Sunday, February 19, 2006

No Place to Die

Early on in my research on self-help culture — back when I was poking a little fun at quantitative sociology — I'd gone into the Barnes and Noble on Union Square in Manhattan with a tape measure and calculated the total length of the shelf space devoted to self-help titles.

Back then B & N had those fantastic overstuffed arm chairs where you could park yourself and read for hours, or pull a set together for a chat with a friend. It was the most inviting of retail spaces, and I bought a lot of books there, in gratitude for that sort of public comfort.

Today I was back at that store, searching out a warm, indoor space where my daughter could amuse herself while her godmother and I caught up over coffee. (For out of town readers, we Manhattan apartment dwellers rely on such public spaces when we can't open up our apartments to guests for one reason or another.)

To my surprise, there weren't any chairs on the selling floor — no overstuffed comfortable arm chairs at all. Not even any stiff wooden ones. So we leaned against some displays and chatted while my daughter read some books and took part in a kid's story hour.

When I went to pick up my kid from the story hour, there were parents gathered around, many sitting, none too comfortably, on the floor.

"Wow," I said to one B & N employee, "It'd be great if you had some chairs so the parents had a place to sit."

"Yes," she said, pausing as if to consider whether to say more, "We had to get rid of them."

For a moment I was trying to imagine how the chairs could create some kind of inventory control problem.

Then another employee, someone new to the store, said "Yeah, how come we don't have any chairs?"

The first employee looked pained, and replied quietly, maybe so the kids wouldn't notice, "Too many deaths."

Employee number two and I fell silent, trying to comprehend the magnitude of this disclosure.

"Too many deaths?" I asked. "You mean people came in and sat down and died?"

"Yes, it got to the point where we had one a week."

I could feel my eyes welling up, so I made some off-handed remark about being grateful I'm well enough to stand.

Now I'm not sure what to think. If the B & N employee is to be believed — and she didn't seem to be making this up — then one has to wonder . . .

In a world with miles and miles of books on how to care for your inner child or win friends and influence people or become an automatic millionaire, we've come to a point where not only do some of us have no place to sit for a chat, others, the less fortunate among us, don't even have a comfortable, comforting place to die.

To help the homeless in New York City, contact the Coalition for the Homeless.