Magazine article The New Yorker

Cloudburst You're Fired!

Magazine article The New Yorker

Cloudburst You're Fired!

Article excerpt

I got my first job in 1968, at a bookstore on the Upper West Side. It was small, but known for its brawny sections of Liberation Studies and Beat Lit. In an earlier life, Pete, the owner, had been a partner in a legendary San Francisco bookstore where Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg had read to yipping audiences, but there'd been a rupture so bitter that new employees were warned never even to allude to it. Once, Ginsberg dropped by the store and asked Pete if he'd heard from his ex-partner lately. Pete chased him out into the street, swinging one of the iron bars we used to weigh down the newspapers on the racks out front.

I was fifteen and liked reading and getting high, so I fit in with most of the staff. Everyone who worked there had something wrong with him. Pete and his wife were drunks. He was a florid, irascible drunk, and she was a vague, dithering drunk, and they spent the day drinking in the bar around the corner and wandering in and out of the store to look for each other. A clerk named Al entertained at lunch by popping his glass eye from its socket and setting it down beside his plate. Don, the tightly wound, middle-aged manager, brushed his hair to one side like Hitler and suspected everybody of stealing. Hour after hour, he'd glower out from beneath his Hitler quiff, his jaws champing wrathfully. "Watch the hands!" he'd bark, and two or three customers would look up in bewilderment. "Yeah, that's right. You."

I started working on Saturday nights, assembling copies of the Sunday Times, but this was a bad job for someone who to this day can barely gift-wrap a book. Instead of firing me, Pete promoted me to the front counter. My drug was speed, which made me talkative, and I think he mistook this for personality. Also, speed gave me the virtue of what in any other setting would have been paranoia but compared with Don's habitual state was mere alertness. Along with the papers, we kept a lot of expensive foreign magazines out front, but nobody was going to steal any of them on my watch.

One night, some customers and I got into a conversation about whether dopers could be considered a vanguard class, in the Marxist sense. It was June, hot and very humid. Between the drugs I was on and the drugs the customers were on, we barely registered the mutter of thunder. …

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