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Tuesday, February 26, 2002
By Paul Ford
Two bookstores on Court St. in Brooklyn, a dog, and a policeman's beard.
Tonight I went out to Community Books, on Court St. The store owner, a bearded man in his 40s, is always off doing something, re-arranging buckets to catch the rain that falls from the ceiling, or petting the German Shepherd that appears from time to time among the paperbacks.
When you are ready to buy your books you wait towards the front and eventually he comes up; then he goes behind the counter and is engulfed by stacks of paper rising two feet above his head. Your transaction occurs over a sloping valley cut in the papers; there is a good deal of reaching involved. Community Books is a fine independent new-and-used bookstore, gruff and chaotic. I cross my fingers each time I go in and hope the store survives the Barnes and Noble tidal wave.
After I entered the store I picked up a new Kazuo Ishigoru novel, When We Were Orphans. The cover featured a wide array of ochres, an ambiguous period photograph, and elegant type - this grammar of elements combining to cry out hey impressionable middle-class person! look! sophisticated book! look! make you look much smart! in the pidgin designerese of literary trade paperbacks. (I can hear the worn-out editor: “make it beautiful, make it sell, nothing too crazy.”)
Still, the cover is not Ishigoru's fault, and I pushed the front matter away with my thumb, looking forward to the first sentence. It is: “It was the summer of 1923, the summer I came down from Cambridge, when despite my aunt's wishes that I return to Shropshire, I decided my future lay in the capital and took up a small flat at Number 14b Bedford Gardens in Kensington.” I thought, No, I can't take one more sentence of this, and shelved the book.
And the days are not full enough
And the nights are not full enough
And life slips by like a field mouse
Not shaking the grass.
— Ezra Pound
— Ezra Pound
Disappointed, I wandered farther back into the stacks, and suddenly came on a treasure: The Policeman's Beard is Half-Constructed, for $4.95. I've wanted this book for a decade. Except for the introduction, the entire thing was written in 1984 by a piece of computer software called RACTER (although, knowing a bit about natural language generation and having played with RACTER, it seems likely the prose was helped along by nonmechanical means). I opened it at random and read:
He is quiet. He is Paul, the man I chant about, and he is quiet because his pants are very long. His pants are long and his vest is short. He sings at morning and at night. Is this not comical and unfortunate? I fantasize that Paul is both happy and unhappy, and I think that he sings because his pants are long. And his vest indubitably is short.
Such is Paul. I gladly paid through the valley in the stacks of papers and walked over to Court Books, a few blocks away, another independent bookstore, but more up-to-date and very clean.
Later, at Carroll and Court, a well-dressed woman came towards me walking a beagle. At first it looked as if the beagle's head were terribly misshapen. I thought, it's got elephantiasis. It's an elephant beagle. But then Occam's Razor kept that hypothesis from lasting, so I squinted and saw that in the beagle's mouth was a stuffed bear, held tightly but lovingly. The beagle was taking its bear for a walk.
The woman on the end of his leash recognized my laughter at the beagle/bear interaction and smiled at me, shrugging a bit, and ah, there I was, humming along again, all my itches smoothed out by a dog with a doll. It doesn't take much, but it's got to be there.
See also: Walk with Friend up Clinton St. and Back , about a walk up Clinton St. with my neighbor. Bridge and River Consecration, about a walk up Court St. to the Brooklyn Bridge. Voice of the Future , fiction about training an artificial intelligence. The bedroom and the world outside, an essay about working for an AI firm in Israel.