Back then the cash registers at the Strand were on an elevated platform at the front of the store. The cashiers stood with their backs to a storefront-wide plate glass window on Broadway. Looking in from the street our loose heads floated above the tiered and dimly lit display of bestsellers, remainders and t-shirts.
It was a hectic and crammed Friday night in July when the air was heavy. We all wished for a thunderstorm to take the weight away, but the day darkened into a hot electric night pregnant with the type of muted trouble only found below 14th street. Behind the tall stone buildings on the west side of Broadway the sky deepened orange then red then grey.
The store was a mess on nights like those. Broke-loose ramblers and lonely half-baked brainiacs would find their way to the store to soak up the specific mojo created by that creaky space and all of those second-hand books. Billions and billions of words piled and pressed and mashed together, filed sideways in a haphazard but respected logic. You could hear the words reading themselves aloud. The words called into the night and the people came to find them.
There was one narrow door in and it was the same door out. People pushed and jammed their way into the store and onto the street. There wasn’t any air conditioning, just giant steel caged fans that buzzed louder than the music and neutralized most possible conversations. Occasionally you’d hear a fleeting break or a squeak above the drone. It was hot. Everyone was sweaty. It smelled like shoes and bark.
One perk of working up at the registers was that you were closest to the fans though they blew directly over your head. You could reach up and touch the cool air with your open palm. As a customer approached the registers they’d see the cashiers standing shoulder to shoulder, occasionally lifting an arm or two in a form of signaling or waving. Sometimes a customer would confuse this for a beckoning or a salute. They’d blush and wave back.
On this Friday Night I was at the far left register, next to the one and only door. I’d hang my right arm over the plywood divider between the cashier platform and the small entranceway to catch any cool air that carried in. That channel of in and out by that door was furious. People knocking people sideways to enter and exit.
“It’s a bookstore.” I’d remind myself, but it was more than that. It could have been built upon sacred ground, upon a long buried magnetic meteor. It was the gyroscopic core of a hallowed universe where the fanatical believers of “don’t judge a book by its cover” convened as far away as possible from all the pretty people and their dancing and their fancy parties.
I stood at my post, scanning the crowd and ringing up customers by reading off codes such as “paper,” or “review.” Just as I was finishing up with the end of my queue, a shoulder length mop of brown hair bobbed and weaved through the crammed aisles towards the front. The faceless figure wore a bold and baggy printed shirt, khaki shorts and combat boots. He marched a bit too furiously, headed for the the door. His hair swung back and forth from shoulder to shoulder like an upside down mop being used as a dance partner.
As he entered the tidal scrum of the small entranceway by the one narrow door he flipped his hair back and stared right into my eyes with a wired sadness and a mischievous desire. I was frozen. We were frozen in that grip of timelessness when strangers lock eyes and search for something that either isn’t sure of, but spark each to cackle in a laughter of lost friendship or common alignment of stars and situations.
I stood there, locking eyes with Johnny Depp and we read each other’s minds.
He said to me “C’mon man, let’s get the fuck out of here, we’ve got things to do.” And we shared a vision of loud music and dozens of people jumping from hotels beds to couches and tables breaking, tumbled buckets of ice slush and liquor punch spilling widening puddles into high-weave carpets, and so much laughter and rapture that everyone pees their pants.
And I said back “Dude, I can’t leave, I’ll get fired.” And the vision closed up like a wide plume of smoke reverse-escaping back to the bottle where it was born from. Then the bottle top sucked itself back into place with a thump.
And then he said, with a sad tear in his eye and a frown on his lips, ”I hear you man, but I’m gone.” And with that he lowered his eyes, ducked his shoulders, and exited through the one and only door to the store.
The cashier next to me elbowed my left arm and said, “Yo, do you know that dude?”
“Yes. I guess I do.”
“I’ve got friends like that too.”
We each turned around, putting our palms up to catch the cool fan air and for a few seconds looked out into the night and all the blurry faces that rushed by that neither of us would ever see again for the rest of our lives.