In Charles Bukowski’s novel, Post Office, the opening line reads, “It began as a mistake.” I’d come across Post Office while working as a donations clerk and cashier at a very well known thrift store—part of a thrift store chain that stretched its thrift store goodness from coast to coast. Donations poured in daily, everything from books to blankets, books to crock pots, books to clothing, books to household goods and everything in between. Bukowski’s was one of hundreds of books that passed through my fingertips in the donations area. I had no time to read the books that came in. They were destined for the scanning table where titles and other publication information were entered into a computer.
I was a poet working at the thrift store. Most every item I saw had a poem in it. The funkiest old jacket or shirt had a poem stitched into it. Old crock pots with the 70’s motifs had the fragrance of poetry; old utensils, pots and pans and corn cob holders and cigarette lighters, to me, held the richness of stories and poems. Second-hand, third-hand, fourth-hand clothing, dishware, knickknacks, trinkets—passed through my hands for an instant, just long enough for some of that poetic dust to rub off on me. And I captured some of it like an hourglass captures sand. In fact, one of the items that passed through my hands was an hour glass—2 bulbous globes where black sand passed from one end to the other like coffee dripping through a second-hand thrift store coffeemaker. I put the hourglass in a secret place and watched the sand pass through during my employee breaks. I would jot a poem while the sand passed through the glass, trying to capture time.
While Bukowski saw his job at the post office as a “mistake”, I didn’t see my employment at the thrift store as such. The thrift store inspired much poetry; I met many people from many walks of life, many of whom I would never had met had I not worked in a thrift store. The thrift store environment inspired poetry and provided a work schedule that would allow me time to complete my master’s degree in creative writing. I would watch as the donations came through the loading dock. Along with the artwork, knickknacks, clothing, cookware and a thousand other things was books—many written by authors I was reading in my masters program—James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Jorge Luis Borges, James Joyce, Flannery O’Connor and others. Depending on the condition of the books, some were discarded—some heaved into the trash compactor (A typewriter, on one occasion, met the fate of the compactor, a poetic fate since poetry is said to be the compression of language) which bestowed upon me a heavy feeling of sadness. To the thrift store’s credit, this practice was not the norm with the store selling far more books than it discarded.
I soon grew weary of the thrift store; tired of books passing through my hands, not to be read but scanned; tired of toasters with ancient crumbs and waffle irons with crusty residue; wrinkled shirts and the requisite mustiness that covered it all. As a poet, a writer, I felt I needed to circulate. After all, circulation was healthy, my father once told me—healthy for the body and blood. I figured those benefits would apply to the mind as well so I applied for a job at the local library as a circulation clerk. I interviewed and got the job. During the interview, I name dropped; names of authors leaped from my tongue before hitting the bristly carpet under my feet: Ka-thunk! Ka-thunk! Ka-thunk! went the names as they hit the floor (I was so impressed, I hardly had time to think—at least that’s what I thunk).
So I began my job as a circulation clerk and the books passed through my hands like dishes, pieces of clothing, old record sleeves minus records etc. I didn’t read the books on the shelves; or if I did, only in fleeting moments—mere glances stolen here and there. The books sat stoic on their shelves as I walked by, shelving or straightening books that were askew ( I even came upon a book whose author’s last name was Askew). I said hello to the authors as I walked by; many I knew: Baldwin, Morrison, Rodriguez, Ellison, Murakami—and some I didn’t: John Ehle, Ron Rash, Reynolds Price, Randall Kenan and endless others. But, like the thrift store, my job was to scan returned books. Books came through the return slot with that heavenly noise: Ka-thunk ka-thunk ka-thunk! Sometimes there would be a kid returning a picture book. A blonde boy with blue eyes slid a book into the return slot then looked at me. “Hi, what’s your name?” the kid asked. “Bookman, kid,” I replied with a sour look on my face. “Mr. Bookman.” I looked away and back at the slot–the kid was no longer there.
After several weeks, I found myself becoming tongue-tied and brain tied when it came to engaging the automated check-out system. There were many steps to remember, user names and pass codes and it seemed I was bookmarking everything except books—I was pockmarked, my flesh riddled with protocols and procedures. Even the postal machine was complicated. Affixing a stamp to a postcard was a major ordeal—akin to working on a motor with a screwdriver using one’s teeth while walking backwards on a treadmill. The machines and computers were moody; they had minds and one had to become a mind reader to make it all out.
I was a reader, a reader of books yet I felt that books could have just as easily been in another world. When coworkers asked me about my pursuit of a degree in creative writing, they seemed to have a bit of trouble grasping the notion of a degree in creative writing. It made me think, should I have studied postal machine repair and maintenance instead? But many folks in the library had degrees in library science. I’d heard of that degree (MLS=Master of library science) and one could surmise, judging by those who possess this degree, that most do not go to “party”schools. Library science sounded technical, rife with microscopes, protractors and other fun accoutrements.
Somehow, in this library, this book-laden environment, I’d managed to feel numb. I felt no art, no poetry in the space. It wasn’t even a thrift store of literary dreams. It was more like the DMV of books. The daily anthem: Ka-thunk! Ka-thunk! Ka-thunk! I was becoming a bibliographic bureaucrat (and a bad one at that).
I pushed my cart of books to be routed to other libraries in the inter-library loan statewide system. And the books spoke as if each were my father. You need to get out of here, they said. You need to get out and circulate. You can’t find it in books alone, they said. And I thought about Langston Hughes who had dumped a bag of books off the side of a merchant ship destined for Africa. He’d begun to believe more in books than in people, he wrote. He gave it the heave-ho and he traveled the world.
I have since left the library. I am a poet. I am not a bibliographic bureaucrat; I cannot feel as if I work in the DMV of books. My heart doesn’t sound the beat of Ka-thunk! Ka-thunk! Ka-thunk! The library has one less circulation clerk but I have been quickly replaced. Libraries are good places, needed places; but not as a place of employment—at least not for this poet. As I left the building on my last day, I took a deep breath: Circulate.