I knocked on the manager’s office door. The voice said, “It’s open,” so I walked in.
I was a teenager, unattractive, and a little unkempt. I looked about as fitting in this franchise bookstore as a muddy goat at a wedding.
Also, I was an introvert, which made job interviews almost as hard as it was talking to girls. The only way to know if an introvert boy is romantically interested in you is whether he looks at your shoes instead of his.
“Yes?” the bookstore manager said. “What can I do for you?”
“I’m here about the, ah, job.”
The man put on his glasses and looked at me. “YOU?”
His exact words.
The manager gave me a belittling smirk. I could read his mind. In his eyes I was white trash. I could tell by the look on his face that this was going to be the interview from hell.
I handed him my application; that little sheet of paper that devalues your entire life into pathetic, one-word responses.
My application was garbage. At age 17 I was a dropout. I had only ever worked grunt jobs, swinging hammers or salting French fries. I had shaggy hair and wrinkled clothes. I was wearing a button-down shirt bought from a local thrift store.
In fact, I was such a regular at my local thrift store that store employees knew me by name and often gave me free stuff. Usually, they gave me free books. Mountains of free books. They knew I was a lover of the printed word. Books were all I had. Books were my closest friends.
“So why do YOU want to work in a bookstore?” the manager said.
“Um,” I began. “‘Cause I heard you give discounts on books.”
He tossed my application into a tray and laughed. “You must be really into comic books, huh?”
“Your application says you dropped out of school.”
I observed my shoes. Chuck Taylors. Black, with scuffed toe covers. American classics. I would have told him why I’d dropped out, but something told me he wouldn’t have understood.
“Yessir,” I said. “But I’m a very hard worker.”
He interlaced his hands behind his head and leaned backward in his chair. The signature move of a man on a middle-management power trip.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I can’t hire a dropout.”
Somehow I doubted that he was sorry.
“Our customers are BOOK readers,” he went on, twisting the knife. “Do you understand where I’m coming from here? We sell BOOKS. Big books, with lots of words. I’m sorry, but I have to hire someone who is at least… Literate.”
The interview ended. We stood. He did not offer to shake my hand.
As I was leaving, I opened my mouth to say something. I wanted to be clever. I wanted to quote some famous Shakespearean sonnet, or to rattle off a few words from a famous poet, just to let this man know I was not nothing. I was not refuse. I was not worthless. I knew stuff. I was literate.
But all I said was, “Have a nice day, sir.”
And I left.
That was a few decades ago.
Yesterday I walked through the front doors of that same bookstore. I was greeted by a book display in the center aisle. I recognized the author’s name on the dust jacket. I lifted one of these books into my hand. My skin turned into gooseflesh when I saw my own photograph printed on the back. And I wept.
After wandering through the store for several minutes, I made my purchase at the counter. My cashier’s nametag read STORE MANAGER. She was a young woman with blue spiked hair and a friendly smile. She rang me up.
I handed her my cash. Then, I cleared my throat and said:
“Let me not to the marriage of true minds
“Admit impediments. Love is not love
“Which alters when it alteration finds,
“Or bends with the remover to remove.
“O no, it is an ever-fixed mark
“That looks on tempests and is never shaken…”
The woman furrowed her brow, then smiled. “Um… Okay?”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “But I’ve been waiting 23 years to say that to the manager of this store.”
“Why?” she asked.
“Because I am not white trash,” I said.