Dollar Bill

(Here’s another selection from Alan Bisbort’s memoir of his years in the small bookstore business. — Levi)

Dollar Bill was a regular at the shop, though there was nothing about his looks or manner that suggested a love of books. He was a diminutive but powerful-looking man with stiffly chivalrous manners. His snow-white hair was cropped short, with a little flip at the front as an ever-so-slight concession to the modern world. He also sported a thin, almost invisible white-grey moustache, like George Orwell’s. Combined with his piercing grey-blue eyes, this continental facial hair made him appear both fierce and slightly foolish. His skin was beaten to a leathery consistency by years of exposure to the outdoors, and yet he always dressed in a severely-pressed Navy blue suit, with thick military-style black, thick-soled dress shoes, scuffed a bit at the front but shiny as a mirror in the back. The suit shone like mica from its many dry cleanings. Dollar Bill looked as if he were perpetually on his way to a formal gathering where he would, in all likelihood, be turned away at the door.

Because the bookshop was located seven blocks from the U.S. Marine Corps Barracks, I pegged him to be an old soldier who simply never broke free from the orbit of his career, centered as it had been in Washington, D.C. Though pushing 65, Dollar Bill retained the square muscular Mason jar-head of a Marine whose DNA refused to let him to go completely to seed or to style now that he was out of uniform. This, I knew instantly from having been born into a military family and having lived my boyhood on military bases, was a man who was wed to the service, knew or cared little about anything beyond the service and, had he ever been married, chances are that he had asked for permission first from his commanding officer and would have, had the colonel’s answer been ‘no,’ remained single. Gladly.

I called him Dollar Bill, for reasons that will be clear in a minute. Late afternoons were Dollar Bill’s forte. He arrived as the sun’s rays raked the red bricks of the school across the street, creating elongated grey blades in its playground. He stretched these visits into the early evenings, pretending to comb through the same dusty titles in the shop upstairs, out of my sight and usually out of my mind. I got the distinct impression that something haunted him at these times of the day, haunted him worse, that is, than at other times of the day when they merely made him anxious.

What could haunt Dollar Bill? What memories, brutality and mayhem awaited him there, in the past imperfect?

Dollar Bill was a piece of walking history, though it was never clear to me which piece. Conflicting accounts from people who claimed to know had Dollar Bill among the abandoned at the Bay of Pigs or at Danang during the Tet Offensive or even among the walking wounded at Chosin Reservoir during the Korean War. He was certainly old enough to have been at any, or all three, of these Hells on earth.

The owner of the shop chuckled at Dollar Bill behind his back, nicknaming him Mr. God Bless, because of his exaggerated politeness around women. Around her, Dollar Bill’s politeness was like a pantomime, almost too painful to watch, as if he didn’t quite know how to behave around the fairer sex. It was a performance he seemed to have to remind himself to put on each time he faced “civilians,” that is, anyone who could not fathom what it was like to stroll through his inner beachheads, battle zones and slit trenches, who did not know the joy and terror of combat.

“God Bless you, young man, for the knowledge that you bring to the world with this repository of riches,” Dollar Bill often said upon entering the shop, or words to that effect. He always brought the blessings of the deity upon me. I confess to having been charmed by this, because it was so different from any other greeting I received in the course of a day.

He was a history buff; military history, that is. Crimean War, Peloponnesian War, Punic War, Spanish Secession, Franco-Prussian War, Spanish American War, macht no diff to Dollar Bill, as long as the book was thick, footnotes long and detailed, and the maps legible. Military history was his obsession, the final figuring out of what happened, the how of it, though never the why. Dollar Bill was a do-or-die guy, never questioning orders, just carrying them out.

He was neither scholar nor author. No, military history was much more personal to Dollar Bill. Though he could barely feed and clothe himself in the present day, he was determined to find out what really happened 2,000 years ago or, if possible, 30, 20 or 10 years ago. He was not one to run away or flinch from the past. Indeed, he was running toward it as fast as he could go, pumping his legs like an infantryman dropped twenty-five yards from shore at Normandy or Guadalcanal, running desperately from the present to be sure. Hit the dirt. Give me a hundred, soldier. Sir, yes sir.

Dollar Bill heaved himself into history’s breach with the same selfless intensity that he hit the beach at the Bay of Pigs or bit the dust on the Mekong Delta.

“I don’t read these books in your shop,” he once explained to me. “I study them.”

Though I couldn’t tell you exactly the difference between these two concepts, reading and studying, I knew in my gut a difference existed just from the way Dollar Bill had spoken. With this one remark, he made me rethink my own reading habits, which seemed paltry and weak in comparison.

On closer scrutiny of Dollar Bill’s face, you couldn’t help but notice that one of his eyeballs was glazed over by an egg-white cloud; I fantasized a knife wound during some hand-to-hand session with a “gook” from which Bill emerged scarred but victorious. (“You should see the other guy,” I imagined his awestruck brothers in arms saying, and then adding, “What’s left of him”). This eye condition only added to Bill’s strange aura, giving him the stigmata of combat fatigue—the permanent thousand-yard stare. He fixed this fish eye on the world of the present while his good eye was buried inside a book. He had, on his first few visits to the shop, fixed this fish eye on me. Then one day he changed, presumably having decided I was not an enemy combatant. From that day forward, he adopted the stiffly formal tone that was his attempt at conviviality and gazed fondly upon me through his good eye.

“God Bless and thank you for these irreplaceable books,” he began saying each time he entered the shop door.

This was just the start of his ritual. He always carted several dog-eared newspapers probably exhumed from trash bins along the avenue and a small army of bagged purchases—day-old stones of pumpernickel or rye, flaccid bargain produce, the pungent butt ends of deli cheeses. He would spend a painful two minutes arranging, with the intense concentration of a guerilla fighter making camp behind enemy lines, his parcels beside the desk, breathing heavily through that little moustache opening the whole time. He would then withdraw, like a knife from a sheath, a pair of thick reading glasses whose nose piece was held together with electrician’s tape, slip them on, turn to me and ask, “Excuse me, young man, what time do you close, and God bless you for providing me with this information?”

I would tell him and he would appear to be listening but I knew he was not. Then he would disappear, marching methodically toward the back of the shop, then clomp clomp clomp, his footfalls echoed as he ascended the stairs to the second floor, where few browsers, or shoplifters, ever ventured.

This ritual took place every time Dollar Bill came in the shop, which was at least once a week for the five years I worked there. And, every time, when I was preparing to close the shop, I would find him upstairs, asleep in a chair with a book in his lap. In a way, it comforted me to know Dollar Bill was up there. I figured that if I were being robbed at gunpoint—as had happened twice before Bill entered the scene—he would come to my aid, chase down the assailant in those clunky clod-hopping military shoes, administer a close-hand combat maneuver that would paralyze and disable him permanently and then, to conceal his handiwork, I imagined him gutting and filleting the corpse, tossing the head and hands into separate Dumpsters and leaving the torso, unrecognizable, for the police to mull over.

Though I did not feel anywhere near the trepidation the shop owners did when Dollar Bill visited, I still knew to close the shop 20 minutes earlier than usual on those days, just to assure getting out on time. That’s because Dollar Bill’s ritual upon leaving the shop was even more protracted than the one he had upon entering.

“God bless you for informing me of the time. I’ve lost some valuable study hours I will never be able to reacquire,” he would say, a note of panic in his voice. “I am getting closer, though, closer…”

When he left, he invariably asked me “for the profound courtesy” of putting yet another book on the hold shelf for him and he would bring God’s blessings upon me again for doing what he asked. How could I not accommodate this strange little man’s request?

He never had the money to actually purchase the books he put aside, but he liked to look at the shelf when he came in, as if the shop was merely the host for a personal hand-picked library that belonged to him in all but a transactional way. Surely, there were similar arrays of books at other used bookshops around the city, his wares permanently on hold, like his life.

Occasionally, though, Dollar Bill would buy a book. When this transaction took place, he always paid in one-dollar bills—thus, his nickname. This cache of bills was hidden in various places on his person. It did not matter if the amount owed was $4 or $24. He would fumble, bend and contort 24 different ways, as he extracted one bill after another, at intervals breathlessly asking, “How much do you have there now?” The dollar bills were warm and damp from his body as he handed them over to me and all the while he kept a running monologue going, a worshipful plaint about the power of the written word: “You know, these books are invaluable sources of knowledge. They are helping me.” One day, during these contortions, I noticed when his shiny suit coat hiked up in the back that his Navy blue dress pants were held up by a rope. He was that close to the edge.

It was the act of a down-in-the-mouth magician, pulling one-dollar bills out of his socks, armpits, knee brace, skull plate, shirt collar and other places I could not bear to imagine. This was, no doubt, a holdover from his Marines days when he concealed weapons, piano wire, radio parts and poison on his person, just in case.

Many were the homeless, pitiful and insane who used my shop as a haven from their mental mayhem, but I did not feel sorry for them. I tolerated them, often gave them spare change to keep them moving along, but I did not treat them any differently than anyone else, unless they caused a disturbance with foul gesture, word or odor. But I truly felt sorry for Dollar Bill, no matter how many evenings of mine he cut into with his delay tactics upon leaving the shop. I got the impression that he wasn’t delaying his exit because of his personal eccentricities. Rather, he was terrified to leave. He had been so embraced by serenity during the time he was inside my shop, a serenity that allowed him to sleep as soundly as a baby upstairs, that he dreaded to go elsewhere.

At the end of his day, a grim metal cot at the Old Soldiers Home awaited Bill. Well, I reasoned, at least he had that. Many were those who, just on the other side of Dollar Bill’s edge, did not even have that metal cot to greet them at day’s end. Without his small government pension, Dollar Bill would be joining them, a breathing Rodin sculpture lying on a heating grate, a homeless statue leaning into the teeth of the fog.

* * * * *

The day I informed Dollar Bill that the bookshop was closing for good, that the owners were moving out of town, he was dumbstruck. He fixed me with his fish eye, standing stock still as his brain processed the input I’d just laid on his ears. If one didn’t know better, one might have thought he’d entered a catatonic state. Finally, he said, “Come again?” He cupped his tiny pink ear at me, a man trying with his entire being to deny news more horrible to him than any combat he’d ever seen. He wanted to hear and yet not hear.

I tried every way possible to convey to him that this would likely be our last encounter. Like the pet shop owner in Monty Python’s “Dead Parrot” routine, I repeated to Dollar Bill that the book shop was shuttering its doors, abandoning its perch, splitting town, that it was soon to be an ex-bookshop. But he just stood stock still.

Finally, he whispered, “Oh what a devastating blow this is. Oh.”

The way he said it, quietly and reverently, I finally understood my small importance to him in the world.

After digesting the news, he gulped and asked, “What are you going to do?”

This was the first time he had ever asked me a personal question or seemed aware that I had an existence separate from this shop. It felt like a fatherly concern for a son. It touched me deeply.

* * * * *

After the bookshop closed and the owner moved her stock out of town, I could not get the business out of my blood, so I moved to the flea market down the street, where every Sunday I manned a stall and made enough cash peddling paperbacks and a few odd collectibles to see me through each week. One busy Sunday afternoon, I saw Dollar Bill strolling down Seventh Street. I started to yell after him, to hail him, then I realized I didn’t know his name. Our transactions had always been in cash—one dollar bills—thus I was unable to learn the name through a personal check or credit card. I couldn’t very well shout out “Dollar Bill!”, and “Hey, man!” seemed inappropriate for a possible war hero. Nor could I abandon my bookstall and run to catch up with him.

Dollar Bill just kept walking, his thick legs marching methodically, the world his parade ground, his destination and ETA known only to himself. I turned back to what I was doing, and my chance was gone. I remember thinking how glad I was to know he was still out and about in the world, among the living, as it were.

It was only later, after I too left town, that I learned what happened to Dollar Bill.

* * * * *

His real name was Gilbert “Gil” Holmes, but he was known within the Marine Corps as “Suicide” Holmes. I could not possibly make this up. This is real. The man was a hard ass. I have it on good faith that he was a legend within that small circle of Jarheads who were into “extreme” training, at least as it was practiced back in the day. Which is to say, when all of its niceties were removed.

I learned all about “Suicide” Holmes from a retired Marine who posted a remembrance about his comrade on the Internet.

“The stories that were told about Holmes were really quite off the wall, though not without some basic truths in them,” the poster wrote.

Holmes was commissioned as an NCO in 1949 and was sent to Korea during that ill-fated war. His fellow NCOs who were commissioned at the same time as he was “looked upon him as a quasi-kook.” When he was promoted to Staff Sergeant, “Suicide” Holmes requested permission to bunk in the barracks with his troops. “It is said that the area around (and under) his rack had been ‘holystoned’ [that is, religiously cleaned with a pumice stone] to the extent that it turned totally white.”

This correspondent added, “Once commissioned [as a 2nd lieutenant], Holmes made a concerted effort to draw attention to himself. I don’t think he had ever spent a penny on personal things, but when he left for Korea, the tailor in Quantico told me that Holmes stored 32 sets of officer’s greens with him until he returned.” Even back then, a full set of officer’s greens cost about $100, while a 2nd lieutenant’s pay was $222 per month.

The correspondent first became aware of Suicide Holmes in 1955 when the latter was stationed at the Marine Corps Base in Quantico, Virginia.

“It was rumored that Holmes ‘broke starch’…five times a day so he would look sharp for the troops! He went out and bought himself a brand new Cadillac convertible, took his new vehicle down and had it painted Marine Corps Green, and had his convertible top made out of USMC Camouflage Shelter Halves. Needless to say, he attracted a LOT of attention.”

Odd as he was, he was revered by his men.

“I first ran into him in person at the Division Matches at Camp Lejeune in 1959. He had a Company in ITR, but would take off during the day to shoot, and then go out and spend his nights in the field with the troops. He sure didn’t look like I had expected him to look. He was about 5’ 9” tall, and weighed about 160. He wore a pair of issue GI glasses and looked almost like some sort of “military nerd”… all he needed was the obligatory white tape around the nose-piece on his GI frames.” The black electrician’s tape would appear there later, in the days that Suicide Holmes, as “Dollar Bill,” visited my book shop.

During the Vietnam War, Holmes was “passed over” and required to become a non-commissioned officer again and was assigned to a Fleet Marine Force and “for whatever reason fell madly in love with one of the local barmaids.” It didn’t work out and he soldiered on, alone.

Holmes retired in the early 1980s. “According to legend,” writes this correspondent, “he met his end in a classically romantic gesture worthy of a hero out of a pre-20th century adventure tale. The story goes that he was on the street in Washington D.C. and witnessed the mugging of a young couple. Rather than simply ‘not’ get involved as most moderns do, ‘Suicide’ rushed in where angels fear to tread. The perpetrator of the dastardly deed turned and did for our hero with some sort of handgun that he had been using as a revenue enhancement tool.”

In the peculiarly formal locution that is so characteristic of truly hardass military men, the correspondent writes, “Unfortunately, I cannot supply any happy ending for this incident, as only Holmes’ demise at the hands of this miscreant was reported. My only observation is that I think Gil would have liked to have gone out trying to do the right thing and be a hero in the only way he knew…And so I end my tale of a romantic caught in a time that no longer has room for heroes or guys who want to do the right thing; win one for the Gipper, or charge one more machine-gun nest…Alas, the World is poorer without them…Semper Fi.”

As a side note, the correspondent mentioned that Holmes had requested, as far back as 1959, permission to be buried on the grounds of the Iwo Jima Memorial in Arlington, Virginia.

“Many thought that it was simply a gimmick to appear super-gung ho. While there is no way in this far off time to verify such, I would bet every penny I have that he was most sincere in his request,” the message concluded.

God Bless, indeed.

6 Responses

  1. I enjoyed this installment as
    I enjoyed this installment as well as the earlier one on McMurtry.

    I also have appreciated the Proust articles by Michael Norris (which I should probably point out on that thread).

    LitKicks Publishing Inc, Levi.

  2. I hope this memory is shared
    I hope this memory is shared with many. I recently met a young woman who helps homeless women and I discerned in her the same compassion I feel in the writer, a wellspring of kindness and understanding which could change the world by comprehending instead of castigating the differences among lifestyle. I loved the hero and his befriender equally, which is something that for me makes a piece of writing into a work of art.

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