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Three Dollars and Twenty-Four Cents

For a little over three years, Jerry has walked among us. Or, maybe it was just three years ago that I began noticing him. He kind of just appeared on my radar one day as he shuffled along the comic racks, eyes to the floor. I have to admit that he made me a little nervous. There was something not quite right about him.
He was portly, off-balance, his white hair askew. He was certainly in his 50s, but his mannerisms were those of a child. His moustache was uneven, and his whiskers patchy. Obviously, there was some effort made to shave, but the job most definitely went awry. His clothes were plain, worn and unconcerned with the world around them.

Jerry came in alone. Always. He kept his eyes only on the floor and on the comics. Even at the register, he never made eye contact. He struggled with his money (always dollar bills and random change) which he counted out at the register. Jerry was quiet. Jerry was strange. Jerry was an outsider among outsiders. And Jerry was destined to become one of my all-time favorite customers.

I began tracking his visits. Sometimes, he came in the morning. Sometimes, at night. Jerry’s Wednesday’s were Thursdays. Or Sundays. Or any day in between. He had no concept of deliveries or cancellations or what the latest comic book “event” might be. He had no notion of the intricacies of the debates we had with one another on the floor of my shop.

The only thing important to Jerry seemed to be which of his favorite characters were on the cover. Didn’t matter if the issue was in the middle of a storyline. Didn’t matter if it was issue 3 of a four-issue miniseries that he’d not read. If it looked good and felt good in his hands, that was the one Jerry had to have.

And “one” is the exact number of comic books he ever bought on his visits. Once a week, he’d pick one out, pay his fare and head back out into the world.

Now, don’t get me wrong. There were a few rules to Jerry’s system. A small compass to keep the weekly ritual on course. It had to be a “team” book (preferably, they were all on the front cover), it absolutely had to be in the DC Universe (other publishers need not apply) and it had to cost $2.99.

Jerry had a mean bit of trouble with his hands. Obviously, a by-product of extensive diabetes or some other kind of malady that affected his ability not just to open and close them, but to feel the things he held. He came in with dollar bills (easy to just pass over a counter) and change in his pockets. He’d grab a handful and struggle to count it out, one coin at a time.

But Jerry quickly realized what a $2.99 comic book would cost him. With sales tax added on, his treasure would always come out to the same amount: three dollars and twenty-four cents.

Finding a quarter in a palm full of change is the easiest sort of coin fishing a guy with stiff hands can hope to do. And it’s a hell of a lot easier having the guy ringing him up drop a penny into his palm as change than to have to sweat and struggle counting out nickels and dimes as payment.

Three dollar bills. One quarter. A penny’s change.

Three dollar bills. One quarter. A penny’s change.

Week in. Week out. It always looked the same.

He seemed to never be interested in speaking to anyone around him. And he certainly didn’t want to speak to me. But boy did I try.

“Can I help you find anything?” I’d say. He’d sway back and forth on the balls of his feet, mumbling something incomprehensible.

“Nice day out today, isn’t it?” I’d say. Again, the sway and mumble.

“Gotta love what they’re doing with the Justice League!” I’d offer. Silence.

Most folks think someone like me opens a comic-book shop out of sheer love of the medium. There’s certainly some truth in that. But, that’s not really the meat and potatoes of it. I opened my store because I love people. There’s just no way to make a life devoted to the art of retail without being fascinated by the folks coming through your doors. I won’t lie and say that some of you don’t drive me crazy sometimes! Like a close-knit family we love each others’ foibles one day and hate them the next.

I love hearing you talk about whatever’s on your mind. I love hearing about your day, your life, and your comic-book passions. In my store, the employees and customers talk so much that time loses meaning and the world outside follows suit.

Then there was Jerry. Jerry and I shared only six words on each visit for nearly two years.

“Three dollars and twenty four cents.”

After 104 weeks of being a part of this ritual, I decided it was about time to throw a wrench in the works and see what would happen.

Jerry came in one lazy afternoon. There was no one in the store but me and my music. I said “Hello!” We’d gotten to the stage where he’d nod in my direction. All things considered, I thought that was great progress indeed.

He found his one gem for the week and made his way to the counter. I smiled as he pushed the book toward me. I smiled as I rang him up. I smiled as he looked at me, waiting for the sound of my voice. No numbers came out of my mouth.

“My name’s Jud. What’s yours?”

Poor guy. I’d caught him painfully off-guard. I’d looked him right in the eyes and veered from the script. Jerry convulsed, as if he’d been hit by a great gust of wind. He made a gasping sort of sound as the coins in his palm exploded and sent themselves flying every which way. There was a dreadful silence. His face was fiery red and his hands were still trembling. I felt terrible about what I’d done, but the whole scene just tickled me six ways to Sunday and I burst out laughing.

Jerry stared at me, befuddled. Then, slowly, he began to laugh. There we were, two grown men, laughing about scaring the heck out of one another and making a big mess. We got down on our hands and knees, recovering what had escaped and laughed the whole way.

There, down on the floor, this strange and eccentric visitor finally showed up to the party. “I’m Jerry” he said, enjoying the sound of his own voice. “Nice to finally meet you, Jerry” I said. “I’ve wanted to for quite some time now.”

I wish I could tell you we ended up becoming close, personal friends. I wish I could tell you I learned everything there is to know about him as a human being. I wish I could regale you with years of stellar conversation and shared intimacy. If wishes were horses…

You know how it is when you start thinking about something more often and suddenly, you begin seeing it everywhere you look? That’s exactly what happened to me with Jerry.

I started seeing Jerry around the neighborhood all the time. Obviously, he’d always been there, but I’d only just begun to notice.

Hey, there’s Jerry at the bus stop! There’s Jerry crossing the street! Is that Jerry eating an ice cream cone?

I’ve waved to him from my car and had the gesture returned. I’ve passed him on the sidewalk and called out a quiet “hey!” And, I’ve seen him going home at night and felt strangely comforted that I knew where home was.

Not too far from my store is a fixture of the neighborhood. It’s a residence for adults with mental illness who are still productive members of the world, but need a safe place to call their own. Some of the residents occasionally cause trouble at our stores. We have to train our employees to be sensitive to their personalities. Some of them require treatment that takes them far away from the promise of a stable environment.

But only one of them is Jerry.

I see this man in my store every week. It seems I’m the only one, since no one else pays any attention to him at all. I suspect that’s just the way he likes it. I’ve made him uncomfortable when I’ve held up a long line of customers so we can casually sort through his change. He’s allowed me to reach into his palm myself from time to time. It makes it easier on him and I’m honored that he lets me.

These days, when he enters the shop, he enters laughing. Maybe when he sees me, he thinks about the two of us on the floor, hunting for pennies. I know that’s the first thing that comes to my mind when I see him.

“Hi!” he says. To which I reply, “Hiya, Jerry!”

“How are you?” Says he. “Just fine! And you?”

“Fine!” he says. And I say “Well, that makes two of us!”

And that’s really all there is. Sometimes, he’ll spit out a spontaneous comment like “time for some ‘Trinity!’” or “Aren’t those Teen Titans fun?” I always heartily agree with him. Because I genuinely do.

Sometimes, I’ll slip some free comics into his bag. Minutes later, he’ll rush back in and say, “These aren’t mine!” to which I reply “Yes, they are Jerry.” He’ll say “But I didn’t buy these!” and I’ll say “So? Doesn’t make them any less yours, does it?” Then he’ll light up as if he just won the lottery.

The relationship I have with Jerry is as valid and rich as I have with any of my other customers. Maybe even more so. The money he spends is truly inconsequential. He’s quietly been a member of my store and my community for years and weaves in and out among us like a spirit. The lucky ones are the ones that can see him. I enjoy the few minutes a week I spend with him and he enjoys the same with me.

Three dollars or three thousand. That’s the kind of enjoyment no amount of money can buy.


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