In my adolescence, I came upon a book of stories about Chicago, my home town. Chicago Stories. The book had been my father's; probably given to him during one of his last illnesses as a hospital present. The book was full of strong stories about places and people in the first half of the century. If I could no longer ask my father to tell me what the city had been like back then, I had a powerful substitute.
There were stories about drunks and writers, murderers and madams, politicians and fighters. These were gritty stories. Stories that made you feel you'd been there and smelled the smells and learned first hand the hard lessons these people had learned.
Through high school and college I read some of the stories over and over again, so often that some of them became so ingrained in my memory that I forgot where I had read them or that I hadn't lived them myself. Then, somewhere along the way I discovered that I no longer had the book.
Still, two stories in particular always stayed with me. One was about a huge, strange apartment building on Chicago's South Side. In my memory it was a dark, damp place full of life and pain. Every time I read about one of Chicago's failures in high rise housing projects I felt I knew every detail. Even though this building predated the "projects" by more than half a century, anyone who had ever read this piece could have foretold the misery that would arise from piling people on top of one another with no hope, no possibility of redemption or escape.
Stronger, though, in my memory, was a strange tale by Sherwood Anderson. It was the story of an advertising copywriter who was assigned to write an ad telling the glories of milk. As I remembered the story, it was Chicago in the midst of a great heat spell. The writer was walking the streets on a sweltering night. Heading to Oak Street Beach for a breath of air. All around he sees milk bottles on the window sills, keeping as cool as could be in those days before everyone had refrigerators. Milk everywhere, sour milk. And in my remembered version, he writes a great fantasy about marching bottles of milk, a Busby Berkley fantasy of dancing milk bottles.
Every summer when the days turn steamy I think of that story. No matter how hot it gets, that was worse, I think. And every summer I start looking for the book. First through my shelves. Then at my mother's house. I did give away 16 cartons of books that never made it out of the basement on my last move a dozen years ago. But I went through them first. But this book and another (an autographed Clarence Darrow broadside, Resist Not Evil) never turn up. Every summer I make a fitful start at finding the book.
The last two summers I even tried searching the web. I searched "Milk Bottles" on Amazon.com and every Sherwood Anderson site I could think of. Then, in early July, I went to the Chicago Public Library. In the online catalogue I found a number of books called Chicago Stories. But they were out. And the publication dates seemed way to early or much too late. Then I found a few Anderson anthologies, two of which had "Milk Bottles" in the tables of contents. But my lunch break was over and, besides, I wanted the whole book not just "Milk Bottles." (And I don't have a CPL card. Since then, my adjacent suburb has finally reestablished reciprocity after a 20 year lapse, but that is another story.)
That night I got an e-mail from a friend. One of those special friends you sometimes run into on the Internet. Someone you've never met but you feel you've gotten to know (and she also writes for WindoWatch). She was very excited. For years she had been looking for an illustrated Arabian Nights at a reasonable price. That week she had found a beautiful edition, at a, well, almost reasonable price through an online source called the Advanced Book Exchange
I immediately went to the site and found a simple interface which let me enter some search terms. Quickly, my search led to a handful of bookstores all over the world, one of which was in Chicago, John Rybski, Bookseller.
A quick look showed several books with similar titles at that location, including a couple that I had seen in the library catalog. It was late but I called. A friendly voice answered but told me they were closed, could I call back in the morning. "Would it be o.k. if I sent my request by e-mail?" "Of course." came the friendly, but tired reply.
I shot off a quick note. I asked for Chicago Stories, mentioned "Milk Bottles" and said a little about the apartment complex. I wondered if I would ever hear anything.
The next morning about ten o:clock, I got a call. The voice on the other end said, "I think I have what you are looking for. But it's not Chicago Stories. The book you want is called This is Chicago. He then told me the name of the apartment building, The Mecca, and summarized a few other stories, which came flooding back into my memory. "It was published in '53," he said. Just three years before my father died.
"Does it have a yellow cover?" I asked. It did. "I have a first edition," the friendly voice said. My heart sank. How much would this cost? I have a daughter in school and a "new" car and . . .
"Seventeen dollars," he said. "Plus shipping."
That was Friday. The next Monday the UPS guy showed up in my office, I ripped open the wrapper. There were tears in my eyes.
I couldn't wait to start reading. But I was scared. What if the stories didn't measure up? What if I had imagined their power?
At lunch, then on the way home on the "EL" I voraciously read "Milk Bottles" as though I had never read it before. It was magnificent. Far more than I had imagined. It was not just about a copywriter's fantasy on a hot night. It combined literary criticism with class consciousness with great story telling. There was layer upon layer. Even a story within a story.
Those who regularly read my columns know that above anything else, I like to tell stories. I may be a husband, father, lawyer, modemjunkie, but above all, for better or worse, I am a story teller. I never practiced. I never honed the art. I am grateful for the chance to write this column every month because it gives me the opportunity to tell stories.
But it never occurred to me that "Milk Bottles" was about story telling. I thought it was about frustration and oppressive heat. Now, in the middle of my life, I discover that the story I remember most from my child hood is about story telling. What a gift.
There were other surprises in the book as well.
One night in college many years ago, I took a nap when I was supposed to be working on a piece for my creative writing class. Suddenly, I woke up in a sweat. A story had come to me in a dream. I yelled to my roommate: "Quick! A pen!! Paper!!" I wrote it down feverishly. I could barely keep up with the ideas. I turned in the story and waited for the teacher to comment. A week went by. He called me into his office. He looked troubled.
"I would never have figgered you to be a plagiarist," he said.
I was stunned. "The story you wrote, he said, " is almost exactly identical to a chapter in Richard Wright's novel, Native Son. "It can't be," I protested. "I have never read the book." And I was telling the truth.
He reached up to his shelf and handed me a worn paperback copy of Wright's great book. I read in amazement. Oh, I had missed many of the details, but the story I had so feverishly written was clearly the same. I protested and explained how the story had come to me. Somehow I must have been believed because I wasn't punished. But, for over thirty years I have puzzled about that. Then a few weeks ago I turned the page in This is Chicago. There it was, "South Side Boy," a chapter from Native Son, copyright credit right there on the page.
Lucien Stryke, where are you. I confess, I did read that story once before. Not the whole book but that very chapter. It, too, had been seared into my consciousness. It had become part of me.
One final anecdote. A few weeks after I got the book, we had a family party. I was telling this story to my cousin and her husband. "I remember the Mecca," he said. "It was right across from my college campus." We talked some more. Then he remembered something else. "I have a book with a story about the Mecca, too." I went upstairs and got the book. He looked closely at it.
"That can't be," he said. "I remember that building. But the notes in the book indicate it was torn down years before I went to college."
I guess I am not the only one who was so strongly affected by these stories.
A few days later I found a check for $20 in the mail with a note from my cousin: "I hate people who don't return my books," it said.
When I figured out that he meant he had had my book all these years, I laughed and called him up and told him I would be returning the check. I was just happy to have the mystery solved.
There is a reason I am telling this story, aside from the chance to tell a story. It is easy to scream and shout about the commercialization of the Web, but at its best the Internet is about sharing information, whether it is scientific knowledge or sources or tonight's t.v. listings. The Web is overloaded with glitz and noise and flashing graphics. But here and there is a quiet oasis, with information.
I assume the Advanced Book Exchange is a profit making venture. Or at least it is trying to become so. And why not? The kind of service ABE offers goes to the heart of what is so wonderful and magical online. Of course it is supplemented by knowledgeable booksellers who know how to look beyond the exact request and find what the buyer really wants. The Advanced Book Exchange can be reached at http://www.abebooks.com. John Rybski Booksellers can be reached by e-mail at [email protected] Subsequent to posting this article I have learned of another book search site, MX BookFinder, which can be reached at http://www.mxbf.com. MX BookFinder performs metasearches of a number of online book sources, including everything from ABEBooks to Amazon.com. However, one of the things I appreciated most about ABEBooks was that it led me to the bookseller. My successful search was the result of a combination of online and human interaction. That was indeed satisfying.
The sad thing about all of this is the effect that the Web itself, together with that of the other entertainment media, is having on our ability to read. My own attention span is getting shorter. I read the first half of the book in a couple of nights. Since then, as excited as I was, it has been sitting next to my bed. The keyboard calls. A whole generation is growing up without experiencing the power of reading really good short stories.
Still, if you are aware of other sites which quietly serve useful purposes, please let me know. Drop me a note at Len at Lgrossman dot com. And tell me about your experience.
Which reminds me, in the December, 1997 ModemJunkie I talked about the Techno - Impressionist Museum. I asked for nominations for websites that engage and delight. Sadly, there were only two nominations. Both, in direct contradiction to the express rules, were self nominations and while both sites were interesting, they didn't come close to the magical engagement of the T-I M site.
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Copyright 1998 Leonard Grossman
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