Monday I had to drop off a job at Simon & Schuster. I called M., my contact, and said I was on my way, but when I arrived and the security guard at the desk called upstairs, she wasn’t picking up her phone. “She must’ve just stepped out for a minute. I’ll wait,” I said.
A moment later, one of the other guards came over with a thin man. “My friend’s going to help you out here,” the guard said. Turning to the man behind the desk, he said with exaggerated politeness, “I want you to give this man your special attention.”
I looked at the thin guy. My immediate thought was, Homeless crazy person. It wasn’t a certainty, though. The man had a backpack that was stuffed to capacity. His jeans and T-shirt were fairly worn, but they were clean, without obvious rips and tears. His face, though, radiated deep despair. Someone who’s watched their child crushed to death by a bus and then stayed up for three days might have eyes like his.
And why was he here? “He’s looking to get another copy of this book,” said the first guard. “Who do you think he should talk to?”
I looked down. In the thin man’s hands were the remains of a paperback: about half the cover and a stack of loose pages, their brittle, yellowed edges crumbling. Title: The Story of Surgery. Paperback collector that I am, I recognized it as a Cardinal Edition from the mid-1950s. “I tried at the library, and they said to come here,” said the man. Indeed, Cardinal was an imprint of Pocket Books, and Pocket is now part of S&S.
But as the guards speculated as to who the man should talk to, I felt compelled to ask if I could intervene. “OK, that book was published, like, fifty years ago. I doubt very much whether it’s still in print. It might be, but I’d be surprised if it is. [I checked later; it isn’t.] And if it is, I don’t think you’ll be able to buy a copy here. They’re in a warehouse somewhere. But I bet you can find a second-hand copy for under five dollars on the Internet.” I asked the desk guard for a slip of paper and wrote:
“I don’t know how to use the Internet,” the man said, staring at me with two deep pools of despair.
“Well, if you go the library, they have computers you can use for free, and the librarian can help you.” I hope this is true, and that they don’t brush him off.
“I got a friend who knows how to use it,” the man said, and he left. Of course, I wonder very much if he has a credit card, but maybe his friend can help him.
I felt both good and bad about this encounter. On the one hand, we treated him with respect and did our best to be helpful. Crazy as the man may have been, he had a legitimate request: his copy of the book was in ruins, and he wanted another one. And am I so different from him, with my often overstuffed backpack and borderline OCD?
On the other, I’m not sure if he’ll be able to order the book from one of those sites. I checked later, and if it’s the book I think it is (I didn’t see the author’s name, and there are several books of that title)--but if, as I suspect, it’s the one by Harvey Graham, there are indeed copies of the 1939 Doubleday, Doran hardcover for about $5 postpaid. I thought there would be some copies of the Cardinal paperback, but it seems to be rarer than I thought. But does he have a bank card. Does he have a mailing address?
But where else is he going to find a copy? The Strand? Maybe…but iffy. These days, the Internet is the way to go for secondhand books.
I would gladly buy him a copy, but I doubt I’ll see him again.