I have to admit I feel overwhelmed by the task. You see, I spent twelve years living in a town that went from one small used bookstore to none. Within a half-hour’s drive I could be at two bookstores—indies, of course, since B&N doesn’t always count. One of the shops was the Princeton University bookstore, so that was almost unfair. Now I live in a region with many bookstores. I wasn’t truly aware of this when deciding on where to settle; the decision was made on practical matters such as being able to get to work, and affordability. It turns out that central eastern Pennsylvania is unexpectedly bookish. I’m not complaining, you understand. I haven’t had much time to explore, and that’s why I’m overwhelmed. That, and Banned Books Week.
I’ve been to the oldest continuously operated bookstore in the world, The Moravian Book Shop, in Bethlehem. Twice already. But there are many more within an easy drive from here. “Lead us not into temptation,” the prayer goes, but if we’re honest we’ll admit we love the challenge. Home owning is expensive. There’s always something that needs to be done—the sort of thing you used to let the landlord handle—they are lords, after all. And time for reading is scarce. Add to this that there are bookstores I haven’t even entered yet, not far away, and a kind of anxiety grows. You have to realize that even in Manhattan reaching a bookstore on lunch hour was difficult. They are few and far between. It’s overwhelming being in a region where indie bookstores have held on.
My wife recently showed me an ad for an indie bookstore over the border in New Jersey. They were looking for new owners. We’ve often discussed how perhaps a retirement job for us might be just such a thing. Of course, business sense isn’t my strong suit—just learning how to own a house seems pretty hard. The idea of making a living surrounded by books, however, is appealing. (You might think an editor reads all day, and while that sometimes happens the reading is generally embryonic books. Besides, there’s something serendipitous about discovering fully fledged books that you didn’t know were coming.) To buy a business requires capital, and we’re more the minuscule type, when it comes to finance. As we settle into our house we decide which books go where, and it is remarkably satisfying. After I’m done being overwhelmed by all there is to do in the house, I’m looking forward to being overwhelmed by exploring the bookstores of central eastern Pennsylvania.
The roofers were here. One of the things you learn only after laying down a ton of money is that those selling a house like to withhold information. Moving during one of the rainiest summers in history, we naturally discovered leaks. And so the roofers are here, like noisy angels banging above my head. Given the orientation of our house, their access is outside the window of my work office. I figured it was an opportunity to learn. As the old shingles came raining down, however, I couldn’t help thinking of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening. One of his more disappointing efforts, this horror film involved a memorable scene of mass suicide where people jumped off of a high building one after another. Maybe other people would think of other comparisons, but the falling debris brought the film to mind in my case.
It’s a matter of framing, I suppose. I’ve watched enough horror that it has become a framing device. This is true although it has literally been months since I’ve seen a horror film. (Moving proved to be its own kind of nightmare and one day I suspect we’ll be unpacked enough to watch movies again.) Instead of losing the frame of reference, however, I find it intact. If you spend long enough with Poe, he gets under your skin. And changing states to M. Night Shyamalan’s eastern Pennsylvania might have something to do with it. This is Bucks County territory, after all. Another frame of reference, mediated by media.
As I watch the old shingles drop, I realize the window through which I’m witnessing this is another frame. Like a camera lens, it limits my view. At times it can be like Hitchcock’s Rear Window, seeing neighbors at their daily business. Indulge me. For nearly the past five years I worked in a cubicle with no view of any windows whatsoever. I was completely cut off from the outside. (Which, for those of you who’ll admit to having seen The Happening, might not have been an entirely bad thing.) Now that I have a window—my own framing device—I realize some of what I’d been missing. At Routledge I had a window, but at such a level that the Manhattan outside seemed artificial. You couldn’t see individuals down on the street. The entire wall was a window—too much of a frame. Gorgias Press involved working in a windowless room as well. I’m professional enough not to let the falling material or the pounding distract me much. There’s work to do because there are bills to pay. And horror films prepared me for that as well. It’s the ultimate framing device.
Posted in Current Events, Just for Fun, Memoirs, Movies, Posts, Weather
Tagged Alfred Hitchcock, Gorgias Press, horror films, M. Night Shyamalan, Pennsylvania, Rear Window, Routledge, The Happening
“And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem.” Strangely enough, the great physician (although we know nothing of his medical practice) Luke was writing about a place an ocean and a sea away from here. The place names of eastern Pennsylvania demonstrate the religious awareness of the early colonial Europeans who brought their Bibles and diseases to this nation. Bethlehem, Pennsylvania was known more for being a house of steel than being a house of bread. It’s just down the road from the little town of Nazareth, made famous by The Band’s classic hit, “The Weight.” The road to Emmaus is nearby. And the major medical facility is, you guessed it, St. Luke’s.
The Band had an influence somewhat surprising for those who may have trouble recalling their nondescript name. “The Weight” is a story of a traveler coming to, of all places, Nazareth, Pennsylvania. So taken by the song was a Scottish band that they adopted the name Nazareth before informing us that “Love Hurts.” This is something the evangelist and purported doctor Luke presumably knew. If you go down from Nazareth even unto Bethlehem, you’ll find the steel city recast as the Christmas city. For those of us who grew up in the western part of the state, Pittsburgh was the real steel city anyway. When I was growing up, Pittsburgh was the 16th largest city in the country. It now sits at 65th, because, like Bethlehem it had trouble drawing people without the natural hardness that is Pennsylvania. There’s a parable in a city transforming from a heavy metal to a holiday. There’s no Pittsburgh in the Bible.
When Luke begins his Christmas narrative (think of this as one of those “Christmas in July,” or August things), quoted above, he ironically leaves Mary until the next verse. Joseph, whom later tradition will say had nothing to do with the conception anyway, still gets first billing. One wonders what might’ve been different had Mary led the way. It was much later, after the gruesome crucifixion account, that Emmaus came into the picture. Two unnamed disciples were walking along that road and didn’t recognize who Jesus was. Had they kept walking, I wonder if they might’ve ended up in Pittsburgh, for the biblical names soon give way to places like Kutztown and Fleetwood, the latter of which, I have to admit, I never got into. Had Mary taken a load off in Nazareth, this story would’ve been completely different. Thus saith The Band.
Posted in American Religion, Bible, Holidays, Memoirs, Posts, Religious Origins, Travel
Tagged Bethlehem, Bethlehem Steel, Gospel of Luke, Nazareth, Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh, The Band, The Weight
Who am I, really? I can’t help but ponder this whenever I apply for a new form of identification. While at the Department of Motor Vehicles I observed a room full of strangers—if there’s a melting pot in the United States, it’s the DMV. Outside those cloistered in the major cities, you must drive to survive in this country (or at least to thrive) and the ritual of waiting your turn by number at the DMV is part of it. I glanced at my application while waiting. I’ve held drivers’ licenses in at least four states, but I’ve lived in at least six—how do you count where you live, really? I think I must’ve had an Illinois license at some point, but I could find no record of it. Who am I? Are the Illinois years lost? Big brother will find out, no doubt.
To apply for a license in Pennsylvania, as in most states, you have to prove you are who you say you are. Swapping in your old license just doesn’t work any more. While the actual “who” depends on government-issue documents (social security, birth certificates, or passports) the where question is more financial. To prove your residence you must present bills with your name and current address. You’re defined by your money. Bills demonstrate that you’re integrated into the system, the matrix. I spent one day, as a temp with Manpower, working for Detroit Electric (no, I didn’t have a Michigan license; I kept the Massachusetts one), processing requests for new service. Despite not being asked back because they had expected a woman (really!), I learned that to get service you had to prove you were part of this matrix, with a history of paying your bills.
None of these agencies ask the deeper, more philosophical questions of identity. None seem to care that each day is a struggle to define our spiritual selves in a world hopelessly secular and financial. Yes, my birth certificate “proves” I was born in Pennsylvania. The DMV records “prove” I learned to drive here and had my first license in this state. They show nothing of the real question of who I am. A reasonable facsimile of my visage appears on the plastic card that certifies my citizenship within these artificial borders. But now my home state stamps “Temporary” on the card so that a security check can be run. They want to discover if I am who my records say I am. What the powers that be don’t seem to recognize is that although where we are born influences us every day for the rest of our lives, no little plastic card, despite the amount of information it conveys, can say who it is I really am. “Temporary” may be the truest word on it.