I'm hovering near the checkout counter at a used-book store on Lincoln when I catch wind of a discussion at the counter that reeks of conspiracy. The cashier, an abundantly bearded middle-aged man in horn-rimmed glasses, cultivates the Karl Marx look. His eyes are cast in a wide, empty stare as he leans over from his elevated perch to comprehend his inquisitor.
A boy of 16 is whispering a question. Bell bottoms hip-hug his scrawny ass, a faded and shrunken black Slayer T-shirt seems spray-painted on his gaunt torso. What's left of his tortured auburn hair is blow-dried to fine straw.
The kid glances my way, then peers into the stacks, waiting for the clerk's response.
I remember that maybe ten minutes ago the kid entered with a middle-aged suburban-looking couple. They all stopped at the counter long enough for the father to ask where the leather-bound books were shelved.
"What type of books are you looking for?" the counterman asked.
"Aw, content don't matter. It's the look I'm after," the father said in a lazy southern drawl. "Could be anything." His eyes scanned the shelves behind the clerk, then rifled the counter, spotting a cold coffee with Shakespeare's mug on the mug. "Shakespeare'd be nice."
The clerk disappeared into the stacks, yardstick in hand, the family marching single file behind him. Presumably the stick was for gauging the price of books purchased by the foot. Decorative books.
The parents are now somewhere in the store, their voices occasionally drifting to the front. The son cranks his neck toward the sound, shooting a simultaneous glance at the clerk that warns him not to betray their tryst.
The kid leans in and repeats his question: "Do you have a copy of Mein Kampf?"
The clerk, always the pro, stands straight and, keeping his eyes on the subject before him, speaks softly and deliberately as though he were thinking about something else. "I'm sorry, I don't have a copy at the moment."
He has a copy and he knows it, but the bookseller is not about to defend this First Amendment hill. His stare focuses on the pentagram on the kid's T-shirt. The kid checks to see if the parents are coming.
After a pause, the kid crowds the plate and asks in a voice ever so slightly louder than before, "Do you have anything by Charles Manson?" The clerk is impressed, as he might be with a genuinely frightening snake in the garden. Impressed, that is, only for the instant before he hacks up the serpent with a hoe.
"I have a few copies of Helter Skelter."
"Naw, I read that already." The kid's disappointment is now nourished with impatience. "I mean, do you have anything written by Charles Manson?"
"No, I'm sorry."
The kid is crushed. Now what does he have to show for his trip to the city?
He searches his memory; he's thinking hard. He drops his chin to his sunken chest, covering his lips with his thumb and forefinger. He's buzzing through a million youthful conversations, a hard drive about to crash. No Hitler, no Manson. He would return to his friends empty-handed in the battle against middle-class teenage boredom.
He drops his hand from his pimply, peach-fuzzy face and looks back at the clerk. The clerk, now longing for a books-by-the-yard question, sets up like a big-league catcher saddled with a wild-pitch rookie. No longer distracted, he focuses with 20-20 clarity on the kid.
"Do you have anything by--" he glances around, his paranoia peaking "--Richard Nixon?"
The clerk stands stone-faced for a second or two. He begins a turn toward me, then catches himself and, looking straight ahead, smiles like a Cheshire cat.
"This way," he says, as behind me he slips, then he passes into the stacks, his charge in tow.