Throughout my high school years, I was fortunate to outsource much of the business of broadening my world.
By this I mean I took many, many walks. There were a few destinations that always reset my mind, gave me hope in a larger world full of opportunities. They were places that contained some glimpse of a life I wanted to be a part of.
Sometimes it was as simple as the color of a house or the glow of a mica-shaded light in a window. Sometimes it was a yard with hibiscuses in bloom, or a peony bush. It was a park, a vegetable stand; a mechanics shed, a health-food store. For about a year, one of these places was a little newsstand (now defunct) called Northside News.
The place shared a doorway and a smell with the next-door cafe. The smell was not unpleasant – just pervasive: smoke, fresh bread and hot grease. Everything in Northside News smelled of it, including the books and papers for sale. After a minute inside, you smelled of it too.
I found three irresistible draws inside Northside News.
The first was the periodicals. They did not have the typical supermarket selection. There were a few glossies – I believe Sports Illustrated and Popular Mechanics made the cut – but generally speaking, they specialized in niche, imported, or otherwise hard-to-find publications.
The ones I was interested in were mostly European. They were printed on heavy, non-gloss paper; either all black-and-white photography, or richly colored illustrations. They only came out two or four times a year, and they were expensive, at $20-$30 an issue.
Alongside the attractions of beautiful illustration and concept-heavy editorials – mostly in languages I couldn’t read – these publications had another draw. They made no pretense of observing American PG standards. They were as close to smut as I had any hopes of getting without having access to some of the more niche publications kept behind the counter. Whoever picked Northside News’s stock had good taste.
The second item of interest was half-hidden at the very back of the store. It was a bookshelf. It was one of those rickety wooden types that, in defiance of both capitalism and the law of cause and effect, has somehow never been new. It looked like it was either rescued from the curb or the dumpster.
The bookshelf’s contents were, appropriately, also rescues: second hand books that were mostly end-of-term castoffs from Butler University’s liberal arts majors. Judging by the unusual concentration of works by Isaac Bashevis Singer and Chaim Potok, at least one of the students had taken a course on Jewish literature. Works by Singer were my particular prize – The Manor; Shosha; Short Friday and Other Stories.
These books were a special part of my introduction to the fantastical. They did not draw from tropes of science fiction or “fantasy” as a genre. Rather, their power arose from equal parts mysticism and the grotesque. They revolved around the irony of conscience in an arbitrary world – a place where either God or the Universe is so distinct from humanity as to remain forever unknowable.
With the exception of Jonathan Swift and some of Mark Twain’s short stories, I am not familiar with another author so successfully ironic. My high school self didn’t know how to express what was going on in these stories, but the imagery and atmosphere was so rich that it nonetheless was a powerful lesson in ambiguity, complexity – understanding how a thing could be two or more ways at once. My religious instruction, while not dogmatic, had not acknowledged the necessity of ambiguity.
There are some faith traditions which thrive on ambiguity. Buddhism is an obvious example; from what I understand, it is predicated upon the idea of “now” rather than “someday.” Closer to my own religious lineage, Celtic Christianity is also heavily associated with the idea of “mystery” – the miraculous union of apparently-opposing aspects through the state of divinity.
For any faith to survive, it must come to grips with ambiguity. Otherwise it devolves into apathy or fanaticism. You can ignore ambiguity, you can try to avoid it – but the only way forward is through it. Repeatedly.
Sex and intellectual growth also require the ability to wrestle with complexity. You can be this and that, you can think this and that; there will always remain the things you haven’t experienced, haven’t thought of; and yet! Somewhere in the midst of all of this neural activity is a creature called “human.” This lively entropy is completely alien to the cause-and-effect, reward-and-punishment system of morality (read: evaluation and decision-making) most of us absorb as children.
After all of the above – you could say ambiguity was the third draw of Northside News. The place was seedy, yet safe enough for a high schooler to enter. It was adult, neighborhood, safe, weird, risque, familiar and an agent of change. It was some sort of edge. It was a faultline in my world of knowledge. It caused upheaval, but it was also inevitable and new – the old story of innocence, impulse, information, and exploration.
Sometimes, when I open a book, I can still smell the place.