Pretending to be a writer is hard work, and I’ve been at it for a long six months. Or somewhere between six months and five years, to be precise. Perhaps you too have considered a mid-career change. Is it time to chart a new course? Is the razzle-dazzle life of a writer calling you down its glorious path? You must have something to say, right?
Well, forget it. You’re not cut out for it.
I reached a new stage in my new writing career – bona fide journalism. That was last week; Thursday to be exact. Not the fancy kind of journalism, but the gritty, meatball-stain-on-your-shirt, coffee-in-a-Styrofoam-cup kind. I knew I had arrived on the big stage the very moment I made a perilous foray into a labyrinth so twisted it’s been known to bring sudden, irrevocable madness to those who enter…
The Recorder of Deeds Office.
I cannot disclose the why’s or what-for’s associated with my visit, other than to say that I was called upon to find Deed Book #135__, and several others like it, such as #161__. (Encrypted for confidentiality reasons. And, possibly, security reasons also.)
I entered the building from Forbes Avenue and a shiver ran through me immediately, not for any reason other than I was wet and cold because I took the bus and it was raining like hell. As I stormed across the lobby, with lighting so moody it can’t be explained, my wet shoes squeaked with every stride, causing a ridiculously loud echo against the groin vaults overhead.
Inside the main chamber, which others mistakenly call an office, is county government’s interpretation of the Library of Babel. The total collection of public records contained within are precisely infinite. Many of the oldest are housed in fabric-covered books so heavy that they sit upon the kind of rollers one finds in a morgue’s mortuary rack, only smaller; quite appropriate if you think about it.
With a meatball hoagie in one hand and a hall-full Mason jar of cognac in the other, I settled into the kind of deep contemplation one needs to produce a piece such as this.
Newer records can be found in the rows of shelved books that are bound with elegant red covers, like the world’s largest collection of fairy tales. I weaved through the shelves in search of #135__, a search that ended abruptly at #12703 – the very last book; there was nothing more on the shelves, dust notwithstanding. This brought about an intense suspicion that I’m sure you now share.
Not one to take kindly to things that are hidden from me, I marched to the counter. The line was long – one person to be exact – but having been to other county offices in the past, I knew this could mean half the day. As I waited with resolve, I read a sign taped to the counter that informed me that employees are NOT allowed to accept gratuities of any kind. I surreptitiously put the bottle of cognac that I had gift-wrapped at the Fine Wine & Good Spirits store around the corner back in my bag. Finally, my turn came.
Pointing vaguely in the direction of the cute, orderly books, I declared that I needed to see Deed Book #135__, but for some curious reason they only go up to #12703. “Those aren’t deed books,” the unbribable employee said. “Those are mortgage books. Says so right on the spine.”
“Oh,” I said.
The man was waiting for me to say something else. “Be that as it may,” I continued, “I need to see Deed Book number 1-3-5 __. Please.”
“Deed books are upstairs. Or,” he said politely, “you can find them on any of the many open computers we have available.”
“I’d prefer the real deal so I’ll go upstairs, thank you,” I replied. I crossed the room and stepped into an open elevator. I waited for something to happen but nothing did. I stepped back out hoping to try again, when I then found another sign taped to the wall that read: Elevator is not for public use. I exited the elevator and took the stairs, hearing the man call out, “Deeds on second floor!”
When I reached the second floor I found another sign which read: Deed information and copies 2nd floor. THIS IS THE MEZZANINE FLOOR. So I exited back into the stairwell, climbed another flight of stairs to the actual second floor, where I found a really long line, this time with two people ahead of me. Checking my bus schedule I concluded that this wouldn’t do. I exited back into the stairwell, remembering not to stop at the mezzanine and reemerged on the first floor, where the incorruptible man threw me a wave. “Hey!” I said.
I cozied up to computer station and cracked my knuckles. I entered 1-3-5__ in the book number field.
“No records found” did not allay my growing suspicions that I had stumbled upon something that someone else didn’t want someone like me to find. I retyped my number just to make sure but the result was the same. Third time’s a charm except when it isn’t. I noticed that my shirt had improved from wet to damp, but that I was standing in a rain puddle that had spread from my umbrella. And I had missed my bus.
A different employee had been watching me through a glass window and made his way over to ask if I needed help. That my neediness could be seen from afar was irksome. I’m looking for a book that, for some reason, is not in the system, I told him. And what he told me was that I had a volume number, not a book number.
“I see,” I said. “The county’s website said this was a book number.”
“Then the website is wrong in that regard,” he said. That’s one point for me, let it be known.
I entered my volume number and Pow! there it was. “There it is,” he said, somewhat unnecessarily. “Anything else I can help you with?”
I said I’d be good for a while, but that I had a lot more of these to look up, so I’d let him know. He glanced at the rain puddle I was standing in and said, “You know, you can access all of this from home.”
I’m not sure what I conveyed by not saying anything.
He continued, “Just go back to where you found that “book” number (he did the air quotes) and it’s just a couple of clicks away.”
A bit fazed, I either said, “I’ll keep that in mind,” or “Thanks for the tip,” or said nothing at all, I can’t quite remember. Perhaps I was more than a bit fazed, as I screwed up a couple of well-known architectural landmarks when I stepped outside into the rain, where a very wet and rather edgy man approached, clamoring, “Where’s the County Courthouse?”
“Right in this building, Sir,” I said helpfully, and he dashed inside. I crossed the street, and as I made my way towards my bus stop I passed, to my surprise, the County Courthouse. “Uh,” I said, looking back to see that I directed the ruffled man into the County Office Building.
Back home, with a meatball hoagie in one hand and a hall-full Mason jar of cognac in the other, I settled into the kind of deep contemplation one needs to produce a piece such as this. The creation of Downstream was inspired years ago by the immortal words of an unknown man, who spoke to a tense crowd and asked, “Will there be hoagies?”
Perhaps I have not come very far since then.
But in the spirit of Downstream, consider this as a public service message to any of you who have considered venturing down the path called Writing. It’s steep in all directions, and must be traversed at a reckless pace that seems arthritically slow to everyone else. Today’s euphoria will soon turn into yesterday’s euphoria, which will be replaced with tomorrow’s ritual of turning your guts inside-out for all to see. When those who’ve you’ve never met before contact you to say that what you’re writing matters, such rewards are off the charts. The financial rewards are also off the charts, but in the other direction.
In the end is this: We don’t read what you don’t write.
I settled down in front of my computer in the comfy confines of my home office to recommence my deed search, only to be asked for a credit card. When outside of the infinite library, it turns out, viewing each document costs between one and ten dollars. I don’t recall seeing a sign for that. I finished off my hoagie, wiped my hands on my shirt, and checked my schedule for the next bus heading downtown.