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into the loop, more of a page in the telephone book

Pandora’s Box

  1. A dark afternoon with summer thunder in the sky. The fan-shaped skyscrapers spread a checkerboard of window lights through the gloom. It rains. People seem to grow vaguely elate on the dark wet pavements. They hurry along, their eyes saying to one another, “We have something in common. We are all getting wet in the rain.” The crowd is no longer quite so enigmatic a stranger to itself. An errand boy from Market Street advances with leaps through the downpour, a high chant on his lips, “It’s raining . . . . it’s raining.” The rain mutters and the pavements, like darkened mirrors, grow alive with impressionistic cartoons of the city.
  2. Inside the Washington Street book store of Covici-McGee the electric lights gleam cozily. New books and old books — the high shelves stuffed with books vanish in the ceiling shadows. On a rainy day the dusty army of books peers coaxingly from the shelves. Old tales, old myths, old wars, old dreams begin to chatter softly in the shadows — or it may be the chatter of the rain on the pavement outside. The Great Philosophers unbend, the Bearded Classics sigh, the Pontifical Critics of Life murmur “ahem.” Yes, even the forbidding works of Standard Authors grow lonely on the high shelves on a rainy day. As for the rag-tag , ruffle-snuffle crowd in motley — the bulged, spavined, sniffling crew of mountebanks, troubadours, swashbucklers, bleary philosophers, phantasts and adventurers — they set up a veritable witches’ chorus. Or it may be the rain again lashing against the streaming windows of the book store.
  3. People come in out of the rain. A girl without an umbrella, her face wet. Who? Perhaps a stenographer hunting a job and halted by the rain. And then a matron with an old-fashioned knitted shopping bag. And a spinster with a keen, kindly face. Others, too. They stand nervously idle, feeling that they are taking up valuable space in an industrial establishment and should perhaps make a purchase. So they permit their eyes to drift politely toward the wares. And then the chatter of the books has them. Old books, new books, live books, dead books — but they move carelessly away and toward the bargain tables — “All Books 30 Cents.” Broken down best sellers here — pausing in their gavotte toward oblivion. The next step is the junk man — $1 a hundred. Pembertons, Wrights, Farnols, Websters, Johnstones, Porters, Wards and a hundred other names reminiscent more of a page in the telephone book than a page out of a literary yesterday. The little gavotte is an old dance in the second-hand book store. The $2-shelf. The $1-rack. The 75-cent table. The 30-cent grab counter. And finis. New scribblings crowd for place, old scribblings exeunt.
  4. The girl without an umbrella studies titles. A love story, of course, and only thirty cents. An opened page reads, “he took her in his arms...” Who would not buy such a book on a rainy day?
  5. It rains and other people come in. A middle-aged man in a curious coat, a curious hat and and a curious face. Slate-colored skin, slate-colored eyes behind silver spectacles. A scholar in caricature, an Old Clothes Dealer out of Alice in Wonderland. The rain runs from his stringy, slat-colored hair. He approaches the high shelves, thrusts the silver spectacles further down on his nose. In front of him a curious row of literary gargoyles — “The Astral Light,” “What and Where Is God?”, “Man” by Dohony of Texas, “The Star of the Magi.”
  6. Thin slate-colored fingers fumble nervously over the title backs. A second man, figure short, squat, red-faced, crowds the erratic scholar. A third. The rain is bringing them in in numbers. These are the basement students of the gargoyle philosophies, the gargoyle sciences, the gargoyle religions. Perpetual motion machine inventors, alchemists with staring, nervous-eyed medieval faces, fourth dimensionists, sun worshippers, cabalistic researchers, voodoo authorities — the old-book store is suddenly alive with them. They move about furtively with no word for one another, lost in their grotesque dreamings.
  7. On a rainy day the city gives them up and they come puttering excitedly into the loop on a quest. The world is a garish unreality to them. The streets and the crowds of automatic-faced men and women, the upward rush of buildings and the horizontal rush of traffic are no more than vague grimacings. Life is something of which the streets are oblivious. But here on the gargoyle shelves, the high, shadowed shelves of the old book store — truth stands in all its terrible reality, wrapped in its authentic habiliments. Dr. Hickson of the psychopathic laboratory would give these curious rainy day phantasts identities as weird as the volumes they caress. But the old book store clerk is more kind. He lets them rummage. Before the rain ends they will buy “The Cradle of the Giants,” “The Key to Satanism,” “Cornelius Agrippa’s “Natural Magic,” “The Astral Chord,” “Occultism and Its Usages.” They will buy books by Jacob Boehme, William Law, Sadler, Hyslop, Ramachaska. And they will go hurrying home with their treasures pressed close to them. Stuffy bedrooms lined with hints of Sabbatical horror, strewn with bizarre refuse; musty smelling books out of whose pages fantastic shapes rear themselves against the gaslights, macabre worlds in which unreason rides like a headless D’Artagnan; evenings in the park arguing suddenly with startled strangers on the existence of the philosophers’ stone or the astrological causes of influenza — these form a background for the curious men whom the rain has drifted into the old book store and who stand with their eyes haunting the gargoyle titles.
  8. The rain brings in another tribesman — a famed though somewhat ragged bibliomaniac. His casual gestures hide the sudden fever old books kindle in his thought. Old books — old books, a magical phrase to him. His eyes travel like a lover’s back and forth, up and down. He knows them all — the sets, the first editions, the bargains, the riff-raff. A democratic lover is here. But the clerk watches him. For this lover is an antagonist. Yes, this somewhat ragged, gleaming-eyed gentleman with the casual manner is a terrible person to have around in a second-hand book store on a rainy day. Only six months ago one of his horrible tribe pounced upon Sander’s “Indian Wars,” price 30 cents; value, alas, $150.00. Only two months ago another of his kidney fell upon a copy of Jean Jacques Rosseau’s “Emile” with Jean’s own dedication on the title page to “His Majesty, the King of France.” Price 75 cents; value, gadzooks, $200.
  9. There will be nothing today, however. Merely an hour’s caress of old friends on the high shelves while the rain beats outside. Unless — unless this Stevenson happens by any chance to be a “first.” A furtive glance at the title page. No. The clerk sighs with relief as the Stevenson goes back on the shelf. It might have been something overlooked.
  10. The rain ends. The old book store slowly empties. A troop of men and women saunter out, pausing to say farewell to the gaudily ragged tomes in the old book store. The sky has grown lighter. The buildings shake the last drops of rain from their spatula tops. There is a different-looking, well-linened gentleman thrusts his head into the old book store and inquires, “Have you a copy of ‘The Investors’ Guide’?”

Ben Hecht, “Pandora’s Box,” in his A Thousand and One Afternoons in Chicago, Design and illustrations by Herman Rosse (Chicago: Covici-McGee, 1922) : 273-296 (275)
Harvard copy/scan (via google books) : link
several copies via hathitrust : link

Ben Hecht (1893-1962)
wikipedia : link

Paragraphs not numerated in original publication.

19 November 2023