Last fall, I moved from a Chicago suburb to the west side of Missouri, seemingly a move merely across the Great River, seemingly just another move in a slew of moves that have drawn me back to the Midwest. But this move was different. Saint Joseph, to me, is the edge of home, almost the South and almost the West. The Bible Belt, a former slave‑owning state. The gateway to Manifest Destiny. Things here are familiar and Midwestern, yet unfamiliar, too.
This afternoon, I drive the forty minutes to the Barnes & Noble on the north edge of Kansas City. Signs for Atchison and Leavenworth—home of Amelia Earhart, home of the military prison—pass on my right to let me know Kansas is just over the river. This drive is something I do almost every other weekend now. A habit. A getaway. A relief from Chinese‑Mexican combo buffets where a vegetarian, if lucky, can feast on cheese enchiladas and soft dinner rolls slathered with butter. Today, I’ll be missing the bull-riding competition and the big sale at Wal‑Mart. I know I haven’t oriented myself to my new home, and the Barnes & Noble offers the familiar.
I find a good parking space and follow a group of three girls into the bookstore. One girl gestures, wait until you hear this, with her hand and then blurts out, “My parents gave me twenty bucks for going to church today.”
“No!” the other two say in unison.
“I didn’t even have to ask for it. My dad just handed me a twenty and said, ‘We’re really glad you go to church with us.'” The girl is wearing a black leather coat like my own. It matches her hair and her eyeliner and her chunky, four‑inch heels. She is probably sixteen. She looks like a magazine lay‑out, only younger. The other two girls look more white‑hip‑hop. At sixteen, I had just gained a lot of weight, had pimples, and owned one pair of jeans. Adolescents don’t seem to have pimples anymore. We all pass Oprah’s new book-club selection, which is on the bestseller list and, therefore, 30% off.
The girl with streaky hair in numerous barrettes replies, “I can’t believe they pay you to go to church. That’s so pathetic.”
The third girl says, “I wish my parents paid me to go to church. I’d go if they paid me.” I can’t tell if she longs for the extra cash or the chance for spiritual redemption without losing face among her peers.
I am glad to see these girls at Barnes & Noble instead of Old Navy, which is just next door. I tell myself,at least they’ll be talking about books; they aren’t squealing over the spandex cropped pants in stupendous new colors like tomato and pomegranate; they can read. Still, I fear the girl won’t be spending her newfound religious reward on additions to her library. She’ll probably spend it at the movies and laugh inappropriately at violent scenes.
It’s clear these girls and countless other bookstore customers stop in before or after a movie. There’s an AMC multiplex next to the Barnes & Noble, just as in countless other cities around the country. If I squint, I could be anywhere, here and not here. I saw Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon here. A young child sat behind me and kicked my seat. He stopped after the third time I asked him to, when his mother put her arm over his knees. I’m not sure how well he could read, at his age.
A few days later, the DJs on the alternative-rock station read the Oscar nominations and couldn’t figure out how this Crouching Tiger movie had been nominated, since they hadn’t heard of it. Someone must have said something into the woman DJ’s earpiece because she interrupted to say, “It’s that subtitled movie.” That explained everything to them, and they moved on.
Sundays are slower at the bookstore than Saturdays, probably because fewer people see movies on Sundays. But the chairs in the aisles are always occupied, and few tables are open in the café. The girl behind me in line begs her mother first for a slice of espresso cake (it looks so good), then for a muffin (we can split it), then for a white-chocolate pretzel stick. It becomes clear that the mother is hoping her daughter will lose weight. The mother says no to each of seven requests. I purchase some tea—some featured winter flavor with cranberry and cinnamon—and a slice of pumpkin cheesecake. I must have been swayed by the girl’s litany of sweet requests.
A couple sits at a table for two. She is reading bride magazines and asking him questions about what to do about their impending wedding. She has a lot of ideas and is acquiring many more as she reads. He looks at a magazine, too. All I see as I walk by is a beer ad with a naked blond woman holding two full mugs in front of her breasts.
I sit at a table near a man and his son. The boy is clearly doing research, with a big, illustrated encyclopedia opened to fill the small table. There is no second seat for the father, and he will leave to browse in a few minutes. I remember the Oprah show that urged parents not to leave their children alone in public places. He asks the boy questions and points to different diagrams. The boy tries to take hurried notes on a yellow pad like the ones my mother always uses.
When I was a kid, store clerks gave stern glares or asked that you purchase the item if you spent too long with any one book or magazine. Today, after my cheesecake, I sit in an aisle and read a short novel cover to cover and don’t purchase it.
As I am reading the novel and finishing my tea, I am occasionally distracted by two women talking a few feet away, between Margaret Atwood and the staff recommendations. They are discussing, with great sympathy and some judgment, a friend and her son.
“He’s been diagnosed with borderline behavior disorders. He already has ADHD.”
I wonder what this kid is like. I wonder what borderline means but don’t rush off to the “psychology” or “self‑improvement” shelves to find out. I look at my watch, I check the number of pages left in the book I’m reading, and I think about the renaming of PMS as PMDD, now a psychological disorder treatable with drugs like Prozac and Paxil. I think about the commercials that suggest treatment for feeling uncomfortable in social situations, for the anxiety you feel when you give presentations or are singled out. Thank goodness I stopped biting my nails and chewing my hair on my own. I’ve blended in.
“He’s been on Ritalin since he was very young, and they’re giving him something else now. She says he’s better, but you just don’t know.”
“My cousin . . .” Everybody knows somebody.
People walking by at the other end of the aisle have just seen Traffic. They cannot come to a consensus on whether they liked it, but they keep talking about it. Just like Congress, all abuzz all of a sudden to think students have had scales and baggies on their closet shelves. Once, in college (a small, Midwestern college that uses a family metaphor in its admissions PR), I saw a guy in a fraternity house sitting with bags and bags of cocaine stacked between his legs. Some of my friends could make a bong from a cardboard toilet-paper tube and aluminum foil. As you drive into Saint Joseph, Missouri, a big billboard asks, “What’s cooking in your neighborhood?” The answer is, I hear, meth—the Midwestern, working‑class drug. The movie feels like an explanation for all this. The filters make for temperature and revelation. It feels simultaneous, but it’s nostalgic.
The book I’m reading—about a man who travels from Europe to China every year to purchase silkworms—takes me ninety minutes, just sitting cross-legged on the floor. Ninety minutes including the eavesdropping. The ending is full of secret pain, of secrets kept and sensed and hidden again and revealed as a generous sadness. Missed opportunities. Sadness is the gift of justified self‑importance, a means of remembering, gloating, and being approved of. The beauty is in the missing, not in the opportunities themselves.
I wander over to the paper and journal section, where a young man tries to pick out something to write in. I know the feeling. I have a dozen spare notebooks at home and would like to buy a leather one but don’t. I check back thirty minutes later, and he’s still there looking. I envy him his quandary and wonder what he writes, whether it’s part of a Jack Kerouac admiration phase.
Next, I contemplate buying Ken Burns’ collection of jazz from the PBS series, but even the thought makes me feel like a cheater. I like listening to jazz, but I haven’t seen the Burns special and don’t know jazz from blues, really. I know that Archibald J. Motley, Jr., whose paintings hang in Chicago’s Art Institute, decried racism and claimed he painted people as they really were, but, in his self‑portrait, he highlighted the bridge of his nose, put his nostrils in shadow, and lengthened his delicate fingers. I know Langston Hughes had a white patron, and I think myself slumming here in the Barnes & Noble if I buy the compilation disc from a televisionprogram about jazz.
That’s the thing: trips to the Barnes & Noble remind me that I’m an elitist. I’ve heard that when a new Barnes & Noble opens, they fill the place to the brim with books. They use dark wood and dark green and have a desk just for getting information so it feels like a library. Then, six months or a year later, they begin culling the collection. The store has fewer shelves, wider aisles, fewer books. I know this, and I still show up. I still buy books, judge books by their covers, even read books right here as if it were a library. I hate being manipulated and marketed to and convince myself that I rise above it, that literature rises above it. I let myself feel smart, exhilarated by the sheer number of books, humbled by my not having read more of them, and disgusted by the lack of awe in other people. At once, I feel fraudulent and superior—superior, in part, because I am aware of my fraudulence and my rush to judgments. I drive home with my justified self‑importance to Saint Joseph, home of the Pony Express and Jesse James—two notable, yet failed (or at least fleeting), American ventures. Just like the rest of them, just like everybody else.
That’s the thing: trips to the Barnes & Noble remind me that I arrive here again and again, that the coming into a place—a home—is both a sadness and a joy.
© Anna Leahy