Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Jane Austen on the Haight-Noriega Bus

A friend sent me this cartoon a few months ago, saying "this woman IS you," and never have I felt so seen and so called-out.

 An Account of the Perturbations that may Befall a Young Lady 
who reads Classic Literature on a Public Conveyance

After the young lady had stood strap-hanging for far too long for comfort, a pair of seats on the omnibus became available when the conveyance made its arranged stop at the busy but unpropitious intersection of Haight-street and Stanyan. Fortunate chance! With alacrity she hurried to sit—making sure only to occupy one seat, the window-most, for to take up both would be most discourteous—though indeed she was burdened with possessions: a Handbag, and a Laptop-computer.

No sooner had she caught her breath than a young man sat down next to her: a shaggy-haired fellow, in wool trousers cut off at the knees and with the reek of something herbal about his person. He too was laden down; he bore several brown paper bags from Whole-foods, though in truth his appearance did little to suggest that he frequented this most costly of grocers.

The young man (for that I must call him, being most uncertain as to whether he was entitled to the rank of gentleman) apologized to the young lady for taking the vacant seat, saying “I have to sit here to make room.” The young lady merely nodded her acknowledgement. Indeed it is courteous and gentlemanlike to sit in a vacant seat rather than to stand in the aisle, yet it is not a gesture that needs verbal acknowledgement on the part of the lady, nor apology on the part of the gentleman. It is simply good manners, yet to boast of one’s good manners in the guise of a “humbly-bragging” apology is no manners at all.

The young lady continued to peruse her book, the delightful and instructive Emma. The young man retrieved a container of “boxed-water” from one of his shopping bags and proceeded to guzzle down many swigs of it directly from the carton.

After some time the young man attempted to gain the young lady’s attention. He peered intently at the back cover of her book (for this was the cover nearest to him) as well as at the bookmark she clutched between her fingers. The young lady readied herself to be addressed, and a slight hope rose in her breast that despite the man’s infelicitous appearance, he might prove a pleasant conversationalist on the subject of classic literature.

But she found herself perplexed at his opening salvo: “Will you trade that book in after you’re done with it?”

“No, thank you,” she said, with a slight frown.

“It’s because of that bookmark—it says Buy, Sell, Trade.”

“Ah,” said the young lady. Curt her response may have been, but his words led her thoughts on a series of sad reflections. “Great Overland Books—Buy, Sell, Trade!” How many delightful hours she had spent in that cluttered bookshop with its creaky stairs, its white-bearded proprietor who had once written letters to the great Samuel Beckett! And now the Great Overland was soon to shut its doors forever—the sign for its going-out-of-business sale was displayed in the window. She had not yet been able to work up the emotional fortitude to enter the bookshop for the final time and say goodbye.

As she engaged in these melancholy reflections, the young man persisted: “Did you trade something else for it?”


“Did you buy it new?”

Such interest in how she had chosen to outlay her money on this Penguin Classics paperback! “Yes. The bookmark is from something else—it did not come with the book—I had it lying around.”

The subject of how the young lady had bought the book being exhausted, and the subject of Miss Austen’s writing obviously not being to his interest, the young man attempted to redirect the conversation: “Have you ever read Crime and Punishment?”

“No,” said the young lady, with a slight chuckle to herself. Really, what was it with would-be suitors and Dostoevsky? The first young man who had courted her (who turned out a cad and a bounder, but no matter) had insisted that she ought to read The Brothers Karamazov. But despite the urgings of first love, over ten years had gone by and she had never read a word of this bleakest of Russian novelists.

“It’s a bit thicker than that one there,” the young man said boastfully. As though thickness were the ultimate measure of a book, and more valor accrued to he who reads Dostoevsky’s thick tale of a murderer than to she who reads Austen’s slimmer and more domestic volumes! With a slight irritation in her voice, the young lady replied, “Well, this isn’t the thickest book I’ve ever read, or anything.”

Satisfied in having gotten the last word, the young lady was also satisfied in being spared any further discourse: the young man reached his stop and descended with his bags, leaving behind only a sharp, herbal scent that irritated her nostrils as his conversation had irritated her mind.

1 comment:

GP3K said...

This would make a good scene in a Whit Stillman movie.