Alden’s Pocket Guide To Oxford

Stowed away my last year of high school in a boarding school, acting out every fantasy of being a… boarding school girl. Yes. All that. Whatever you’re thinking, you are correct.

Underage liquor purchases exceeding $400 in one visit, advertising the campus for sale, soft cases with perfect skin, hard cases down to snorting aspirin, suns splashing green as they sunk into the Pacific, leaving the seat of the Del Mar swingset at the top of the arc, progressive episcopalians surreptitiously inserting Jung’s Answer to Job in my corrected essays, closeted chemists jaw dropping to my idle recitation of sondheim lyrics, weekend ruts at socal boy’s schools, drinking the mice after they’ve been pureed, driving the mercedes on the sidewalk, multiple forms of identification with the yacht club one being most valuable, very very very lush lawns, very very very heavy fuschia, very very very uncomfortable saddle shoes.

Within 8 hours of arriving I checked into the local bookstore, because I was so god damn bored. It was, I think, the origin of Green Tiger Press, although I have no idea why I say that. New. Used. Remarkable woodwork, with branching, organic tendrils framing every doorway and penetrating every gate, which struck me then, as now, as the house of a very proper troll. Small incandescent lights and chairs in odd places. Perhaps a small theater that I cannot for the life of me remember sitting in. Bulletin board. Music, usually that bastard Teleman, or, the All Eine Kleine Nachtmusik Loop. Smelled like… books, but books plus. Books plus… Constant Comment Tea.

There.

So I coaxed some major purchases out of that place. I bought books in sets that made no sense from a content perspective, but the spines could be lined up sequentially to read some personally important thing. What do you call that? Some kind of Book Spine Feng Shui, no? Snagged the complete works of Shakespeare (annotated!), a compact OED which I sold in Aptos 7 years later for five bucks (sorry dad!), and a now unexplanable affection for caldecott illustration. Don’t ask.

One day.

I was sitting in back getting all the books down low out to read, and found Alden’s Pocket Guide to Oxford, published in, what, 1932. The matte stock, the black and white plates, the torqued spellings, the engaging invitation to inquire of the publisher anything that would make my visit to Oxford more rewarding. I closed my eyes and rolled the whole thing over in my mind: Oxford. Oxfuckingford. Clearly the best boarding school of them all. Kneeling there in the aisle, I began to pretend I was in another bookstore entirely, in fact, the one featured on page 16 of the Pocket Guide, and that at any moment, I would be discovered by a nattily dressed junior faculty member who, in that clipped dialect indicated by these torqued spellings, would scold me for being so…

so…

informal.

About to address the scolding (was there some irony in it? was I being provoked?), I heard feet turn the corner and scrape short of walking right through the huddle of me, the junior faculty member, and the Pocket Guide. I burned with embarassment and stared at page 22, the brickwork of Keble College. They cannot know what is going on in my mind, I reminded myself. The most anyone could walk away with is a casual observation that I seem interested in collegiate architecture.

Stepping around my fantasy, the woman said “Look, it’s the young Bob Dylan.” I looked up to see where she had found that. It was a matter of personal pride that I already knew the complete inventory of this bookstore and had not ever found a young Bob work. But the woman was, very briefly since I was now looking right at her, pointing at me. I reared back and returned to page 118, credits and acknowledgements. I heard the confirming laugh of the woman she was really meaning to speak to, one aisle over. I waited for them to leave, then combed the store for images of the young Bob Dylan.

Was it my hair? Was is my outsized overalls and billowing, blood-stained collar-less silk shirt disguising my gender? Was it, I really have hoped all along this was true, my Intensity? Or were these windandsea women hopelessly burnt from 20 years of the good stuff, my first encounter with someone permanently framecoded into the sixties? Could they have grokked my extensive Simon and Garfunkel collection just by looking? I’ve known them to do this and much much more on a mere 20 minute ride from Olema to Bolinas, even accurately sensing I had ditched the collection in 1985 in favor of the Authentic Sound of Now.

I asked Mo, during a break in the festivities. Young Bob, eh, she said, obviously knowing more than me about what Young Bob looked like. Positively ridiculous, she announced, after a short period of consideration. I was crushed, but I had purchased the Pocket Guide, cherishing the original pencilled price (50p) next to the (50c) I paid for it. As instructed by the editors, I made my inquiry and received an updated version, which, the risk-taking correspondent reminded me, would normally cost me but was being provided as a complementary gift. Holding the letter, with its fraction-off odd size, and hearing the humor and admonishment in its perfectly typed paths, I realized that an important part of my fantasy was being actualized.

I wrote back, inventing just about everything about myself.

I received a reply, which I now know contained important clues about the culture of the correspondent which went completely over my head.

Within a few years I was standing around in Oxford, yanking all the black and white plates out and putting time space sensations in their place. I wandered the bookstores, waiting to be discovered. I discovered others, themselves waiting to be discovered, but not by me. I bought armloads, wrapping them up and sending them by Extra Super Slow and Cheap Post back to myself. For the price I imagined them inflating the books and allowing them to drift out of town and across the ocean to my house, where they would, if conditions were right, deflate and land in my front yard.

And I’ve seen Bob Dylan plenty of times, too many times, the last time he seemed to perform of all of his songs as spirited waltzes, or was I just plain Too High? Doesn’t matter, I don’t look like him, and that lady was committing such a crime of carelessness to suggest it. I’ve been carrying this wannabe around for nearly twenty years.

How could she have known?

It was just a bookstore.

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