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San Francisco

The Book
"It's a book," I said. "Let me keep my goddam book."

September 18, 2003
The Iranian

Coming home from the Mission District of San Francisco one night, I was stopped by two fellows on the street and accosted for my money. They were two young fellows and they looked more scared than me. I guess I am being mugged, I thought. All right, I thought, I'll try to follow the procedure. I had lived in the city for nearly two years and I was used to people asking me for money. It happened often in the neighborhood where I lived and in other parts of the city as well. It did not seem like too different a thing from that. Sometimes you were asked and sometimes it was taken. It was certainly unjust, but I couldn't imagine someone doing either the asking or the taking unless they needed to.

They took the fifteen dollars I had and I asked if I could keep my wallet and they dropped it on the ground. One of them saw that I had a bulge in my pocket and he asked me what I had there. It was an old little paperback that I had bought at a used-book store on Valencia Street. I had gone out into the city and I had not had a friend to talk with or a girl to walk along with, but I had found a previously unknown book by a writer whom I loved. It was good enough for me.

A book like that was the world. I knew only a few people in the city. I had a hundred friends but they were all under the age of thirteen, the kids at the school where I worked. But a book like that helped me to rest assured that everything was going in a good direction, that a night out in the city by myself and all the people I saw along the way, the ones laughing in restaurants and the ones sitting on the bus and the ones sitting on the street without any place to go, and a walk in the morning through a poor neighborhood and the kids at the school and the feeling that the time there gave me, the one that I wondered if I would ever be able to explain to anybody, I would rest assured that all of it would come to something in the end. That was how it was with a book.

I looked up at the fellow who had said it. "It's a book," I said. "Let me keep my goddam book."

I had not cared about the money. I had earned it but there were probably some advantages I had had in life that had made me the one with the job and them the ones stealing. But I was prepared to fight them for the book. They did not know what it was to me. They didn't know that I was a guy who could sometimes feel like I didn't have much in this city, but that reading a book I could feel like I had everything.

Well, they didn't give two figs that I had a book in my pocket. Literature was not one of their immediate concerns. They walked off, counting my money, and they turned into an alley. There was nothing to do but walk up the street to the bus stop. I was pretty glad that I still had the book. I pulled it out of my pocket and looked at it. It smelled old and good. I looked through it and read enough to know that the main idea in it was that life was really something, which was a main idea that I agreed with. I supposed that being mugged fell under that too.

I got on the bus and sitting among the people, I felt foolish to have gotten worked up about the book. I remembered how the two fellows had looked at me puzzledly just then. But at the same time, it was the foolishness that was me. It was the foolishness of a man out in the city by himself again. It was the foolishness of a man leaving his home and his family and coming to the city and looking all over for something and in the end finding it more than anywhere else in books. In that way it was not foolish at all.

I came home and before going to bed I read the first story in the book. It was just as I'd expected. The story smoothed out the night. The incident was nothing but an incident, and I was interested in it as that. I told myself that I should still call the police tomorrow because it was good for them to know that such things were occurring and to know where they were occurring. It smoothed out the night and everything else, and I was happy to fall into the soft night of sleep again, and eager for another morning of looking at the world with open eyes, all of it that it was possible for one man to see.

Do you want to know the name of the book I bought that night? It was 31 Selected Stories from Inhale and Exhale, by William Saroyan (Books for Libraries, 1972). It was a very good book, and I would be happy to lend it to anybody.
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