A story of desperation, wanting what we can't have, and phone books.


Call it a phase.  It happened in the fall of 98.  I was unemployed and desperate for money, so I took a job delivering phone books.  They were miniature phone books, meant to go in your car, which was so blatantly ridiculous that it was the subject of at least one joke per day among those of us awaiting delivery routes each morning. 

I may have chuckled once or twice at those jokes, but I remained otherwise silent and scrutinized my “colleagues,” taking note of their various faults so that I could feel superior to them.  They were, I decided, much worse off than I.  Crooked teeth, tight black jeans, cigarettes for breakfast, cars full of old McDonald’s bags – I found evidence everywhere. 

I’m sure they’d found the job just like I had, though: in the want ads of the free weekly paper called The Stranger.  It paid something like 5 cents per book delivered, which meant that if you hauled major ass, you could average somewhere around seven or eight dollars an hour. 

It was October, and the tape deck in my car was broken such that it would only play side B of a U2 tape that had gotten lodged in there.  Side B had three songs, one of which was called, appropriately enough, “October,” a heavy-handed, angsty number that began, “October.  And the trees are stripped bare of all they wear.  Do I care?”


Ironically, though, the trees weren’t stripped bare in Seattle.  They don’t have a proper autumn out there, the kind where the trees turn all shades of red, orange, and yellow and fall crisp into the streets and amplify your every footstep as you shuffle through their carpet of crunch. 

I missed autumn.  But it took a while to figure out that I missed it.  I drove around town with my trunk full of mini phone books, feeling like you do when you go into a room and forget what you went there for.  “Wait, why am I here?” you might say aloud to yourself.

Each morning, I’d go to the south side of downtown Seattle, to some featureless concrete building that lay directly under the network of interstate. I'd grab my boxes of books, and drive to some new district of Seattle.  And all day long, I’d feel that something was off, incomplete, lost. 

It wasn’t until my second week, when I got assigned to the northeast suburbs -- Kirkland and Redmond -- that I started to figure things out. 


The houses in the burbs were enormous compared to my no-bedroom apartment.  Plus, their front steps, decorated with meticulously-carved jack-o-lanterns, dry corn stalks, and straw men wearing flannel, did what the still-green trees and cloudy skies couldn’t.  They reminded me of home.

I began to look forward to my job.  Each day, once I’d left the industrial parks of the city, I’d drive into whichever wealthy, suburban neighborhood I was assigned to, park the car, and walk to each doorstep, making sure not to step on anyone’s grass. 

When I could, I’d steal glances through front windows or playfully kick aside Big Wheels and scooters left on front walks, imagining the pumpkin-carving parties or games of Frisbee that these families were surely enjoying every afternoon. 

On my third or fourth day, however, once my head had returned from the plentiful clouds, it occurred to me how alone I was in the burbs.  Nobody cared that I was stealing glances through windows.  Nobody was watching to see whether I was stepping on the grass.  Indeed, nobody was home. 


So I began knocking on doors, ringing doorbells, putting my face up to windows and gazing – not glancing – inside.  If someone answered, I figured, I’d simply explain I was delivering phone books and leave it at that. 

But no one ever answered. 

At night, I’d eat a plate of spaghetti at the small kitchen table I’d rescued from some curbside.  I’d thumb through a free news weekly or the tattered sci-fi novel I was reading at the time (Stranger in a Strange Land), and invariably, I’d spill sauce on it and curse the fact that I didn’t have a TV. 

As often as not, I’d allow my mind to drift off to my high school days, remembering how we used to play ping-pong in the carpeted basement of Adam’s parents’ house; or sit in the hot-tub in Lindsay’s backyard on December nights, naming the constellations so clearly visible in the winter sky; or make an impromptu batch of cookies at Gina’s and stay up late discussing where we’d be in ten years.

Oh, those houses of my youth, with their well-stocked kitchens; their pristine cream carpets; their entertainment centers and surround sound; their landscaped backyards, partitioned by pressed concrete paths.  How unknowingly fortunate we were to have as our playgrounds such temples and palaces.  I just wanted to get that back.


It was easy to go from knocking on front doors to opening them up.  You’d be surprised how many people leave their houses unlocked all day.  Even those whose doors were such ornate concoctions of woodwork and decorative glass panes as to earn them the appellation “entryways” instead of mere “doors” – even they left their houses open to the public.

I’d walk in through foyers and atriums and antechambers across white tiles or white carpet, past antique hutch armoires and vanities.  I’d usually remove my shoes and carry them with me.  I never stole anything.

In the kitchen, I’d examine the contents of the fridge and the cupboards.  Sometimes I’d try to guess how many kids they had, based on the quantities of milk and orange juice and graham crackers and potato chips.

Every once in a while, I’d venture to second and third floors if the carpeted stairs hadn’t been recently vacuumed.  If I found a child’s bedroom, I’d look inside and see traces of my former selves:  remote control cars and shin guards and Star Wars posters and chapter books.

I’d imagine other lives I could have lived. 


I finally got caught in the second week of my trespassing.  I was in a relatively modest house by Kirkland’s standards, but one that had a Big Wheel in the driveway, which guaranteed a child’s room to feed my daydreaming of better times.

I walked through the front door, checked my shoes for dirt, and moved on to the kitchen.  The loaf of Wonder bread lying on the counter got me so ridiculously nostalgic that I didn’t see the woman sitting at the table, paging through a book.  But when my shoe squeaked, she jerked her head up and said, “Hello?”

I nearly fell over.  I braced myself to run, but when I saw her there in the dark, I noticed her gaze aimed so imprecisely toward me that I paused.  Sure enough, the pages of the book on the table were white and bumpy.  Brail.  “Tim, is that you?” she said.  

Occam’s razor states that the simplest explanation is usually the best.  But I think the human brain is hard wired not for simple explanations but for magical ones. And so, for a second, I allowed the completely irrational possibility that she was some blind Greek oracle who knew my name and who could gift me with some new hero’s destiny.  So I answered, “Yes” (not a lie) and anticipated her prophecy.

“How’s the book going?” she said.

I cleared my throat and hoped for the best.  “Um, I, um, I’m working on it.”

“Margie told me this one was a miniature version.  For cars or something.”

She couldn’t see me, but eyes were bulging.  Maybe she was a prophet.

“That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.”

How Much

She invited me to sit down at the table.  She even offered me some graham crackers and apple cider.  We spoke of phone books, of the logistics of gathering names and addresses, of whether the Joneses outnumbered the Smiths.  I made up everything. 

We talked for an hour.  A loss, I figured out later, of roughly $7.50.  One hundred and fifty phone books not delivered.  But what did it matter?  For one hour, I was someone else.

At one point, she asked me how many Tims I thought were in the phone book. I laughed and said I didn’t know.  “What about Evelyns?” she asked.

I figured that must have been her name.  Evelyn.  I liked it.  In fact, for the rest of that year, whenever I felt especially homesick sitting at my kitchen table eating noodles in my TV-less apartment, I’d grab the miniature phone book and page through it, counting Evelyns. 

And what do you know?  It made me feel 100 percent better.  Just like magic.