy reading the endpapers to look at what’s printed inside.