Photograph taken by Barbara Schmidt, 2010
Clouds of frost crept up from the base of my windshield; I could barely see above the clustering haze. Luckily, my defrost kicked in just in time--partially so I could drive safely, but mostly so I could see him.
I would have pulled over to snap a photograph, but the street bit narrowly around the bend, and I could sense the rush of cars around me. And so I kept driving. I kept plugging along at the appropriate pace, but instead of deep-sighing at red lights and propelling myself from stop sign to stop sign through sudden bursts of speed and hard stomps on the break, I turned down inconvenient roads, and casually meandered through neighborhoods, relishing the pure joy of seeing a man walk down the street--nose to a book--stumbling over elevated ridges on the sidewalk. The mere sight of his pure indulgence sent a smile fulgurating from the seams of my mouth; I've waited for this moment for nine years.
This is the first Ohio man--or woman--whom I've seen reading in an odd public place. People in Ohio read in libraries, schools, parks and coffee shops; however, I have never once seen someone I don't know reading somewhere unusual--in their car while in traffic, at the mall, in line at the BMV--or while walking down the street at 5pm on a wintery, Wednesday afternoon.
I didn't recognize how rare that was until six months after I moved from New York City back to Columbus. In the heat of summer--on some poorly advertised holiday parade day--I found myself buried in a traffic jam and I pulled out a book. Shortly into my venture, a police office knuckled my window. I could hardly hear his voice above the cacophonic symphony engulfing me--honks, shouts, music, cheers--but I turned my head mid-sentence, while my car rested in park, my knees pressed against the steering wheel, and Ayn's Rand's Fountainhead weighed heavy in my fingers.
"Excuse me, miss," the officer said. His words were muffled by the glass and distorted by the noise around me, nevertheless, I turned the keys in my ignition, and rolled down the window.
"Excuse me, but what are you doing?" he continued now that nothing separated us but air.
"I'm reading, sir," I replied, knowing perfectly well my activities had to be quite obvious.
His jaw sunk a little and his face fell to the right.
"Why would you be reading? You're driving," he said, more befuddled than angry. It seemed quite logical to me though. I couldn't turn around, I couldn't go forward, and I saw no reason to explode with anger--like all of the other drivers around me. Instead of letting it ruin my day, I figured I would read.
"Well, I haven't moved for ten minutes, sir. This parade seems a bit long, and I have a good book. Is it against the law for me to be reading right now?"
"I guess not--since your car is in park. You don't do that while you're driving, do you?"
"Of course not," I said. Then he spun on his heels and slowly wobbled away, as dumbfounded by the situation as I was--but for different reasons.
Refusing to let the interruption squander anymore of my precious time, I continued to read until the parade passed. Then I spent the next nine years waiting to see someone--in some "odd" place--clutch a book and bury their brain in thought. I started looking for it--everywhere. When I took continuing education classes at Ohio State, I gazed around the bus stop; never once did I see anyone reading. They didn't read on the bus itself either. I paid attention to restaurants and bars. No one pulled out a book while they were waiting for their date or their friends or their family. And I most certainly have never caught anyone walking down the street, lost in sentences and thought.
These were all common indulgences in New York though. In fact, I persistently found myself in the company of public readers, people aiming to extract every ounce out of time otherwise wasted in waiting. No one here seems to do the same. It could be largely because we don't commute to the same degree as New Yorkers or it could be because reading lost its sense of cool. Regardless of the reason, I, too, have fallen victim to the absence of books. The longer I live here, the less I find myself toting a treasure.
Today though, on Mark Twain's birthday, some random, middle-aged man tripping down Tremont Road managed to remind me how positively brilliant it is to slip away. How positively brilliant it is to bump into someone because you are so utterly lost in a story or a thought that you don't even notice them in front of you. How positively brilliant it is to embrace Twain's assertion that "life does not consist mainly--or even largely--of facts and happenings. It consists mainly of the storm of thoughts that is forever blowing through one's head."
I put a book in my purse for tomorrow, and no, it isn't To Kill A Mockingbird or Beowulf, the two books I'm currently teaching in school. It's the book I never got to finish on my honeymoon, and haven't had the time to pick back up. I might not have too many moments to get to it before Christmas break, but I'll have it with me just in case I do.