Blaize and I don’t go way back, but we go back far enough. I had a bookstore in Portland, Oregon, back before the days of Portlandia, and one of the many services I tried to provide through my store was books to prisoners.
Why would anyone want to provide books to people who have broken the law, you might ask. Let those coddled scofflaws luxuriate in their three hots and a cot, their free health care, their free whatever it is you think incarcerated folks have abundant access to.
Of course, if you think that way, you probably don’t read Blaize’s blog to begin with. In fact, I can’t imagine it, but then, there are a LOT of things going on in the universe right now that I never figured would happen, so there you are. And here I am. And here is our story…
Being a book person, I knew that prison libraries are generally not the luxuriously full of ancient tomes libraries that you see in the movies. We should all remember that life is in no way like the movies, but when it goes flashing by that fast, you just tend to accept what you’re seeing and not think about it too much. How did I know this about prison libraries? Being a book person, you listen to others, you listen a lot. Booksellers are usually frustrated authors first and foremost, after that, they descend into a broad spectrum of what my former book boss used to call “…people with unfortunate personalities.” Yes, she wrote, poetry for the most part. I got the job at her store because I was a poet in need of a job, and her bookstore was enjoying a small boost in sales (ah, the very late 1980s!) and was in need of an extra hand. Luckily enough for me, my hands were a good fit.
It was at this first bookstore that I learned about sending books to prisoners. Family members would come in, usually a mother or girlfriend, always mortally embarrassed, to inquire if we could do such a thing, and if so, what would it cost. While the owner of the bookstore had always provided this service, she was more than happy to hand it off the time-consuming jumping thru hoops required to send a book into the prison system. I learned very quickly that each state has its own set of picayune rules in regards to what can be sent, who it can be sent to, and who can send it.
For example: At the time, Texas did not allow hardcover books to be sent, no how, no way. They figured prisoners might cut the cover into a weapon. How they were supposed to cut a hardcover book (trade or textbook, those covers are thick!) without already having a weapon, well, who can say, but never underestimate the ingenuity of anyone who can make a knife from a toothbrush. Only mass market paperbacks were allowed, and even those could not be over 200 pages or so (all those George R.R. Martin fans were S.O.L., until we started cutting the books into sections to mail).
But that’s Texas and we’re talking Oregon here.
My main takeaways from this time in Texas however, were that prison libraries sucked, people need to read, and that nobody should ever be ashamed for wanting to provide reading material to anyone, anywhere..
So at my store I tried to charge the bare minimum to folks who were trying to get something to read to someone in jail. Just what the book cost and what it cost to send it to the library. No “handling” fee. Word got around that I was not fleecing the friends of and/or the incarcerated. A donation box for prisoners was set up; a group would have used my store to meet and distribute books, but they already had a setup at another famous bookstore, perhaps you’ve heard of them.
But what about Blaize? Blaize was active in her own community, and thus our paths crossed. We corresponded. I found a funny, artistic, intuitive and kind person. Lord only knows what she thought of me.
One holiday season, Blaize was passing through town. I offered to meet her at the airport and give her a ride to the bus station. My sister was in town also, so we both went to meet Blaize. Since there were a few hours in between flights and busses, we went to one of the more notable dives in town and had Chinese. The three of us sat around the table, chugging gallons of green tea, guessing the provenance of our eggrolls, and it felt like we’d known each other forever. After I dropped Blaize at the bus station, I wondered if I’d ever see her again.
Well of course you know the answer to that.
Over the years, we’ve managed to keep in touch. Even had a road adventure or two. Blaize is the Queen of Thrift: if there’s a store out there, not only does she know about it, but has Googled it and has directions and hours for the place. The purple rain coat that we found in Seaside, Oregon, got away from me (sadly), but the Hobo symbol that we found in another place up the road still hangs on my wall–a smiling cat in a box with four hearts, one in each corner. The design is a message to other hobos that inside this house is “a good hearted woman”, something that suits Blaize to a T.
As for the title of this piece, it comes from an Anarchist friend of mine, who was one of the inadvertent catalysts for our meeting. A couple of lifetimes ago, he was complaining because I wanted to go to my weekly writers group instead of party with him. He meant it to manipulate me, but instead I embraced it and use it to describe my best friends, my writing friends, the ones who have the time to listen and observe and comment or perhaps just be quiet and listen. The kind of friend you want to hang on to forever. Someone like Blaize.
So a huge THANK YOU, BLAIZE, for being there and writing of your travels and trials. I can’t wait to see your book. Maybe I should start another bookstore, so I could sell it.