Saroyan Shopping List

My latest stumbled-upon literary discovery at Syracuse University’s Bird Library revealed a clue to a mystery I will never solve. But I was thrilled to find it pressed between the pages of William Saroyan’s The Assyrian and Other Stories.

Books on shelves at Syracuse University's Bird Library. Photo by Steve Sartori.

Books on shelves at Bird Library. Photo by Steve Sartori.

I was searching through the stacks on the fifth floor one morning last week, before heading to work. I wanted to pick up ‘Tis by Frank McCourt and The Human Comedy by Saroyan. After I grabbed The Human Comedy I decided to peruse the large selection of other Saroyan books resting on the shelves nearby.

I flipped through The Assyrian and decided to check it out as well because the book contains an essay written by W.S. called The Writer on the Writing. In it he talks about his writing philosophy and the prolific short story work he produced in the mid to late 1930s.

I found his words to be inspiring.

He writes: “Anxiety at work is what tires a writer most. Writing without anxiety is certain to do the writer himself good; which takes me back to what it was I had hoped to achieve for myself when I wrote so many short stories in 1934-1939. I felt that it was right to just write them and turn them loose and not take myself or the stories too seriously. I had hoped to achieve an easier way for a man to write: that is, a more natural way.”

(Saroyan, William. The Assyrian and Other Stories. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1949. Print.)

He goes on to say the writer should have “implicit faith in himself, in his character, and in what he is apt to write. He must believe that it is possible for him to achieve writing as good as he might ever achieve by writing easily, swiftly and with gladness.”

However, the sage advice from Saroyan was not the only thing the book divulged.

Inside I found a 3×5 index card dated 9/30/03. A shopping list was written vertically in blue ballpoint ink on the unlined side of the card. The list was divided into two areas; one section had the word “CVS” next to it and listed the following items numerically:

1. tea
2. Saltines
3. candy!! (double exclamation points)
4. Advil

The second section mentioned “Carousel Saturday?”—pointing to a possible trip to the mall. Carousel Center was the former name of the Destiny USA mall in Syracuse. For this part the list read:

1. black turtleneck
2. penny loafers
3. socks
4. handerchief (misspelled for handkerchief).
5. beret

A shopping list written on a 3x5 index card, found in the book The Assyrian and Other Stories by William Saroyan.

A shopping list written on a 3×5 index card, found in the book The Assyrian and Other Stories by William Saroyan.

I tried to imagine the person who made out this list. Was it a man or a woman? I narrowed my hunches to either a young professor or a graduate student (both male) picking up some needed supplies and clothes at the beginning of a fall semester. Maybe this student was pursuing his MFA in creative writing. I pictured him with brown hair, a tall, thin frame and wearing his black turtleneck, beret and penny loafers while reciting a manuscript at a cafe poetry reading.

Finding the list made me think that in another life I would have made a good library detective, sort of like Mr. Bookman (Philip Baker Hall) in that popular Seinfeld episode.

I’m not sure why these little discoveries inside books amuse me so much, but they do. Maybe my life is so boring I need to live vicariously through other people. Or maybe it’s just the element of surprise that excites me. It’s fun to uncover something that has been hidden in between the pages of a book for many years.

The only due-date stamp for The Assyrian and Other Stories is Oct. 24, 2003, so I wondered if I was the only person to open this book since then.

I also consider the index card a timeline marker for its owner. It proves he was here; this was a snapshot of his life on Sept. 30, 2003. He existed in a fixed place at a set time. He bought candy and tea and Advil and probably looked stylish in his black turtleneck, beret and penny loafers. He was alive and had dreams.

Our shopping list author is not the same person today. He is older and may have a wife and kids. Perhaps he applied the advice of Saroyan in his own creative work. Maybe he completed his MFA and now teaches creative writing at SU. Maybe he published his own short story collection or a couple of novels. Maybe I will find his books in circulation in this same library.

Unfortunately, maybe is as far as my investigation will take me. I’m left with only suppositions, as answers to the mystery of the index card and its owner elude me.