Enduring legends are borne of disbelief: Scotland has its Loch Ness Monster, the Himalays its Abominable Snowman, and Oklahoma City, not to be outdone, has the Bookman.
Joe had first heard about the Bookman from a college philosophy professor who doted on spinning myths concerning the biblio-obsessed hermit to his students. Joe, thirsting for seeking out such splendidly apocryphal wonders, in turn told Rod. Together, we sought out the mythic lair of the Bookman in no time. Located in the heart of one of OKC’s hotbeds of illegal activity (you know, one of the fine neighborhoods regularly sporting standoffs showcased by a 6 o’clock, Johnny-on-the-spot newsteam – a tract oft referred to but never actually visited by political candidates as exemplary of the “sad state of welfare”) is Bill’s Yesterday Books.
As we arrived, the chunky, braided proprietor – Bill – was seated in a folding chair in the sweltering outdoors, smoking a cigarette and leisurely reading through the new edition of the gripping Southwestern Bell Oklahoma City Area Telephone Directory. Our hunt was neither deterred nor derailed by the “CLOSED” sign leaning against the establishment’s front, as Joe had been tipped prior by his educator that rumor had it Bill’s Yesterday Books is never officially “open.” Rather, the treasury of literature reportedly had been classified by crime-busting city officials as a “fire hazard,” exposing Bill to the potential of touch liability issues, steep consequences and monetary fines.
We would soon discover why.
“Hi, can I help y’all?” Bill asked as we approached, putting the phone book down to weave his management magic.
“Yeah, I’m looking for books by Sartre,” Joe said. “Got any?”
This rather pretentious request was, of course, a mere untruth – conceived and utilized for the sole purpose of viewing Bill’s hallowed halls with our own eyes.
“I have one or two of his books, but I’m not sure where they are,” he answered. “But you’re welcome to go in and see if you can find it.”
This, as repetition proved, is Bill’s standard reply to any query concerning any title of any type by any author. Say you’d like a book on handwriting analysis (which we also asked for)? Or baking cakes? Again: “One or two, but I don’t know where. But you can look.”
No matter what tome being sought, Bill had it … somewhere.
You see, as is apparent from one’s first step squeezing through the front door, Bill’s Yesterday Books is not the nicely organized, aesthetically pleasing publication warehouse like a Barnes & Noble or even a typical trade store you’re used to visiting.
Instead, it’s a whole damn house with no living space whatsoever. Books are literally (and pat yourself on the back, dear reader, if you caught that pun) piled to the ceilings, but not on shelves, with a foot-wide pathway rudely carved through the rubble that one must shimmy through sideways in order to travel. The place is so overflowing with reading material that the path itself is comprised of volumes. It is near impossible to see the walls. And a window? Forget about it. There isn’t enough sunlight to discourage insects from forming veritable kingdoms in there. With careful balance and a reliable pair of mountain boots, the home is navigable, but it’s a one-way trail, and friend, there ain’t no passing once inside.
Before we were granted full admittance into the treasure cove, Bill posed one important question: “Y’all’re 21, aren’t ya?” We said we were. “Yeah, I kind figured so. I sees you’s gots hair on your legs. Heh-heh.”
“Why?” Joe asked. “What are we going to find?”
To answer, one might expect that which is listed prominently on Bill’s business cards: “Objects of Nostalgia • Paperbacks • Hardbacks • Comics.” However, that is not quite the case, unless one considers curiously stained hardcore porno mags as said “objects of nostalgia,” and judging from the sheer quantity on hand, Bill likely would be quick to make this classification. Sure, the promised paperbacks and hardbacks are in plentiful supply, but they are all covered with layers of dust and film so thick that it would take a four-pack of Ivory soap bars to wash off your fingertips. For the record, we spotted no comics.
We inched our way through the 1,300 square feet of filth, stepping on pieces of foam mattress, oily rags, dog-eared macho adventure novels and the occasional ripped page from Fiesta or Playgirl, allowing a surgically enhanced breast or threateningly engorged member to peek through the mess. Rod surmised this must be the only place in the world where CURIOUS GEORGE MAKES PANCAKES and SANTA’S ACTIVITY BOOK can coexist peacefully with used (in every sense of the word) back issues of Hustler and Penthouse.
“Now, if I told you I had a house full of books, you wouldn’t believe me, right?” Bill said proudly.
“No, we believe you,” Rod said.
“Yeah … well, this here’s a house full of books!” he reiterated.
“So we see,” Joe mumbled, slipping on a trigonometry textbook.
Ambling our way from one pile to the next (and totally dependent on the other for further movement), Rod pointed out a Taco Mayo cup with the straw still inserted jammed between a spy thriller called SOVIET HOUSE and a sci-fi sex-’em-up titled VERONIQUE alongside an empty Prince Albert pasta package. Bill soon had stumbled into the only space he left empty – we suppose one might generously grace it with the euphemism “office space” – and sat down on a chair beside one of those refrigerator doors inscribed with the word “MEATS.”
“I’ve got about 200,000 books in here,” he said. “There’s another 160 pounds of books in my van out there. Y’know that tan van outside? It’s full of books. Books I don’t have room for in here!” Bill laughed.
“Yeah,” Joe said.
“What, you don’t believe me?” Bill said, on the defense. “Where would you suggest I put ’em?”
“No, we believe you,” Joe said. “As in, where in the hell else would you put them?”
Rod worked up the nerve to ask, “Do you actually live here?”
“No. Used to. Yeah, before I got married seven years ago, this was my bachelor pad. I’m looking to get a portable building that I can move into and put some of my books. I figure that if I move 100 boxes of books, then I can get this place cleaned out.”
“Sounds like a lot of work,” Rod noted.
“Oh, I don’t mind the work, mind you. It’s the money,” he said. “I don’t have it. Now, if each of you want to donate $30,000, then I can get it done. But here we are in an election year, getting ready to decide who’s gonna run the country, and I ain’t got the money. It’s not tricklin’ down, is it? See any?”
Following that, Rod left Joe to chat while he explored further. Through the scattering of laserdiscs (which included OH, GOD! and MISSING IN ACTION II), disassembled VCRs and stereos, and thousands upon thousands of hideous reads, Rod was able to spot a bathroom, yet wondered how Bill would ever get to it, even though the light in the toiletry area was on.
The very back room – into which we were warned not to enter – contained a bunch of records (ranging from Shaun Cassidy to Hall & Oates) and clothes littered here and there. Oh, and books.
“You know,” the tangent-happy Bill continued, “there’ve been four wars since, well, since the last hundred years.”
“That right?” Joe asked politely.
“Yessiree,” said Bill, who sat above the videotapes PLAYBOY VIDEO CENTERFOLD: TERI WEIGEL and some X-rated thing called 8-BALL, “now lessee … of course, World Wars I and II, then there’s Vietnam, and then there’s .. oh! The Spanish-American War. That’s four wars. Now, just think how much scrap metal has been used since these last hundred years.”
Rod imagined Bill continuing with the words “scrap metal which I will now use … to kill you!”
“Yeah, that’s a lot of scrap metal,” Joe said.
“A lot,” said Bill. “This here’s my typewriter. I can type on an index card here…” – he held a green card up for purposes of demonstration, because it was so taxing to visualize – “…and send it out to whoever asks for such-and-such book sayin’ if I do or don’t have it. I’ve got the first edition of this one book. I didn’t make that up, ’cause it says on it, ‘first edition.’ Got the dust jacket and everything. I’ve also got an autographed Kurt Vonnegut Jr. book. It’s $50. You wouldn’t think I’ve got any books, but I’ve got a house full of books here!” He paused to scratch his head. “Now, what did you say you were looking for?”
“Hmmm … is he, like, an Oriental philosopher?”
“Not really,” Joe replied. “He was from France.”
“I mean, is he, like, om and all that?”
Om, being about as French as basmati rice, gave Joe a fair indication of Bill’s listening skills. “You got it,” Joe said, to get off the subject. It didn’t work.
“Yeah, philosophy. Well, I’ve got that Nietzche thing, that Zaroa, Zarom, y’know…”
“ZARATHUSTRA,” Joe clarified.
“Well, whatever it’s called. I’ve got it. Hey, you interested in that Oriental stuff? Like Kush … Kushmi … Kurmshi! That’s it, Kurmshi! You interested in that sorta stuff?”
“Can’t say I’ve heard of him,” Joe said, which naturally led Bill to tell us that his wife was a Cherokee Indian and that may be part Indian but he hasn’t taken the time to trace it but he could if he wanted to but it probably wouldn’t matter because with his hair braided people mistake him for an Indian all the time.
Joe turned to Rod. “So … find anything?”
“Well, I can’t quite figure out the cataloguing system you’ve got going here,” Rod said. (In actuality, Rod did spot an interesting book on UFOs and the Bermuda Triangle, but it would’ve taken the raising of a wall or an act of God to reach it.)
“Well, that’s alright,” said Bill, “’cause I can’t figure it out either! It’s a house full of books!”
“So,” Rod said, placing one sandaled foot in front of the other with the grace usually reserved for the likes of the Flying Wallendas, “how do you keep these books from falling down? I’m afraid if I picked one up, the piles would come tumbling down on me.”
“To tell you the truth, one day I had four landslides,” Bill admitted. “About the time I got it back up, it’d come down again. Y’know, if I get all my books in a portable building, I can get this cleaned up.”
“Yeah, a portable building would be nice. Then I could unload my van!”
At this point – maybe it was the heat – Rod and Joe were both at a loss for words, but mighty Bill kept the conversation ball a-rolling. “See this?” he said, lifting an issue of Book Buyer’s Guide. “I take this, and this one and this one. This isn’t fun readin’. This is my business. I sold a copy of Tom Wolfe’s ELECTRIC KOOL-AID ACID TEST to a fella out in San Francisco. You know that book?”
“Well, they like that kinda stuff out there, y’know. And I sold it to him. I thumb through these magazines here for business. Now, I do like to read for myself, don’t get me wrong. I set aside one day a week for personal reading time. Then I can read what I like to.” (From our observation, that time is limited to titty mags and phone directories.) “You know, when you drove up, I was checking to see if I was in the phone book this year.”
This was a bald-faced lie. Bill had been reading the phone book. When we arrived, he was on page three. Honest.
“My point is that I’m in the phone book after all,” Bill said, pleased as punch. “You seen that movie with Steve Martin where he shouts, ‘I’m in the phone book! I’m in the phone book!'”
“THE JERK,” Rod said.
“Yeah, THE JERK. ‘I’m in the phone book! I’m in the phone book!’ Well, heh-heh, I’m in the phone book!”
“That’s good to hear,” Rod said.
“Well, I don’t do much advertising. It’s all word-of-mouth.”
Joe decided to get confrontational. “So why did your sign say you were closed?”
Bill stammered. “Aw, well, if my van’s out front, my regular customers know they can come in … actually, if you want the truth, I just haven’t turned it over yet. Now hang on, I got a book around here about philosophy, called something philosophers. Four words. THE PHILOSOPHY OF PHILOSOPHERS? Something like that.”
“Well, maybe you can find it and I can come back,” Joe said, anxious to leave.
“How ’bout I give you a call?” Bill offered.
Joe, wanting to protect his family from such horrors, replied, “Um, how ’bout I call you?”
“Okay,” said Bill, handing over a business card.
At this point feeling sorry for Bill, Rod bought the 1952 how-to book HYPNOSIS by Dr. David F. Tracy* – presumably to use on the wife – for 50 cents.
“I haven’t read that one, so I can’t honestly recommend it,” said Bill.
“Well, I’ve been looking for this sort of thing for a long time, and I found it here in this house!” said Rod, loud enough to mask the sound of Joe deviously snapping a photo.
“Good! You’d find most anything in here, if you look in my cataloguing system,” he laughed. “I’m gonna get a portable building, if I can. I’ve got no complaints, though. The neighborhood’s not as bad now that they know I don’t have any money. VCRs and stereos is all they’re interested in. They want nothing to do with books. I’ve got a security camera in front, though, so I can see everyone that comes in that door. I’d have to move that into my portable building.”
“Along with a few books,” Joe said.
“Yeah, a few books! I’ve got a house full of books!”
As Rod dropped a handful of dimes into Bill’s sweaty palm, a box of Oui magazines adjacent to Rod’s left shoulder came tumbling to the ground, spilling its lurid contents onto the path.
Bill’s head jerked up and cast an accusatory eyebrow. “Now see what you did?”
“I certainly didn’t touch that box,” Rod said. (This is true; he is a notorious germaphobe.)
Making our way outside, Joe turned to face Bill again. “You forget about Korea,” Joe corrected. “The Korean War. That makes five.”
Bill laughed. “That wasn’t a war. That was a police action. Didn’t you know that?”
We got into the car and drove off. “Must’ve picked that line up from a book somewhere,” Joe commented.
“I think I have fleas,” Rod said. –Rod Lott and Joe Rogers
*Sample tip: “Here is what to do, for instance, if you have a subject who wants you to break her of eating too much candy. Find out what her favorite candy bar is, buy one without letting her know it. Say to her, ‘When you take the first bite, you will find that the candy tastes like onions.’ Now awaken your subject and hand her the candy. Tell her to eat it, and watch her reactions. The expression on her face will be really comical. She will undoubtedly accuse you of giving her trick candy.”