I’ve hardly worked a shift in three months at the bookstore/bar but I walk in feeling under the weather on the afternoon of Christmas eve like oh I’ve done this before, not a big deal. And it’s true I’ve worked many a day before the holiday at this place, for some reason my shifts always seem to fall on them. But maybe I have been away too long because lines of people are approaching the register with piles of books and socks and toys and I feel like an alien or a French peasant plucked out of the countryside and dropped into a teeming retail planet. The phone rings every two minutes with somebody asking for a) Salt Fat Acid Heat or b) that Lin-Manuel Miranda book or c) do we have the Frederick Douglass biography? No, yes and no I quickly learn.
Eric stops by and asks what I want to do for dinner and I’m too distracted to answer and anyway there’s this nagging, cloying sound overhead and I have to turn it off immediately – it’s some Spotify mix and I realize with satisfaction as I wrench the bluetooth away that it’s Ryan Adams dueting with somebody so I feel like I’ve done a public service when I shove a CD into the player and finger snaps and Roger Miller starts singing “Trailer for sale or rent, rooms to let fifty cents” and the whole place perks up immediately because Roger Miller fixes the air in a room.
But CDs don’t go on forever so at some point I put in the Tom Tom Club that’s laying there and that adds a faint touch of hysteria to the proceedings as people perch on barstools with their purchases and sip beers. I’m working with a new co-worker and we don’t have the ballet down yet, that effortless dip and twist you get in the trench with not enough room as you move up and back and spell each other, it takes a little practice or maybe I’m just out of practice, so every few feet we bump into each other and say “sorry!” and “oh excuse me” or “whoops!” I’m wrapping another Lin-Manuel Miranda book and wait – is that pita burning in the toaster oven? I slide down to the other end of the bar, fling olives in a bowl and hummus on a plate, the Tom Tom Club is getting old so I rip that out of the player and grab a compilation CD which starts out brilliantly with an 80s country version of Tainted Love and all of a sudden the barstools are filling up with French peasants- I mean people from Quebec – they are puzzling over what to drink and what to eat (easy, that last pita was the last pita) as if they’ve never been outside of Quebec…maybe they haven’t?
“Did a bus from Canada break down?” a regular hanging in there at the end of the bar asks.
Then Maggot Brain comes on. Through ten and a half minutes of twisted, molting guitar the Quebecois drink their ciders and teas and beers like glassy-eyed children at a grownups’ party and I can’t help it, I speak French so I hear the anguished debate about how much to tip the bartender. I head back down to the register praying c’mon Funkadelic, do your stuff, and sure enough when the guitar notes fade out the busload is gone, down Warren Street with their confusion and solidarity.
And the sales wind down and the owner and I close the bar early as people head out searching, hoping there’ll be room at the inn-I mean any restaurant in town because word has gone out that only three remain open and if you didn’t book a reservation well tough luck – it’s the holidays!
The morning after Christmas I come into the bookstore/bar and turn on the lights and pop in a little music and for a minute it’s just me and the books and we’re all having a moment together, me and Jeff and Michelle and that angry Donald Trump and yep, ole Lin-Manuel Miranda and it’s bliss. But then I hear tapping on the front door glass –
“Hey, it’s eleven o’clock – are you guys open?”