I only enjoy working on books that say something. I know this is an anathema to people who insist on preserving books that are only going to be on the shelves forever—or on coffee tables. Books are for people to read, and that’s that. I think books are for the birds unless people read them.
That’s what I discovered when I worked in Florence after the big flood. I came in the summer. John and I lived there and he worked there during his first sabbatical. I loved that city so much. And when someone from the Biblioteca Nazionale asked me to come . . .
It would be
to look into books when you’re working on them, lured by them—but obviously you can’t. You’d never finish your work. I can read books on my own time. I feel very strongly about every book I pick up. It’s like something alive or—or decadent, death. I wouldn’t for one moment bind
f, because I think it’s disgusting to waste time on such an obscenity. Are you offering me a million dollars to bind that? Of course not.
I adore the work. It’s very comforting. The only thing that makes me angry is that I’m almost all the time on the outside rather than on the inside. I’d like to be reading them. But I do think working in my house and being comfortable and doing something you feel is beneficial—it is important, isn’t it?
I’m just a swabber. (Laughs.) I’m not an artist. I just use aniline dyes, so they won’t be hurting the leather. Aniline’s a natural dye, and that’s about it. It isn’t very skilled work. It’s just knowing what books need, if you want to preserve them. It’s just something you do. A mechanic takes care of a tire, and he knows . . .
Oh, I think it’s important. Books are things that keep us going. Books —I haven’t got much feeling about many other things. I adore the work. Except sometimes it becomes very lonesome. It’s nice to sit beside somebody, whether it’s somebody who works with you or whether it’s your husband or your friend. It’s just lovely, just like a whisper, always . . . If you were really brainy, you wouldn’t waste your time pasting and binding. But if you bind good books, you make something good, really and truly good. Yes, I would like to make a good book hold good and I would like to be involved in a pact that will not be broken, that holds good, which would really be as solid as the book.
Keeping a four-hundred-year-old book together keeps that spirit alive. It’s an alluring kind of thing, lovely, because you know that belongs to us. Because a book is a life, like one man is a life. Yes, yes, this work is good for me, therapeutic for old age . . .NINO GUIDICI
just keep going
with the hands . . .
We’re behind the counter of a corner drugstore. It is a changing neighborhood. To the east are upper-middle-class high rises; to the west are the low-income people. Along the big street that divides, the transient young are among the most visible. “It’s hard to believe I spent forty years on this street.” He has been a pharmacist since 1926. He is seventy years old.
In the bins to the rear of the counter are shelved thousands of bottles allocated according to the name of each large drug firm. “It’s been estimated there are 5,ooo to 7,500 varieties of pills. When I’m stuck—in the old days I wasn’t—we go to the Red Book. It lists the names and tells you who makes it and how much it is.”
The corner drunow. The small store is on its way out. Can’t do the volume. In the old days they took druggists as doctors. How many come in today and say, “I have an earache, what would you recommend?” Or, “My child has a cold.” Gone with the wind. Still, the customer’s the same as when I got started. Like that man that came in. He wants a paper tonight. He said, “Be sure and save me a paper.” He’s a regular. If I forget it, I might as well forget to fill a prescription. It’s a big mistake. Still very personal with me.
All we do is count pills. Count out twelve on the counter, put ’em in here, count out twelve more . . . Today was a little out of the ordinary. I made an ointment. Most of the ointments come already made up. This doctor was an old-timer. He wanted something with sulfur and two other elements mixed together. So I have to weigh it out on the scale. Ordinarily I would just have one tube of cream for that.
Doctors used to write out their own formulas and we made most of these things. Most of the work is now done in the laboratory. The real druggist is found in the manufacturing firms. They’re the factory workers and they’re the pharmacists. We just get the name of the drugs and the number and the directions. It’s a lot easier. In the old days you filled maybe twenty, twenty-five prescriptions a day by hand. Nowadays you can fill about 150. This time of the year they’re most antibiotics, because people are having colds.
In the old days we just used simple drugs, simple ointment base like vaseline, lanolin and mixed them together. They didn’t have the properties that you find today. You’re really an order filler now. (Laughs.) I’m not knockin’ the pharmacist, but it’s got so highly developed . . . We just dispense, that’s all.
I like it better this way. If you had to make up everything and the physician had to write down a prescription with all the ingredients, you could hardly exist in this economy. Everything is faster, it’s better. People wouldn’t get relief out of medicine in them days like they get today.
“In the days I went to pharmacy school, you only went two years. Now it’s six. In my day, they’d give you basic metals and salts. You knew certain salts were good for a cough and you mixed it with distilled water and that’s how you’d make your medicine. The young ones know a lot more chemistry. They’re much better educated than we were. They’re prepared to go to the manufacturing end of it. Young kids in high school, they learn how to make things which I don’t know anything about.
LSD and all that. These kids know more about how to make dangerous drugs than I do. (Laughs.)”
When I first started out, you dispensed very little medicine for children after they were seven or eight. We didn’t have ointments to fix up pimply faced kids with acne and things like that. Now, some children have a little pimple and they’re sent to a skin man. We fill a lot of ointments for ’em. We sell a lot more cosmetics than we did. That used to be a small part of the business. Now it’s at least fifty percent. I’d say about twenty percent come in for prescriptions. The other people just come in for their everyday needs.
People come in the store and, unless I know who the person is, I’m pretty near afraid to wash out their hand. The laws tell you to tell them to go to a doctor. Gee whiz, here’s a guy ain’t got thirty-five cents. I had a butcher over here, he’s cut his artery with a knife. Boy, he was bleeding like the devil. Tell him to go to a doctor? He’d bleed to death. I stuffed it with rags. Jeez, the guy pretty near died on top of it. It was all right. I might have saved him, but you don’t get credit for anything like that. Suppose he died in the back room. Boy. I try to give first aid. Then you try to tell ’em to get a tetanus shot. Jeez, nine times out of ten you’re talking to somebody who can’t afford it. I’ve taken things out of people’s eyes. I’ve always been pretty good at that. Others tell me, “Boy, you’re crazy.”
His colleague, Grace Johnson, enters and puts on her white gown. She has been a pharmacist for thirty years. “There was only three of us girls in my class of 36o men. The men customers always hesitated coming to me. I would always know what a man wanted because he would avoid me. (Laughs.) When I started in my father’s store, I’d be compounding something in the back and he’d call me out. The men would turn around and walk out. They thought I had two heads. Women have always accepted me.
“When I say I’m a pharmacist—ooohhh!!! Oh, that’s marvelous! You must really be a brain or something. The idea of a woman pharmacist. It’s like being a woman doctor. But I don’t think a pharmacist really gets credit enough for what we do, as a liaison person between the patient and the doctor. If the doctor makes a mistake and we don’t catch it, they can sue us. They don’t sue the doctor because they stick together.
“The big change in thirty years is in the merchandise. We have such a variance today. Whoever heard of selling a radio in a drugstore? (Laughs.) And whoever heard of these thousands of drugs? A pharmacist once said to me that if the atom bomb were dropped on this neighborhood in the middle of the night, no one would know it (laughs), because ninety-nine percent of the people take Seconal, Nembutal, right? They just automatically pop them in their mouths, if they need them or not. Almost everybody is on some drug. Everybody has a nerve problem today, which is the tensions we live in.”
I enjoy working. (Laughs.) I like to be around people. I coulda quit work five years ago. It’s not that I don’t like home, but it’s monotonous to sit around. With your Social Security and what taxes I pay, I’m just as well off if I didn’t work. But I like to come down. I’m not saying I love people, but you miss ‘em. Some days you go home and say, “Oh gee, I’ve seen so much today. So many guys drove me nuts,” and that and that trouble. I like that. The minute you don’t see anybody and you’re not talkin’ to people . . .
Jeff, the manager, who is thirty, interjects: “I don’t know anybody who doesn’t like to be away from work—except Nino.”
A lot of people, it’s drudgery to go to work. Not me. I don’t say I love work, I don’t say I hate work. I do it. It’s a normal thing for me than just not doing anything. I figure that I’m kinda needed. If you don’t show up, you might be putting somebody out a day. If I took off and walked down the street for an hour, I like to hear him say, “Where in the heck have you been? Gee whiz, it was busy. I needed you.” Some fellas would call that a bawlin’ out and get mad. I wouldn’t. If you come down and they’d say, “We really didn’t need you,” I might as well quit. I like to feel kinda needed. It kinda feels good. You say, well, you’re of some value.
A lot of people just can’t wait to get sixty-five and quit. They’re just tickled to death. I don’t know what for. Then they get home, and I’ve seen wives, they’re sorry their husbands are home and more or less in the way. The average man at home, like myself, when he’s through doing this kind of work, there’s not really much I can do now. That’s why you like to feel wanted.
“I first started workin’ in drugstores when I was twelve years old.” He had lived in a small town in southern Illinois. His father, a stone cutter, had died in his young years. “I’d open the store, sweep up the sidewalk, mop the floor.” In Chicago he attended pharmacy school while working at night. “I used to see my father work hard and people on farms and miners work awful hard for a few dollars a week. I was getting the same amount of money just standing around waiting on people, saying hello. To me that seemed an easy way to make money.”
I never wanted to own my own store. I had chances, but I stopped and I figured. I’d have to pay interest on the loan. I couldn’t run it by myself. I didn’t want my wife workin’ twelve hours a day. A lot of my friends, their wives got in and they pitched and worked hard and they got someplace. They’re welcome to it. It wasn’t my philosophy.
I’ve been boss all right. I managed stores. I used to see girls on the soda fountains at five, six dollars a week. That was the going pay. I’m the kind of guy, I couldn’t ask anybody to work for nothing. To be a success, you have to take a lot of advantage of help. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that to be successful you have to be a rat, but you have to do things—I realized long ago I wasn’t that type of man. Not that I’m such a good man. I’m not a good person, but I don’t want to ask people to do things I wouldn’t do.
“I got quite a bit of colored trade right here, people who work in the neighborhood. They tell me, ‘You know why I’m buying here? They rob me in my home neighborhood.’ It’s the truth. In the old days, I worked out there. I know they take advantage of the poor people in those stores.”
I know I’m not going to be a millionaire. To make a lot of money you have to have a lot of ambition. With me, as long as I pay the rent, eat, go to a ball game, go to the race track, take the old lady out once in a while, and the bills are paid—well, what else do you need? I want to have enough money where I wouldn’t have to be a bum on the street or where I wouldn’t have to take a gun and hold somebody up to get a dollar. It’s a wonderful feeling to go out and earn the amount of money that it takes for you to live on. That’s my opinion—maybe it’s as stupid as a hundred thousand dollars, and there’s nothin’ more stupid than a hundred thousand dollars—but it’s my opinion.
I never cared about being rich. I know that sounds silly. I have a friend, he says, “I never seen a fella like you, who don’t care for money.” That’s a lie. I like money. I know you gotta have a certain amount of it. But how much does a guy need to live? I have a kid brother, he’s a go-getter. He can buy and sell me half a dozen times. It isn’t that I’m lazy. I’m kind of a dreamy guy, you’d say.
I think I’ve succeeded. If they didn’t want me any more, retirement wouldn’t bother me. I’d go to the ball game, I’d go to the track, I’d do a little fishing. There was a little time in my life when I was kinda worried. There used to be an ad in the papers: Pharmacist—do not apply over forty. I was forty-five when that happened. I thought, this is getting to be a young man’s game. But I was lucky. Nothing ever happened.
If I had to do it all over again, I’d be a doctor. I took pre-medics. Then I thought, Oh, four more years is just too rough. But I can’t complain. I’ve been lucky. I haven’t contributed anything to the world. There’s a few men who do. They’re men who are intelligent and probably could have made all kinds of money. But they spend their whole lives in educating. They gave their whole lives to society. You don’t read about them going on big trips. You don’t see ’em so much in the society column. We have some awful ignorant men too. It’s funny how they get to be the head of nations. It’s crazy, right?