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April 28, 2010

The strung out ones and worse

It was the spring of 2005. I was getting ready to go into work and help Harold clean out Twice Told Books and move furniture into his new house. I was nursing a drug-sprinkled hangover with a cup of sludgy black coffee and trying to will myself to get off of the couch where I’d passed out the night before.

I was sweating profusely even though it was cool in the air-conditioned apartment. I was naked, and the dog had pissed and shat on the floor. I wasn’t worried about it. The dog would do it again since I’d been a horrible daddy and had lacked the patience or kindness to walk her more than once a day. I was so depressed during that period — one of the darkest of my life — that bathing, shaving, eating and getting dressed were all Olympic feats.

I was just starting to rise from the leather couch when the phone rang. It was Sean Garrison, surrogate big brother and sometimes co-worker at Twice Told. He was calling to tell me I was late again. I said I already knew that and would try to make it in if I felt better. He started laughing, as did the other guys he’d brought in to help. He mimicked my voice, conjuring a guttural, Southern version of a valley girl. He started telling the movers so I could hear how pathetic I sounded.

I hung up on him.

Angry and still hungover, I drove to Twice Told. The task of the day: Lug out to the Dumpster the books Harold didn’t have time to sell and couldn’t fit in his new house. I put on my headphones and started loading a box of books. About the third load out, the song “Chimes of Freedom” by Bob Dylan began playing. Harold and I had sat countless times in his tiny, dusty bookstore, talking, analyzing and even worshipping Dylan’s music and words. And here I was, listening to one of his songs and throwing away literature at the same time.

I dropped the box at my feet, put my face in my hands and began to weep. Looking back, I don’t think it was because I felt like a Nazi for destroying books or because Twice Told was closing and my life would be less filled with passionate conversations about art, literature and other chimes of freedom flashing. I cried because I was ashamed. I wiped my face and picked up the empty box to retrieve another load.

When Harold saw the look on my face, he told Sean and the movers I was going to be working with him today. We drove to his house in the South End and surveyed, probably a worthless journey in regards to the move’s forward momentum, but he knew I needed breathing room.

We then went to Habitat for Humanity so Harold could look for some pieces for his new bathroom. I looked around at all the people volunteering, trying to redeem some of the overall harm the world can do. I thought of all the counselors, priests, teachers and friends like Sean and Harold who, to me, that day, were the modern world’s answer to biblical shepherds for Dylan’s “countless confused, accused, misused, strung-out ones and worse.”

When Harold and I got back in the car, he put his hand on my shoulder.

“Man,” he said. “Are you gonna be OK?”

I just nodded. It would take another half decade for me to get and remain sober for any noteworthy length of time. But had it not been for the epiphany in the backyard of Twice Told Books, I may not have made it at all.

Gone was Twice Told — a refuge for anyone who wanted to talk about how others had gotten through it, to find sentences that made sense out of pain, to find books that told the stories of our lives. And while Harold may have grown irritable at times, increasingly so in the later years of the store, we had a place to go for a while that we loved and considered home. Loneliness had a cure there. If I went to the store and it was deserted save for the old man who sometimes wanted silence for his thought, all I had to do was wait and another malcontent would invariably appear and give me someone with whom to bicker, interrupting Harold’s psychological Eden.

After a while, Harold got tired of us hiding there from the cops, getting red-faced and yelling at each other over simple differences of opinion, scaring away customers.

To me, this was OK.

He had done more than his part.