Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Five Meetings With Philip Roth

From September 1993 – January 1995 I worked in the fiction section of the Barnes and Noble at 82nd and Broadway on the Upper West Side of New York. There were quite a few authors who lived in that neighbourhood in that time but the one I remember most vividly is Philip Roth whom I met five times in the mundane capacity of book seller and customer. According to my journal this is how those encounters went. Warning – mundane is the operative word here.

1. My friend Scott tells me that Philip Roth is at the Information Desk. We approach and ask if he needs any help. He asks if either of us is the manager. We say no. He asks if there’s a policy about which books get “faced out” on the shelves and which books are placed there spine only. We say there is no such policy and Scott asks if he would like his books to be faced out? He says that we must be mind readers. We face out all the Philip Roth books and Roth grins like we've pulled off a heist or something which is charming. 

2. Philip Roth comes in and asks me if we carry A Dead Man In Deptford by Anthony Burgess. We certainly do I tell him but when I look on the shelves it’s not there. I offer to special order it for him but he declines. He stands there awkwardly for a few seconds and I tell him that a lot of people have been buying Operation Shylock. He thinks I’m pulling his leg but I’m not, it’s been selling really well. Roth seems pleased about this. Scott tells me later that John Updike (Roth’s friend) gave it a bad review in the New Yorker and this (the Upper West Side) is the heart of New Yorker reading country.

3. Roth is talking to a friend of mine in the art department about what happened on Christmas Eve. A woman died in a chair and sat there the whole day dead un-noticed until she was ice cold. I sidle into the conversation and add the macabre detail that they threw a sheet over her and kept selling books (it was the busiest night of the year) until the paramedics came to take her away. 

4. Philip Roth is hanging around the display book table I have set up for St Patrick’s Day. I ask him if he’s interested in any of the books. He asks me if I’ve read Samuel Beckett’s A Dream of Fair to Middling Women. I say that I have. He asks me how it was and I tell him it was ok. He nods dubiously and does not buy it. I wonder if he ever met Samuel Beckett and I want to ask him but I can't summon up the bottle to do it. He drifts away and I curse myself. 

5. Philip Roth has an appointment to see my manager about an event. She’s late because she’s in the ladies room pumping her breasts. I explain this to him. He seems amazed by this information and asks how the breast pump works. I tell him I have no idea. He asks several more questions about the breast pump but I’m unable to answer any of them. (For the next five years or so I scan every new Philip Roth novel for a breast pumping scene but I don’t find one.)