On Books, On the Occasion of Rescuing My Books

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I am blotting a mass-market paperback edition of Neverwhere with a Lysol wipe.  The cover is bleached and crazed, delicate enough that I fear it might fall apart in my hands.  It is in worse shape than many of the books in the box, but its loss is not a foregone conclusion.  It would be faster and easier to replace it via Thriftbooks — a mere $3.22.  Yet I proceed in the methodical task of salvaging it, with the sentimentality (or pretension, many would say), of the compulsive reader.  This is not just a copy of Neverwhere, this is my copy of Neverwhere.

For a week, moldy boxes of books have littered the kitchen counter of the skinny rowhouse I occupy with J, my partner of four years.  Recurring sewage issues in the basement have prompted our landlord to arrange for a plumber to jackhammer into the foundation, and me to finally tackle a project that has been gnawing at me for nearly a decade.

The oldest books in these boxes have crossed the country with me three times.  When I became homeless, although I left furniture, clothing, and other belongings behind without a second thought, I couldn’t bring myself to abandon my books to an unknown fate.  So, they came with me.  Eventually, I was offered a shed to store them in, shared with another woman’s belongings.  I accepted, and naively believed that they would be fine in open-topped cardboard boxes, covered with a tarp.  Some months later, the woman sharing the shed moved…and without telling me, removed the tarp.  The shed was also, as it turned out, about as much of a barrier as Swiss cheese.  When it came time to finally move into a real house again, I would find my books waterlogged in the leaky structure from a few unseasonal California rains, infested with spiderwebs, roaches, and mouse droppings.

Reader, I cried.

The worst off of the boxes were completely unsalvageable — rotted entirely through, furred completely with black mold so thick, the covers couldn’t even be read, or were eaten away.  I was unable to take an inventory of what I had lost; could only toss those boxes into a dumpster.  The quality of those remaining varied — hundreds of books in dozens of boxes.  All I could do was load them up and say “I’ll think about it tomorrow”.  That same year, I cleaned up somewhere between half to two-thirds of the boxes, the nicest ones that had miraculously escaped much damage, and only needed a little wiping and blow-drying to make them presentable.  The ones that seemed like they would need…more intensive care, I decided to save for the proverbial rainy day.

Now, 7 years later, that day has finally come.  The remaining books have been carted from garage to garage with me, finally coming to rest in a damp Pittsburgh basement.  J estimates there are 10 boxes.  (This will later be revised to 15.  And then 18 when he discovers 3 more that the plumber has moved behind the water heater, to forge a pathway.)  He seems skeptical of the endeavor (“no, really!  I can save them!” I protest in a fervent, slightly demented tone to his stoic face), but gamely carts a few boxes a day upstairs for me.

* * * * *

J does love reading.  He reads graphic novels, philosophy books, Star Wars novelizations, and anything to do with Batman.  He had a large single bookcase of his own when we moved in together, but I’m afraid mine have engulfed it.  The spare bedroom in the skinny rowhouse has been turned into a library, rather than a guest room.  He doesn’t seem to mind — I think he likes the idea of being surrounded by books, even if his literary interests are fairly more targeted than mine.  I have given up on recommending books to him.  He doesn’t read mine.  After a lot of begging, pleading, and cajoling, he plodded through exactly one chapter of A Wrinkle in Time (the first novel I ever read, age 6, a gift from my great-aunt), before putting it down and forgetting about it.  He did not even read my book until after we’d lived together for two years (which was peachy by me — once he finally did, he was overly affectionate and sweet to me for a few days.  I was convinced it was because he felt sorry for me, and I told him to knock it off, and then things went back to normal.  It’s not that I mind affection, but it wasn’t like him; I felt pitied — which he claims was not the case, and while I believe him, the feeling irritated me.)

The shelves of our library are already overstuffed to maximum capacity — I have arranged them not alphabetically, or by author, but mainly by size, in order to jam the most books possible into any given space.  This means that some books are shelved vertically, with others stacked on top of them horizontally to fill any available gaps.  When the shelves filled, I began stacking under chairs and tables.  It is a veritable Tetris game of books.  Some genres tend to unconsciously flock together — there is one bookcase that seems to be mainly classics, another science-fiction and fantasy, another that is largely photography and reference books.  Contemporary fiction seems to gather in a bunch here, a cluster over there…but there are no absolutes.  Many of J’s original books have migrated to one bookcase, to make them easier for him to find.  Yet for the most part, it is cluttered and impressionistic and a little wild.  I like it that way.  I tend to have a vague idea of where any given book is and can locate it fairly quickly, if necessary.  But I prefer the opportunity to glide among the stacks and let my eyes and hands fall on something unexpected.  It’s the hunt, the discovery, that stimulates me.  Many people prefer a more straightforward approach.  A trend has even emerged among design blogs to shelve books by color — book snobs tend to frown on this, but some people have more of a visual memory and are more likely to remember the color of a book than a title or author.  I won’t judge.

 

Unless you do this and shelve them backwards because “it looks pretty” and “I like neutrals”. Then I will judge you HARD. Holy fuck, you garbage person, you have somehow managed to simultaneously be a total psychopath and also an incredibly boring, try-hard vanilla drip in thrall to stupid “design” trends — well done! I mean, they’re yours and I guess you can do what you want with them, but this is a crime. You have completely negated the point of books, which is to find/read/share them. I’m almost impressed that anybody could be this terrible.

 

However, I definitely have my own preference:  Libraries, I secretly feel, should be mildly dark, chaotic, and ambient.  They should be rambling and twisty and disordered.  Non-linear.  Somewhat less than intuitive.  I should have to look a little to find what I want, and in the process be reminded of other books I have forgotten.

 

 

* * * * *
 

Our kitchen is very small, and my work is stinky — this is no ordinary bibliochor, but a heady and sickening mix of mold, eau de rat piss, and various cleaning chemicals.  I have worked out something of a system.  With gloved hands, I remove a book from its box and shake it vigorously over a trash bag.  I dry-brush away any dust, cobwebs, dead spiders, manageable amounts of mold spores, etc.  (Heavy concentrations of black mold, I don’t fuck around with…a book that damaged, I catalogue to be replaced at a later date, and put out for the garbage man.)  Then I submit them to multiple baptisms.  The book is wiped down (inside/outside covers, page edges, and spine) with a Lysol wipe.  Then again with a sponge soaked in hydrogen peroxide.  Once more with a sponge soaked in vinegar.  A final time with a sponge soaked in rubbing alcohol.  As an encore, I flip through the entire volume several times, spritzing the individual pages with a spray bottle full of vinegar.  This is the best-case scenario.  This is how it goes if a book is fairly “easy”.

 

 

Books, I quickly learn, are rarely easy.

 

 

Spending hours upon hours each night with books I haven’t seen in years is, it turns out, an emotional task.  I did not expect this to be so, because I don’t remember catching the feels like this with the first batch I cleaned, back in 2011 or so.  Perhaps I was still too close to it all back then.

 

I do not much enjoy feeling strong emotions.  I was an emotional child, an emotional teenager, and an emotional young adult.  Looking back, it embarrasses me — that I felt everything so keenly.  It is not surprising, but it is a bit ignominous.  I’m not sure if the way I am now is the result of extensive therapy and confronting my demons head-on until they started to seem mundane, a natural layer of jadedness that comes with turning 30, or the hard-headed pragmatism that emerges once you have spent a couple of years homeless, where something as nebulous and burdensome as feelings just gets in the way.  But whatever it is, I don’t cry much any more.  Only J, it seems, can make me cry any more, and rarely does.  I am somewhat cried-out, but, it sometimes seems, also joyed-out.  I am content.  J and I have lived in the same home for 3 years and will likely be here for several more.  It is the longest I have ever been in one place since striking out on my own, and I am comfortable with the stability, comfortable no longer swinging like a pendulum between fears and emotional extremes.  I look back at who I was and almost roll my eyes…Why did you wallow like that?  I demand of myself, harshly.  Why did you waste so much time?  So much energy?

 

Yet, here I am.  My eyes filling with tears over dirty old books.

 

* * * * *

 

It’s Neverwhere that kickstarts it, I think.  The reminiscing.  The worse condition a book is in, the more time I must spend with it, and thus the more time mired in the memories it carries.  I remember with startling clarity exactly where, when, and how I came by many of these books.  Sometimes, once you get thinking, you just can’t stop.

 

I was living in an apartment, more or less platonically, with two men that I loved.  I could never decide which I loved more, because to me, at that time, they made the perfect man if you could only sort of smoosh them together.  One was very brilliant, dry, witty, and utterly oblivious that I loved him.  One was very cuddly, affectionate, tactile, and emotionally intuitive — an overeager, floppy-eared puppy of a human being.  If you’ve seen Freaks and Geeks, perhaps you’ll understand when I say he was my Nick Andopolis (hereinafter, NA) — there was a lot of desire there, but always something slightly “off” about our interactions.  We could never seem to get it together.  He was not oblivious that I loved him (indeed, he was astute enough to realize that I was in love with both of them).  We were incapable of being either friends or lovers.

 

Brilliant/Dry/Witty/Oblivious (BDWO) had a bookshelf in the bedroom that the three of us shared, and encouraged me to borrow from it, and that was where I first discovered Neil Gaiman.  I read either Neverwhere or Smoke and Mirrors first (I can’t remember which, but it was one of them; he had both and I read them back-to-back.)  Hungry for more, I moved on to Stardust upon BDWO’s recommendation, then American Gods.  Neil Gaiman quickly became one of my all-time favorite authors.  Years later, soon after moving in with J, I would finally tackle the dense mythology of Sandman.  It was one of the rare things we both read.  J purchased me the omnibus for my birthday one year.  (Indeed, one of the most frustrating things about writing an essay about the tenuous connections between books and emotions and memories, is that I’m almost positive that at some point, Neil Gaiman has said whatever I’ve got to say first, and more eloquently, and uniquely, and thoughtfully, and he probably dashed it off in about 5 minutes via a pithy blog or a tweet, in between brewing tea, churning out a bestselling classic, and harvesting honey from a beehive.  After publishing The Girl’s Guide to Homelessness, I used to give talks at libraries about the importance of libraries and librarians…and then I found out that Neil Gaiman had been giving basically the same speech at libraries for years, except it was transcendent and touching and wise, and I’m pretty sure it did not sound like that when I gave it.)

 

Neverwhere and Smoke and Mirrors both turn up in the boxes I am cleaning.  I am fairly certain these are the actual copies that BDWO lent me, and I “absorbed” them upon moving out. Smoke and Mirrors is in good condition, Neverwhere is not, thus the extra care required to save it.  I think about BDWO for the first time in a long time.  I think about how he saw me on CNN, giving an interview about being homeless, and contacted me out of the blue to ask me why I didn’t just come back and live with him, why I didn’t tell him things had gotten this bad.

 

How could he understand why I didn’t feel comfortable going back there?

 

* * * * *

There is a middle layer to most of the boxes, where books are in very good or even pristine shape — the water from above has not seeped down that far, nor the mice chewed that far upwards from below…I start to live for this sweet spot of crisp, white-edged pages.  In the pristine zone, I unearth a nearly immaculate copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and know instantly where it is from.

 

I fling it in the garbage with a tinge of malevolence — I already own The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide with the entire series in one single volume, but mainly because the sight of that book sends a miasma of memories flooding so hard, thick, and fast that I can barely breathe.

 

When I met NA as a high school freshman, I had skipped two grades and was just about to turn 13.  NA and BDWO were seniors at the time, just about to graduate.  They did lights and sound for the high school drama department, and I was “the costume lady’s daughter” (my mother, a talented seamstress, was hired to outfit several productions).  When I was around 14, my mother threw me out of the house for the first (but far from the last) time.  I was allowed to bring none of my belongings with me and didn’t know where to go, so I called NA, and he took me to stay with BDWO.  They helped me stake out and break into my own home, to “steal” my own clothes and schoolbooks, so I could continue attending classes.  They put a mattress on the floor of BDWO’s computer room for me to sleep on.  NA gave me BDWO’s copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and I consumed it like a girl possessed.  The boys would play Dungeons and Dragons with “the group”, an extended circle of friends.  They attempted a few times to get me to join in, but I was both irrationally afraid of demonic possession (as Jehovah’s Witnesses tend to be), and paralyzingly shy.  I was afraid to make mistakes, to sound stupid.  They kept a “stupid people” list in BDWO’s room, and I was petrified of landing on that list.  I was afraid of reaching into my own imagination and finding nothing worthwhile.  So I sat in the corner while they played D&D and read all of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books, in succession.

 

BDWO would ask me several times a week out of the blue “What do you think, Bri?”  Confused the first time, I responded “About what?”  “About anything,” he responded.  He genuinely wanted to know.  I was deliriously happy at this brief time in my life, although I was so introverted that it may not have been immediately obvious.  It was also the time that NA seemed the most real to me, the most carefree, the most quintessentially NA.  That was the platonic ideal of the NA I first met, the NA I like to remember.  He called me “Sprite” (like the faery, not the drink).  I trembled in his presence; I fucking quivered if he came near me.  But I was jailbait and he had a girlfriend, or at least occasional girlfriends, and when he laid next to me at night and cuddled me without any further romantic overtures, I told myself it was a friendly gesture to make a lonely child feel safe, and that he could never love me, and that made it easier.  And harder.  BDWO had a pair of handcuffs and once, he and NA handcuffed my hands behind my back to my ankles.  It was ostensibly a joke, but in retrospect, I’m fairly sure at least NA was enjoying it a little more borderline-sexually than is comfortable.

 

Eventually, after a month passed and I didn’t come crawling back as expected, my mother falsely reported me as a runaway.  The police showed up and forced me to return home, under threat of “juvie” or “foster homes with strangers” as the only alternatives.  My mother tried to isolate me and turn me against my best friend, Sonia, by claiming she had been the one to betray my location.  Later, she claimed it was a different person, a friend of NA and BDWO whose phone number she retained after costuming him in Cyrano.  The story changed as she needed it to, in an attempt to divide me against any interlopers.  A version of this cycle repeated twice during my high school years — I would get kicked out again, and go to live with BDWO.  It was harder after the first time, though, because now she knew exactly where I was staying.

 

* * * * *

 

Many of the books in my salvaging boxes boast deeper damage…some with swathes of mold or rat piss that have stained through the covers and the first few layers of pages.  Others have slipped in their 7-year tombs in a manner that they did not lay flat, and have either wavy pages or are fully warped and bent, some into “U” or even “S” shapes, but they are otherwise still openable and readable.  Saving these requires more effort — they must be soaked in 91% alcohol (the high percentage makes it quicker to evaporate, thus abbreviating the length of time the book is wet).  The alcohol serves the dual purpose of killing mold and bacteria, but also of softening the tome to the point where I can massage and shape it with my hands, bending it back into something that looks like a book again.

 

NA also reinserted himself into my life after my story was on the news.  We would start talking about the good old days, started talking sexy again, the way we occasionally did after I turned 18.   ”I remember everything,” he told me.  “I remember you reading the Hitchhiker’s Guide.  You read the entire series in a week.  You were adorable.  I wanted to rescue you.”  And then, “…I wanted to molest you.”

 

It was meant to turn me on, I guess, and I played along like it did, but it creeped me out considerably.  He was aware when he said it that I actually had been molested and raped before, which felt insensitive.  (In contrast, when BDWO learned I had been raped, he offered/threatened to track down and inflict bodily harm on my rapist.  It was one of very few times I ever saw him angry, and I never forgot it.)  By this point, NA and I had been through a lot of ups and downs.  At 15, he wrote me a letter telling me he loved me, and begging for us to “be alone together”.  Sensing that I was not ready for this, was getting in over my head, and that there were definite legal issues at play given our ages…I backed out.  He angrily yelled at me over the phone that I was making a mistake.  He also told me that the declaration of love had been a lie, “just something you say to a high schooler”.

 

Once I was a legal adult, our lives seemed to constantly crisscross, weaving in and out of each other, but now, it was always he who backed out.  It was him I drove to the night I turned 18.  He always seemed to know when I was between boyfriends and reach out.  We would fool around a little, and he would bail the next day and send me an email, or have BDWO convey a message to me that he couldn’t be with me.  Then we wouldn’t speak for a year or two, I would avoid him until he decided to pop up again.  Rinse, repeat.  Once he asked if he could “share” me with one of his friends from high school who had a history of making suggestive comments about me (I passed).  By the end of things, he had changed from the boy I knew in high school.  To say he had become increasingly religious (as I became increasingly irreligious) would be accurate, but would also only be a fragment of the truth.  He had started believing he was a prophet.  That God talked to him — not in prayerful exchange like most religious people, but literally, audibly, externally — as in, “I hear God speaking to me in the shower and he tells me to do things.”  He was also convinced that he had been picked to save the world, that he was psychic, and that he had superpowers. He had taken to telling me who I was and wasn’t in ways that came off like a grandiose order:  “You’re not an atheist,” he declared.  (I was, and am.)  “You believe in God, or at the worst, you’re just an agnostic,” he insisted.  (I did not, and was not, and said so.)  If I expressed, say, even the mildest of bicurious thoughts, he would put on a show of being grossed out and insist that I wasn’t actually interested in that.  It was as though he needed me to share his beliefs, and his delusions, in order to justify caring about me.  And regardless of what I said I thought or felt, it didn’t really matter, because if he didn’t like it, “God” would just tell him it wasn’t true, and it was settled.  I felt less and less like a real person to him.  BDWO had asked me “What do you think, Bri?”  NA no longer felt the need — as far as he was concerned, he already knew.

 

I was well aware that long-term auditory hallucinations were a giant mental health red flag, and tried all manner of methods in dealing with this new twist.  I tried laughing it off, as though he were joking.  I tried acting like I hadn’t heard.  I tried reason.  I tried recommending professional help.  I tried agree-to-disagree.  I tried acceptance-as-long-as-god-isn’t-telling-him-to-murder-me-but-also-you-never-know-when-god-will-tell-him-to-murder-me-and-if-that-happened-I-would-be-the-last-to-find-out-which-would-be-while-he-is-murdering-me-so-hrm-conundrum.  All the ways I thought a “good” friend was supposed to handle a volatile situation, I tried, but he talked his way in circles around and out of them like someone who wasn’t really interested in help or advice, only the answers he wanted to hear, so I gave up.

 

He wanted to remain a “virgin” (apparently not considering blowjobs “real” sex), but also clearly wanted to fuck me and that seemed to disgust him about himself.  Like he considered it a weakness — considered me a weakness.  His fantasies got darker and we headed into pretty deep sado-masochistic territory (“I like to make girls cry”, he told me).  On some level, I admit I loved it — letting someone else take charge for a while when at the time every day felt like a struggle could be a relief.  It could be hot, too — dangerous, like not realizing you’re alive until you’re playing with fire and the precariousness and fragility of your situation jolts you with the thrill of the taboo.  He knew how to get inside my head sexually and fuck around with it, for sure, but the lines started blurring and it became harder to separate our sexy sessions from real life.  Pretty soon there wasn’t a difference between making me play-cry in a fantasy and cry in real life.  It was some major mindfuckery to have it insinuated one minute that I was screwed up for being cool with gay people, and the next told that he wanted to tie me to a table, torture me, slap me in the face, and shove a giant dildo up my ass.  He told me that he had wanted to love me, but that “I would never let him”, although he was always the one who ran.  Another preferred gambit was asking me how much I weighed.  (The answer was always the same:  None of your business, and also I truly have no idea, because I don’t weigh myself.)  He would nod and then a few minutes or hours or days later, he would innocently ask:  “How much did you say you weigh now, again?”  He was obsessed with my weight.  He insisted I had low self-esteem even as he chipped away at it.  He was prone to “your problem is…” pronouncements.  If I just took his advice, he told me, he could “fix” my self-esteem.  If I said I liked myself fine, he denied it.  When he talked about wanting to “molest” me at 15, the suspicion finally dawned that low self-esteem was what he wanted.  He didn’t want me as I was now, sure of myself.  Independent Bri was a turnoff.  He wanted me frozen in time forever as a child.  A tearful innocent.  Someone to “rescue”, but also to break down.  Someone who would believe what he wanted her to, feel what he wanted her to.  Someone to manipulate and mold into his ideal.  A disciple, lost without him.

 

Why did I keep trying to make sense of this stranger who was by now just a shell of NA?  I suppose I told myself that it was love and love can make a difference, but perhaps the truth is more primal and somehow more pathetic — I imprinted on him.  Like a baby duckling.  I was newly born to a life outside of my family, of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, of harshness and abuse, and he was the first thing I saw, and that was it.  I opened my eyes and saw kindness and latched onto it.  I continued to see only that kindness and warmth even years later, when it was only an echo.

 

Our lives had somehow become bound up together, and once that happened, disentangling from those years and layers, that cauldron of emotion and hurt and trust and betrayal and secrets and sex…could never be anything but messy.  It was only a matter of time.

 

* * * * *

 

Once manually reshaped, the books must be dried and flattened in stacks.  It is important to wait until they are entirely dry before separating them — the mix of chemicals can be a bit sticky until it dries.  If I try to force books apart before fully dry, the covers can stick together and rip, or transfer.  My inital efforts involved simply stacking them in front of our heating vent, which helped a little, but not entirely…even with heavier books on top, some pages were still wavy, some covers still bowed.  Judicious Googling revealed that librarians solve this by using an industrial “book press”, a giant, prohibitively expensive machine.  I ponder the problem.

 

J hears loud clangs and comes downstairs to find me tugging at his barbell, struggling to separate the largest flat, disc-shaped weights from one end.  “I’ve got the solution!  It will work!  You’ll see!  You have to let me use these!”  J powerlifts, and uses this barbell every day.  But he knows my determined face, recognizes inevitable defeat, sighs, and surrenders the weights to me for the duration of the project.  I press one on top of each stack and leave it for a day or so.  It works like magic.  The pages, upon drying, are as close to perfectly flat as you can expect.

 

An interesting aspect of the project is discovering which books I have multiple copies of.  I can usually remember what I already own, but as my collection has grown, sometimes things get a little foggy.  I am apparently the kind of person who has, at some point in my life, purchased three copies of A Light in the Attic (but still never managed to pick up Where the Sidewalk Ends or Falling Up?!) and four copies of American Gods (one is in such rough shape I let it go.  The others I keep, figuring I’ll hold onto the “author’s preferred text” version as my personal copy and recommend/give the others away to friends someday).  There are also two copies of Christopher Moore’s Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal — the yellow paperback that was my initial copy, and the special edition, jokily leather-bound in the style of a Bible.

The last time I saw NA, I gave him a carefully gift-wrapped copy of Lamb, a warm, human, hilarious book beloved by Christians and atheists alike (even taught in some seminaries).  On the inside cover, I inscribed some pap about finding joy and meaning in our similarities rather than our differences.  Or was it our differences rather than our similarities?  Something of that nature.  I hoped he would love it, recognize the gesture, but his reaction was indifference bordering on cold hostility, and my stomach dropped as it became clear that not only would he would never read it, but he resented me a little for giving it.  As though he felt I was mocking him.  The breach between us could no longer be bridged by books or love.  Perhaps it never really had been before, and it was all in my mind.

He told me he could never be with me, and how did I ever expect this would turn out, anyway?  He was a godly man, a man god talked to, and I was “the kind of person who fucked my friends”. 

 

It was a baldly false, hypocritical, self-serving and unfair smear.  I think he knew it, too.  It was a claim he made more to convince himself than me, but was so far over the line and wounded me to the core, that it didn’t matter.  The collateral damage was done.

 

 

 

There was…a severing.  Messy.

 

 
Ultimately, the long and short of it is that I told him to stay away from me, never to contact me again.  And then I set about unwinding my life and my emotions from him.  I was finally free.  I was wholly myself.

 

* * * * *

 

I begin to treat my book project as an archaeological dig, trying to decipher what certain books say about whoever I was when I bought them.  Two boxes are full of books I vividly remember picking up at a flea market in North Carolina.  At least two are Nicholas Sparks novels.  I remember being the type of person who read Nicholas Sparks, but I’m not proud of it.  I discard them because they are of dubious literary merit, and because thoughts of North Carolina make me claustrophobic.

 

North Carolina…why?  Well, there was a man.  (Of course.)  The less said about him the better, really, but I’ll say a little something about him anyway.  He was probably the most inherently awful person I ever dated (yes, worse than NA.  Worse than my ex-fiancé Matt.  I don’t think their shittiness was innate.  They had redeeming qualities.  This guy had zero.)  He is the kind of person who, if I met him now, I would never be interested.  Every cell in my body would be screaming “Run!!!!!  Get out now!!!!!”  But when I was 19 and inexperienced, still vaguely Christian, completely sheltered, and entirely ignorant of politics or the tenets of basic humanity, I’d take what I could get.

 

What I could get, it seems, was an ultra-conservative and controlling 26-year-old with a long, rectangular head, sharp ferret features too small for his face, and a forceful, judgmental, generally hateful outlook on life.  I haven’t seen him in about 15 years, but I am certain he owns a MAGA hat.  Let’s call him Ginger Bill O’Reilly.  He was bequeathed to me by my roommate, who had dated him.  Now that I think about it, she was probably trying to get him to leave her the fuck alone, and hoped a new girlfriend would do the trick.  So she introduced us and told us we’d probably hit it off.  It seemed like a very sophisticated and “adult” arrangement at the time to me, but I probably should have realized that I was being set up as a scapegoat.

 

I was a virgin.  Ginger BO was the kind of man who spent months pressuring me to fuck him in hopes of wearing me down before I was ready.  The phrase “just the tip” became common parlance, unironically in rotation.  Once I finally did fuck him, he slutshamed me and told me we had sinned.  We would stop fucking, then he would beg me to fuck him again.  He said he was still in love with my roommate, but that “I’d gotten closer to him than any other woman”, and I should keep telling him I loved him in the hopes that one day it would stick.  I would tell him I loved him, he would respond “OK”, I would fuck him, then he would again blame me as a weak whore and temptress, disappear, and show up in my driveway weeks or months later with apologies.  After the fifth or sixth circle of this merry-go-round, he moved to NC and he said I should go with.  Very unwisely, I did.  My friend Danny helped me pack and ship my books.  It took hours, and at the end of it, he pressed a hundred dollar bill into my hand and insisted I take it, saying he wished he could do more.  The gesture stuck with me, and has never left.  Danny was always a smart cookie; I’m pretty sure he already knew moving to NC was a terrible idea, and that it would not end well.

Ginger BO ghosted on me about two weeks into NC, just up and drove away one day after a fucking, and never returned another call.  It was a tiny, rural town — it was no SoCal, or Pittsburgh, for that matter.  The people were largely suspicious of outsiders (especially Californians) and unfriendly, or only friendly if you would accept the offer to attend their church.  The minimum wage was $2.13.  I spent over a year there with multiple jobs, struggling to scrape up enough to get the fuck back to California…as a waitress, a hair-washer at a beauty salon, a Blockbuster Video.  Once a month I would go to the local flea market and load up on books, 10 for $1.00, to pass the time and make my isolation bearable.  Nicholas Sparks was one of the more common offerings available — he was a local author, lived in nearby New Bern, and it was around the time they were adapting every single schmaltzy, formulaic sob story of his into a B-list romcom.

 

 

One day, Ginger BO waltzed into Blockbuster during my shift.  There were three employees on registers, but he made a beeline for mine.  I ground my teeth and rang up his DVDs, “Your total is $7.98, sir.”

 

“Hey, Bri—” he began.  Grinning.  Smug.

 

“Have a pleasant day, sir,”  I cut him off and stared vacantly through him, without altering my tone.  I took satisfaction in noticing his jaw clench, his hand slam on the counter as he grabbed his rentals.

 

That evening, Ginger BO began bombarding me with emails — how dare I treat him like just any stranger, how dare I act like I didn’t know him?  How dare I humiliate him, make him feel small, insignificant?!  There was no reason for that!  Who the fuck did I think I was?  Further ranting revealed that he had been asking around town about me, quasi-stalking me for months.  I didn’t have any social media at the time, so he had sent local friends into the hair salon where I worked.  As I shampooed their hair, they chatted with me, what I thought were innocent questions about my life.  They asked me who I was renting a room from, where else I worked, and reported back to him.  When he learned I was living in a better neighborhood than him, it seemed to enrage him.  He called me a liar, a bitch, and a slut, trying to provoke a response.  How dare I ignore him?  He, a man who had disappeared into the vapor so many times on a whim, was entitled to my response!

 

The irony, the lack of self-awareness, the unhinged screed, filled me with an unexpected sense of power.  For once, I was the one denying him.  The more answers he demanded, the more my silence enraged him.  It killed him that I no longer cared.  It was a power I’ve never really reattained with any other man, probably because I actually do care about the people I date.  But at that time, with that man, I was done with his shit, and it felt like the sweet finger of Justice.

 

I eventually made it back to California, by transferring to a Blockbuster in Anaheim.

 

 

 

* * * * *

 

Other resurfaced books similarly evoke an instant sense of time and place — Michael Shurtleff’s Audition; reading it in the high school auditorium with my feet propped up on a seatback.  In drama class, when I still believed all answers could be found in books, that a book could make me a good actor.  (It did not, and I am glad for it now.)  I set it aside, planning to read it again soon.  J and I are watching HBO’s Barry, with Bill Hader, and it might make an interesting companion piece.

 

There is a volume containing the His Dark Materials trilogy.  I find a Lake Forest Goodwill receipt inside and vividly remember this day.  I was driving around with a boyfriend who didn’t last long.  He was short and nearly 400 lbs. with long hair and a love of heavy metal.  He had a Boondock Saints tattoo across his knuckles (red flag) which he was very proud of (red flaggier), and a deep-seated, furious inferiority complex about his micropenis (red flaggiest).  We were near the local Goodwill and I suggested we stop in, because I love few things more than thrift stores.  He parked, but stayed in the car.

 

“You can go in.  I’ll wait here.  I just don’t go into thrift stores.  I feel like they’re beneath me.”

 

“That’s beneath me” seems like such an absurd, stock sentiment that you only hear in movies; it was a shock to hear it in real life, and applied to something so innocuous.  I was hurt.  “Everything I own is secondhand.  My clothes, my furniture, my books, they’re all from thrift stores.  Does that mean you think I’m beneath you?”

 

He got angry.  “See, I knew that’s how you’d take it.”  As if there were another way to take it.

 

I breezed through the thrift store, spending no more than 10 minutes inside, feeling like an asshole for keeping him waiting alone in the car.  I picked up His Dark Materials and Chang and Eng, just so I didn’t feel like I’d somehow lost.

 

* * * * *

 

In their own way as interesting as the books that jog my memory…are the ones that don’t.  Inside The Maltese Falcon, I find handwritten directions to a cheap motel, the Tustin Motor Inn, one of the places Matt and I stayed while homeless.  I must have been reading this book around then — I certainly remember having read it at some point, and there could be little else to do while homeless besides read and complete online job applications — but trying to remember exactly which books I was reading while I was with Matt, I encounter something of an uncharacteristic void, or a brick wall.  As thoroughly documented as that period of my life is, upon recall the overriding impression is simply that I was so happy, almost obscenely happy for someone with no stable residence, and that everything was wonderful and promising and going places.  Up until it wasn’t, instantly and without warning.

 

In my labor, I am suddenly confronted with a collection of Dilbert strips, and this is truly a puzzlement.  Although I now regret it, I can at least remember being the kind of person who read Nicholas Sparks.  I have also dug up several Orson Scott Card books and an anthology of his short stories.  I no longer buy Orson Scott Card because he is rabidly homophobic and terrible, but I remember when I liked to read him (he was another outcrop from NA and BDWO, who started me on Ender’s Game).  I have thrown away the Nicholas Sparks, but decide to keep the Orson Scott Cards because they’re at least entertainingly-written and were purchased before I knew he was a Very Bad Person, so it doesn’t really count as supporting him.  I am also the kind of person who owns many trashy, badly-written tie-in novelizations of popular films.  I am not proud of it, but I was that kind of person (and own that I still am, in this instance, and will probably always be).

 

The Dilbert, though is a quandry.  I have never, in my entire life, been the kind of person who read Dilbert or found it funny (even before I knew the author was a Very Bad Person).  I have zero idea how I came by this book.  Was it absorbed from a former roommate?  Eventually, I decide perhaps it belonged to my stepdad E, who is the kind of person who would have chuckled at Dilbert.

 

I have Never. Ever. Ever. Ever. Never. Ever. Nerrrver. Nenver. Nevnevenen. Nenverinero. Nevernev. Novenvon.

 

My mother married E when I was 6.  He gifted me with his childhood books, many of which were about football, but also some that I loved like Orwell’s 1984.  (That was the first one of his that I read.  He had never had children before, so I’m not sure he was considering age-appropriateness.)  I also find my first copy of The Giver, the book I used to teach my sister to read.  I began reading when I was 2; at the age of 9 she still couldn’t (or wouldn’t).  My parents tried everything, even “Hooked on Phonics” (she flung it across the room in frustration).  Eventually, it turned out that the way to get her to read…was to read to her.  I read The Giver aloud and always stopped at the most interesting parts.  Eventually, she was so impatient to find out what happened next, she picked it up and started struggling through it herself.  She became a reader, too. 

 

 

1984 is in my boxes, and has survived in good condition.  E’s vintage copy of Robinson Crusoe is also there, but has turned nearly to mulch, unfortunately.  There is also a set of 1920s children’s books that must have belonged to E’s father before him — his father’s name is written in a child’s chickenscratch inside one of the covers.  These are in a bit dicey condition, but I am able to stabilize them.  I have many vintage books, some over a hundred years old.  They are probably not worth much, most obtained from library sales for $0.25-$0.50, but I work harder to save the old ones.  They have been glomping around this earth for a century or two; if they have lasted this long, who am I to be the one to tell them to fuck off into the garbage without at least trying to stem time and decay first?  It would be libricide, pure and simple.  There’s a sense of custodianship over the oldest ones. 

 

I do not remember a mid-century book called The Seal-Woman, by Ronald Lockley, but it is in good condition and I find all things “selkie” interesting.  I look it up on Goodreads, only to find with a shock that I have apparently not only read it before, but left a review about it.  I have not been on Goodreads for years, and looking back at my reviews embarrasses me.  They are shallow, uncritical, free of any relevant analysis or helpful details.  Browsing futher, I see that I also reviewed books like He’s Just Not That Into You.  Back before I figured out that maybe it didn’t take a pseudo-self-help book to tell me the problem was that I had shitty, undiscriminating taste in men.  Or that at least part of the problem, the common denominator in my bad relationships, was me.  Or that I didn’t have a clue who I was, or what I wanted.  Or all of the above.  I delete my Goodreads reviews shamefacedly.

 

 

* * * * *

 

On Monday, my boss asks me what I did over the weekend.  I explain The Book Project.  He tries and fails to keep from wrinkling his nose a bit, and says “sounds like maybe more trouble than it’s worth.  It might be easier to just throw them all away.”  He tells me that he only uses a Kindle now.

 

YOU MONSTER, I think.

 

My boss is not a monster.  He is a supremely nice man, and the kind of supervisor people dream of having.  He is also well-read, and enjoys sci-fi and fantasy.  We had a nice little bonding moment over the “Make Good Art” poster of Neil Gaiman I posted in my cubicle.  He is a Neil Gaiman fan.  (Little fragile threads intersecting like webs throughout my life, from my books to my past to my present to my heart.)  He tells me his wife, who also works here, is more of a book-hoarder like me.

 

I have no real grudge against the Kindlevangelists.  If you’re reading, then you’re reading, and I’m not going to judge how you go about it.  The truest value of literature is the actual words you read.  I have downloaded a few e-books onto my tablet, for plane flights and bus rides.  My only complaint about the Kindlevangelists is the ruthless and persistent rationality, that they can’t understand why I am so devoted to tangible books.  You try to explain it, and they can’t or won’t wrap their heads around it.  The tactile ritual of holding, opening, turning pages.  How does a Kindlevangelist safely read in the bathtub?  Squinting at a small screen that long and intently hurts my eyes after a while, just on a physical level.  I also don’t quite like how dependence on screens has rewired my brain a bit…To my shame, I have caught myself absent-mindedly tapping the pages of a physical book every 30 seconds or so, a habit I have formed while using my tablet to keep the screen from going dark due to nonactivity.  I want to be able to read without that kind of half-distraction, to immerse myself fully in the book.  I do not find serenity in reading from a Kindle.

 

Why don’t you downsize?  They suggest.  Just the ones you’ve already read.  But there are many I have read again and again.  Even the ones I didn’t love, I may want to share with a friend of different tastes.  How does a Kindlevangelist have a friend over to browse their shelves, and loan?

 

Conversely, some Kindlevangelists treat the library as though it were a closet.  Keep only the ones you love and use on a regular basis.  Chuck the ones you keep passing over; you’ll never get around to reading them.  There is a concept that originated with author Umberto Eco — the anti-library.  He explained to a journalist that most people, upon seeing his giant library of 30,000 books, asked the wrong question:  How many of these have you read?  They missed the point, which was that the library did not exist to bolster his ego or literary cred, but to learn and research from.  Being surrounded with unread books was more valuable than being surrounded solely with read books.  We are at least as defined by the books we mean to get around to reading as the ones we have already read.  (Which means I am possibly more defined by Eco’s 12 unread books than the single one I have gotten to already, which is The Name of the Rose.  Go me!)

 

Or, as Harlan Ellison put it more concisely:  “They wouldn’t know they’d asked a dumb question, but I didn’t want to insult them, either. So when they’d ask if I’d read all those books, I’d say, ‘Hell, no. Who wants a library full of books you’ve already read?’”

Finally, let’s get back down to the basest of drives:

 

 

If you are a Kindlevangelist, how can anybody know whether all you own is a plethora of Ayn Rand, and be warned not to fuck you, because you’ll only give them grief in the end?  It is in scenarios like these that bookshelves act as a public service.

 

At any rate, to the Kindlevangelists, I am too sentimental, an old-fashioned relic.  That’s OK.

 

* * * * *

 

The final boxes that J discovers, behind the water heater, contain the oldest books I own.  One that I am upset to see cannot be saved is an illustrated 1954 edition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales.  It was given to me by Mrs. Cutts, my 4th grade teacher.  I remember her as something of a severe woman for most of the school year.  A recurring issue at school was that though I had skipped two grades and was the youngest in the class, I had inevitably already previously read all of the literary books on the curriculum, for fun, so teachers would have me pick a more advanced book to read and review.  This often meant extra assignments had to be created for me, and I’m sure it was a pain for the teachers who had to do it.  This was also the year that I came into class visibly bleeding and bruised in many places after a beating from my mother.  Mrs. Cutts called in school officials, who reported it to authorities, and a social worker came by our house once and decided it was “an isolated incident” (it was not) before closing the case.  Mrs. Cutts seemed to soften a bit after that.  On my final day of 4th grade, she gave me this copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales.  The cover has completely detached, and there is too much mold, making it a hazard to save.

 

The bulk of my childhood books, however, came from Nathan Cohen.  Nathan owned an establishment on Main Street in Seal Beach known only as The Bookstore.  Seal Beach was a regular haunt of my mother’s; it was where she had grown up and remembered hanging out with all of her friends.  She began dropping me and my sister off at The Bookstore when we were very young, while she would shop and unwind at Seal Beach.  The Bookstore was tiny and more than cluttered — it was the twisty, dark, winding playground of my dreams.  Piles and piles of books of every description reached the ceilings.  There was barely any floor, only a narrow path carved between the piles.  We would sometimes spend hours there.  Nathan was old and leathery, with long white hair, and always with a genuine smile to be glimpsed, if you could find him — the top of his head barely peeked over the stacks surrounding the cashier’s desk.  He was the sort of man whose kindness touched everyone he ever met.  If I didn’t have enough money saved for all of the books I wanted, or my mother wouldn’t buy me a book, he would often just give them to me for free.  He didn’t do what he did for the money.  From Nathan, I purchased or was gifted hundreds of books over the years — Swiss Family Robinson, Gone With the Wind (A hugely problematic one; I cringe now, remembering that we had recently seem the movie, so I read it aloud to my sister and “did the voices” of the slave characters, which delighted her…in my defense, I was 7 and no adult thought to explain it was super-racist at the time), Sense and Sensibility, Showboat, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Lady Sings the Blues.  They are all here, and most of these are in fair condition, but I must give up hope on The Loner and The Phantom Tollbooth.  I resolve to replace them soon.

 

 

Nathan Cohen in The Bookstore.

 

On June 5, 2000, Nathan Cohen had a massive heart attack inside The Bookstore.  He died there.  I was 15.  (It would have been around the time NA was telling me he loved me and wanted to be “alone” with me.  It was already quite a tumultuous time in my life.)  The Bookstore had been a fixture on Main Street for 18 years.  A group of heartbroken customers and friends whose lives he changed forever attempted to buy The Bookstore and its inventory, and keep it running.  Negotiations with the city failed, however.  The Bookstore became a soulless little dime-a-dozen gift shop, selling tourists postcards and knickknacks.  I went back to Main Street once, as an adult.  It was with Matt, my ex-fiancé.  I wanted him to see the places I grew up.  But it was a futile exercise — there was no spark of connection there.  Nathan and The Bookstore were gone, and that had been the sole attraction of Main Street to me.  Seal Beach was now only my mother’s childhood, no longer my own.

 

* * * * *

 

Our basement is finally emptied, the project finally completed, save one batch of books that continues to noticeably smell after their first cleaning.  In a last-ditch effort before giving them up as lost, I try a trick suggested online:  I stick them in a plastic bag, bury them in baking soda, and entomb them in the freezer.  The cold is supposed to kill any remaining stench-causing bacteria, and the baking soda will allegedly absorb the odors.  At the end of a week, I pull them from the freezer and brush away the powder.  They are fresh and smell like books again.  (The baking soda reeks, however, and is consolidated to the outside garbage can.)

 

I have run out of shelves and nooks and crannies for my books, so I pile them on the library floor as high as they will go without toppling.  If I squint a little, they begin to look like Nathan’s Bookstore, and it is satisfying.  It is good.

J peeks his head into the library to see the result and his eyes widen a little at the sheer number of books on the floor, but I promise that we will put up more shelves on the wall and it won’t be permanent.  He concedes that the basement books no longer smell bad.  I have succeeded.  All told, I have rescued around 500 books, and lost 36.  I look up some of the ones that need to be replaced and am irritated to see that Dancing Through History, by Joan Cass, purchased from a flea market for less than a dollar, will cost me around $100 if I ever want to read it again.

 

There were also two boxes of DVDs in the basement, collected during my days working at Blockbuster.  With the advent of streaming, they are not worth much, and I have given many of them away to friends over the years, but we decide to keep them.  J is a film-lover, so to consolidate space, I purchase a CD storage folder and put him in charge of removing each DVD from its case, saving the disc and discarding the case.  At the end of it all, I ask him if there was anything in the DVD collection he is interested in seeing.  There are, he says.  Some indie films he’d never heard of that looked intriguing.

 

“But also,” he continues, “there was a lot of stuff in there that didn’t seem like something you would have.  I’m pretty sure I saw a Nicholas Sparks movie.  It was a little weird.”

 

It is a tiny moment of startling synchronicity.  He has heard stories about North Carolina, of course, about Ginger BO, about NA and BDWO, about my mother and my sister and high school, but these have been an abstraction.  It is strange and curious to be confronted with direct evidence, however superficial, that does not seem to fit the only me he has known.  At this moment, I am suspended, weightless, between all of the iterations of myself that ever came before.  Who were you?  Were you always?  Why are you no longer?  Was there ever a point to it?  Anything worth missing?  Anyone?  I close my eyes and sense the book stacks surrounding me, inexorably growing, choking like weeds.

 

 

3rd Annual World Homeless Day

3rd Annual World Homeless Day

Welp, today is the 3rd Annual World Homeless Day/World Homeless Action Day, and the internet is blowing up:

https://twitter.com/i/#!/search/realtime/%23worldhomelessday

I’ll try to compile a list of media coverage and post it here in the next day or so.  It’s still so surreal to see your brainchild expand like this out of such tiny grassroot beginnings!  There’s a lot of talk about making it “World Homeless Action Month”, which I would love to see happen – October is also “World Mental Health Day”, and as you might imagine, there’s obviously a lot of tie-in potential there.

In any event, no rest for the wicked – now that 10/10/12 has come, tomorrow our steering group will turn around and start gearing up for 10/10/13.  Looking forward to another awesome year with you guys – all the gratitude in the world to our amazing steering group and the advocates and organizations around the world who participate and help make this come together by putting their time and energy into organizing events, in addition to their round-the-clock work on behalf of the homeless population.  And a special shout out to my WHD/WHAD co-founder and head organizer extraordinaire Jon Glackin (aka “Beat on the Streets”) who works ceaselessly and tirelessly all year long and practically never sleeps because he’s too busy thinking of new ways to promote and spread World Homeless Day – all on a voluntary, unpaid basis, as has been the case since its inception.  I love ya, doll.  *hug*

* * *

As for me, I’ve been pretty quiet, because I’ve been moving.  I’d lived at my last apartment for a year and was about to renew my lease, then the owner ended up dropping the bombshell that he was selling the property.  Like, right away.  (Turns out, it wasn’t what you’d call “up to code”.  Sigh.)  The closing date on the property meant that I had a week and a half to find a new place, but it ended up working out, as I requested and was given rental abatement and relocation assistance to make up for the last-second rush (*phew*).  I actually love the new apartment; it’s got a lot more room for Fez and I and is significantly more affordable for the amenities that it includes, though my commute to work is further.  To make up for it, I’m selling Kermit and getting a more reliable car.  So, you know, constantly trying to work my way towards the stability that I crave, but all signs are looking good at the moment  :-P

So that’s where I’ve been if you were wondering.  I’ve got a couple of events coming up in November, also, so as soon as I have exact dates and addresses nailed down, I’ll let you know which cities I’ll be dropping into  ;)

Oh, and I was on HuffPost Live on Monday!  The conversation was about homeless voting and how many of the new voter ID laws popping up across the nation are disenfranchising the homeless/poor/ethnic/veteran population.  It was an awesome group and a lovely, civil discussion.  I feel privileged to have been a part of a panel of such wonderful and hardworking advocates!

Along those lines…the U.S. Presidential Election is less than a month away.  If you’re qualified, get out there and VOTE.  This will be my first year voting (I registered last month and I’m super proud and excited to finally take part and have a say in the outcome of this election).

Upcoming SoCal Meet-n-Greets!

Upcoming SoCal Meet-n-Greets!

Born and raised in SoCal, but never saw Grauman’s Chinese Theatre before last week, with my awesome friend Jeanine.
Here I am holding Atticus Finch’s hand <3

Hey guys!  It’s last second, I know, but if you’re in SoCal, I’ll be giving a speechy-thingy tomorrow at Casa Youth Shelter’s 10th Annual Teen Summit!  It’s open to the public, although Casa prefers that if you choose to attend, you RSVP (more info on the Facebook page for the event here).  The summit begins at 9:15 a.m. and I’ll be speaking from around 11:30 a.m. – noon.

Casa is really great – They do a lot of homeless outreach and I’ve volunteered with them a few times handing out clothes/food/water to the homeless population here in Santa Ana that hangs around the Orange County Courthouse.  They totally deserve so much support and recognition.

Also, if you come to Los Al tomorrow, I can guarantee you that the Pasty Kitchen on Katella, a mile away from the event, serves the absolute best food (pasties!) you will ever taste – I grew up going there.  It’s this tiny little hole-in-the-wall family-owned place that’s a Los Al institution and is effing DELICIOUS.  It’s actually my favorite food of all time, even better than pizza.  I recommend the chicken pasty, but they also have beef and vegetarian, plus some dessert-y type stuff.  Honestly, the main reason I decided to do this event was to have an excuse to go stock up on a few pastys for the next few days (just kidding!  Sort of.  But in all seriousness, it’s super-tasty.  Try it, you’ll like it.)

Otherwise, SoCal-ites will also get a chance to swing by and say hi at the La Habra Public Library on August 19th at 2:30 p.m., where I’ll be doing a reading/Q&A!  Bring your copy and I’d be happy to sign it  :)

Lastly, I apologize profusely for the bunch of gobbledygook code or whatever at the top of my site’s pages right now…I’m as baffled as you likely are, but I’m working on figuring out what the problem is and getting it resolved quickly.  In the meantime – so sorry!  :(

Update:  Said gobbledygook code was actually caused via changes by my host server, which have now been rectified.  Whew!  So glad…that was driving me bonkers.

AOL “You’ve Got…” Video

AOL "You've Got..." Video

This has nothing to do with AOL, but J. took me to RenFaire, which is one of the awesomest things ever if you're a geek like me, and I needed an excuse to use this pic because I don't hate it ;)

Agh!  So the AOL “You’ve Got…” interview just went up.  I didn’t know it was going up today, and have not seen it yet.

I promised I’d post here when it went up, so here you go, but unfortunately I’m at work right now and cannot turn up the volume, so you get to see it before I do.  Plus, I really hate hearing my voice/seeing my face on camera, so there’s always this sort of “I can’t bear to look” feeling, so I’ll try to work myself up to it tonight when I get home.

But here you go…(my apologies for the link, I tried using the embed code but it doesn’t seem to work on WordPress):

AOL.com Video – You’ve Got Brianna Karp

Quick mistake I noticed in the description…it says I own my own home.  I don’t.  I have never owned a home yet  ;)  I rent my apartment.  You should get to see quick shots of it in the vid.  It’s a 300 square-foot studio with a small yard for Fez.  I love it and, as I mentioned briefly before, I’ve been doing my best to thrift/Craigslist/FreeCycle furnishings for it over the past 10 months.  I’m very proud that all of my furniture in my apartment, all put together, cost under $1,000 total.  The canopy bed I’m proudest of.  It was in some guy’s garage in the middle of the Mojave Desert (Apple Valley) for $100.  I later found the exact same model of bed online (Laurel Crown Furniture) for over $4K. So I’m extra-proud of that find. My awesome friends Thao and her hubby Steve put together the base for me, and my sweet and patient boyfriend spent about 8 hours helping me put up the canopy.  The bed curtains were Craigslisted Ikea curtains for $5.

 

So, yeah.  Just gotta brag a teensy-weensy bit.  I’m super proud of my thrifting skills.

 

Okiez, back to work before they fire me  ;)

“Member of the Board”

"Member of the Board"

One of the CCY kids speaking at the rally outside of the California Capitol Building in Sacramento.

Happy 4th of July, all!

Well, the speaking trips to Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Sacramento were awesome!  I met some of the warmest people…some of them even drove from really far away.  I’m so touched and honored.  In Wisconsin I spoke at several libraries, so I got to meet fellow “book people”, which feels like coming home no matter where I’m at!  In Pennsylvania I got to speak to social services and homeless services workers, particularly those who work in conjunction with the local school districts to assist homeless kids and families.

The most touching experience for me, however, was in Sacramento, speaking at the California Coalition for Youth’s Annual Conference and Rally. I spoke to, and met, some of the awesomest kids there on the planet.  Most of these kids had some really painful backstories – they had been homeless, or foster youth who had aged out of the system, or had abusive parents, or were LGBT and were kicked out…you name it, they had been there.  Some of them had already been in juvenile hall or prison.  They’d had rough starts, but here they were, getting their lives back on track and using their experiences to support others.

The morning after the conference, we rallied outside of the Capitol Building, and some of the kids told their stories and talked about how they wanted to make a difference in their communities.  Then we broke up into groups and went into the Capitol and spoke to legislators about passing several laws currently on the table that will help foster youth and the homeless.

It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life.  Period.  These kids brought tears to my eyes and every one of them made me want to be a better person.  So young, yet they want to get involved in social issues.  These kids are the future, dude.  They’re going on to huge things, you can tell.  And getting to talk one-on-one with actual legislators and policymakers was awesomeness personified.  Other than speaking with Anthony Love (the Obama cabinet member who is the Deputy Director for National Programs at the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH)…basically the guy who oversees HUD) a few months ago at a homelessness conference in Florida, I had never participated in democracy at nearly such a hands-on level, and now I want to do more.

Looks like I’ll get the chance…The California Coalition for Youth has generously invited me to become a member of their Board of Directors and this week, the nomination process was completed – I’m confirmed! This means that I will get to go to Sacramento several times a year for Board meetings and conferences and try to come up with new and innovative ways to legislate for foster and homeless youth, and talk to legislators some more and ask them to pass those bills into law…as well as lobby against laws that are detrimental to the disadvantaged.

This is probably not very official-board-member-like, but…SQUEE!!!!!  I can’t express how grateful I am for this honor.  I’ll do my absolute best to represent well.

Otherwise, you know, just truckin’ along with the 9-5 job and everything.  I’ve been booked for a few more speaking/signing tours later this year; I’ll post once I have exact dates/times/details for you.  There’s also a video coming out soon for AOL’s “You’ve Got…” series where you’ll get to see my apartment.  They sent a film crew and everything.  Poor people had to cram all this light/sound equipment in my 300-square-foot studio for three hours to film.  They were very kind and patient with me.  One of them was afraid of big dogs so I had to keep Fez far, far away.  It was an experience!

I’ve been at the apartment for nearly 11 months now.  I’m still living pretty paycheck-to-paycheck, but have done my best to furnish it over the past almost-year on a shoestring budget.  I am nothing if not the master thrifter/Craigslister  :-P  Hope you guys think it’s cute.  It’s kind of got a vintage-y cluttered bookshop air to it, I think.  I’ll post when the vid goes up.

Have a safe holiday and enjoy the fireworks!

I’m Coming North! (And Happy Fuzzy News, Yay!)

I'm Coming North!  (And Happy Fuzzy News; Yay!)

THIS is Spring in Wisconsin?!?!?! Hellz yeah, I'll take it!!!!! Image credit: Phillip Billings, fineartamerica.com

Squee; I’m so excited!  Over the next week and a half, I will be travelling to three Northern areas of the U.S. I’ve never visited before.  So if you’re in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, or Sacramento…this is your chance to come see me do a reading/speechy-thingy and/or get your copy of The Girl’s Guide to Homelessness signed (personally addressed, even!  I love writing little special notes/doodles in copies of the book.  I like to shake things up).

Dates and times are now up on the Upcoming Events page.  I’m gonna be all over the place…several Fox Cities Book Festival venues in WI (a university, a couple of libraries), speaking to an awesome-youth-changing-the-world group (California Coalition for Youth) in Sacramento and marching with them to a rally at the State Capitol, and in Pennsylvania I’ll be at the Meeting the Challenge: Educating Homeless Children conference in Harrisburg.

It’s gonna be awesome.  I am SO stoked.  Come hang out with me  :)

* * * * *

OK, a little bit of juicy news in exchange/apology for being in absentia for so long.

I get a lot of people writing very kind letters to me expressing solidarity and asking how stuff is going for me, romantically speaking.  Seeing as how, if you read the book, it could be considered to have ended on something of a bum note (depending how you look at it). I also get a lot of readers telling me their own stories of failed/dramatic/abusive relationships and betrayal.  Which actually makes me feel less alone, and less stupid overall.  Because you know what?  That’s something that’s quite common among individuals who come from abusive/fundamentalist backgrounds.  You aren’t experienced at real life, relationships, and boundaries.  You don’t know what’s considered healthy or normal.  You’re likely to fall in love with the first person (or several people) who show you the slightest modicum of interest.  You’re vulnerable to unhealthy romantic relationships, more so than most.  So all you can do is sort of learn how to do better, bit by bit.

Relationships

Image Credit: QuickSprout.com

A blogger called “NimbyGirl” recently wrote a great, detailed analysis of feminism and chauvinism in The Girl’s Guide to Homelessness.  I was elated that someone GOT IT.  That she picked up on all those more subtle topics, and that the book wasn’t just about being homeless, but about trying to figure out and conquer all of these really socially advanced concepts, having come from a socially stunted background.

I really appreciated her last sentence:  ”She can do a lot better…and she will”.  THAT is exactly what I want to tell every person who has ever written me with his/her own story of love gone terribly wrong.

So this brings me to the juicy news.  I guess you could say that I’ve “done better”.

See, after the fiasco that was my last relationship, I decided not to date for a really long time.  And I stuck to my guns.  For two years, I focused on holding down my job, getting an apartment, spending time with good friends, reading a lot of books, and getting to know myself better.  Getting to the point where I felt comfortable and happy just being alone.  It was great to realize that I didn’t need to be with someone to feel complete.  Maybe I would meet someone, maybe I wouldn’t.  Either way, it was OK.  I now firmly believe that to be essential, no matter who you are.

Four months ago, I met somebody.  We’ll call him J.  I’m not going to give out his full name, so as to retain his privacy, and I probably won’t talk much or at all about our relationship on this blog again, so as to keep from jinxing our personal business, but here are the things that I can tell you:

I wasn’t looking to date.  Neither was he.  Neither of us had dated anybody in quite a while and were comfortable with that.  A mutual friend invited us and five or six other people to dinner.  It wasn’t a set up a blind date, but we sort of shyly noticed one another and ended up hitting it off.  The main thing we had in common, right off the bat, was that we were both raised Jehovah’s Witnesses, and we had both left around the same time.  He was actually a former Bethelite (volunteer at the Watchtower Society’s headquarters…tangential note here:  oh, the irony.  If my sister could see me now.  She always thought SHE would be the one to date a Bethelite, haha.  It’s a stupid prestige thing for the JWs…often titles mean a lot more to them than personalities.  You can be a terrible person, but if you’re an “elder”, “pioneer”, or “Bethelite”, the women will be racing to marry you; guaranteed).

A week later, he emailed and asked me out for coffee.  We took things slow, and are still taking them slow.  We seem to understand one another well due to our similar upbringings and share quite a few personality traits.  My experience with him has been that he is kind, patient, funny, talented, stable, and gregarious.  He is also a feminist (yay!)  Thus far, things seem to remain on an even keel…no unequal power balance, neither person is doing all of the heavy lifting, etc.  I’m increasingly feeling that this is the way things should be.

J. found out early on that I wrote a book, but at my request, he held off reading it until we got to know one another better.  I wanted him to get to know me as I am now, before having to take on all of my past baggage all at once.  When he did finally read it, and the book did not change his opinion of me, I knew that he cares about me for who I am, the good and the bad.  Sometimes I’m still nervous or insecure, due to my former experiences in personal relationships (both family and romantic).  He has been unfailingly understanding and reassuring, so the insecurity lessens day by day.  Learning to trust again, and all that.

We’ve had enough of the bigger conversations to know that we share very similar life goals as well as some of the same interests/and hobbies…though not all of them.  Which is awesome, actually.  We retain our individuality, our own circles of friends and our time to pursue our separate interests.  We hold a lot of the same positions on politics and social issues…but now all of them.  Every now and then we disagree, and I love that we can.  It’s never a big deal; we can discuss and debate this stuff amiably.

Who knows what will happen down the road.  Maybe things will work out and we’ll end up together.  Maybe not (always a possibility.  Always.  I don’t care who you are or who you’re with or how great things seem on their face).  But the best I can hope for is that if they don’t work, at least they not-work in a way that is, for lack of a better word, standard.  Healthier and less destructive.  It’s early days, but there has not been the slightest sign of any bizarrely gothic skeletons in J.’s closet, no secret girlfriends, and definitely no secret babies (we’re both child-free by choice), no bodies in the attic, etc.  Early days, but my experience with him has been, thus far that he’s unilaterally a wonderful person, and very bookish/low-key like me.  So we seem to suit one another.  And I feel that I can be reasonably secure in stating that no matter what happens with us as a couple, it will not end up with police pulling me out of a snowdrift this time  ;)

So there you have it.  If you’ve had bad romantic experiences like I have, I hope some of this helps somewhat.  Look for someone who respects you, who doesn’t manipulate you (even in small ways…what can seem like small and subtle manipulations are often the sign of much deeper problems looming on the horizon).  Look for someone who wants enough of the same things you do to base the foundation of a relationship on, but not so many similarities that you fall victim to the dreaded two-headed-person syndrome and lose all sense of individuality.

Better yet, don’t look for anyone, for a while.  Know yourself inside and out.  Realize that couplehood is nice and all, but you don’t need a man/woman to save you or make you complete.  Only you can do that.  Just have a good time for a while.  The world is an awesome and fascinating place.  Be a good person, do good things, make a difference, make new friends, get to know the friends that you already have even better.  Go to therapy and figure your shit out if that’s something you feel would be helpful.  Stop placing your expectations for happiness and a good life on romance (it’s twee and cliché to do that, anyway.  This isn’t Jerry Maguire.  Nobody’s gonna “complete you”).

Don’t expect happiness to equate to constant euphoria.  You’re still gonna have the same mundane everyday crap to deal with that we all do, and probably sometimes even more than that – more than your fair share.  But you’ll realize that you’re more practiced and better equipped at dealing with them.  You’ll know that, despite the problems we all have, you like and respect yourself.  Then you’ll be ready for a functional, healthy adult relationship if/when it does come.  And it will only add to the happiness that you already discovered was within you all along, right there for the taking.

J. and I are having a lovely time together.  He makes me so happy.  But it’s all the more meaningful because I spent a lot of time re-evaluating my definition of happiness, and then inching closer to obtaining it as an individual, before we ever met.

Serial Killer Murdering Homeless in Orange County, CA

Not at all a pleasant post today, but a necessary one:

Police believe there is a dangerous serial killer on the loose in Orange County, CA targeting homeless people. Three homeless men have already been murdered between Dec. 20 and Dec. 30.

Attacks on the homeless have been on the rise for the past few years and it’s one of the major reasons I was so keen on keeping my identity and location secret while I was initially blogging. (FYI, all three murders took place extremely close to the area I was staying. Like, within a mile or two close. One in a public shopping center.  This is my home turf, people.)

If you’re homeless anywhere, but particularly in Orange County right now, WATCH YOUR BACK.  Be aware of your surroundings.  Try not to be anywhere isolated, especially at night.  Look over this list of safety/survival tips that I posted a couple of years back. Be prepared.  This sick, twisted monster fuck is out there and has not yet been caught and will probably be looking to strike again.  Even if they do catch him, there’s always more out there like him, and homeless people are easy prey – they’re vulnerable and often it’s erroneously assumed that nobody will miss them.  Take care of yourself.

* * * * *

Ugh.  Palate cleanser:

The Girl’s Guide to Homelessness just came out in Australia and New Zealand, and I’ve already received some encouraging emails from very awesome locals.  Australia Associated Press put out a super-lovely article yesterday, also. Gonna be doing several upcoming interviews there, so I’ll post when I know the dates/times (for radio and TV) or when print interviews are released.  Thank you to everybody Down Under for your support and kind words  :)

Happy Holidays!

Happy Holidays!

Image Credit: edmontonatheists.ca

I wish all of you guys and gals Seasons Greetings, Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Festive Kwanzaa, Pleasant Winter Solstice, or whatever else you do/do not celebrate (dude, I’m just happy to have a few days off work to relax and unwind).  Mostly I just hope that your holiday is filled with happiness and joy and that you forget your troubles for a while  :)

I saw this excellent 60 Minutes story that I would like to share with you.  I loved how brave and articulate the homeless children profiled in this story are.  I hope they have a lovely holiday as well.  I read in an update that following the story, they were offered a full four-year scholarship and that Arielle Metzger wants to be a child-advocacy attorney when she grows up, so I have a feeling their luck is changing.  *Fingers crossed*  In summation, though, these kids kick ARSE.

Read the story and watch the segment here:  Hard Times Generation:  Families Living in Cars

Also, two tiny shameless plugs:

1)  The tGGtH book is coming out in Australia in January!!!  If you’re an Australian reader, look for me on Sunrise with Mel and Kochie on Monday, January 9th (via satellite).  I’m really excited because I’ve seen them on The Chaser’s War on Everything.  I will also be doing some print and radio.  I hope they send me to Oz one day.  I’ve never been, but I can already tell it would be one of my favorite places on Earth.  I want to swim with whale sharks and poke wombats with sticks and such things  ;)

2) Library Journal selected The Girl’s Guide to Homelessness as one of it’s Best Books of 2011, in the Memoir category.  I can’t tell you how honored and humbled I am to be listed among such a slew of brilliant and talented authors, especially Margaux Fragoso (whom I pretty much idolize and met at ALA when we shared time on a literary panel…she was kind enough to sign my copy of her book and put up with my wide-eyed author worship) and Andre Dubus III (whom I’ve never met, but come on, he wrote House of Sand and Fog! That’s pretty much all you gotta say, right?)  Read their books.  Seriously.  Doooooo it.

Have a wonderful holiday and the happiest of New Years, foks  :)

Girls Think Tank Community Picnic!

Girls Think Tank Community Picnic!

Girls Think Tank Founders. Image Credit: GirlsThinkTank.org

 

I am in San Diego right now because I will be speaking at the Girls Think Tank Community Picnic tomorrow (Oct. 15), which will be taking place in Balboa Park from noon to 4:00 p.m.  I’d love to meet you, talk with you, and/or sign a copy of your book (there will be a few copies available for purchase, as well, I believe…like 20 or something).  There will be several homeless services orgs from the San Diego community in attendance, and I’m told that Occupy San Diego may be in the park as well, so this should be very interesting.  One of Girls Think Tank’s major focuses is accessible water and sanitation for all homeless people (the United Nations has declared these basic human rights).  I’m pretty sure that’s something everybody can get behind.

Did a quick segment today on San Diego Living Channel 6 with the very kind and sweet Renee Koch about the picnic tomorrow and also had the privilege to have a phone chat with an über-lovely ladies’ book club in the Los Alamitos/Seal Beach area, which are some of my old stomping grounds because that’s where my mom grew up and we spent a lot of time there while I was a kid.

And then on Sunday (Oct. 16) I’ll be doing a reading/signing/Q&A at the Katie Wheeler Public Library in Irvine at 2:30 p.m., 13109 Old Myford Rd., Irvine, CA  92602.  If you’re in Orange County and you’ve never been to this library, you seriously need to go.  It is fucking adorable.  In this warm, sweet little historic building.  The first time I ever went in there was to drop off some postcards for a South Coast Repertory show, and I did not want to leave (OK, I never want to leave libraries, but this one had an extra-charming je ne sais quois).

I had the absolute best time at the Tustin Public Library reading last week – both the staff and the attendees were just some of the warmest, kindest people I’ve ever encountered.  I’m discovering just how much I love “book people” and want to get to know more of them because they’re among the easiest people for me to relate to and we have endless topics of conversation available once we get on the subject of reading, so I’m grateful for the opportunity to encounter so many lately.  Looking forward to repeating the experience at Katie Wheeler Library.

Quick PSA:  Support your local library, people!  I mean, I know there’s Kindles or Nooks or whatever (still can’t bring myself to buy one) but libraries serve such an important purpose and function in communities far beyond what a Kindle could ever offer me, that I don’t want to live in a world where libraries and used/indie bookstores have become obsolete – and my agent will probably strangle me for saying this (very politely though, as he’s a total sweetheart), because I think I might actually get a higher royalty percentage off of e-books than hard copies…but fuck it, I don’t care.  (*obligatory backpedal* Love you, Chris Schelling.  Please don’t ever leave me).

Next time you’re in a library, tell the librarian that he/she rocks and is appreciated.  Because these are seriously awesome people doing seriously awesome work.

* * * * *

That’s about it for now.  Here is a photo of a mastiff being used as a footrest:

 

Sleep, my minion.

Virgin Islands Officially Declares 10-10 Homeless Day!

Virgin Islands Officially Declares 10-10 Homeless Day!

First Lady Cecile DeJongh distributes food and Tiny Tokens of Hope in St. John.

Just a quickie post…the Virgin Islands officially declared 10/10 “V.I. Homeless Day”, in recognition of and solidarity with World Homeless Day!

 

OK, gotta admit, I’m wiping away a tiny tear.  So, so proud of how far this has spread.  I know I’ve said it before, but there it is.

Thanks to Governor John deJongh Jr. and First Lady Cecile deJongh for making my day.