“the store was a great emptiness”

This week I listened again to an interview the Louisiana Channel did with the novelist Colm Toibin who’s most famous for a book called Brooklyn and most recently he released a big novel about Thomas Mann that seems to’ve been mostly either trashed or ignored. He’s a writer of great enough stature that if a major publication doesn’t remark on his latest book it’s because they’d rather not be mean.

In the interview he spoke very earnestly about writing and how he gets his ideas. He talked about walking home with two bags of groceries one day when a sentence came to mind and he froze. 

The sentence was this: 

“The city was a great emptiness.” 

Said he knew it was the start of a short story. About a thief. That the thief in this story would be preoccupied by empty bedrooms, empty kitchens, empty garages—Toibin as the author would flood the first paragraph with a list of places where nobody is standing. Images of rooms in which nothing is happening. 

Ironically this is a story.

The idea being that a city, though bustling with people and commerce, is actually full of empty spaces where a burglar maps his terrain. Didn’t seem like a great first sentence to me but it was fun to hear him enthuse. Sometimes that’s enough. As an adolescent, before YouTube was YouTube, I envied my brother his affinity for sports and the fact that there was a whole channel where angry-passionate men with unfortunate haircuts shouted about sports all day, every day. There were podcasts and columns in the Miami Herald about sports and the New York Times and every place else. 

I was interested in horror movies and used to imagine how nice it would be if I could just sit in front of a screen and watch other people be enthusiastic about the same things I liked.

I like some of Colm Toibin’s essays but I haven’t tried his fiction yet because he seems pretty open and self-deprecating about the fact that he writes the kind of fiction in which nothing happens. His characters have deep tormented thoughts while sitting by themselves and then, in the company of others, keep those thoughts to themselves. This happens for hundreds of pages. I think he says it’s why his mom never read his books: nothing happens. 

At least today I went to the bins. Browsed for an hour between 8 and 9 a.m. and spent $40 on used things, which is ten dollars more than I’ve ever spent on a single haul. After the bins I drove to work. I didn’t have a shift but someone got me a gift certificate for the place where I work. Very funny. So I went to the grocery store and did a round of groceries and toward the end of it one of my colleagues came up giggling and pulled me aside and said, “Hey you know Xavier?”

Xavier is a colleague.

I said yes I know Xavier.

He said, “Yeah. I was talking to him earlier, we were shelving shit—apparently he doesn’t like you at all. He was telling me about it and I couldn’t really figure out his point but he was saying, ‘Oh Alex thinks he’s such a hard worker, he’s not, he doesn’t know what hard work is.’”

Xavier is in his forties and everyone says with a smile “oh Xavier’s crazy isn’t he?” I smile along and do the chuckle thing like I’m taking it lightly. He’s said things to the effect of disliking Jews, though, and recently when one of our younger colleagues was going around the store in a joking sort of way asking coworkers if they believe the earth is flat, someone took her aside and told her, hush-hush but smiling and gentle, “Maybe don’t ask Xavier, though,” same strained smile everyone wears when they talk to Xavi himself, “seriously.” 

A couple minutes into my first conversation with Xavier he began a sentence saying, “The interesting thing about me is that…” and then another one with, “What people don’t realize is that…” He took deep breaths for both remarks and then talked a long time.

Back in 2013 when I got out of college and hung out at bars all day drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon and trying not to cry I befriended a woman in her thirties who worked at a restaurant, waiting tables, but she paid her bills by selling weed on the Internet. The way she did it was she bought palettes of Jiffy peanut butter, unscrewed the caps, and then she held a blow dryer over the paper that’s glued over the top of it. It’s the paper that, if it’s broken, you know your Jiffy peanut butter has been tampered with. The heat from the blow dryer would melt the glue off that piece of paper. When the glue was melted, and wet, she could peel away the paper without breaking it. Once the paper was off she would stuff a baggie of weed deep into the peanut butter; then she would smoothe the surface of the peanut butter with a spoon, re-apply the paper seal, and screw the cap back on. 

The glue would dry again and the jar would look like a totally new and untampered-with jar of Jiffy Peanut Butter. (A tangential perk: the peanut butter would conceal the weed smell from K9 units.)

Xavier would never think of this.

Nor would I.  Because guess what, Xavi: Neither of us knows what it means to be a smart worker

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