Mark the Book Chat Man was sitting on his usual sidewalk, drinking a can of malt liquor and smoking a cigarette. Near him, rested a backpack and a bag of bottles and cans ready for sweet Oregon Bottle Bill redemption. His buddy was standing near him with his backpack on the sidewalk. I’d met the buddy several times in Book Chat moments but hadn’t learned his name.
I crossed the street to say hello and talk The Sheltering Sky. I had almost finished rereading the novel and was eager to talk with Mark about it. A week ago I’d seen him reading it on the sidewalk and it inspired me to revisit this classic written by Paul Bowles.
He pulled the novel from his backpack when I asked about it. Mark told me he had four chapters to go, that he didn’t want to finish it, but would. He always finished a book when he started it, except that one, many years ago—The Hobbit.
He didn’t care for The Sheltering Sky at all and he dissected its flaws better than a New York Times reviewer might have. I disagreed with him on the merits of the novel and felt it held up well.
We discussed its naive and rich American characters and exotic North African settings. Everything terrible was happening to these people because they could not comprehend where they were nor why they were there. Their basic lack of comprehension about their surroundings was either killing them or driving them insane. That sounds a lot like many Americans in their own country during the Pandemic with their various associated outcomes of death and insanity.
At one point during our conversation, Mark’s buddy reached into his backpack and produced a fifth of Old Crow. Two weeks ago, in a similar book chat, he brandished a bottle of Old Crow but failed to offer me a belt.
This time he did, but I declined. The idea of Old Crow gargling down my gullet at three in the afternoon made me wince.
After concluding our conversation about The Sheltering Sky, we moved onto One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which Mark said he’d read three times. We took that novel and the film apart. He knew the book almost as well as I did, and I’ve read it ten times, and taught it to hundreds of high school students. We both wanted to see The Dalles Dam blown to smithereens and uncover Celilo Falls before we died.
As I stood there talking about books, a definitely great notion occurred to me. Let’s really do the Old Crow Book Club, right here, on the sidewalk, drinking Old Crow, and talking about a great book.
I pitched the idea. Mark and his buddy loved it. I would provide the novel for us to read. They even knew a woman who might want to join the group. She’d just started reading.
Even before I pitched the idea, I knew the book I wanted us to read. I’d taught it at Newport and Astoria High Schools and the students ate it up better than any novel I’d ever assigned.
Motel Life by Willy Vlautin. I had a fucking class set in storage! Why I’d hung onto the box all these years after being excommunicated from the teaching profession, I didn’t know.
I did now.
They’d never heard of Motel Life. I summarized the contents and they were intrigued. They agreed to form the book club and I told them I’d hand out copies in the coming weeks.
I asked Mark about his Oregon roots and he told me he’d been born in Hood River. How he ended up on this sidewalk was something I wanted to know but Hood River was enough for now.
Then we moved onto Tom McCall and how he might have handled the Pandemic. We both agreed he would have hit the road to rural and reactionary Oregon and delivered fiery speeches demanding his fellow Oregonian get vaccinated. It might have worked, but we’ll never know now. Too late for that.
From there, we went on to discuss crows and Mark’s habit of sometimes cursing the ornery ones perched in the trees shading his sidewalk. He’ll put up with five or six caws, he said, but not 26 and once the count reaches that high, he’s going to call them a motherfucker and demand they shut the hell up.
It was time to go. I bounded away with a little hitch in my giddy up. Not too long from now, I might actually be teaching a kind of class again. There was still teaching blood in me yet. How it might mix with Old Crow and obnoxious crows on a sidewalk in Portland was to be determined. But I was relishing the idea of that moment.