Getting Back to ‘The Stack’

Hi. My name is John, and I’m a COVID Longhauler.

I read a book this weekend.

Well, more accurately, I read 12 pages of a book.

This is neither a monumental accomplishment in the history of the world, nor a monumental accomplishment in the history of me.

It is monumental for Me-Right-Now.

Prior to becoming a Longhauler, a book and me were never far apart, physically or emotionally. If I didn’t have my nose in one, I was thinking about having my nose in one. Things like work, family, friends, functions.. they all were stuff that happened in between deep dives into the latest story.

As I am with music, so I am with books, which is to say that I have and will read just about anything and everything. Fiction, non-fiction, history, mystery, suspense, romance, self-help, young adult… if it’s in book form, I’ll read it.

Or, at least, I used to be able to read it. Then Longhaul hit.

Suddenly, I simply couldn’t read. Oh, yes, I could see the words on the page, but they started to be really … oh, what’s the word? Really difficult. My head hurt after a paragraph. A page sent me back to bed. And it was for absolutely no gain, as I would have to re-read what I’d just read to remember what had happened.

So I stopped. I stopped reading altogether. Books on tape weren’t an option. I’m a purist who would rather be caught naked with my finger up my nose than reading a book on a tablet or some other blasphemy. That, and books on tape put me to sleep. I’ve listened to maybe two in my whole life, and one was what my wife made me listen to on a long car trip (“The Book of Ruth.” I don’t recommend it. At least not as it’s read aloud).

My entire adult life, I’ve kept a pile of books — affectionately, tenderly known as “The Stack” — by the side of my bed. I’m not talking about on the nightstand. I’m talking about on the floor and extending well above the height of the nightstand. I reveled in making The Stack so high that it constantly threatened to topple over. I’d organize and reorganize The Stack’s participants to put what I was going to read next on top … and then the next and the next and the next.

The Stack never ended. I’d get twitchy when there were only three or four books left. Then, I’d get lost in a library for a half-hour and come out with two or three or 15 more. I took advantage of the library’s “no fines on late books” policy (sorry, fellow readers), just so The Stack would be sufficiently high as to ensure I wouldn’t have to go through withdrawal.

My father sends me books when he’s done reading them. He hasn’t heard me on some of the authors he likes that I don’t, but that’s OK. I sell or donate those and add the good ones to The Stack. He remains one of its biggest contributors.

The problem is that The Stack started to mock me, reminding me of all that was in those pages that I could not digest. I hated waking up and seeing it first thing in the morning.

A few weeks ago, I moved The Stack into a shelf in my closet. Now it mocks me from a new location, every time I go to get a pair of pants or a T-shirt (another thing I collect in abundance).

COVID has taken so much from so many of us, and books are inconsequential compared with the loss of loved ones or the ability to breathe without pain.

But it matters. It matters to me because it symbolizes another thing I can’t do anymore — not right now, anyway — another thing that I loved to do that I have to say “no” to.

Hiking.

Playing hoops with my kid.

Sleeping more than 5 1/2 hours.

Saturday morning, I was getting ready for the day when a book caught my eye.

Bugsy Siegel: The Dark Side of the American Dream.”

Hell yeah.

Give me anything about gangsters and I’m in. Books, documentaries, historical sites, gravesites.

Yes, I know that’s macabre. Yes, I know these aren’t people to be idolized. I’ve seen the Jesse James Brady Bunch episode. Get off my back.

I took the book down off the shelf. Drove my son to Little League practice. Sat at a picnic table. Opened the book.

Tentatively.

Too many people skip the prologue. Don’t skip the prologue. There’s good stuff in the prologue.

I learned about the rise of Jewish gangsters in the early 20th century, how, denied entry into mainstream America because of antisemitism, some Jews resorted to the criminal underworld with hopes of accumulating the wealth and prestige that would allow them access to acceptance.

Of course, some were just psychopaths who liked doing really crappy things. Bugsy Siegel is probably in this category.

I am a big fan of The Sopranos. Shocking, I know. There are a handful of episodes in which Tony Soprano’s family has dealings with Orthodox Jewish gangsters. I had always thought that was funny. Orthodox Jews weren’t gangsters. They were, well… they were my friend and former co-worker Eric.

Except now I know there was and is such a thing as Orthodox Jewish gangsters, that there was a huge generational divide back then between the parents who immigrated here and their children who wanted a life more reflective of the American dream they’d been sold that didn’t seem to exist for them as they slept in their ratty slum houses without indoor plumbing or running water, filled with the stench of feces and burning coal.

Books. They’re pretty freaking amazing. I got through only 12 pages, owing more to the busyness of Saturday and the feeling-crappy-because-of-Longhaul-COVID of Sunday.

But it’s a start.

And right now? Right now I’ll take it.


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