Wednesday, February 9, 2011

A Wintry Book Foray

The day after I arrived in Dallas an arctic atmosphere the size of a continent repositioned itself over the United States in the shape of an inverted parabola, its southern limit extending to the middle of Texas.

Temperatures dropped over 30 degrees within a couple of hours and all of the Dallas / Fort Worth area was glazed over with snow and ice. Several of my colleagues (who had arrived for the same scientific meetings that I was attending) were unable to sleep because of the constant clapping of sleet against the large parietal windows of their rooms.

Periodically throughout the next day power went out in the hotel as the city's faltering electricity was portioned out in cycles to its many stranded citizens. For, in fact, very few people were willing to brave the storm and drive to work. As a result the hotel was only half staffed and services were limited.

One is justified in wondering why a middle-aged Californian would wish to trek out in this weather. Certainly not after food, there was plenty of that in the hotel. Not even entertainment, the need of exercise or the promise of interesting insects (all hunkering down beneath the ice) would suffice.

The only possible reason left was books. And that was precisely the pull. Two years ago I had discovered a nice used bookstore (called Half-Price Books) on the other side of town and I was determined to visit it again.

I knew the trip would be tricky as soon as I stepped out of the hotel. The parking lot looked like shattered glass with patches of crusty snow throughout. After slowly making my way to the other side I came to the lawn. The snow had all but covered it up leaving only little tips of grass visible on top. Glad as I was to be free of the parking lot, I stepped with confidence onto the congealed turf only to realize (too late as it turned out) that it was harder than I thought.

Instead of gaining purchase, my unsuspecting foot glanced out from under me and slid to the bottom of the hill pulling me along with it. Fortunately it wasn't too steep or too far to the bottom. The worst thing that happened was the loss of my travelling snack - a Snickers bar - that I had slipped into my coat pocket. In the excitement of the fall I didn't even detect that it was gone until it was too late to go back and get it.

Now, however, I was aware of what I was up against. No more thoughtless or over-confident steps would do. I would have to make the four mile trek with tiny steps. Ahead of me the metropolitan floor extended in a patchwork of blacktop, concrete and little sections of frozen plants. The prospects weren't promising for any of these and so I tried the grass again. This time I gently eased my full weight into a square inch of my shoe. Thankfully it was enough (well maybe it was obviously enough) to break the crusty surface and I stood triumphantly secure.

Thus I plodded over lawns and pansy (poor things) past sidewalk and business until I discovered the remarkable value of poor masonry - concrete curbs, to be precise, which projected unprofessionally above the level of the walk. For some reason they were left un-iced and when there was a lull in the traffic (which was most of the time since nobody in their right mind was on the street) I ventured to balance my way along more easily.

Occasionally I would come upon a parking lot with patches of lovely black footholds. These I would navigate much like an old man playing hopscotch. And in fact it really was fun. I also became quite adept at noticing just slightly uneven surfaces. Failure in this regard could have been a serious problem where walks and driveways sloped ever-so-subtly into the four-lane street.

Unfortunately there were places that became quite difficult, like the entire block I had to manage between a row of crepe myrtles and a metal fence; or the extended driveway that was seemingly as smooth as glass. Very often I was left looking for any irregularity in the ice that I could find - like small pebbles or the frozen reliquiae of animals.

It was while I was inching my way along that I realized half of the stores around me were closed. What if the bookstore was closed too? I wondered. It couldn't be. Besides I was now over an hour along and couldn't bear the thought of turning back empty-handed.

I had been motivating myself through this wintry adventure by the thought of fine books. Now I seemed on the verge of distraction. But what was I to do? I was over half-way there. I couldn't stop now.

And so I mustered my tiring determination once again and kept walking. But in my worries I had failed to pay close enough attention to my footwork. Instead of tiny steps I had lapsed into my more comfortable lope and suddenly I slipped. My right foot raced to the side and my right hip instinctively pirouetted an instantaneous 90 degrees. My left foot shifted into a new position while my left knee flexed and tightened. My back arched forward like an amateur tight-rope-walker hovering over the abyss. Miraculously I remained standing.

And then I started to laugh out loud. How foolish I must have looked, flailing my body around in jocular abandon. But it didn't matter. The black plastic hood of my jacket was cinched tight around my head. I was certain that nobody could recognize me.

So I continued to laugh and walk and sniffle with joy, imagining how happy I would be to find a friendly book.

And so it was I found my favorite Texas store - humble though it is. And it was open, while most of the neighboring windows were dark. In the Natural History section I found an expensive cricket book for a song. I found Ernst Mayr's last book for a couple of dollars. In the regional section I found the essays I'd been looking for (for years) at a reasonable price. And then the cashier announced that because of bad weather, the store would be closing soon. I couldn't help believe that they had remained open just for me.

But now I had a problem I hadn't previously considered. I had a bag of books; no gloves and a long way still to go. Now if I fell, I would have to decide what to do with my hands. I could use them to break my fall (thus dropping the bag) or I could hold on to my package and deal with the bruises. In the end I couldn't make up my mind - and, in fact, it made no difference. I still had to start walking.

At the first crosswalk from the store I noticed an old beat-up truck spinning its tires. A middle-aged woman was pushing it from the back and her young friend was driving and cursing in the front seat. They had been out rummaging for discarded metal to recycle and got a flat tire. I helped them push their vehicle on to flat ground where the jack could be maneuvered without sliding. It wasn't easy pushing it on ice. Not until I found a foot grip on the curb did we make any progress. After managing as best we could I bid them a hearty "good luck" while silently hoping they weren't out on darker errands - along streets of abandoned shops.

The cloudy day was now turning into a cloudy dusk. Only a couple of cars were left in the vast acreage of a mall's parking lot. I moved along in controlled slides and then found a covered parking area with no ice. There was a cold breeze funneling through but the dry ground was a dream-come-true. I felt like walking around in circles to get the full benefit of secure footing but finally convinced myself that this was a waste of energy. And so I worked my way back to the snow and the tiny careful steps. There were still thousands to take - one after another - soon becoming a habit. Finally I was back before the hotel where I had fallen. On the ground was my candy bar - now frozen but untouched and intact. My cheeks were as ruddy as ever and my hands and arms were locked into a book-embracing rigor. But all was well. I pulled the hood off my head, breathed in the freezing air and walked anticlimactically into the lobby: a silent successful adventurer.

Some of my colleagues were standing around in idle chitchat. I nodded their way and smiled, feeling somehow above such sybaritic comforts. But then again, in a matter of minutes I would be in a warm bed reading.

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