by Julián Marías
I REMEMBER MY ARRIVAL in Salt Lake City on a long shining train which had just crossed the endless plains of Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming, and now had entered the land of the Mormons. When I got off the train and began to walk down the long avenue, now slick with ice, which stretches from the station to the Mormon Temple, I asked myself what I had lost in Utah, in this place where I didn’t even know the name of a single person. Undoubtedly the blame was this time – as in so many other cases – Jules Verne’s. Do you remember his Around the World in Eighty Days? Phineas Fogg, the phlegmatic gentleman, and his roguish servant Passepartout; in their company I came to know Utah and its Mormons for the first time, in my early youth. But let’s not deceive ourselves: youth somehow remains with us; I had a date with Salt Lake City from the age of ten, and now I was keeping it, walking slowly through the snow along a deserted street, toward the Mormon Temple, which glowed in the distance, and which can only be entered by the faithful.
This enormous temple, brightly lighted, seemed to orient and give meaning to the city. Very close by, the mountains, which surround the city and are visible on all sides, creating in its midst the image of a wild West. Frozen and almost deserted streets. And suddenly, the drugstore! There, in Salt Lake City, I finally understood its meaning. Always open, day and night, in any weather, brilliantly lit up like a beacon in the middle of the night, sheltering and hospitable like a port, full of things … like a drugstore, for in no other place are there so many things. Twenty-five-cent books on revolving wire stands; children’s records; magazines and newspaper; cigarettes, cameras, candies, luggage, electrical appliances, chairs, pens, toys, glasses, perfumes, stationery fishing tackle … anything you can think of. Since it has everything, there are even drugs and prescriptions in the American drugstore. And there is, strangely enough, a large counter, lined with plastic-covered stools, where one can order, at any hour of the day or night, and for a few cents, a couple of eggs, a cup of coffee, a milk shake, a hamburger, or what they call, with wonderful inventiveness, a cheeseburger.
If you want to buy something in the United States, don’t give it a second thought. An alarm clock? Don’t look for a watchmaker, because you may not find one, or he may not sell alarm clocks. Go to the corner drugstore. Do you need a pipe, a roll of film, a hot plate, a life preserver, some stamps, a bath sponge, a toaster, an atlas, a filet of salmon, an aspirin, chocolate or strawberry ice cream, a coonskin cap? Do you want to call Miami, Chicago, Columbus, the most remote town in Minnesota or in Arizona? Walk confidently into the drugstore. Do you want to thaw out and warm your ears? Do you want to breathe cool air when outside heat has melted the asphalt? The drugstore makes life livable again.
And, above all, if you need company, if you feel alone, estranged, and detached from everything, if it seems to you that there is no one left in the world, that humanity has disappeared from around you, you will find it again in the drugstore. It is always the same, always identical; it is yours. You will find it in Niagara Falls, near the Canadian border; and in California, on the shores of the Pacific; in the small, intimate cities of Connecticut or Massachusetts, and on the plains of Wisconsin; in the bustle of Chicago, and very near the gardens which surround Pasadena’s millionaires. When you cross its threshold, you enter into the same socially shared world, you are “at home”. Behind the counter the same smile that you left behind in your own city awaits you. From the stools, a complex sampling of humanity looks at you benevolently: a boy and a girl who are drinking a shake and looking into each other’s eyes, while she straightens her blond hair; the nurse who pauses on her way to the hospital for a cup of hot coffee; the solitary night owl who doesn’t know where to go; the truck driver who gulps down his bacon and eggs while his gas tank is being filled; the lady who is out shopping and, surrounded by packages, eats a quick bite. Perhaps the counter is circular, or forms three sides of a square: the people face each other and smile; there is a smell of coffee; cigarette smoke curls upwards; a few words are exchanged; an old man cleans his glasses in order to see three generations more clearly.
The drugstore is a refuge, a haven for the weary, a source of diversion for the curious and contemplative, a consolation for the afflicted and lonely. In a big city, its lights beckon and call; in small, quiet towns, when everyone is asleep, it accepts the stranger who feels lost. How many charitable deeds the American drugstore performs unknowingly! It feeds the hungry, it refreshes the thirsty, at times it clothes the naked, it visits the nostalgic, it consoles the sad, it teaches the uninformed with its books and gives advice for those who need it. How many on their way to commit a crime, perhaps to murder or to take their own life, may have found a drugstore in their path and have changed their minds? In this country of statistics, one figure is lacking: the would-be suicides who had a change of heart in the drugstore and became reconciled to life. They ought to send a postcard to the census office.
The translation from Spanish is by J. Richard Andrews and Joseph H. Silverman