At the opening of this story, I was at the corner convenience store to get myself some beer. I had been to this store many times, but was on my usual edge, as the store had been ran into by cars and been held up at gunpoint (though both incidents occurred before I moved here, and everything has been hunky dory since).
I think I feel a good, healthy level of anxiety at most convenience stores, to be honest. Though admittedly convenient, I don’t quite know what it takes to enter such a store carefree. There’s just something about a store with multiple cameras ready to capture the inevitable robbery while doling out lottery tickets, cigarettes, and alcohol by the bucketful that makes me not quite able to achieve a state of restful ease. It’s not a phobia I bring into these stores, it’s a simple heightened awareness.
The only reason I mention my basic convenience store state of mind is because I’ve never had an incident at one before this particular night. I shopped through their admittedly amazing beer section looking for something new when I caught a man a couple of aisles over staring at me. I made brief eye contact, and he kind of lit up. I immediately switched aisles and considered my options.
The man did not look particularly well, mentally speaking. Sure, his missing tooth in the front among the others sitting at various states of yellow and jaggedness did not appear healthful, nor did his generally disheveled appearance, slightly pink eyes, and skin that somehow blended gray and yellow together peacefully. The short stare I caught did not help my anxiety, either. He seemed to have been watching me, waiting for acknowledgment. Though my glance was brief and I immediately walked in the opposite direction, the fact that I had seen him seemed to provide all the validation his mild convenience store stalking required.
Now, I’ll admit that I’m actually too nice in many instances. I am polite and have a strange fear of hurting feelings when people engage with me, so I let awkward conversations carry on for far longer than necessary when such a situation presents itself. Luckily, fatherhood has cured me of this, but only when my children are with me. Just a few weeks ago, a strange crazy-eyed woman approached my son and me in a Target and started to tell me how dangerous it was for my son to be hanging off the side of the cart. In this scenario, I had no difficulty, even though I was on FaceTime with my wife and daughter so we could pick out the best night light to help my daughter feel comfortable in her dark room at night, telling this freaky lady to “mind her own damned business.” She huffed off and avoided me after that, which was perfect. Unfortunately, when a man with the crazy eye approaches me in a convenience store, I’m out of my element.
When he walked up to me, I prepared myself to let him know I had no cash on me. I accurately assumed that he wanted something from me, and since he didn’t seem to be a solicitor of religion in his stinky, disheveled state, the natural conclusion was that he wanted money. But when he got to me, the unthinkable happened.
He pulled out a book from the back of his pants and shoved it at my chest. Not knowing at first that it was going to be a book he was pulling from his ass, I jumped back, my heart racing. He seemed unfazed by my obvious leap out of the way of what I thought was going to be a gun. Instead, he asked me the strangest thing.
“You look like you read! I found this book! Tell me about this book! It’s a good book, isn’t it?”
He then thrusted the book at me and showed me the inside cover. It was a paperback copy of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Inside was a handwritten note congratulating the person for finding the book and encouraging them to enjoy reading it before hiding the book again for someone else to find and read. I’ve heard of things like this, but this was my first encounter with one of the actual books involved.
The state of my mind was quite odd at this point. I had expected a gun and/or some form of assault just seconds prior to discovering the reality of the situation. The convenience store was fairly busy at the time, which means there were maybe five to ten other people in the store. Not a big population, but still, this man surveyed all the customers and pegged me as the reader in the group. I read and write a ton (obviously), so this was a compliment. And as an unknown author, being pegged as a reader who would be able to understand and interpret one of the classics was the closest I would get to being asked for an autograph.
I’m not being mugged, I’m being acknowledged!
His eyes searched me for some insight. And I certainly had plenty to give. I had most certainly read The Great Gatsby and I had a lot to offer this man.
I went to town about the book. I spent what felt like five minutes explaining how the plot started, what the characters’ motivations were, how the book was viewed as one of the most important works of American literature in the twentieth century…I laid it on thick.
Because this man found what he seemed to believe was a gift. And it was a gift. Discovering this book excited him to no end. He found it only a block away and wandered around until he could find someone to validate how great his find was. I even casually mentioned that the copy he held wasn’t really worth much as it was a worn paperback with writing in it, but that didn’t faze him at all. Finding the book excited him, and he honestly wanted to read it. The fact that the book in his hand wasn’t just some trash piece of literature was enough to get him excited, and his excitement was contagious. I stood there in that convenience store and threw every bit of validation I ever heard about the importance of The Great Gatsby at this stinky man, and his jagged smile couldn’t have been wider by the time I finished my report on the book.
He shook my hand. He promised me he’d start reading it that night. If there were room among all the stacks of beer cases, I swear he would’ve skipped out of the store with his copy of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic. I felt happy and satisfied. This man had pegged me as a reader who would understand the treasure he found and be able to get him excited to enjoy it. He was validated, I was validated…it was a nice exchange, especially for something that initially started as a mugging in my twisted mind.
I bought my beer and left the store. As I walked to my car, I looked for the man and saw him jogging across the street with the book still tucked under his arm. I loved that sight.
And here’s the thing: I’m a reader and a writer. I think storytelling is one of the most important arts in all of humankind. We’re all drawn to it, even if we don’t like reading. Humans are natural storytellers to the point of finding nearly infinite ways to share stories. From literature to performance, storytelling will never die. I think that story is important to happiness. I think the world would be a better place if we all felt 100% comfortable sharing stories. This is part of my drive to write these blog posts, publish books, and make a writer-centric website. Life is story, and to me, the farther we all wander away from the art of storytelling, the less happy we become.
So when this random stranger approached me with the intention of asking me to help him get excited about reading, I couldn’t have been happier to give a full book report. I sold The Great Gatsby to this stranger as though I had written the book myself. Seeing him skip off into the distance excited for a story made my month, at least.
I felt on top of the world as I got back into my car with my beer. But I couldn’t help but chuckle at myself.
Because there’s a bigger truth here:
I FUCKING HATE THE GREAT GATSBY.
Oh man, of all the “classics” of literature…what a piece of shit.
Now, this is not to take the hipster route and say that this book has no merit because of my opinion. Quite the opposite, if you’ve been paying attention. I could relay to a perfect stranger all the merits of The Great Gatsby on the fly if you’d like. I can regurgitate any good reason this book is forced upon high schoolers all across America time and time again for years to come. I can even accept reasons why this book is considered “great” to many. And you know what? The fact that this book is considered a classic is just fine with me.
But, on a personal level, I think that The Great Gatsby is an uninteresting story written by an uninteresting man about characters who are complete and total assholes from the start of the book to the finish. The narrator doesn’t matter, the characters don’t matter, and Daisy’s husband should have shot everyone.
But WOW what an analysis of the jazz age and the foolishness of wealth and extravagance…
Here’s the thing, though: we are all entitled to our opinions. And this is the beauty of art. The Great Gatsby invoked strong enough opinions to carry it through the ages long enough to piss me off as required reading in high school as well as inspire someone to hide it in my city and inspire a random person to get a stranger who looks like they read to help them get amped up to read it.
The man could’ve thrusted a copy of almost anything at my chest and I would’ve done my best to sell it to him. I wish everyone read more often. I don’t think there’s a book out there that should be banned. If we kept books more holy our lives would be much improved. So if anyone ever approaches me with a book and asks me to convince them to read it, I will do everything in my power to get that person as excited as I am every time I crack open a new book…
…even if that book is presented to me in a seedy convenience store, and that book is the crappy, fucked up classic known to others as The Great Gatsby.