Yesterday, early evening, I went to the Strand Bookstore on 12th Street and Broadway. The store is just slightly overflowing with used and new books presented on tables and in aisles of shelves that almost reach the ceiling, reminding me of a school library. “Eighteen Miles of Books” is their current motto.
Upon entering, noticing there is no longer a bag-check, feeling the size of my stuffed, giant tote bag wedged under my arm and its weight pulling down on my shoulder, I made eye contact with the security guard. A small wave of sheepishness and fear came over me as it always does. Shoplifting was one of my main after school activities during eighth grade until I was nearly caught by The Gap. Still now, fifteen years later, I feel constantly under suspicion while shopping, as if the security guards and clerks can sense that my conscience is not clear.
I put on some trustworthy airs as I passed the guard and only after half a minute of self-conscious browsing could I maneuver the aisles without affectation, as subtle as that affectation might be.
I am always halted by the lone crate of sheet music on a small table jutting slightly out into the main aisle- maybe I’ll find something good in there, because in most kinds of shopping I know what is good and can recognize it, but I must remember to only buy something I’ll really use, something that will not just take up valuable space on my shelf. During the summer I purchased a book from this crate, of Civil War songs for guitar, divided into categories such as Union, Confederacy, Lincoln, Abolitionists, Soldiers’ Songs. At the crate again, I remembered that I still have not finished learning ‘The New York Volunteer’ which unfortunately does not have words.
Flipping through the box past several brand new copies of the songs of Creed, some musicals I’ve never heard of, Liszt for piano, Beatles made easy, some park ranger’s method for guitar, Ah-ha! A big thick heavy paperback book reading Bee Gees on its spine. The Bee Gees, The Beatles and The Beach Boys are all examples of bands whose music, despite its poppiness and catchiness, can be deceptively complex.
I often search the internet for free guitar tablature posted by those who take the time to figure out how to play a song and then share their findings. I owe a lot to the internet and thousands of those people. But, especially with these deceptive songs, the transcriptions often have a chord that sounds off, the interpreter unable to put their finger on that one strange harmony, and I’m not the one to figure it out, either.
I turned over the Bee Gees book, disappointed to see the subtitle ‘Volume 2.” What was I missing? Probably all the good stuff. But scanning the contents it seemed like the work had been divided chronologically- Volume 2 including ‘How Deep is Your Love’, ‘More Than a Woman’, and I’m pretty sure the entire Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. Tempting stuff, but the book was missing the great earlier songs, less likely to be found online. I specifically missed ‘I Started a Joke’ the first song I ever attempted at Karaoke.
For nine dollars plus tax, probably a good buy, but minus an inch and a half of shelf space, and I would probably only really use the music for up to 7 songs. Plus, I am trying to get rid of things. I tucked it under my arm, against the outer side of my tote bag, proud to have chosen a book so big that surely no one would suspect me of attempting to shoplift it. I would carry it around a little and decide later whether to purchase it. Something about its size and price which is steep relative to my current financial situation gave me that familiar, nauseous, claustrophobic feeling of too much consumption, not enough expulsion, creation.
As I made my way upstairs to the art section I held the Bee Gees book in front of me and flipped through it with my thumb for no real reason. At one point the pages jumped and I glimpsed something of a brighter white wedged into the off-white pages of the book. I kept walking a few steps and then gave into my curiosity. On flipping through again I couldn’t find it and it me took several tries to open up to the right spot. I pulled out a white piece of lined notebook paper folded into quarters, covered in fast-written black ballpoint pen.
As I unfolded the paper, I saw words with what seemed to be chord letters above them, a song. I couldn’t make out the title at the top of the page, the style of handwriting somewhat unfamiliar. But as I read the first line I smiled in disbelief. ‘G I started a joke C that started the D whole world crying G Bm C D…’
I looked again to the top of the page and realized this person had an odd way of writing capital ‘J’ and the last two letters of ‘Joke’ were so rushed that they were barely more than one long vertical line followed by a short one. I looked again to the contents of the book to make sure that ‘I Started a Joke’ was not in there- that this wasn’t just evidence of someone copying out a song for a friend or for portability. No, it was not included in Volume 2.
I felt giddy and turned over the found page to find one more missing Bee Gees song, ‘Words’- a good one, but I hadn’t been thinking about it. Turning the page back over I thought, well, here is the one song I really should learn to play. It is rhythmically suited for a mellow singer/guitar-player like myself and within my vocal range, unlike most Bee Gees songs which go too high for me. And it has the perfect combination for my taste of sad but funny.
I looked around wondering if anyone had seen me take the piece of paper out of the book. Was it shoplifting to take something that the store didn’t intend to include in its sale of The Bee Gees music book, and probably didn’t even know was in its inventory? I imagined the gods of morality like D.A. Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston) on Law & Order, would be on my side, if only with a forgiving grin for a mischievous child.
This was perfect. For free, but for the sacrifice of the width of the edge of one piece of paper, I could have one song I would actually perform rather than several I might play in my room a few times for fun. So, it was settled.
I drifted into the aisles of the second floor, out of site, folded the piece of paper back into quarters, held it for a few moments in the hand of the arm not holding the book, so that it was as separate as possible from its secret source, as if it was already mine, something I just took out of my bag to check for a second, and I put it into the small pocket of my tote.
I ditched the Bee Gees book on a re-shelving cart (here, I know I could have been more considerate and returned the book to its crate) so I could browse more freely, and eventually left for the train, still giddy that fate had allowed me to discover this hidden treasure, eager to get home to practice it for my next performance, and wondering if I could possibly shorten this story down to about thirty seconds to include in my between-song banter.