Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Barnes and Noble Incident(s)

Dustin and I have found ourselves hunkered down at a table full of books and laptops, surrounded by the scent of ground coffee beans for a typical grad-student afternoon of haunting the local coffee shop. The difference is that the local coffee shop we're haunting is a cross between the Barnes and Noble book mogul and their equally megalomaniacal partner Starbucks. Don't misunderstand me, unlike my graduate school colleagues, I actually harbor no real resentment for corporate America. I have definitely seen the self-proclaimed, corporate-hating, hypocritical hipster self-consciously wandering the aisles of Wal-Mart, slipping, eventually, into a state of ease when they have finally convinced themselves they will not run into a colleague that will smirk and mentally call them out on their blasphemy. Then, shiny, Wal-Mart-logo-bearing, stuffed cart will turn a corner only to come face-to-face with me. And I smile, of course, and engage them in slow, steady conversation, watching them wriggle like Prufrock, uncomfortable in the spotlight of their hypocrisy. That's the secret: they subscribe to it whether they want to admit it or not.

However, despite my semi-nefarious satisfaction and indulgence in another's discomfort, I have learned to dislike Barnes and Noble for an entirely different reason than my colleagues, and I actually mean it. A month or so ago, when D and I came in to visit the shiny books and to fan the scent of their nascent pages past our noses, we skipped through the rows and rows of newness, opened and closed literary journals to note the writers we knew, the ones we liked and the ones we hated, turning up our snobbish writer noses at the lack of craft here or the crassness in the voice, a direct attribute of the writer, there, secretly contemplating and scolding myself for my own lack of actually submitting my work anywhere...and then, I came across this:

And stopped in my tracks. Why is James Frey and any of his work in the biography section? This would denote that the accounts in his books were true, an outrage I've managed to cultivate in many students by the mere statistic that 90% or more of A Million Little Pieces was fabricated. Yet, there they were, staring smugly at me as I had done to so many hipsters in Wal-Mart. In disbelief, I backed away from the shelf, trying to convince myself there was no "right" place for A Million Little Pieces, but that certainly, Barnes and Noble was not the high court judge in position to make that ruling. I made my way uncertainly through the aisles, no longer sure of what they held, in search of Dustin. It was time, I thought, to leave this place.

As I wandered past the massive, catch-all "Literature" section, bleary-eyed, I found focus again on the placard that read "Teen Non-Fiction," a welcoming, familiar word: Non-Fiction, and breath found its way back through my lungs. Until, again, I was struck in horror, frozen and mortified to see this:

Look closely. Do you see it? Wicked. The Clique. Love Bites. These are the titles listed under "Teen Non-Fiction." These vampire love sagas and Gossip Girl-mimicking novels have been placed under a section that claims to be full of truth, and all its many definitions and facets.

It was there that Dustin found me, statue-still, mouth agape in disbelief.

We left after that fateful day in late August and haven't returned again until today, almost two full months later. Since then, Dustin has informed me of the bookstore's surprise announcement of putting themselves up for sale. We've discussed the fall of the printed word and I have managed to conjure up a sense of sympathy for the chain store, one that really stems from my love for the heft of a book in my hand, the sheen of its glossy cover and creak of its ream of pages when opened for the first time. It's taken some time and distance for me to begin to forgive and forget Barnes and Noble's indiscretions, though, to move beyond what it has done, to redefine my expectations of the corporate bookstore, and that's ok. I've accepted it for what it is now and have not yet wandered through its aisles or diverted my pregnant path from our table in the Starbucks area to the bathroom a mere fifteen second walk away. The joy I felt in fanning pages of untouched books and scanning the table of contents for familiarity in journals is still feasible, as long as I confine my attention to the books at hand and not the section labels they fall beneath. Barnes and Noble and I have an understanding.

Today I have found a different bone to pick during my experience here. An entirely unexpected qualm with space-invasion that, actually, has more to do with social norms of people and respect for comfort zones than anything boostore or corporate-related. On my first trip to the bathroom, I followed a direct path to the ladies room, opened the door and found four empty stalls to choose from. Despite having learned from a pop-up-video of Jewel's song "Who Will Save Your Soul" that the first stall is the most underused, I chose the second stall. It was early, the stalls still reeked of disinfectant, so I felt secure in my choice. No sooner do I get ready to actually "go" to the bathroom, then the door opens and another occupant enters, choosing the stall directly beside me. Stage fright ensues and, annoyed, I pull my clothes back in order and leave the restroom in a huff thinking back on an essay Dustin once wrote about "liking his space" and choosing the handicap stall as a result...and, of course, the hilarity that occurred after that fateful choice was made in Italy.

"I get your essay now. About wanting your space in the bathroom and choosing the handi-stall," I breathe at him while noting he is still in the exact spot in line to order coffee as he was when I left.
"Why? What do you mean?"
I relay the tale of the six (four) stalls all being open and how the lady chooses the one open stall (two) directly beside me to use instead of any of the five (three) vacant ones that were available. I press him for more thought on why I feel so violated; he shrugs, orders us coffee and we sit.
"I couldn't even go because she was there. Right next to me. It was like we were in the same stall or something. She had her pick and yet she had to be right next to me? What is that? I bet guys don't do that with urinals, right?"
"No," he says. "It's guy code."
I raise my eyes in question.
"Guy code, like..." His eyes search around for something to write on before removing the sleeve from his cup of coffee and pulling a pen from his pocket, then he draws five small rectangles. "These are urinals." He places a stick figure on every-other one, leaving two vacant. "If you come in and there's a guy here, here and here, then you wait, even though these two are empty. So everyone has their space."
"How do you know to do that?"
"Maxim," he says. "But, they just put it in print. We all just know and do that anyway." He traces over the stick figures again with his pen, his face focused in concentration. "But when we're drunk and there's a line, it's like you just do whatever. It's like, Fuck. I gotta go. I'm not gonna look at your dick, man. And you just go."

I beeline to the bathroom again when baby has been using my bladder as a trampoline for so long I just can't hold it anymore, only this time it's not vacant and there's a woman in the handi stall. It's quiet, so I have a good feeling I know what she's doing down there. I choose the very first stall, the polar opposite of the one she's in, leaving two empty stalls between us and pee like I'm being timed for a world record. Halfway through my rush, I hear her pulling at the toilet paper, an attempt I recognize as one to mask sound, so I do the same. I don't want her to feel rushed or self-conscious because I'm in there and she can no longer have her privacy. I make a loud show of flushing the toilet and snapping the metal lock open, turning the water on high so it's loud, and unrolling the handpaper at the same time so I cut down the time she has to "hold back" whatever noises she's trying not to make. I finish up quickly and bolt out the door, knowing that, whether she realizes it or not, my sensitivity to her predicament has left her with a sense of relief from embarrassment. A sense of relief she can now enjoy in the privacy of an empty bathroom for however long it takes.

"How was it?" D asks as I return to the table feeling like I'd performed the act of a samaritan.
"Better," I say. "But I have to admit...between the poor section titles and the bathroom situation, if I were Barnes and Noble, I'd probably put myself up for sale, too."