Frances’s fake glower surrounded by books and shoes from the second hand store
Mountain View, CA, 1985
When Timothy and I moved to Silicon Valley we lived in a chicken coop for almost two months. Rent was so outrageously high that we decided to camp out of our VW bug. Even a lousy roach-infested hotel room was over $400.00 a month, with the bath down the hall. So while Timothy was at work, I scouted around and found an abandoned house right across the street, with an old wire chicken coup behind it, and a lovely walnut tree right out our front door. Every night after it got dark we’d put up our little blue tent inside the chicken coup, and every morning before daylight we’d take it down. Soon I got a job in a secondhand store. And soon after that we bought an old step-van fixed up into a camper, with a bed, a stove and water. We parked in the lot belonging to the secondhand store. We were the night watchmen. The store had been broken into several times, so we paid the “rent” for our parking space by keeping an eye on the place.
Almost a year later I lost my job, the best job I ever had in my whole life up to that time. Timothy insisted that we visit his parents in Idaho, principally because he needed a vacation. He had been working in electronic engineering for a whole year and he had to get away.
“It isn’t the right time to go,” I told him. “My intuition says not to go. I’ll lose my job.”
“I’m going. I can’t stand it.”
“Well I’m afraid to stay in the chicken coop alone, and the Volkswagen is too small to sleep in. You’re driving the truck, right? The VW wouldn’t make it. Besides I’d miss you. And I don’t want to miss out on the fun.”
“I’ll go crazy if I stay here, I need a break.”
“And I want to see my folks.”
I told my boss we’d be back in a week or two. We were gone sixteen days. I knew I’d never watch the delivery truck back in, watch the guys jump out, take down the tail-gate and unload their goldmine of unspeakable treasures. I’d never wait for my stuff, boxes and boxes of books, books books books. I was the book lady, that was my main job, though I did help unpack and sort other things: clothes, shoes, housewares, furniture, jewelry, stuff you’d never heard of, antiques, ugly K-Mart junk, dead people’s life-long memories stuffed in cardboard boxes by children who had no idea of what it was worth. I made up stories every day in my mind, picturing some old lady standing in her old kitchen scrubbing potatoes with that old potato peeler, looking out of her old window into her old garden bordered with holly-hocks, fenced and real. There are stories everywhere you looked in a junk store. It’s like living in your best dream, but you don’t have to wake up. And then there were the books. On my first day, I told my boss I was going to organize my area, make it like a real book store.
“Fine with me, just put the books away. No magazines, except ‘National Geographic’, no moldy stuff, no beat-up stuff.”
It took two weeks to get organized, put labels on the book shelves, Psychology and Sociology here, History there, Fiction over there, Westerns separated from Romances, Cookbooks, Children’s books, Travel books, How-to books! Soon I had regular customers. I’d get calls on the telephone, “Got any Hemingway?”
“One came in this morning, I saved it for you. See you in a little bit Henry … or June or Clearance.”
But the best, the very best, was the thrill that came over me when I reached into those boxes fresh off the truck, the people who lived in those books and just waited to jump into your arms. Oh oh oh… But I was gone too long. I walked in. Mary was sitting at her desk, she wouldn’t look at me.
“Can I still come visit you?” I asked.
“Sure, Frances. I’m sorry, they just eliminated your job. Your job is not needed.”
I left. That night I cried myself to sleep. Timothy felt bad. I felt distant. Everyday I’d look in the papers for jobs. Nothing. I couldn’t do anything. I wasn’t a secretary, not an engineer nor a waitress. I’m sure I’d spill syrup on somebody’s lap if I tried that, or coffee. Forget it. What good was I? But a few weeks later I got a job.
I drove up in front of the hospital in my little white VW with the huge roof rack on top that Timothy built to keep our musical instruments safe when we left the car. The back seat was full of our stuff, clothes in one box, books in another, writing supplies in another, anything we didn’t immediately need in the truck, but wanted to keep handy. There was a pole between the front and back seats to hang our “good” clothes on, our working clothes. We lived out of this big suitcase of a car.
I got out, walked into the lobby, unlocked the door to the ward, and entered the fascinating world of the “insane.”