"Do you have that "Shades Of Grey" book?" An attractive woman in her sixties comes up to the desk breathlessly. I'm working in the Spotty Dog, the bar/bookstore in Hudson where I've been enjoying my part-time job. Some of the enjoyment is a little extra money coming in. But another very big part is that it's a marvelous place to be. Once a firehouse in a historic town of many firehouses, it sits on the main street in the middle of art galleries, antique stores and restaurants, some chic, some shabby; all characterful and unique ie no chain stores. With an old wooden floor and ornate wooden ceiling, shelves of carefully-chosen books, delicious beers on tap, a wonderland of art supplies in the back, and music a few nights a week, Spotty Dog is the kind of place people come in and say "what a great idea! I love this place."
"Ooh, I want to read it!" I answer the woman. I know that she's talking about Fifty Shades Of Grey, the number one bestselling book in the country right now. I'm not sure that I really do want to read it, because from what I've heard it's shit. At the same time, she's got a zest that makes me think she's onto something. She's at least the fourth person to come in asking for it.
"Did you like Anne Rice's erotica? It's along the same lines." And then, I swear - she winks at me.
"We can order it for you if you like," I say.
"No, I'm flying today," she says. I wonder if she planned to read it on the plane. A little twist on the standard seatmate scenario, where you hold up the book you're really engrossed in to indicate "Sorry - I won't be conversing". If it's Shades of Grey...does that mean something else?
Another man comes up with a couple of books that look interesting: "The Women" by TC Boyle and "Ham on Rye" by Charles Bukowski. He's practically beaming. "I love this place!" he says. "Since I came in a few months ago, I'm reading twice as much as I used to." We talk about Bukowski for a few minutes. When he leaves, I put on a Wilco CD that's lying under the counter: Summerteeth. A girl comes in for a soda.
"Wow," she says. "That's nostalgic."
I check - the album came out in 1999. Not only more than a decade ago but another century. I'm still catching up with where we are now and what's in the past. I try to remember if nostalgia was written into the album when it came out and have a vague memory that it was - anything with "summer" in the title creates an aura of instant wistfulness...she pops a dollar in the tip jar, for a two dollar bottle of soda. I find this extremely touching, when people tip their hard-earned money. I know that it's expected these days and everything, but I find it hard to look at it that way after living in Europe.
Later in the afternoon, it's beer that people want to talk about. A guy is standing in front of the bar, checking out the taps and looking up at the chalkboard, rubbing his hands together.
"Okay, let's see - what's good, what beers have you got? Mm-hmm, Crossroads - niiiiiccce. Southern Tier, love it, love it - give me something new, something local. Just came from Grazin up the street, they sent me down here, you had their burgers and fries - all local-raised, grass-fed beef? Had some good local beers. Any other restaurants you like around here, I'm into local, y'know - local?"
I start to wonder if the cattle up at Grazin have been snorting cocaine out behind the barn. I tell the guy about another place down the street with good burgers and fries. Oddly, they serve the burger on toast but it really works.
Nodding vigorously. "Is it like, locally-raised, grain-fed? And is the toast - what is that, house-baked bread? The flour, it's probably like, hand-milled or something!?" I'm actually not sure about any of that and he looks a little crestfallen. "It's not like...white bread or anything, I hope?" I feel bad for letting him down. When it comes to "local", I'm a bit of a novice.
"Now, back to the beer - what's good, what's local?"
I get him settled in with a Firestone Union Jack IPA and turn to help another customer. For a second he stands silhouetted against the afternoon sun. Tall, broad shouldered - in a cowboy hat. In his hand is a -
Growler. The name for a large jug that's used for transporting beer from the bar to your home. Two months ago, I'd never heard of the things. Now I'm the first to say "What a beautiful growler!"
As he comes into focus, I feel like I've been transported into a scene from Lonesome Dove. He appears to be a real Texas gentleman with a brushy white mustache, western-tailored tweed jacket, classy suede hat. The growler is dark green glass; silver embossed with scrolled lettering.
I admire his hat. "Why thank you kindly, ma'am," he says. "Now which of these fine beers would you recommend for a fellow with a profound thirst?" (Maybe he didn't actually say that, but...)
When I've filled his growler and polished it up and handed it back to him, he tips his hat and is on his way. I turn to Local Guy and a young visiting artist couple who've joined him at the bar. "Did you see that Texas Ranger guy? Wasn't he something!"
Everyone looks at me like I'm crazy. I start wondering if I've imagined it.
The phone rings. A woman's voice: "Good afternoon, I'm looking for a copy of this book - Seven Shades of Grey I think it's called?"
"We don't have it in stock, but I can order it for you."
"No, no - that's okay." What is it with this book that people have to have it NOW? The sudden realization that their sex lives can use an urgent overhaul? Fear that the desire to read a book might pass as quickly as it came on?
A slight grey-haired man with wire-rimmed glasses comes up to the desk with a copy of John Ashbery's poems. "He lives nearby," he says about one of America's leading poets. "I saw him eating a (locally-raised, grass-fed) burger in the diner up the street, and had to go up and tell him I'm a fan."
"I bet he was pleased," I say. "I mean, how many poets do you think get recognized like that?"
"He BLUSHED," the man says. "He was pleased." Now the man in the bookstore's pleased, and I'm pleased to share the moment with him. I think it's this kind of exchange that I like best about working here.
I mean, I know that I like talking to people. I like hearing what they have to say, and what they're into. But often it's after shows, and that can be fraught: Did people come? Did they all like it? What about that girl who looked like she wished she wasn't there, or the man who left in the middle of a song? Here there's no pressure. It's a fabulous invisibility.
I knew it would happen. Dreaded it would? Hoped it would? I'm not sure which, but it does when I'm serving two mugs of pear cider and a hummus plate to a nice couple from the city. The woman is looking at me as I set the plate down in front of her.
"Are you...by any chance - Amy Rigby?" I nod.
She says she's seen me play a couple of times. "I love your records!" Now I'm blushing. "Do you - " she looks apologetic - "still play?"
I tell her I do.
"And you - you work here?" This is the part I was worried about. Like, pity. Maybe at another time in my life, I'd jump to all kinds of meanings for having a part-time job...all of them negative. But it isn't like that. Because I like being here. She looks around, at the wooden ceiling and the carefully-chosen books (not a copy of Fifty Shades Of Grey among them) and the big old windows looking out onto Warren Street. "I love this place!" she says.
"Yes," I say. "Isn't it great?"