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Meet Charlie

I was walking down Columbus Avenue when I saw Charlie’s books neatly piled on a table. Charlie is a fixture in this upper west side Manhattan neighborhood, more so now that the Barnes & Noble a couple of blocks down has become a Century 21. I miss that Barnes & Noble. It was on a clear cut between my debark from the C train to my gym at 63rd.

I had just been in a café reading my students’ interview assignments. I’d sent them out into the city to meet a stranger and get their story. Everyone has a story, see what you can find out, I said. Don’t talk about yourself. This isn’t about you, it’s about someone else.

Any community is a treasure trove of interesting people. Writers don’t have to go far to exercise their curiosity and heightened sensitivities. The other day, getting my car oil changed and inspected at an upstate mechanic near my daughter and son-in-law’s house, I met a fourth-generation farmer who just had his fourth great grand-child. He’d voted for Trump and I wanted to know why. What is it about his life that sent him down that electoral path? His truck was ready before my car, but at least I got some of the story, not enough to write anything just yet, but enough to spur me to find out more. I wrote about the conversation in my journal and mentally filed it away, to be continued.

Now there was Charlie on the street, a man and his books I’d passed a hundred times, maybe more, on my way to the Lincoln Center Barnes and Noble, but never stopped. I figured those neatly piled books of his were dirty—god knows where they’d come from, maybe loaded with bed bugs, I thought, and I've had enough of those, thank you. I would have passed by again, but my phone vibrated and I stopped to pick it up right in front Charlie and his books. I clicked off the call and started looking through the books. When there are books in front of me, especially in such close proximity, I look. The first that caught my eye was “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” one of my favorites. I have a hardback copy, too big to carry around, and I’ve been wanting to reread it for a while. And because I can’t seem to read literary fiction on my Kindle anymore, I’ve been buying more paperbacks.

Charlie was right there behind my shoulder. I could smell his cigar and see the smoke. So I asked him to pull out the book. It was pristine. Never cracked.

“How much?”
“Three dollars.”
“Take five,” I said.

Then he stood next to me as I flipped through it again. Lo (or LOL), it wasn’t completely pristine, I’d missed an inscription:

"Dear Yasmina,

May you have many nights of reading yourself to sleep, and may we always share among many other things this love of good books.

With nothing but love,

“Well, I guess that relationship is over,” I said. “How did this book get here? “
“No idea,” Charlie said.
“Yasmina gave away a book with a very intimate inscription. Or maybe she died. Was this an estate sale book?”

My imagination was already clicking over. If Yasmina had died—Yasmina are you out there reading this blog post?—why did her loved ones give away this inscribed book? How callous, I decided.

Charlie took the fifth. No comment. Time for me to ask him a question or two.

“So where do you get your books?”
“All over.”
“And what did you do before you sold books here?”
“I read.”
“And how long have you been selling books here?”
“Twenty years.”
“And are you still reading?”
“Have you got any Graham Greene?”
“Let me have a look.”

As he was searching, it was as though he was stepping into his books, possessing them. He belonged to them, they belonged to him, he belonged to this street, this neighborhood, this city. “No Graham Greene,” he said. Then he offered his hand. “Charlie,” he said. “My name is Charlie.”

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