In September 2011 I got offered a three-month freelance gig at Random House Books. I make my living as a writer and artist and my income has highs and lows. I was in the thick of a low when this gig came from nowhere, a true gift from above.
I hadn't worked for anyone in 20 years and had never worked in book publishing. My last job had been at Business Week Magazine as an assistant art director, a job I made part time then no time once I started exhibiting. This job was in the cookbook division, working on a new networking site centered around cooking. The website was in the test phase and I would be comparing print cookbooks to their digital versions. Any error, whether font or image or style or a 1/4 teaspoon that should be a 1/2, I would submit to be fixed.
My first week there I barely looked up. There were 8 freelancers and we were divvied between Mac and Microsoft to make sure the domain worked on both platforms. I got Microsoft, a foreign territory, and this mixed with publishing language, style sheets and the website itself made my focus absolute.
My second week there I was starting to get comfortable and while pondering lunch a fellow freelancer came in, wild eyed, carrying piles of books. She dropped the books on her desk and whispered, "They're free." Free? Heat started working its way up my face. She nodded. "5 floors are moving. Editors are cleaning out their offices and whatever they don't want go in red bookcases." My dignity and cool -- free books! -- chucked their dignity and cool and I quickly stood. I was going on a book run.
We hurried out of our office, then immediately slowed as we walked past offices, cubicles, conference rooms. I had a nonchalant smile pasted on, casual, calm, hello I live with ease. On the elevator my co-worker hit the button for 17 and our ID's got us through electronic doors. We entered the massive floor and my heart started hammering - there were red bookshelves everywhere. I took a second to case the floor and headed toward the back.
On the first red bookshelf I found PRIDE AND PREJUDICE by Jane Austin and PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES by Seth Grahame-Smith. Pluck pluck, my pile started. I added BRINGING OUT THE DEAD by Joe Connelly and SPARTINA by John Casey. OLIVE KITTERIDGE by Elizabeth Strout and A GATE AT THE STAIRS by Lorrie Moore. I love my job! TELL-ALL by Chuck Palahniuk, LAY THE FAVORITE by Beth Raymer, ROBOPOCALYPSE by Daniel H. Wilson, Claire Messud's THE EMPEROR'S CHILDREN - these were hard cover first editions! Kate Christensen and Jonathan Tropper were piled on Tim O'Brien who was sitting on SUNDAY SUPPERS AT LUCQUES by Suzane Goin.
I looked around at empty boxes, but knew they were for editors. Living with spiritual principles means no stealing so I grabbed my load, told my co-worker I was heading back - she had a Picasso book by John Richardson! How did I miss that?! Oh my God was there another?! - and took the stairs down. My office had walls of empty bookshelves and I dumped my load then headed for the elevator. It was lunch time. I was on lunch.
A week later I had filled 12 bookshelves. The free books sitting idly 10 floors above had become an obsession, one I was coming in early for, leaving late for, not taking lunch for. And then I heard that Judith Jones, the editor for Julia Child, Madhur Jaffery, John Updike - the woman who wrote MY LIFE IN FOOD and had discovered THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK - had emptied her office, and my eyes rolled back and a full book seizure hit: I had to get up there. Right now.
I love to read and I love to cook and it means something to have THE BREAKFAST BOOK by Marion Cunningham with what might be Judith Jones's 'what the - ?' notes and corrections sprinkled throughout. I wasn't just grabbing to grab, but knew I was heading toward the shitter when one afternoon - by this point I was taking the stairs since I couldn't wait for the elevator - I got stuck in a stairwell, unable to enter a door I had gone through the day before. The move had begun and, panic rising, it took 15 floors of trying doors before I was able to enter a floor. Despite this, my fix was only brought under control when the move finished and the red bookcases disappeared.
Post move I wandered to the new floors and discovered that each floor had a shelf, sometimes a bookcase, that held free books. By now I was out of shelf space at home and roamed mostly to step away from the computer and clear my head. When the freelance job ended I was glad to be back home, though I would still twitch for those red shelves. When I get the itch now I glance over at THE DIVE FROM CLAUSEN'S PIER by Ann Packer, THE PESTHOUSE by Jim Crace, READING LOLITA IN TEHRAN by Azar Nafisi and THE COOKBOOK COLLECTOR by Allegra Goodman. They're books I've yet to read and they take the twitch away. Just for today.