Sunday, October 16, 2011

Pete's ghosts

I saw this article in a local magazine, a giveaway I found at a local market. To say that the subject of the piece, Pete, is a colorful character hardly tells the story. I did business with Pete over 30 years ago during one of my forays into bookselling as a part-time career.

Read the short article:

Pete's grandfather, Earl, started the bookstore in downtown Salt Lake City, Utah as a family business. Pete has worked there since he was a child. Before I had personal business with Pete I was a customer of their store. During the mid-1960s his grandfather and Pete's dad, Earl Jr., worked there together. They both smoked a lot. Before the Clean Air Act walking into their store meant stepping into a miasma of tobacco smoke. For a long time after buying a book or magazine in that store the stink of smoke remained with it.

While looking at books one Saturday afternoon in 1964 I heard old man Earl holler, "Good god a'mighty, looka that!" I saw through the store window an interracial couple, black man, white woman, strolling by. Earl shouted, "A n-----r walking down the street big as life, with a WHITE WOMAN!" I was stunned for a moment, especially when he said, "She's just as bad as him!" I half-expected to see him whip out a white sheet and hood and charge up the street after the offending couple. The moment passed and he calmed himself.

Twenty years later--a more enlightened era, I hoped--I mentioned that incident to Pete. He said, "Oh yeah, my grandpa was prejudiced against n-----s. Me too. I had some n----r come in my store once and I ran him out. I told him right out, 'I'm prejudiced against you n-----s, and don't want you in here.' So he left. Good." He said it so matter-of-fact that once again, as I was during the 1964 incident, stunned into silence.

I went to Pete's house once to buy some used books in bulk. His house was old and small. It was full of boxes of books, with no room to sit. Pete and his wife watched TV while sitting on the floor in front of the set. After transacting our business I didn't see him for a couple of years. Pete told me then his wife had divorced him and he'd been in and out of the hospital several times. He would get drunk and attempt suicide. He showed me rope-like scars on his arms from carving them up with broken beer bottles. He told me the same paramedics usually took him to the emergency room and one of them, exasperated, asked, "Pete, what are we gonna do with you?"

"I just miss that girl so much," he told me. Pete had a tendency to exaggerate, but based on the scars I saw, not that time.

Pete was a trickster. He used to "autograph" books. If he had a Kurt Vonnegut book come in he might get mischief in him and "sign" the author's name on the title page, then watch as a browser picked up the book. The customer would bring it to him with trembling hands. Pete would be laughing to himself. Forgery got him the sale. Pete thought it was funny.

It's been at least 25 years since I saw Pete in person. Now I know from the article he's still living, unlike the ghosts he claims are in his store. I barely recognized the old man in the photo as being the Pete I'd known decades ago. He now looks as crusty and cantankerous as his grandfather did in the 1960s.


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