Summer 1995. Broken glass and sad news.

I got up and walked around the store for what seemed like the hundredth time today.  I looked at my watch: 10:33. I looked for books that were out of place or crooked on the shelf.  There were none, since I had just checked ten minutes earlier and no customers had come in since then.  I wiped the shelves with a dust rag, but there was no dust because I had already dusted twice today. I felt like I had been here forever.  I sat back down behind the cash register and looked at my watch again: 10:36. This day was going by so slowly.

I picked up the book I was reading: The Chamber, by John Grisham.  It was about a lawyer defending his grandfather, who had been given the death penalty decades earlier and was running out of time to appeal his case.  I had just finished reading Grisham’s most recent novel, The Rainmaker, about a lawsuit against an insurance company.  I bought The Chamber in paperback using my employee discount, but I was not enjoying it as much as I did The Rainmaker.  I continued reading, feeling a little disappointed.  I put the book down at 11:02 and walked around to check the shelves again.  I knew that nothing would be out of place or collecting dust yet, because no customers had come in since the last time I checked the store.  I just needed to walk around again for a change of scenery.

This day was a perfect example of what my summer had been like so far: boring.  I went to a roller hockey game with Rachel Copeland, and I had lunch with Catherine Yaras once, and that was the extent of the time I had spent with friends this summer.  I had gotten letters from Sarah Winters, who had lived downstairs from me in Building C; Tiffany Rollins, who had lived in Building K and had classes with me; and Molly Boyle, my friend from the Internet who lived in Pennsylvania.  But none of them were anywhere near Santa Lucia County.   The Fourth of July, Independence Day in the USA, had been last week, but my family stayed home and did nothing. Fireworks were illegal in Santa Lucia County, and the night of July 4 had been too foggy and cloudy to see any public fireworks display.  I had some fun creative projects I was working on, though, and I was playing a lot of Super Nintendo. My game of choice at the moment was Donkey Kong Country.

In the front of the store was a tall vertical rack of greeting cards, visible from outside through the window.  I looked out the window at the parking lot. Books & More was in a strip mall anchored by a grocery store, which was ahead of me on the left.  People were entering and leaving the store, each one of them having a much more interesting day than me, purely by virtue of the fact that they were not stuck in this boring store on a slow day being forced to listen to classical music.

The rack of greeting cards squeaked as I turned it.  The cards were all straight and in the right place, just like they were an hour earlier the last time I checked.  A poster of a painting of flowers, in a frame behind glass, sat on the floor leaning against the wall between the window and the shelf that held magazines.  As I turned around to go back to the desk, I accidentally bumped the poster. It fell forward and landed on the ground. The short, coarse carpet was not enough to break its fall, and the glass shattered.

Crap.

It had happened.  The first time I had ever seriously screwed up at work.

My brain shut down for a few seconds.  What do I do? I did not know, but I was going to have to tell Jane.  I would not be able to hide this. I messed up, and I needed to take responsibility.

Of course, just at that moment, with a mess of broken glass on the floor, a woman walked in.  “Hi,” I said, smiling. “Don’t go over there,” I continued, pointing to the broken picture frame.  “There’s broken glass, and I didn’t get a chance to clean it up yet.”

“That’s ok,” the customer replied.  “I was just wondering where I could find the children’s section.  I’m looking for a birthday present for my niece.”

I pointed the customer in the direction of the children’s books and stood near the broken glass.  I needed to tell Jane and find out what to do, but I did not want to leave the customer unattended, nor did I want to risk other customers coming in and stepping in the glass or cutting themselves.

After the woman bought the gift for her niece, I went into the back room, where Jane had been making phone calls and doing bookkeeping.  “Jane?” I said. “There’s a problem.”

“What is it?” she asked.

I explained about knocking over the poster and breaking the glass.  “I’m sorry,” I said. “It was an accident.”

“There’s a broom and dustpan over there, and a vacuum cleaner.”

“What about the poster?  How would I fix the glass for that?”

“You can take it to a glass shop.”

“Do you know where one is?”

“You can try the phone book,” Jane told me.

That would work, I thought.  Jane did not come across as sarcastic to me; she was probably trying to help me figure things out on my own.  I did not ask whether or not I would be paying for this myself; I just assumed I was, since it was my fault.

I carefully picked up the large pieces of glass and threw them in the garbage.  I swept as much of the rest as I could into the dustpan, throwing that away as well, and I vacuumed the area for several minutes, making sure to get all the glass.  I had cleaned up the mess, but there was still the matter of getting new glass put into the frame.  I had never done this before. I did not know how to deal with glass shops. And I had no idea how much this would cost.

I looked up “Glass” in the yellow pages section of the phone book.  Back in 1995, search engines on the Internet were in their infancy, and most small local businesses did not have Web sites, since most of their customers were not regular Internet users.  I found one not too far away called Bill’s Glass Shop. I had heard that name before; I had seen their trucks around town, and I think my parents got a new window there once, when I was a kid and I hit a baseball through my bedroom window.

I picked up the phone to call Bill’s Glass, but I got nervous and hung up before I dialed.  I needed a plan. I would explain to them when I did. I would ask if it could be fixed, how much it would cost, stuff like that.  I took a deep breath and picked up the phone again, this time actually dialing the number.

“Bill’s Glass,” a male voice said on the other end.

“Hi,” I said.  “I accidentally knocked over a poster in a picture frame, and the glass broke.  Can you fix that?”

“Sure we can.  How big is it?”

“I didn’t measure it.  It’s like a regular poster size.”

“So about 24 by 36?”

“That looks about right.”

“We can get that done for you today.  Can you bring it in now?”

“I should be able to soon.  How much will it cost?”

“Including labor and everything, let’s see, around thirty dollars.”

That seemed reasonable to me.  I did not like the idea of spending money on the fact that I was clumsy, but I had no choice now.  “Sounds good,” I said. “I’ll bring it down as soon as I can.”

“You know where our shop is?” the man asked.  I told him the address I got from the phone book, and he confirmed that I was correct.  “See you soon,” he said.

“Thank you.”  I hung up and walked to back room.  “Bill’s Glass says they can do it today,” I told Jane.  “Should I take it there when my shift is over, or should I go now?”

“You can go now,” Jane replied.  “I can take a break from this and work the front until you get back.”

“I’ll be back soon,” I said.  I carefully put the poster and picture frame in the back of the car and drove toward Bill’s Glass. It took about ten minutes to get there.  I had no trouble finding the shop. When I got there, I parked and took the poster inside.

“What can I do for you?” the man behind the counter said when I walked in.

“I called a few minutes ago about the poster in the picture frame?” I said nervously.

“Oh, yeah!” the man said.  “Let me take a look at that.”  I handed him the poster, and he looked at it, assessing the work that needed to be done.  “We can get this done right now. It’ll only take a few minutes.”

“Sounds good,” I replied.

I sat in the lobby of the shop, staring awkwardly at everything on the wall for a few minutes.  I saw a newspaper sitting on a table next to my chair; I started reading that.  How did this work? Did glass shops have waiting rooms? Was I supposed to wait here? Should I go back to the car? I felt completely out of place, but I just sat there, trying to act like I knew what I was doing.  After I finished reading the newspaper, I stared at the same things on the wall that I had stared at before.

About twenty minutes after I got there, the man brought out Jane’s flower poster with the glass in the frame repaired.  “I got you all fixed up,” he said.

“Thank you,” I replied.  I paid him, took the poster back to the car, and left.

As I pulled out of the parking lot, “Touch of Grey” by the Grateful Dead came on the radio.  I turned it up and started singing loudly. My dad loved the Grateful Dead, and he often saw them live when they were playing on this side of the country.  My parents had been eating Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia flavor ice cream, since long before Ben & Jerry’s was trendy, just because the flavor was named after the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia.  Once when I was in high school, Dad invited me to come with him to a Dead concert. I said no, because I had heard stories about the kind of things that Deadheads are into, and I wanted to stay as far away from that stuff as possible.  Also, although I did not particularly dislike them, I only knew a few Grateful Dead songs at that point in my life. I felt like I would not be able to appreciate the music well enough.  A little over a year ago, Dad had tickets for a Dead concert that he ended up not being able to go to, because we were in Jeromeville for an event for incoming freshmen.  I do not know if he ever got to see them again.

Touch of Grey was my favorite Grateful Dead song.  Many rock bands that stay together for a long time seem to end up having one more big hit late in their career.  The Grateful Dead was a product of the hippie counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s, but their most commercially successful album was In the Dark, released in 1987.  Touch of Grey, from this album, was also the first Grateful Dead song to have a music video, which I often saw on MTV at the time.  I have a theory that the album was successful because many of the Deadheads of my parents’ generation had gotten real jobs by 1987 and were actually able to afford to buy the album.

As I drove back toward Books & More, singing “IIII WIIIIILL… GET BY” along with the radio,  I thought about the odd situation I found myself in. I had a piece of fancy artwork in the back seat.  Not original artwork, of course, it was a copy, but it was some fine classy painting of nature by some artist with a name in another language that I could not pronounce, the kind of artwork that belonged in a store that played classical music.  And I was sitting up front, blasting the Grateful Dead. I guess that’s just me. I don’t fit neatly into stereotypes and cliques.

“It’s fixed,” I told Jane as I walked back into Books & More, holding the poster.

“Thank you,” Jane replied.  “I’m going to put this back in the office until I can hang it properly, so this doesn’t happen again.”

“That’s a good idea.”

Jane went back to the office with the poster and stayed back there to work on bookkeeping, leaving me up front at the cash register.  Business did not appear to have picked up while I was gone; the rest of the day was just as slow, and I spent much of it reading The Chamber with classical music in the background.  It was a slow day, but I felt like I accomplished something.  Maybe I would have been better off not having broken the glass in the first place, but now I knew how to get picture frame glass fixed if it ever came up again in the future.

I find it somewhat amusing that I spent the summer working in a stuffy bookstore with art on the wall and classical music playing, yet I have multiple memories of that job that revolve around the Grateful Dead.  About a month after the broken glass incident, I arrived at work on a day that I was working the opening shift with Paula, the other part-time employee who also knew my family.  Paula coincidentally arrived at the same time I did.

“Good morning,” I said to Paula as I got out of the car.

“I just heard on the news this morning that Jerry Garcia died,” Paula said.

I stood and stared for a few seconds, feeling shocked.  “Wow,” I replied.

“Yeah. I hope your dad is taking the news okay.”

“I know.  I feel bad because Dad always wanted to bring me to a Grateful Dead concert, and I never did because I was afraid of what kind of things happen at Grateful Dead concerts.  Now we’ll never get the chance.”

When I got home from work that day, Mom and Dad were both sitting in the living room.  “Did you hear the news?” Mom asked in kind of a somber tone.

“You mean that Jerry Garcia died?” I asked.

“Yeah.  People have been calling all day to make sure Dad is okay.”

“Are you ok?” I asked Dad.  He shrugged noncommittally.

Every year after that, when shopping for Christmas presents for my family, I always got Dad a Grateful Dead book or calendar if one was available.  In recent years, the Bay City Titans baseball team has done some sort of Jerry Garcia or Grateful Dead tribute every year in August, since Jerry’s birthday and death anniversary are both in August, and I have been to this event multiple times with my parents.  The last time I attended this  event, I listened to the Grateful Dead channel on SiriusXM satellite radio every time I was in the car for a week before the game. But I still regret never having been to an actual Grateful Dead concert with Dad.  Sometimes, windows of opportunity close with no warning.  It is difficult to find that balance of going out and taking advantage of every opportunity, yet still getting enough rest to avoid exhaustion. I still struggle with that balance today. Sadly, missed opportunities are just a natural part of life.  No one can possibly do everything, so all I can do is make the most of what I have and do my best to live my life.

jerry g
Jerry Garcia bobblehead, from the Titans game on what would have been Jerry’s 70th birthday, August 1, 2012.

That’s a great video, but the song is edited, missing the guitar solo.  Click here to hear the full version.

June 22, 1995. The first day on the job.

“Hello, Greg,” Jane said as I walked into Books & More.  Jane sat on a stool at the cash register. She wore a long-sleeve blouse, a blue-gray color, with black pants.  She was slightly shorter than average, with dark hair and wrinkled skin. I never did know how old Jane was, or if I did know, I don’t remember now.  I would have guessed around sixty.

Jane had kind of a rough appearance, but she tried to make herself look classy.  There was a popular movie from a few years ago called Kindergarten Cop, in which Arnold Schwarzenegger played a police officer working undercover as a teacher.  One of the students in the class had a drug dealer father who was planning to abduct him, and the drug dealer had his creepy mother working with him.  Three days ago, I had been to the store for a sort of job interview, although I had been told that the job was already mine. Jane probably wanted to make sure that I was responsible and trustworthy.  The first thought I had that day when I first saw Jane was that she reminded me of the drug dealer’s mother from Kindergarten Cop. I didn’t dare tell her this to her face, of course.

“Hi,” I replied, hoping not to give away the fact that I had no idea what I was doing.

“Are you ready?” Jane asked.

“Yes.”

“I was thinking I’ll start off by showing you around.  Then I’ll show you how the microfiche reader works, so you can take orders for customers from the catalog.  When someone comes in, I’ll show you how to use the cash register.”

“Sounds good.”

Jane then showed me around the store, so I could become familiar with what books, magazines, newspapers, greeting cards, and other items were on which shelves.  I tried my best to pay attention. Books & More had exactly three employees: Jane, the owner; me; and Paula McCall, the connection through whom I got this job. My family had known the McCalls for a few years now; they had a middle school age son named John, who played basketball and baseball with my brother Mark.  With school out for the summer, and John home all day, Paula wanted to be home more and cut back her hours at Books & More. She had told this to my mother, who mentioned that I was going to be home for the summer and that a job would be good for me. Ordinarily, I would not be happy with Mom intruding in my life like this, setting up a job for me without consulting me at all.  However, I had no plans for the summer, and looking for a job on my own, having to interview and make a résumé and a good first impression, sounded kind of terrifying, so I was okay with it.

“May I help you?” Jane said to a well-dressed middle-aged woman who entered the store a minute ago.

The woman handed Jane a list.  “My son is in honors English at St. Luke’s, and he has to read these books over the summer.  Do you have them?”

“We do,” Jane said.  She gestured for the woman to follow her to a shelf near the front of the store to the left; I followed them as well.  “For all of the high schools that have summer reading assignments, I have all of those books here in a special section.  I spoke to English teachers at all the schools in Gabilan, and Plumdale High, and St. Luke’s.”

“That’s a really good idea,” the woman said as Jane pointed out the specific books on the woman’s list.  She brought the books to the cash register, and I watched carefully as Jane rang up the sale and handed the woman the receipt.

After that customer had left, Jane showed me how the microfiche reader worked.  This was the most interesting thing I learned that day. Books & More ordered its inventory from two different book wholesalers.  Apparently, the standard practice at the time was that these companies would send their catalogs to bookstores on microfiche. If we needed to order a book for a customer, or if we needed to order more inventory for the store in general, we would look it up in the wholesale distributor’s catalog and use that to place an order when we had enough items to order.  I knew very little about microfiche, except that libraries kept archives of things like old newspapers on microfiche. A microfiche card apparently consisted of very small printing on film, so that the entire catalog of the thousands of titles supplied by these companies could be listed on just a few cards. A microfiche reader was basically just a giant fancy lighted magnifying glass.  Within a few years, the Internet would emerge as a commonplace consumer technology and make microfiche all but obsolete. So far, Books & More was not connected to the Internet.

For me, making an order from these catalogs was simple.  I just had to write down the book title and International Standard Book Number on a clipboard that Jane kept next to the cash register, and Jane would make the order when we had enough items to order.  That seemed simple enough. If I noticed we were out of something, particularly a book that was a top seller at the time, I also needed to write that on the order sheet when we ran out.

For the rest of the morning, I essentially shadowed Jane as she rang up customers, dusted shelves, and took special orders for customers.  I ate lunch in the office in the back of the store around noon. When I finished, Jane said, “I’m going to take care of some things back here and take my lunch break.  Do you think you’re ready to be by yourself on the cash register?”

“Yes,” I answered.

“Let me know if you need anything.”

“I will.”

As I left the office, I noticed Jane getting a pack of cigarettes out of her purse and stepping out the back door into the back parking lot.  As I walked back to the cash register, I had a sudden realization. Jane reminded me of a female version of the Smoking Man from X-Files, one of the show’s primary recurring villains.  Her mouth and lips had the same shape as those of the Smoking Man, and seeing her with a cigarette triggered this association in my mind.  Maybe the bad guy’s mother from Kindergarten Cop and the Smoking Man had an affair sixty years ago, and Jane was their love child.

I looked at the rack of hardcover bestsellers at the front of the store.  The Rainmaker, by John Grisham.  Rose Madder, by Stephen King.  Beach Music, by Pat Conroy.  Jane told me that I could read when things were slow in the store, as long as I did not damage merchandise that I did not intend to buy.  I also got twenty percent off everything in the store. I had read a few Stephen King books before, and I was about to pick up Rose Madder when a man walked in.

“Hi,” I said, walking back to the cash register.

“Can you help me?  Where might I be able to find Rising Sun by Michael Crichton, in paperback?”

“I’ve read that book.  I liked it.”

“I did too.  It’s a gift for my father.  Did you see the movie?”

“I didn’t.”

“The book was better, to be honest.”

“That’s what I heard,” I said as we walked to where I thought the Michael Crichton paperback novels would be.  I looked around… they were not there. This section had mystery and horror and romance. I turned the corner… one side of this aisle had science fiction and fantasy, and the other side had nonfiction.  I checked to see if Rising Sun would be filed under science fiction; it was not.  It was not really science fiction, other than the fact that it involved a technology corporation.  I walked the entire length of that aisle and turned back up the next aisle, past greeting cards. I let out a resigned sigh.

“I’m sorry,” I said.  “I’m new here. Let me go find out.”

I walked to the back of the store and opened the office door slightly, peeking inside. Jane looked up from her desk.  “Yes?” she asked.

“I’m sorry.  I still don’t know my way around the store, and a customer is looking for Michael Crichton.”

“That’s in Fiction.  Let me show you.” I followed Jane, thinking to myself that I knew that Michael Crichton was fiction but too embarrassed to admit that I had forgotten where the fiction section was.  I said nothing. Jane pulled the book off the shelf and gave it to the customer, who had followed us.

“I’ll ring him up,” I said, hoping to redeem myself after forgetting where to find fiction books.

“Okay.  Let me know if you need anything else.”  Jane returned to the office as I typed the amount and figured the sales tax on the cash register.

“Do you take Visa?” the customer asked as he got out his wallet.

“We do,” I said.  Another test for me: did I remember how to use the credit card machine?  As he swiped his card, the machine printed a receipt; I tore it off and gave it to him.  “Sign this, please,” I said. As he signed it, I pressed another button on the credit card machine.  A second copy of the receipt printed, which I gave him to keep as I stored the signed copy in a drawer of the cash register.

“Thank you,” I said.  “Have a great day!”

“You too!” the man replied, as he walked out of the store with his book.  I could not help but feel discouraged. Sure, I had been successful with the cash register, but I still had not learned such simple things as where different kinds of books were located.  My first test on the new job, and I felt like I had failed.

I was still curious to start reading Rose Madder, or at least see what it was about, but I had something more important to do.  Rose Madder would have to wait.  I walked up and down the shelves, learning where everything was located.  Fiction. Children’s books. Magazines. The books on school required reading lists.  Cliffs Notes. Nonfiction. History. Greeting cards. Art. Reference. Humor. All of the other things I had found when I was unsuccessfully looking for Michael Crichton.  

As I walked around, I was surprised to hear a familiar song on the radio, since the station that played classical music was always playing in the store.  It fit the kind of upscale image and clientele that Jane was marketing to. I knew very little classical music; most of the classical music I knew were pieces used in commercials, movies, or as the case was right now with this familiar song, old-timey cartoons.  It was the song that goes “da-DUN da-da-DUN-dun, DUN-da-da-DUN-dun, DUN-da-da-DUN-dun, DUN-da-da-DUN,” and there was an old Bugs Bunny cartoon where Elmer Fudd sang “Kill the WAB-bit, kill the WAB-bit, kill the WAB-bit, kill the WABBIT!” to that tune. I think it was actually called something about valkyries.  I hummed along to the part I knew, which wasn’t very much of it, as I walked up and down the aisles again, learning where to find things.

Another customer came in shortly after the Valkyrie song ended.  “I’m looking for a really old science fiction book,” she said. “Where would that be?  Do you have a science fiction section?”

“Yes,” I said, confidently walking toward the back to the right, where I saw the science fiction section.  “What is the book you’re looking for?”

Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert A. Heinlein.”

“Wait,” I said, turning around.  The customer did not realize it, but it felt like life was asking me a trick question, but I knew the correct answer this time.  “We have a separate section for books that are on reading lists for schools that have summer reading assignments, and Stranger in a Strange Land is there.”  I walked up to the shelf of summer reading books, in the front left of the store, and pulled out a copy of Stranger in a Strange Land, handing it to the customer.

“Thank you,” she said.  “I’m going to look around a bit.”

“Okay.  Just come up front whenever you’re ready.”

I walked back to the cash register, satisfied with myself.  Sure, I wasn’t able to help the customer who was looking for Michael Crichton, but I knew exactly where to find this other customer’s book.  The customer came to the front desk with two greeting cards (I knew exactly where in the store she found those) to go with her book; I rang her purchase on the cash register, she paid cash, and I gave her the correct change.

Working in a bookstore was new to me.  Working in general was new to me. I was still learning, but I shouldn’t beat myself up for making one mistake on the first day.  I would figure things out eventually. Paula was not working that day, and I was scheduled to work until 2:30; Jane would run the store by herself until it closed at 6:00.  When it was time for me to go, Jane told me that I could go home; I filled out my time card and said goodbye. I stepped outside; the sun had long since burned off the morning coastal fog, but a cool breeze kept the air from being too hot.  I walked back to the car, feeling optimistic about the new job, and I began humming that Valkyrie song again.

 

May 26-28, 1995. Friends far away.

By the time Memorial Day weekend arrived in late May, the weather in Jeromeville had become quite summer-like.  The bike ride from Wellington Hall to the South Residential Area only took five minutes, but I was doing that bike ride in 88-degree sunshine, so I was already starting to sweat by the time I got back to my dorm room.  It was the Friday before a three-day weekend, and I was drained from a long week of classes.  I unlocked my door and turned on the air conditioning.  Cool air began blowing into the room.  I took off my shoes and lay face down on the mattress, dozing off for about an hour.

I spent a couple hours writing emails and catching up on Usenet groups, and reading for fun.  Shortly before six o’clock, I walked to the dining commons. I saw Taylor, Pete, Charlie, Ramon, Liz, Caroline, and Sarah at a table.  Next to Charlie was an empty seat with a half-empty glass of water on the table next to it. I could not tell if anyone was sitting there.

“May I join you?” I asked.  “Is that seat taken?”

“Go ahead,” Charlie replied.  “There’s always room for hydrochloric acid.”

“Wait, what?” I asked.  Charlie laughed. “That was random,” I said.

“I know.”

“How’s it goin’?” Taylor asked.

“I’m good,” I replied.  “It’s a three-day weekend, and they turned the AC back on.”

“I know!” Sarah said.  “It feels so nice!”

“So, Greg, what are you doing this summer?” Taylor continued.  “Will you be back home in Plumdale?”

“Yeah,” I answered.

“Working?  Doing anything like that?”

“My mom told me the other day she found a job for me.  One of my brother’s friends, his mom works at this small bookstore.  I guess it’s just her and the owner working there. She wants to cut her hours for the summer to be around more when her son isn’t in school.  So Mom told her that I was going to be home for the summer, and I could use a part-time job.”

“And do you want to do this?”

“I wish Mom would have asked me first, although she did say I didn’t have to if I didn’t want to.  But I’m not going to be doing anything else all summer, I’ll be getting paid for it, and it’s a job I don’t have to go find and interview for.  So I’m ok with it.”

“Yeah,” Taylor replied.

“Good point,” Pete said.

I really would have preferred for Mom to have consulted me first before volunteering me to a commitment of several hours per day.  However, the thought of having to go find a job was terrifying, and this way I had something lined up without having to look for it, as I had told Taylor and Pete.  Besides, working in a bookstore sounded fun. Maybe I could sample the merchandise and read on slow days, and maybe I would get an employee discount.

We all went downstairs to check the mail after dinner.  When I saw an envelope with handwriting on it, I felt my heart race.  I had written that letter almost two weeks ago, not knowing what would happen, not even knowing for sure whom I was writing to.  How long did it take for a letter to travel from one end of the USA to the other anyway? And after she got it, she would need time to reply, and then her letter would have to travel back across the country to Jeromeville.  Would she write back right away? Maybe I sent it too early. She was still in the middle of finals when I wrote; she hadn’t moved home yet. Maybe her parents got it and interrogated her about why she was getting mail from this strange boy in another state.  Maybe her parents threw it away.

I removed the letter from the mailbox and looked at the envelope.  I breathed a sigh of relief when I read the return address. It was from Carol Allen in Plumdale. This was not the letter I was nervous about.  This was from someone I had known for years, who had already written me once this year.

I noticed that my friends were moving toward the Help Window, which meant that someone had to pick up a package too big to fit in the mailbox.  I walked over to where they were. “Someone got a package?” I asked.

“It’s for Caroline,” Sarah said.  “You got a letter from someone?”

“It’s from Mrs. Allen.  She was my English teacher in both 7th and 8th grade.”

“And she writes to you in college?  That’s so sweet!”

“I know.  This is the second time she has written.  My mom ran into her somewhere back home a few months ago, and she told Mom to tell me to write to her.”

“She sounds nice.”

“She is.  I was in her class when I was going through a really rough time.  I was at a new school in the middle of 7th grade, and I had had a lot of problems at my other school before that.  She really made me feel welcome and accepted. A lot of the teachers at my old school acted like they didn’t want to deal with me.  And I know that ‘a lot’ is two words, because Mrs. Allen always made a big deal of it whenever someone would write ‘alot’ as one word.”

Sarah laughed.  “That’s funny!”

“I knew ‘a lot’ was two words before Mrs. Allen’s class, but I still remember her making a big deal of it.”

“It’s funny how some teachers stay in your memory forever.  Like I had this math teacher who would always make the dumbest jokes.  He’d say, ‘What’s 4y minus 3y,’ and you’d answer ‘y,’ and he’d say ‘because I asked you.’”

I chuckled.  “That’s great.  And then there are some teachers who you remember for all the wrong reasons.  Like Mr. Milton, my history teacher from junior year. He made fun of Catholics and Republicans all the time.”

“That’s not nice.”

“I still remember all these random things I learned about history from his class, though, so he did something well, but I didn’t think he was very nice.”

I opened the letter from Mrs. Allen when I got back to my room.  

 


May 24, 1995

Dear Greg,

Sorry it has taken so long to write back, but I’ve been busy.  You know how it is. I’m sure you’re busy too. Jeromeville is on trimesters, if I remember right, so you should still be in your dorm room.  When is the school year over? Our last day is June 8.

I’m going to get a new computer and get online soon.  Mr. Coburn got us America Online at school, and he has been showing me how it works.  Once I figure out how to set it up, I’ll send you an e-mail. It looks like there are all kinds of interesting things you can do.

I went to the Titans game yesterday.  I got a partial season package again, so I have a ticket to 20 games.  I have a much better seat this year because a lot of people didn’t renew.  I knew that would happen after the strike. I’m so happy the strike is over!  I missed the Titans. I thought of you because the University of Jeromeville band played the pre-game show.

I hope everything is well with you.  Take care of yourself and good luck with finals!

Love,
Carol

P.S.  I think it will be OK for you to use my first name now.


 

The postscript at the end made me laugh.  Everyone knows that one does not address a teacher by his or her first name.  Mrs. Allen said it was okay to call her Carol, but I just would never be able to bring myself to do that.  It was okay now, because I was an adult, but it still sounded wrong. Mrs. Allen would always be Mrs. Allen to me.  That was just how things worked when addressing a teacher, even years or decades after being in that teacher’s class.

I did not know that the University of Jeromeville Band had played a pre-game show at a Titans game.  I had grown up watching Bay City Titans baseball, traveling up there with my family about three or four times a year to attend games in person.  But I had not been keeping up with the Titans, or baseball in general, this year. The end of the previous season had been canceled because of a players’ strike.  There was no World Series that year. Furthermore, Matt Williams, the Titans’ third baseman, had hit 43 home runs by the time the strike began in early August, possibly putting him in position to set a new record for home runs in one season.  The record at the time was 61. But the season was canceled, he had no chance to hit any more home runs, and in two more seasons with the Titans and seven with other teams, he never reached this level of power hitting prowess again. The strike had continued on into the 1995 season but was settled early in the season, and baseball had finally resumed at the end of April, a few weeks later than the usual start of the season.  I did get interested in baseball again eventually… but that is another story for another time.

 

The next morning, I got out of bed around nine.  That was sleeping in for me, the best I could do.  I studied and did homework for about two hours, then decided to reward myself with a bike ride.  I rode north to the Coventry Greenbelts, where I had ridden last week, and discovered a bike path skirting the northern edge of the city.  Riding west, the path passed fenced backyards on the left and some kind of drainage or irrigation canal to the right, with open fields on the other side.  The path turned south, with ends of culs-de-sac connecting to the path, before zigzagging west again and then south one more time. At this point, the drainage canal  entered the Jeromeville city limits, with a neighborhood of large luxury homes visible on the other side of the canal. I was not sure where this neighborhood was or what it connected to.  I saw a pedestrian and bicycle bridge cross the canal into that neighborhood, but I did not go that way.

The path turned south along a park with a playground, basketball courts, and an open grass area.  I rode past a sculpture of dominoes. The park then narrowed, so that fences of backyards came close to the path on either side, much like the other paths I had discovered last week.  After making several more turns, and not being sure of exactly which direction I was going now, the path narrowed to a small sidewalk, next to a parking lot. I appeared to be in the back of a large apartment complex.  I wondered which one; I probably had heard of it, from when I was looking through that apartment guide trying to find a place to live next year.

Suddenly, as I got closer to the actual buildings, riding through the parking lot, I realized that I knew exactly where I was.  Not only had I heard of this apartment complex, but I had looked at these apartments. I had even signed a lease here. This was Las Casas Apartments on Alvarez Avenue, and I was looking right at my home for next year, apartment 124.  This was convenient; my apartment for next year was right next to the Greenbelts. I would have a lot of opportunities to explore Jeromeville on my bike from my new apartment.

When I got back to campus, I checked my mail before going back up to my room.  All the anxious excitement I felt yesterday when I checked the mail came back when I saw the letter that I had been expecting the day before.  The return address said “M. Boyle,” with a box number and rural route in a town I had never heard of, called Muncy, Pennsylvania. My name and address had been handwritten on the envelope, in black ballpoint pen.

I started to hide the letter under my shirt, but then I remembered that I was all sweaty from having ridden my bike in warm weather for an hour.  I slid the letter in my front pocket and walked back to the building with half of the envelope sticking out. I made sure that no writing was showing on the part sticking out.  Something still felt weird about having this letter, and I did not want to have to talk to anyone about it.

I made it back to my room without seeing anyone and began reading.


May 23, 1995

Dear Greg,

Hello!  It’s nice to hear from you, and I hope this finds you well.  I’m good, except there’s a storm here. It’s raining pretty hard, with lightning.

Good luck on finals!  I got my grades a few days ago.  I ended up with two Bs, two Cs, and a D.  Not as good as I wanted. I’ll have to work harder next semester.

I’ve been bored and lonely much of the time since coming back home.  When I was at school, I was used to having everything within walking distance, but we live out in the country so everything is a 15 minute drive away.  And since I don’t have a car, I don’t get away from home that much. Most of my friends from college live far away, and my friends from home are either still in high school or have jobs.  I looked for a job, but I haven’t found anything yet. The bookstore you told me about sounds like it’ll be fun for you. Mostly I just want to get a job so I can get out of the house. But I need the money too or else I might not be able to go back next semester.  I know how you feel about not looking forward to summer, being away from your friends. I thought I would have a job by now, not stuck at home all the time.

I’ve pretty much given up on finding a boyfriend.  The only place I go is church and the guys there are either not interested or too old for me.  There are some dance clubs, but I don’t have a car so I can’t go to them.

Well, I hope I’m not some 37 yr. old pervert!  Just the idea makes me sick. Would your mom like to see my drivers license or school ID?  Anyway, write me back when you can I know you have finals coming up so I’ll wait until after that to expect something.  I’ll write maybe another letter before then. ☺

Bye,
Molly


 

When I wrote to Molly, I said that I was a little nervous, because my mother was fond of reminding me that all these girls I was meeting online were probably 37-year-old perverts named Chuck.  Molly was the first person I met on the Internet whom I had any sort of offline contact with. Apparently Molly did not find the image of Chuck as funny as I had.

Molly was my age, a freshman at Lock Haven University in central Pennsylvania.  Molly had already finished the school year, because Lock Haven was on a semester schedule, both starting and ending earlier in the year than Jeromeville with its quarter schedule. (Jeromeville quarters were technically trimesters; Mrs. Allen had correctly called them trimesters in her letter).  Molly moved back home, where she would not have access to email, so in her last email to me, she had given me her address.

And she actually wrote back.  I now had proof that someone I met on the Internet actually existed in real life.  Of course, technically she could have been lying about her age or gender or any number of things, but there was a real person behind those messages who took the time to write back.  Hopefully this summer I would be able to look forward to getting letters in the mail. And hopefully she was not really Chuck.

 

I spent most of Sunday studying, although I did make it to church Sunday morning.  In the late afternoon, when I finished everything I had hoped to get done, I got on my usual IRC chat channel.  Kim, a girl from Florida I had been talking to for a few months, was online, so I messaged her.

gjd76: hi
Happygirlkim: Hi Greg! How are you?
gjd76: doing well, it’s been a good weekend.  it’s been warm here, i like that
Happygirlkim: I bet!  I’m done with the school year, back home in Ft Lauderdale, but I’ll be working at a summer camp for kids for six weeks, I leave on June 16
gjd76: that’ll be fun, that’s the weekend i’ll be moving home
Happygirlkim: Yay! Any big plans for the summer?
gjd76: moving back home and working in a bookstore.  my mom knows someone there who got me the job
Happygirlkim: That’ll be fun!  Will you be hanging out a lot with your friends back home?
gjd76: i’m not sure.  i lost touch with a lot of them when i came here, and i didn’t see them often anyway when i was back home.  i don’t even know for sure who will be around for the summer.
Happygirlkim: I wish I lived closer to you!  I’d hang out with you! 😉
gjd76: that would be fun!
Happygirlkim: I think you’d like my friends!  You could come to the beach with us, we’d build a bonfire and stay up late just talking…
gjd76: 🙂
Happygirlkim: Maybe someday!
gjd76: hey, random thought, can i call you?

I typed that last line quickly and pressed Enter before I could talk myself out of it.  It was a sudden fleeting thought that passed through my mind, and it wouldn’t hurt to ask.  Now that I had gotten a letter from Molly, it seemed less scary to try to communicate with these girls from the Internet in other ways.

Happygirlkim: Sure!  Did you mean right now?
gjd76: sure, it’s sunday afternoon and long distance calls cost less on the weekend
Happygirlkim: 305-555-0115
gjd76: great! let me get off here, i’ll call you in just a minute

I logged out and disconnected.  Back in 1995, people connected to the Internet through telephone lines, so being logged in meant that I could neither send nor receive calls.  As soon as the computer was disconnected, I dialed Kim’s number, and just like when I had asked her if I could call, I pressed the buttons quickly, so I would not be able to talk myself out of completing the call.

“Hello?” a female-sounding voice said on the other end of the call.

“Is Kim there?” I asked.

“This is Kim.”

“Hi.  It’s Greg.”

“Hi!”  Kim paused.  “It’s good to finally hear your voice.”

“I know.”

“So why don’t you see your friends back home very often?”

“Where I live, it’s kind of semi-rural and spread out.  And I didn’t really do much except go to school. I didn’t really have friends at all until the middle of high school.”

“You didn’t have a best friend in childhood or anything?”

“Everyone was mean to me.”

“I’m sorry.  And you said you didn’t have a girlfriend, right?”

“Right.”

“Have you ever had a girlfriend?”

“No,” I said.  “I’ve had a lot of crushes on girls who were either out of my league or didn’t like me back.  One of my crushes from high school was named Kim too.”

“Girls named Kim are the best!”

“I know.” I chuckled.

“You haven’t met anyone in college?  Didn’t you tell me you were going to a movie with some girls recently?”

“One of them, we’ve had two classes together, I feel like we’re just going to be friends.  The other one, she’s really cute, and she’s been nice to me all year, but she’s a sophomore, I don’t know if she’d be interested in a younger guy who doesn’t really know what he’s doing.”

“You never know.  It wouldn’t hurt to ask.  You’re such a sweetie. I bet all the girls like you, and you don’t even know it!”

“I don’t know how to ask a girl out.”

“You just go up to her and say, ‘Hey, do you want to go get something to eat?’ or ‘Hey, do you want to go see a movie?’ or whatever.  You can do this. I believe in you.”

“I don’t know.  What if she already has a boyfriend?  Then I’ll look like an idiot.”

“But what if she doesn’t have a boyfriend, but you never ask her?  You never know unless you try.”

“I don’t know,” I said.  I really didn’t know. Kim made it sound so simple, but it was so confusing and scary.  I had a sudden thought, something I had to know. I took a deep breath and asked, “If you lived nearby, and I asked you out, would you go out with me?”

“Yes, I would!”

“Thank you.  I wish we could.”

Kim and I talked for about another 20 minutes, just about life in general.  She told me more about her friends and about her summer job at the camp. I told her about my classes, exploring the greenbelts, and my upcoming finals.  I hoped we would have more conversations like this.

I have had other female friends from the Internet besides Kim telling me that I should have no trouble meeting a girl.  Things did not work that way in my world. It seemed like every girl I was ever interested in always seemed to have a boyfriend already, and without having ever had the experience of knowing that a girl liked me, I had no idea how to know if a girl liked me, and no reason to believe it would ever happen to me.  It was so easy to talk to girls I met on the Internet. Maybe I would have to go to Fort Lauderdale to get a girlfriend. Or Muncy, Pennsylvania.

Today, when kids go away to college, they have a much easier time staying in touch with their friends back home.  Today’s college students have text messages and social media and video chat and technologies that we only dreamed of twenty-five years ago.  I have found that I tend to remember most of my friends back home not staying in touch once I moved away, but when I really think about it, that is not entirely true.  Melissa and Renee and Rachel had been keeping in touch regularly. Janet Bordeaux, the girl whose mother and my mother often gossiped, had written me twice. Jessica Halloran had sent me a postcard from Guatemala.  And now Mrs. Allen had written me twice. I did eventually lose touch with all of those people until social media came along, but it did not happen as suddenly as I tend to remember. I think I also remember people not writing me because I focus on the fact that I had two new female friends and crushes who did not keep in touch.  Interestingly enough, I did not make much of an attempt to stay in touch with guys; I was just more comfortable communicating with girls, because boys were always so mean to me in elementary school.

Mrs. Allen and I have been in touch semi-regularly ever since then.  She did eventually get her email set up. She is now in her early 70s, retired from teaching.  A few years ago, the band AC/DC was touring, and she took her grandchildren to see them when they played Bay City.  I can only hope to be that badass at that age.

I lost touch with Kim sometime during sophomore year.  She just got busy with life, I guess; we never had any kind of falling out. But Molly and I stayed friends for a long time, well into our 30s.  In my late 20s, I did a lot of traveling around the USA, and I saw Molly in person twice when my travels brought me to her part of the country. We also never had any kind of falling out; we just grew apart as life got in the way.  The last time I heard from her was in 2009, and by then she was married and expecting her first child. Being a parent definitely changes one’s priorities.

Someone asked me once, as an icebreaker question, if I could have anything I wanted, without cost being an obstacle, what would it be?  I said I wanted a private jet with an unlimited supply of fuel, because I had friends all over the world that I wished I could spend time with.  It all started during that school year, my freshman year at UJ, meeting girls on the Internet. I still do have friends from all over the world. I don’t meet many people on the Internet anymore, because I gave up chat rooms in 2007, but I still have friends all over the world who I used to know in person that I wish I could visit, as well as chat room friends who I met before 2007 who stayed in touch.  And in three weeks, I would be back home in Plumdale, away from all my new Jeromeville friends. Hopefully at least some of them would write to me. And I would not be gone forever; I still had at least three more years at UJ.

1995 molly's first letter