My cousin says that Furber hardly knows anyone by their real name. He identifies them by some nickname in connection with the fiddles they buy from him or get him to repair, or by some personal peculiarity.
— Samuel Butler, The Notebooks of Samuel Butler
Now that I think about it, we have a large group of people whom we “know” in the sense that we see them regularly enough, and even talk to them sometimes, but we’ve never been formally introduced, so we often don’t know their names. This is no problem; in fact, I find that I often prefer to know people by the nicknames (and occasional backstories) we give them. When we do discover their real names, it’s always disappointing, like the moment when a child learns that Santa doesn’t exist. Here’s a list of some of the characters who populate our semi-imaginary world.
Starting with the world of used-and-rare book dealers, there’s Ponytail Ashtray. She and her husband are smokers, and she has a long ponytail. Plus, “Ashtray” is a pun on her real last name. Foul-mouthed, loud and excitable, she brings a white-trash element to the slightly more reserved atmosphere of book-dealing (that’s not a slur; she describes herself that way).
Muppet Man somehow manages to resemble a composite of Muppet characters. A little bit of Beaker, a little Gonzo, a little Scooter, he has an odd, bouncy way of walking that even looks like he’s being moved along on a wire. He owns several t-shirts with classic book covers on them, which he ritually wears to sales. A fellow Wodehouse fan, we always greet each other with a hearty, “What ho, old bean!”
Walter, named for the Dude’s best friend Walter Sobchak in The Big Lebowski. No, he hasn’t pulled a gun on anyone, but — well, first, you have to imagine his appearance. Average height, paunchy, wide-eyed and bespectacled, a trim little mustache and neatly combed salt-and-pepper hair, he always wears a field vest with all his tools of the trade in the many pockets. His voice sounds very much like Jimmy Stewart. Strikes you as a kindly grandpa who spends his days fishing on the lake. One day, he told us a story, apropos of nothing as I recall, about a confrontation he had at a sale with some obnoxious dealer who threw a blanket over a table of books and tried to claim everything underneath it. Walter said he calmly folded the blanket up and informed the man, upon his objecting, that he had faced many more dangerous people than him in his time, and furthermore, had learned in the military several ways to take a man’s life with nothing more than a finger. “Here, let me show you,” he said to Muppet Man next to him in line, who had a look of incredulous horror on his face as Walter put one arm around his shoulders while demonstrating the proper placement of the index finger next to the jugular vein. This isn’t ‘Nam, Walter, this is book dealing. There are rules.
Berkeley Hunt, a thoroughly unpleasant lady. Without fail, she manages to get into a shouting confrontation within three minutes of every sale we see her at. As far as I can tell, the common denominator in all this rancor eludes her. We heard her once, in a calmer moment, telling someone she’d recently moved here from Berkeley, CA. Berkeley + her winning personality + Cockney rhyming slang = Berkeley Hunt.
Yuri and Svetlana. He looks like a disheveled Talmudic scholar, in ill-fitting polo shirts and flip-flops, with his nose frequently pressed into a book Samuel Johnson-style; she always has her long hair tightly braided and wears old-fashioned long dresses and long boots. “That religious couple,” as other dealers call them. He’s affable, she’s aloof to the point of being generally considered unfriendly. She seems to do most of the work; he mostly seems to flit from book to book like a nearsighted honeybee, leaving nose prints on the pages.
Kneepads, a burly, bearded man named for his habit of always wearing knee and elbow pads to sales, as if expecting a pickup volleyball game to break out. (Sometimes accompanied by his young daughters, always wearing Little House on the Prairie-style dresses, whom we’ve dubbed Shinguard, Helmet, etc. in keeping with tradition.) His truck used to proudly sport Infowars bumper stickers; I wouldn’t be at all surprised to hear that he’s somewhere in the QAnon universe these days, maybe holed up in a bunker with years of supplies. He has what’s commonly known as “crazy eyes.”
Philly John, loquacious and good-natured, always fun to pass the time with, seemingly interested in just about anything. Not to be confused with Delaware John, the former professor, who kept me company on a frigid January morning talking about early colonial American history while waiting for a sale to open (we were the only two idiots devoted enough to be there that early).
The Assassin, an elderly lady. Prim and fastidious, usually dressed in shades of lavender or pink, she has a restrained composure about her in everything from her movements to her facial expressions that suggests extraordinary self-control. Her habit of methodically putting on latex gloves a few minutes before every sale was the finishing touch that earned her the name. You could just as easily imagine her sneaking up behind someone with a garrote or setting up on a rooftop with a sniper rifle as perusing dusty old books.
The Hobbit. She appears barefoot at every sale, even in the dead of winter, standing on the cold sidewalk with her gnarly, callused, filthy feet. Best to not get down on the floor to look through the boxes under the table when she’s nearby.
Heroin Chic(k), from NYC. Nice enough to talk to, but good Lord, those haunting, piercing eyes, those starving-artist clothes, that gaunt frame, and that apparent indifference to deodorant.
The Fitzminions. A husband/wife team. He’s a pastor, one of my favorite people to pass the time in conversation with at sales. He always manages to seem freshly amazed at the stupidity and spitefulness of human nature. He’s well over six feet tall, completely bald, with wide eyes and thick lenses. It took me a while to figure out who he reminded me of, but eventually I got it.
Shrek and Donkey. A Russian uncle and nephew, respectively. At one sale, while talking to Shrek outside, he saw his nephew bringing the car in to a nearby parking spot. “Luke at dhis,” he said in his Russian accent, “he luke like Donkey from the Shrek movie!” He smiled and waved, which made his nephew flash a toothy grin. Sure enough, the resemblance was uncanny.
Among truck drivers we see often in the course of our day job, Cornbread is our favorite. His predecessor told us that he was from Minnesota, so we should be sure to ask him if he was from Iowa, or the Dakotas, because “they hate that, apparently.” Luckily, he’s Minnesota Genuine Nice, so he enjoys the razzing.
Beepy McGee is one of the few UPS drivers who abide by the regulations requiring them to beep the horn when backing up. He enjoys it so much he beeps upon arrival, while backing up, and as he leaves. We imagine him just cruising down the street like Herbie the Love Bug or something, beeping happily to everyone he sees, with the grill of his truck curved in a smile.
Red is named for her omnipresent red manicure, which she strives to maintain against all odds in a physical job. “It’s one of the few things you can do to make this uniform look pretty,” she said. Tall and lanky, almost always wearing shades, she’s one of the few women in a strongly male manual labor environment and as such, is subject to the usual double-standards, like being thought “stuck up” for simply being professional. Cornbread told us that the guys at the depot all wonder, “Where does she stop to pee on a rural route like this?” One time, she showed up to pick up a heavy amount of outgoing parcels when we were expecting Beepy McGee. We joked that we had been eager to see whether we could make him cry when he saw how much he had to take. She smirked and said, “Well, he’d probably cry before I would.” Cool and tough.
Bald Boss is the supervisor who occasionally rides shotgun when training new drivers. Lately, he’s been sporting a wild, prophet-in-the-wilderness beard, which Cornbread says is due to his having joined a new religious “cult.” An anti-vaxxer and a survivalist with an actual bunker, he’s a good reminder of why it’s best to keep most conversations superficial and brief. People are mostly nuts once you scratch the surface.
At the gym, there’s Bun Affleck. He looks remarkably like the buff Batman-era Ben Affleck, only with his long hair up in a man bun. Either closeted, or extremely confident in his sexuality, he frequently wears skimpy, bright pink shorts, which match his bright pink lifting shoes. The “Virginity Rocks!” t-shirt gives me a Christian Youth camp counselor vibe, though.
Ace of Spades has the tattoo on his leg, among many others. He drives what looks like a the result of a monster truck mating with an amphibious assault vehicle, and gives off a strong OORAH impression in everything he does, from his swagger, to the way he martial-arts shadowboxes in between sets, to his over-the-top “This [picture of an automatic rifle] is the tool – I AM THE WEAPON” shirts. And yet, he’s only an ordinary police officer. His frequent workout partner is Mrs. Smith. Watching her run through her circuit one day while I was on the treadmill, I was amazed at her strength and endurance. She looks like a lethal human weapon, so when we found out that she’s actually from Eastern Europe, we named her after the Angelina Jolie spy/assassin character. We invented an elaborate backstory for her, in which she’s an undercover operative assigned to keep watch over a Russian expat living in the area who made an enemy of Putin before leaving. When she’s not causing men to question their masculinity in comparison with her superhuman standards, she’s foiling yet another attempt by Putin’s henchmen to poison her client.
Cap doesn’t completely resemble Captain America, but he earned the name because there’s just something so all-American wholesome about his friendly, welcoming manner. When we found out that one of the women working at the desk was his wife, she became Peggy, naturally.
Angry Amish looks like he was ostracized from his community once he started listening to metal music, getting tattooed, and lifting weights, but he kept the beard. I’ve rarely seen him speak to anyone, and only once did I see a faint smile. He keeps to himself among us English.
The Todd is named after the dudebro surgeon from the brilliant TV show Scrubs, thanks to his habit of constantly stealing admiring glances at himself in the mirror. Not just when doing reps, but also when simply placing the dumbbells back on the rack, or walking to his next station. I can totally see him giving a “self-five for the Big Dawg!” in appreciation of his physique.
Upon reflection, I have to say that I have a richer fantasy life than I would have guessed.