The day I sold books to Johnny Cash

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 family went through a rough divorce in my late teens, and I was, frankly, rather lost.

I pulled books off the shelf and read them; Flannery O’Connor, James Joyce, Carson McCullers, Ralph Ellison, books about Europe in the 1920s, the Civil War. I looked at prints of the works of Maxfield Parrish and N.C. Wyeth, and tried to decode T.S. Eliot. I was terribly lonely, but my mind was graceful and adventurous. I swung alone through a vibrant jungle of knowledge where 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 — addiction, divorced fatherhood, travel and homecoming and leaving home again. They have brought a hard-earned, undeniable, and beautifully humbling sense of self: A stained-glass window of neon, reflected on a dark city street that I call home, wherever I am. If you can see it right now, you may, like me, have a tattoo of love and loss and pride and regret that gradually colored us in over time.

If I could, I would walk up to that lonely young reader in the bookstore 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.”