Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Wild Ride Journal of a Hollywood Bookseller 10

by Arnold M. Herr


That was me sneezing while driving Mickey Tsmissis's (aka Morty Plonk, etc) car.  The muzzle velocity blew out the windshield. There was a lot of book dust in the air. 


And that was Jack Gallagher tossing his cookies out the open window on the passenger side of the car.

We were on the American side of the U. S. - Mexican border, a few miles south of San Diego.  Jack was blowing chunks all over the interstate while we were on our way back to Los Angeles.

Jack:  Gezund - BLOORTZ! - heit.

Me:  Thanks.  How're ya feeling?

Jack:  Miserable.

Me:  But at least - TTHPPPTTTT! - we got the books, so I don't feel too bad.  How about you?

Jack:  Ask me - GLORK! - tomorrow.

I know, I know; it's offensive.  And somewhere in my resume it states that I've been pandering to the taste-impaired since 1972 and it's a tradition I enjoy maintaining. 

Several hours earlier:

"Señor looks as if he is carrying a heavy burden on his shoulders."

"You have no idea" I answered the bartender.  "Let me have another cervaza please." 

I was sitting in a smoky, dimly lighted dive in Baja, California, somewhere south of the border scraping the label off the frosty bottle with my thumbnail and feeling crummy.

He set another cold Corona next to my empty one and helped himself to a couple of greenbacks from the stack I had sitting on the bar in front of me.  It was a short stack and would most assuredly grow shorter before very long.  He must have known I had a tale to tell, because he rested his chin in the palm of his hand waiting for me to recount the events of the day.  He seemed bored and in need of entertainment.  I began to blather.

Earlier that evening:

We were hurtling through the night; the car's wheels scarcely touched the road.  Jack Gallagher and I were in Mickey Tsimmis's car which we had borrowed a couple of hours earlier.  We had left Mickey at Mrs. P. Talbot-Carson's place after we hotwired the ignition.  We were headed for the border to do some bookscouting in Tijuana.  We needed a change of scenery. 

Earlier in the day, Jack, Mickey and I arrived at Mrs. PTC's residence to look over her book collection and make her an offer on the holdings.  After a brief dunking in Mrs. PTC's  koi pond however, Mickey soon found her books less interesting than her skivvies.  On the way out the door to get some empty boxes, Jack and I caught a glimpse of Mickey and Mrs. PTC three sheets to the wind, up on the tabletop, dancing the kazatski.  (Later, Mickey had told me that if we had stuck around a bit longer, we could have seen him and Mrs. PTC in her library among the Henry James firsts and the Shakespeare folios, dancing the funky chicken).  No thanks.  So we took a powder.

(I know, I know; I seem to be endlessly digressing but lemme back up just a bit here, and I promise not to do it anymore):

By 1989 I had been working off and on for Mickey for approximately 19 years.  Every so often I would stand back and try to figure out how and in what ways it had enriched me; it certainly hadn't ennobled me.  I had mastered the art of precarious perching:  piling things one on top of the other and having the mound remain standing.  Inverted pyramids were a cinch.  Balancing my checkbook was another matter.  In fact, Mickey didn't even pay me a salary when I first started working for him; he made it clear that the experience I would gain in his bookshop would be invaluable and that maybe I should be paying him during my apprenticeship.  Luckily for me, that arrangement didn't last very long.  I began collecting a salary in the following manner after working for him for about two months back in 1970:

A very obnoxious customer (whom I was helping look for something) kept asking again and again me why a particular book was so expensive.  None of my explanations satisfied him.  So I asked him why he was so cheap.  This didn't sit well and he demanded of Mickey that I be made to forfeit half my pay.

Mickey:  But I don't pay him anything.

Customer:  Then put him on the payroll for $50.00 per week and take out $25.00.

Mickey (scratching his head):  Hmmmmmmm.

Me:  If you paid me $100.00 per week you could then take out $50.00!

Mickey:  That's right, I could.  That'll be an even bigger forfeiture.

Me:  Yep.

Mickey:  There!  That'll teach you!

So I not only went on the payroll, but I had negotiated a raise, all in less than a minute.


Mickey Tsimmis has been known around town under several names:  Morty Plonk, Percy Duckbutter, California Eddie and The Shadow. 

"Names were meant to be changed" he claimed; "most people are not the same people they were five, 10, or 20 years ago.  Why should the name remain the same?" 

"So the bank can track you down when they have to notify you about one of your dormant accounts" I offered. 

"Hmmmm, good point" he conceded, rubbing the stubble on his unshaved chin.

And so on a clear, bright January day in Southern California, Jack Gallagher and I accompanied Mickey to Mrs. P. Talbot-Carson's swanky pad in Pasadena.  She was eager to get her hands on Mickey and it was pretty obvious that Jack and I should disinvite ourselves and leave.  So we left the Mickster draining water and carp on Mrs. PTC's carpets and headed for Mexico.

A coupla hours later, Jack and I found ourselves in a cantina somewhere in or near Tijuana (it coulda been as far south as Ensenada, everything was kinda blurred).  It was probably the Marty Robbins tunes on the Wurlitzer that drew us in.  Certainly it was the Corona cerveza that kept us there.  We sat at the bar.  Jack was happily puffing a Camel.  I had stopped smoking several years earlier, but an American at the other end of the bar offered me a Cuban cigar - he called it a Monte Cristo or a Christ Almighty - I don't clearly remember.  "Contraband in the U. S." he said, "but if you've never smoked one before, here's your chance to do it without fear of being busted."  I'd never had a Cuban cigar before, but I figured I could fall off the wagon just long enough for a taste.  I fired it up; not bad, I thought.  Some good beer, a good cigar; about all that was lacking in this picture were some good books.  I then became aware of a bargirl clinging to me like a cheap suit.  She had festooned my neck with hickeys.  She wanted me to buy her a drink.  I asked her what she wanted.

Bargirl:  A cup of hot Ovaltine.

I caught the bartender's eye and gestured toward the girl.  He nodded and brought her her drink.  He knew what she liked.  There were even a few ginger snaps in the saucer.  Those are gonna cost me, I thought.

I waved my hand back and forth, pushing some of the smoke away to get a better look at my surroundings and - Saints Preserve Us! - there were several shelves of books on the walls, way up there in the gloom, high above eye level.  "Books!" I burped.  That hoicked Jack from his boozy torpor.  (I've noticed that the cry of "broads!" or "dames!" just doesn't elicit the same response as "books!" anymore.  I - and my associates - must be getting older.  Or deranged).

Jack:  Where?

Me (pointing):  Up there.

The bargirl wandered off.  I pointed to the books and the bartender shrugged and gestured as if to say "have at 'em."  Jack clambered (what a great word, huh?) up on the bar, upsetting his neighbor's drink.  It looked like a Mexican Edsel, which is vodka mixed with V8 vegetable juice and a kiss of tabasco to give it some authority.  I motioned for the bartender to replace the spilled drink with a fresh one and tossed a couple of Yankee bucks on the bar.  I handed my barstool up to Jack who grabbed it and began stumbling, blundering and crawling toward the end of the bar, stepping on hands, drinks, ashtrays, loose change and some sleeping guy's beard.  Jack placed the stool firmly down on the bar with a loud THWACK!  Most of the folks in the cantina were now staring at him.  Both of him.  He/they turned to face them.

Jack (theatrically):  Watch this.

Jack was torqued on nine beers and so was hamming it up.  He climbed up into the smoky darkness.  He grabbed a book at random and tossed it toward the sound of my gibbering voice.  I caught it.  It was a vellum-backed copy of Somerset Maugham's A Writer's Notebook.  Signed and limited.  What the hell?  I looked closer; the spine was a little grimy, but so what.  Next came a copy of Canemaker's Winsor Mckay.  I guess Little Nemo and Gertie the Dinosaur have a following in Baja.  More surprises came flying off the shelves; some dropping on the wet bar, some knocking over bottles and glasses.   Others were caught by me and suddenly-eager participants in this game of catch the octavo and catch the quarto or whatever else came sailing down.  We missed a few and those landed on the sawdust and spittle-covered floor.  These I wiped off on the the bartender's dog which remained sleeping through all the excitement.

Bartender (pointing to the books):  You like this stuff?

Me:  Yeah.  You have more?

Bartender:  Plenty.  In the house across the road. 

He stuck two fingers into his mouth and whistled loudly.  It spooked Jack and he fell off the ladder onto the bar.  Luckily, a puddle of watered-down scotch broke his fall.  The whistle also brought a kid out of the back room.

Bartender (to me):  My son.  (To the kid):  Take these two locos across the street and show them the books.

The kid led and Jack and I followed.  It was a dump and there was no electricity.

Me:  This place smells of cat.

Jack:  Big cat.

Me:  Bad cat.

Jack:  Big, bad, incontinent cat.

Me:  Generations of cats.

Jack: Cats immemorial.

Me:  Cats primeval.

The kid handed me a flashlight and Jack went out and found another in Mickey's car.  There were many books there, some good ones among them:  A 12-volume set of The Golden Bough, Seneca's Tragoediae  (16mo.) dated 1656 and in its original vellum binding with yapped edges, B. Traven's The Death Ship.  And more goodies, old and recent.  We were madly tossing them into old gin and tequila boxes.  The dross we stacked in the corner.  Somewhere back in the reptilian part of my brain I wondered who originally owned this collection and how it all ended up in this hovel.  In all the ensuing confusion I had forgotten to ask.

We found a large box containing what appeared to be a set of toy soldiers.  I shined the flashlight on the label;  it read: "complete with smoldering cities in ruins.  Bleeding corpses not included."  (Later, on the road back to L. A. I realized we had forgotten to pack them into the car.  Jack referred to it as a "nocturnal omission").
Altogether, we had pulled out about 30 boxes of books and the kid hollered across the road for his father the bartender who came over and told us how much he wanted for them, along with all the broken glasses, the spilled and replaced drinks and the scratches on the bar.  Jack and I realized we simply didn't have enough dinero between us.  The bartender's eyebrow shot up and I thought we might end up spending the night in the Tijuana jail.  But then in a moment of inspiration, I remembered the carpet we had used to wrap Mickey earlier that day; it was still rolled up in the back of the car, and I dashed out and carried it back inside.  The bartender was mightily pleased with this offering, waved away the books and happily clutched his new rug.  The kid helped us shlep boxes out of the shack and load them into Mickey's car.  He crawled into the back of the station wagon and piled up the boxes we handed in to him.  He sniffed the air in the car.

Kid:  Señor...

Me:  Yeah?

Kid:  There is something in this car...

Me:  Yeah?

Kid:  It is big and it is dead.

Yeah, I thought, but it doesn't smell like cat.

The drive back to the border was uneventful; Jack's head lolled and thumped against the window on the passenger's side of the car.  His eyes were open but unseeing.  Customs waved us through without a second glance.  We stopped a couple of times to irrigate the shoulder of Interstate 5 and toss out meals eaten six months earlier.  Approaching L. A. sometimes does that to you. 

Los Angeles had a kind of magical look to it as we neared it; if I didn't know better, it looked almost ethereal and magical glittering in the damp early morning air.  But I knew better....

After dropping off Jack at his room in Hollywood, I parked and locked up Mickey's car behind his store after covering up the books in the back with flattened cardboard boxes.  The car looked so disreputable, no one would bother it.  I once watched a woman approach Mickey as he exited the car after parking it and she handed him a dollar bill and said "you poor man.  Here, go buy yourself a Snickers bar."  She then turned and walked away.

I chuckled at the memory. 

Dawn was slowly breaking over a chilly, misty Hollywood as I hoofed it home.

Next, Episode 11: The Return of Rupert Barnyogurt, slob book collector.

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