I don’t remember where I was. The library stacks, where a rose-cheeked high-school junior I had a crush on hung out? The alley behind La Petite, where my delinquent friends smoked bowls during lunch hour? A bookstore on the South Side? Or, actually, no, now I remember: I was in college, shamefully belated in my discovery of the ur-text of teenage misanthropy and melancholia, and I was supposed to be in “Molecular Biophysics: Theory & Applications” (we had a test the following week, or was it the following day?), and instead I decided to take the afternoon off, head back to the dorm for a little R&R, maybe work on whatever shapeless and senseless novel I was trying to write at the time, maybe see if a Seinfeld rerun was on, and it was cold — I remember clearly, though it was already April, it was very, very cold — and I got a to-go coffee and was passing by 57th Street Books, where I tended to spend my truancy. Although normally I zeroed into the “P”s in Fiction, in case a new Pynchon had magically appeared overnight, without anyone knowing about it, this time I lollygagged around the “S”s.
There it was: “Nine Stories,” by JD Salinger, the other recluse. The one I avoided lest I piss Mr. P. off. Hiding behind my guilt, I removed the Salinger and opened to a random page, which turned out to be page 3, the first page of “A Perfect Day For Bananafish.” I lingered by the corner chair, obscuring the cover, mostly out of embarrassment–if anyone saw me reading Salinger, I feared, they’d come over, start chatting about how they loved this or that, and when my turn came to gloat, I’d freeze up and my secret would be revealed.
That didn’t happen, and I wish I could say I started reading right then and there, not stopping for an hour and fifteen minutes, dizzy and delirious, but what actually happened was far less, um, romantic. Cheap bastard that I was (and, some would say, still am), I put the book back on the shelf and instead blitzed on over to the Regenstein library. “Nine Lives” was checked out, but “Franny and Zooey” was there. It was a well-worn first edition, and it still had the original checkout slip in back.
I didn’t notice this until a day or two later, back at the dorm, but I recognized the first name on the list.
Bellow, it said in a slightly slanting cursive.
Saul fucking Bellow.