debauchery in Paris

If you follow me on Facebook, then you know that over the weekend my wife had traveled to St. Louis to visit our son and daughter-in-law, leaving me alone at home, unsupervised. And as you might imagine, I took this opportunity to get crazy.

Among my debauches was the sampling of more craft beers. (I’m still leaning toward the lagers, and some of the more “crafted” beers just aren’t enjoyable to me, but I figure I must do this for science, or something.) I also found a grocery store near my house that does carry the non-alcoholic beer I prefer at home.

But among the choices I made during my wild weekend was to check off an item on my bucket list. I decided to finally read an elusive short story in an elusive magazine! Which sounds easy but wasn’t.

A local writer here in Kansas City that I had admired for years, Charles Gusewelle, (whom I met a few times at writerly events in town, and whose “cabin” in the woods is in the same county as mine, and who is recently deceased) had written a story called “Horst Wessel”* that was published in The Paris Review, back in 1977. The story won a PR prize as well. I may be wrong, but I think it is the only piece of fiction he ever had published. (If anyone knows otherwise, let me know.) And I had wanted to read it for a long time, but finding it was not easy.

The Paris Review is not online, at least not the main publication from such a distant age, or if it is, it is not available to the great unwashed public who don’t subscribe, which would include me. So I began checking the libraries. My own library (I can call it “my own” since I pay my taxes) has a service that allows patrons to access online journals that might otherwise be behind a firewall paywall, and my hope was that I could find the edition that way. But though there are hundreds and hundreds of publications that are available to me by this mechanism (and why are so many of them business journals?), The Paris Review was not one of them. Nor did they ever subscribe to the physical publication. But I seemed to strike gold with the Kansas City Public Library, across the state line in Missouri. According to its online catalog, they do subscribe and even had the old edition from 1977.

And thus on Sunday, when the weather was beautiful and I might have taken the dogs for a walk in the park or done some much overdue yard work or even begun some sketchy work on the master bathroom remodel, I not only slept in (!) but I took myself all the way downtown, among the skyscrapers and one-way streets and homeless people and blowing trash in the heart of the city to the main branch of the KCPL. I arrived a little early and had to walk around the city a little as I waited for it to open, but then I took myself to the information desk and began my quest.

The librarian there must have misunderstood me, because she pointed me toward several print anthologies of the magazine that they had on their shelves. Once I cleared that up (and I think she was a little mystified by my actual request) I was quickly directed to the information desk on the third floor where the periodicals are kept. (I was among the first half dozen people to enter the library that day when the guards opened the doors, but when I got to the third floor, there were already at least that many people sitting at tables, busy with their work. It’s as though they had somehow been let in before the unwashed public was!)

The woman at the desk in periodicals listened to my request, got on her computer, and promptly told me that they not only did not carry The Paris Review but that they certainly would not have anything going back to the ancient days of 1977.

What was I to do? Believe the research I had done on my laptop in the comfort of my home in faraway suburbia, or trust the word of a professional librarian on her native ground?

I believed in myself.

The skeptical librarian directed me to file cabinets full of old periodicals on microfilm and said that if the publication was ever to be found, it would be there. And so I sauntered back there, deeper into the gorgeous library, where even more patrons were already ensconced, and began studying the alphabetized, typewritten labels on the drawers and drawers in the many cabinets. And there was The Paris Review. And there was 1977. And there was a small box with a role of microfilm in it that maybe, possibly held my quarry.

I took the box and ensconced myself before one of the microfilm readers (having flashbacks to my undergraduate days) and followed the instructions for threading the film through the machine. When I had that done, I turned it on, and the text on the film was displayed on the computer monitor before me. Very tiny text. With low contrast. And the page I was looking at only showed half of itself on the screen. There were many buttons on the screen I could select, including one to advance the film, which worked so well I skated past dozens of pages in mere seconds. There were also buttons I could push that would magnify the image, which didn’t work at all.

The story I wanted to read may have been on this roll of film, but I wasn’t going to find it with the resources I had (chiefly my own ineptitude). So I returned to the information desk and asked the other librarian now there if there were some incantations I needed to recite to get the machine to behave. She walked back with me (deep in the gorgeous library) and confessed that she barely knew how to operate the machines. (I suspect she hadn’t been born at the time I was an undergrad.) But she stood before the machine and manually moved the camera part to better center the page on the screen. Then she manually turned the spool that fed the film across the lens to advance the pages in a more useable manner. And purely by coincidence, there was the name Gusewelle at the bottom of several pages. I was there!

The type was tiny and low contrast, so it was a chore to read it, but I had been wanting to do this for years, so I was undaunted.

The story was about a man who traveled on business, often to quite remote places, and how he generally had some health crisis wherever he went. In this case, it was an infected tooth that needed attending. And the cosmic forces arrayed against him to get this done were massive and comical. It wasn’t the story I was expecting, but it was a good story, full of wincing laughs.

I might have hung out at the (gorgeous) library longer, but I was paying for parking (downtown parking prices!), so I left and then paid the ransom on my truck. Not bad since it was in the quest for knowledge. Here’s the front of the parking garage for the library:

I’m glad I took the time and trouble to find the story and read it. I felt virtuous about my willingness to do this and about using the old school resources (still) available at the library. (The cosmic forces arrayed against me were not nearly as massive or comical.) And to celebrate my virtuousness, I took myself out for an early dinner where I sampled another craft beer. (A hefewiezen that I didn’t much like.)


*Horst Wessel was an actual historical figure: a Nazi brownshirt and Stormtrooper whose murder turned him into a Nazi martyr. I’m not clear why Gusewelle would title his comical story (and character?) after this man.

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