When I was 23, I came to America for the first time with my soon-to-be wife, and settled in her hometown of Katonah, New York. I was a Dubliner who knew the United States only through its literature, and I felt every bit as alien as my resident-alien card suggested.
My dream was to become a writer but I needed a job. Eventually, I found one opening boxes of books at Fox & Sutherland’s, the famous old book, camera, and record store in Mount Kisco. The books department was the jurisdiction of Herman Fox, a man of short-stature in his 80s with round-rimmed glasses and large black shoes. All day Mr. Fox wandered the aisles, straightening books and leaning on his customers. Actually leaning. He’d hold on to your shoulder for support and, while he had you there, he’d take something off the nearest shelf: “This one’s good.”
In this tactic, Mr. Fox’s all-time favorite was Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. Each morning Mr. Fox would place copies of the book on various shelves, so one was always near at hand. On my first morning, perhaps forgetting that I was an employee, he took my arm and brought us over to a shelf. He picked out the fat paperback edition, and opened it to what I later discovered was not a random page.
“Read it out,” he said.
“America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.”
He passed no comment, but patted the cover gently, like you might the head of a favored child.
In those days, bookselling still had an air of genteel transaction. It was commerce, yes, but of ideas and language. In Fox & Sutherland’s, many families had accounts, and never paid in cash. Prices were not mentioned, but, under Mr. Fox’s gaze, were carefully noted in the account books. In a gesture both enlightened and pragmatic, the staff were encouraged to bring home any books they wanted to read, and so for me the store served as a further education, enabling me to read more widely than any curriculum would.
But the company of books brought me no closer to being an actual writer. And as the days went by, my ambition began to seem what it was, a dream of youth.
One summer afternoon, two men came into the bookstore together. One was broad, in white shirt and khaki trousers, the other shorter, in a blue shirt and a low baseball cap. Alice, a bookseller, first realized who they were. She came to the counter and mouthed: Frank Sinatra.
Almost immediately, everyone in the store knew: Frank Sinatra was the short figure in the baseball cap. In Records, staff acknowledged him by putting on Songs for Swingin’ Lovers. It played out over the sound system. The man in the baseball hat didn’t react. He kept his focus on the shelves while his voice was everywhere around him. The man next to him was Robert F. Wagner, the three-time mayor of New York City.
Now, I’m not sure whether Mr. Fox knew either of them right away. What he did know was we had a customer with three hardcovers under his arm. Mr. Fox motioned for me to go fetch the books so the customer wouldn’t have to carry them.
In Dublin, when he wasn’t listening to Pavarotti, my father listened to Sinatra. He sat in the small front room on his own and played his music. He never said I should give up listening to Bob Dylan; he never said, ‘‘That’s not singing, this is,’’ or otherwise revealed how the music spoke to his inner life, but I knew.
So when I was crossing the short distance of Fox & Sutherland’s to take the books, I was also crossing an enormous one. I was crossing one of time and distance, of geography and generation, of fathers and sons, and also the one that lay between Alien and American. No one seemed more American to me than Frank Sinatra.
‘‘I’ll take those to the counter, sir.’’
At the sound of my voice, the baseball cap tilted up—I was much taller—and then I saw his eyes. The blue of Sinatra’s eyes was like nothing I had ever seen. In the many times I have told this story, I can never convey how extraordinary his gaze was, how it stopped me.
He creased a smile and handed me the hardcovers, then moved on through the aisles. No customer approached him. There was only me, coming and going, taking books from him.
Mr. Fox held on to the counter, watching the books pile up. But he eventually shuffled over to the most famous customer ever to come into his bookstore. Once he got to him, he grasped his arm and took a copy of Democracy in America off the shelf. He opened his favorite page and let Sinatra read it. I watched the words work on him.
Sinatra took three copies, and then brought Mr. Fox, as Mr. Fox brought him, back to the counter. I put the de Tocquevilles in a fourth shopping bag. I noted them in the account book, which now ran to several pages. By habit, I had searched the Rolodex for any account under Sinatra, and finding none, had the surreal experience of my hand writing F Sinatra in the box for the account name. I had totted up the bill and then, under some pressure with Ol’ Blue Eyes standing in front of me, added on the three Democracies. The total came to more than $800, the single largest book sale in the history of Fox & Sutherland’s.
I didn’t look up; I pushed the written account across the counter toward the customer. Above us, Songs for Swingin’ Lovers was on repeat; we were at “Too Marvelous for Words.”
What Frank Sinatra didn’t do next was reach for his wallet. It didn’t seem to occur to him, as though wallets were not in his realm. He did not look at or make the slightest gesture toward the dotted line for “Customer Signature.” Nor did Mr. Fox motion him toward it. Instead, he motioned toward me and said, “He’ll carry them to your car.”
Out into a blaze of sunlight then, behind the two men, I carried the four shopping bags of books.
Back in the store, Mr. Fox was already turning the encounter into sales; he was too genteel to discuss money, but not too genteel to make it. From now on, he could pick any book and say, ‘‘Frank Sinatra bought that one,’’ and the magic of that phrase would work. He’d get that $800 back, and more.
The mayor popped open the immaculate trunk of a powder-blue Cadillac, and into it I placed the books. The mayor got into the car, and started the engine.
Then Frank Sinatra turned to me. I wasn’t expecting a tip, nor was one offered. Neither was I expecting what happened next. Sinatra looked at me. Actually looked.
It was a look I have never forgotten, and have often revisited. In it was all that could never be said about a skinny kid from New Jersey who had dreamed, who had once been as young as I was, as skinny as I was, and was here now on this far side looking back at me, as if he knew that I too had a dream.
‘‘Thanks, sonny,’’ he said.
To the young man I was then, Ireland had been a narrow place of confinement, restriction, but in the sunlit car park of Fox & Sutherland’s I felt a doorway opening, one that opened even wider when I actually read Democracy in America. De Tocqueville had traveled the country when he was nearly the same age as I was, and recognized America’s characteristic individualism, the permission it granted, the way it even urged you to—for lack of a better phrase—go for it.
That weekend I called my father in Dublin.
‘‘Is everything all right?’’
I didn’t say that I had started writing. I didn’t say, ‘‘I’m going to be a writer.’’ Irish sons don’t say such things to their fathers, or at least they didn’t then. But I wanted to tell him something had changed, so I said, ‘‘Do you know who came into the bookshop? Frank Sinatra.’’
The phone line hummed with that under-the-sea hum that reminded you that you were not only far away, but in another world.
And then, my father delivered the long, considered, and complex nature of his response in precise form.
‘’That’s America,’’ he said.