My family owns a large used bookstore in Nashville, not far from Music Row. I worked there when I was 19 and taking time off college to try to get my head together. My parents went through a rough divorce in my late teens, and I was, frankly, rather lost.
I pulled books off the shelf and read them; I didn’t know any better. I read James Joyce, and Carson McCullers, and Ralph Ellison, and books about Berlin as Hitler came to power. I looked at prints of Maxfield Parrish’s works, and tried to decode T.S. Eliot. I was very lonely, but my mind was nimble and curious. I learned more than at any other time of my life.
One summer day I sat at the large wooden desks we used in the store as front counters. The fans twirled hypnotically. The sun bleared through the storefront windows, shined along the shelves of old books, faded as it passed over the scuffed black-and-green tile floor, and died before it reached me.
I was in the cool shadows, removed, reading I don’t remember what.
A large figure in black appeared before me. It was Johnny Cash.
He said the perfect thing for Johnny Cash to say. This is what he said:
“Son, where are your books on trains?”
I could not look him in the eye. “Over here,” I stammered, my adolescent voice breaking. It was like meeting Moses.
His bubbly wife June was with him, and she flitted around, pointing things out to him. They bought hundreds of dollars of old collectible books.
I have met a president, and Toni Morrison, and Michael Jordan, and Elvis Costello. I have never been with such a presence. It occurs to me that may be because I was entering manhood and terribly unsure of myself. I was a wavering presence casting a shadow upon a man whose sense of self was solid as a block of stone.
I am now almost exactly the age Johnny Cash was then. I am more confident, and more scarred. I have been through some of the trials Johnny Cash went through, and they have brought a sense of self. If I could, I would walk up to that young man and say the perfect thing for me to say. This is what I would say:
“I’m proud of you for learning through your fear.”