Friday, March 14, 2008

“Ten Cent Testimonial”

c. 2008 Rod Ice
All rights reserved

Wal-Mart holds the template for modern retailing.

With good effect or bad, the discount giant has provided an example that is being echoed across the industry.

Yet in yonder days, there were different ideas of how to vend consumer goods. Other places to shop - with a diversity of styles that matched their varieties of merchandise for sale.

Like the old Woolworth’s on Water Street, in Chardon.

This bygone place provided a unique shopping experience, with racks of oddball items that were colorful, tempting, and out-of-the-mainstream. Offered was a last, glorious breath of Consumer Americana, unspoiled by modernity. Because of their notable in-store snack bar, one could enjoy the company of a bustling crowd, particularly during lunch-hour activity. Reflecting on shopping conquest was easy over a grilled sandwich with Cole slaw and fries.

Still, for this writer, Woolworth’s greatest asset came from something more – its tantalizing selection of ten-cent books.

In the summer of 1984, I discovered printed relics of all sorts at Woolie’s. Curious and arcane material remained plentiful in their inventory. A newsprint copy of the Patty Hearst kidnapping story surfaced during one productive visit, for example. Funds for such exploration were in short supply, so I relished the opportunity to buy without breaking my budget.

One hardcover tome from that buying season was particularly fascinating – a book called Proceedings of the Rabble by Mark Mirsky. An air of mystery seemed to exude from its pages with each reading. It was a hippie novel of particular distinction.

The volume had been published by Bobbs-Merrill in 1970. A dust-jacket synopsis spoke of the story as being a fulfillment of satirical work by eighteenth-century writer Jonathan Swift. Unfortunately, meaningful information about the author was non-existent. I could only guess about his true identity.

The story itself opened with cryptic prose from another, less inhibited era:

“Yes, everybody loves a parade. Don’t you? All kinds, too. Let me hear the cry of the horn, the shrill of the pipes, the bugles blaring, stirring the brass in my head! Ah, I could march off and murder millions. Small towns, cities, wherever the procession starts, there am I. Even at its most ludicrous, in some God-forsaken village of our country as it comes by the dozen or so citizens gathered on the road, there is the distant echo of the great march, its terror.”

I was struck with the feeling that Mirsky would have been better served by joining a Rock ‘n’ Roll band to express his youthful angst. It seemed likely that he had augmented his creative powers with hallucinogenic compounds, or intense bursts of alcohol therapy. Still, the manuscript provided an entertaining snapshot of cultural rebellion:

“It was undeniable that only one organization was putting on a parade worth being in, that strange unfathomable group, the Continentals. Suddenly, their black uniforms seemed to be everywhere. On the surface there was nothing to really frighten you away: the usual potpourri of patriotic oratory and military paraphernalia. It wasn’t hard to attend one of their scheduled meetings, salute the old red, white and blue (along with their black) and sign up to march. Still, there was something going on underneath. A kind of magic that had gone stale in the old organizations, the Masons, Kiwanis, Odd Fellows, Lions, something to really set you tingling… none of the hocus-pocus finger flipping and handshaking, but the real thing. Know what I mean?”

My silent response to the author’s question was of course – no. I had no idea what kind of statement Mirsky was attempting to make with his tale. But it didn’t matter.

Eventually, the book found a home with other artifacts from the period, in a battered, green footlocker. The large container had been my only source of continuity while moving from place to place as a young drifter in New York. As life continued, the boxed collection was forgotten. Until…

Recently, I re-discovered this time capsule, while moving household furniture. After skimming through newspapers and diary notes, I found Proceedings of the Rabble again. The book fell open to a description of the Continentals’ leader, Commander Star:

“William Star, his shadow fell across the sunny day. The Commander of the Continentals was not in the parade. He had not attended one of them. Star was rarely seen in public, anonymous behind his dark glasses. He was known to show up, unannounced, at small meetings. Suddenly the lights would dim, red candles were lit and in the flickering atmosphere he stepped out to say a few words to startled members. One heard differing reports of these appearances. He made an astonishing impression, but the purport of his speech was hard to make out. His men were mesmerized. They could remember a few phrases… Yet all maintained they had been deeply moved and sworn absolute loyalty to his principles.”

The rambling prose made me smile. But puzzlement remained after years of intellectual neglect – who was Mark Mirsky?

Through a quick Internet search, I learned that he was Professor of English at City College of New York. Born in 1939, he attended both Harvard University in Massachusetts, and Stanford University in California. His books were numerous, including non-fiction studies of Austrian writer Robert Musil, and William Shakespeare. His wordsmithing also included works such as Thou Worm Jacob, Blue Hill Avenue, and The Red Adam. He co-founded Fiction Magazine.

Rabble had been his second novel:

“Circus! Circus! Circus! Everyone out of the way. Make room. A world is dashing in. Here come the tigers, lions, elephants, huge gray beasts, striped cats, roaring kings and queens, all stampeding through acres of sticky pink sugar candy, clouds of it billowing in the dust of the arena…Sideshows, shills, freaks, what are they doing here? Is this a child’s entertainment? What is going on? Why bring the little ones to a spectacle where they are continually shrieking with fear or gaping, amazed, encouraged, at the forbidding sights, the grotesques… why bring them then through alleys filled with freaks, monsters, misshapen horrors?”

Some of us common folk might have been tempted to ask – ‘Why make them read this book?’ Yet such a reaction could be viewed as rude… and unsophisticated.

Upon investigation, the author’s credentials were undeniably impressive. Mirsky had become a celebrated figure amongst the intelligentsia. His status as a scribe beloved by philosophers and literary experts was solid.

Still, my own conclusion remains as it was in 1984… ‘Dude, you should’ve joined a Rock ‘n’ Roll band!’

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