Supreme Soliloquy

Supreme Court View

To let go
To cease to struggle
To let it end
Easy to stop
Resulting in…

3 a.m. March 31st


It is a stranger lately.

The week has been a blur.

Situation normal.

My home is torn up.

A mess of a nest.

I can’t seem to go through the past and sort it into trash or save.

It is black night outside. I saw a bit of moon through the trees to the west when I let the dogs out a bit ago. My bedroom windows face east.

I know the earth outside is carpeted in gold. Knowing that gives some comfort.

The building projects go on.

Another reason my home is torn up.

Everything in the attic had to come down, so this last raw space in the house could be finished off.

Garret Project

The walls will be lined with bookcases—of course.

A love seat with a pullout single bed. A rocker. A reading light. A garret I will likely never sit in, much less write a book. Filled with books I possess and not a single one my own.

Silent night but for the soft breathing of the woodstove. It pulls air in through its dampers to keep the fire alight. The fire radiates warmth back into the house. The soft orange glow twenty feet away is like a dragon’s eye. It is just firelight escaping through the glass doors of the iron box.

Last Friday, Travis and I headed down to Montgomery County for an emergency house call. The email exchanges had become urgent. The books had to be out before the end of the month. It was a nondescript townhouse in Rockville, not a mile from where I grew up so long ago. I thought we might haul out the common books, which were the man’s main issue. The development was flawed. Some county planner decades ago had approved the townhouse to face a courtyard. There was no parking but out on the street. The long row of townhouses was doubled up. One side faced the street. The other faced another row of townhouses across a thin strip of courtyard grass that struggled to grow because there was so little opportunity for the sun to hit it.

We walked about a hundred yards on a sidewalk that was uneven—sections heaved or sunk over time. There were eight steps down. Then more sidewalk. Then the townhouse where the books were. Eight concrete steps up to the front door. The home was very shallow. It had to accommodate the twin home behind it—the side that faced the street.

We were led down into the basement to review the common books. They were very nice. There was no way I was going to haul them up, down, up and out to the street. Not if you paid me.

Upstairs, the man had the better books set out on display.

A handful of jewels glowed on the coffee table in the tiny living room.

The most perfect F. Scott Fitzgerald in the most perfect dust jacket I’ve ever seen.

All the Sad Young Men

All the Sad Young Men. How nice to be young. Sadness knows no age.

There was a clutch of Richard Burton first editions. Richard Burton the explorer, not the actor.

Burton Books

First editions.

All the best books had invoices from Maggs, Reese… laid in them. The dates were from long ago. They had the seller’s father’s name on them. The seller was about my age. He explained his father had been a Wall Street guy.

There were other good books in the living room, but nothing that spoke to me.

“No one is that interested in Grant’s memoirs anymore. At least not as many people as the copies that turn up so often.”

I took pictures of the core collection and sent them to Annika. I requested “fast and dirty” research. Time was of the essence. I told the man I’d get back to him that afternoon.

Travis and I drove to the Gaithersburg Wonder Book a couple of miles away. I asked Patrick, the young manager, if he would be willing to pick up the common books. I described the load out and offered him a bonus. He agreed.

We headed back to Frederick. It was afternoon. I’d had a semiannual doctor’s appointment that morning. The doctor had been a little grumpy that I hadn’t gotten my blood test. I explained I hadn’t had a chance in the five days since I got back from Greece.

“I didn’t like the way your numbers ticked up a little last time. I want to see if they’ve gone up more. I don’t think it is a problem…”

Mortality smacked me in the face. “Wake up!”

Back at the warehouse, I reviewed Annika’s numbers:

All the Sad Young Men—$… (if has all first issue points)
The Kasidah—$… if first issue, $… if second issue
To the Gold Coast for Gold—$…
Goa and the Blue Mountains—$…

I sent the man a detailed email. I made a very low offer on the basement books, explaining the logistical costs. I made a very high offer on the seven books above. (There were two perfect copies of The Kasidah.)

I also made an offer on two signed Chagall posters from the 60s. The signatures… who knows? I based my offer on the value of the posters. (I didn’t mention there were many framed items!) Sadly, the four signed Sendaks from Where the Wild Things Are had hung in his children’s room and had lost their brilliance. The rest—like the rest of the antiquarian books—didn’t excite me enough to cross the threshold.

He responded the offers were acceptable. I replied that Patrick would pick up the basement books on the weekend at a time the two of them would arrange. I would come down Monday for the best books with a check.

Patrick picked up the basement books over the weekend.

Travis and I picked up the small group of books.

And the two posters.

Chagall Posters

On Monday.

The weekend between Friday and Monday was all books, all day. I’d missed two weekends while in Greece, and there was a huge backlog of carts.

On Friday, I’d gotten a call from a Jamaal. He wanted to deliver the handwoven carpets I’d bought while visiting Ephesus. He arrived Sunday in a box truck laden with folded carpets. He rolled them out on the parking lot, and I signed a document of approval.

Tuesday, I was up at 5 a.m. My older son was being admitted to the Supreme Court Bar. Quite an honor—plus, he was one of the lawyers on a case being argued that day.

I’d gotten no sleep. Again.

I dragged myself together and put on a suit and headed to the city. I’d left early enough that I thought I might be able to stop and look at the cherry blossoms.

Of course, there was an hour backup on Interstate 270 just south of Frederick due to an accident. There went my cushion. Rush hour going to DC is torture. The phone changed its mind and guided me down Connecticut Avenue. When I got downtown, I pushed the link to the parking garage in the law office that my son had texted me. The woman’s voice in the phone took me closer and closer.

“You have arrived.”

No law office. No parking garage.

I texted my son, “I’m here at the address on I Street.”

“The office is on 1st Street.”

The phone had its “1” and “I” confused. IT WASN’T me! I have proof.

Time was running out. I just couldn’t get to 1st Street due to one-way streets and traffic and construction and a park that interrupts 1st Street. I was exhausted and stressed. I decided to bail. Up ahead was an underground garage for a Walmart. I pulled in—or rather, down. I texted where I was and said I could walk the rest of the way. He replied he would send his husband with an Uber to pick me up. I took the elevator up to ground level. There were paper signs everywhere.

“This Walmart will close permanently on March 31.”

DC Walmart

“I’m on the corner of H and 1st.”

Soon, I was in a Honda and dropped off at the Supreme Court. I was given a pass. I was “The Guest of an Admittee.”

I’d never been in the building. It is a temple more than anything else. Very Greek. Marble everywhere.

Supreme Court View

I had to pass through a number of security checks. I needed to empty my pockets into a locker.

There were lines in several places. Finally, I was led into the courtroom itself.

It is a stunning room. Twenty-four huge columns support the ceiling. There are four large friezes—one for the upper part of each wall. There was a long wait with nothing to do but try to identify the characters in the friezes. Akhenaten? No, it turns out it was Menes.

Finally, assistants and guards and other functionaries began entering. Some set papers and/or drink containers at each justice’s seat.

We were cautioned that we couldn’t speak or stand or do anything but sit silently and observe.

Eventually, things formalized, and the pageantry began. It was almost religious.

“Oyez! Oyez! Oyez!”

There were about 20 lawyers present to be admitted. Their sponsors had to be members of the bar already. In my son’s case, his mother was sponsoring him.

“Chief Justice Roberts, I would like to request my son, Charles E.T. Roberts, be admitted to the Bar of the Supreme Court. I can attest to his good character.”

“Your son is duly admitted.”

All the admittees left after the ceremony except my son. He was there to work. He is a lawyer for Jones Day. It is a huge law firm with 43 offices all over the world. This case was a pro bono case. He didn’t argue it, but sat at the counsel’s table just a few feet from Justice Sotomayor. A partner in his firm did all the talking. It was inspiring. It was also fascinating hearing the government’s lawyer’s arguments and then the lead counsel that my son worked with. I didn’t understand much of the legalities. Maybe you can figure it out on SCOTUSblog.

I was very impressed by all the justices. They all seemed interested and asked pointed questions. They were like gods up on the dais, but they were also human. Laughing, stretching, joking, passing notes to one another…

I thought there might be some weak links, but, no, they were all interested in “getting it right.” 5 men. 4 women.

Finally, it was over.

“All rise!”

The justices disappeared behind the curtain.

There were no photos permitted in the stunning building. I had noticed a man sketching a few up and to the left of me. He was behind one of the giant pillars, so I could only see his bare right arm moving. The sleeves were rolled up.

My son emailed an image the man had drawn the next day.

Lawrence Rosenberg argues for Efrain Lora. (William Hennessy)
Lawrence Rosenberg argues for Efrain Lora. (William Hennessy)

My son is just left of center at the bottom of the image—looking up at Sotomayor.

Afterwards, we walked in a procession of lawyers and assistants and friends and family to Charlie Palmer’s Steak for lunch. A power restaurant. We were seated in a private room. 20 to 24 of us. We were given choices of appetizers and entrees. I had tuna tartare and filet mignon.

“Can you prepare that Pittsburgh style?”

“Certainly, sir.”

It was a very memorable lunch. I sat at the far end in order to “hide.” I really didn’t belong.

After lunch, my son walked us to the corporate offices. It is a stunning building. The lobby rises about eight stories, all enclosed in glass. It was designed by… some famous architect. We were admitted to the roof for an unobstructed view of the Capitol very nearby.

Chuck's Son and Capitol

The drive home was torture. It was rush hour again.

I crashed very early, and my “on again, off again” friend, sleep, came and lasted all night this time.

When I got in to work, we were unloading a bookseller friend’s load of vintage and modern books destined for Books by the Foot. These are his rejects, but I pay enough that it is worth his while to deliver them from New York. #bookrescue.

Later, two more booksellers arrived with a couple hundred boxes from rural Virginia. While their truck was being unloaded, I took them outside to see the warehouse buildings’ progress.

I tried to explain that the project really ran itself—had its own evolution. It is pretty impressive.

“Used books did this.”

Now, it is Friday at work. I am so far behind.

I love working with the books, but I’d rather be up on the mountain puttering around the gardens. The daffodils will peak in the next couple weeks, but there will be more and different varieties coming up well in to May.

I really must mark where I should plant new bulbs next fall. By then, there will be no trace of these. They will be hibernating underground.

This is only a portion of the gardens I’ve planted over the last twelve years.

Odd, in the past two weeks, I have been asked twice if I have a “succession plan.” One from a complete stranger here to see how much we “recycle” in the state of Maryland. (A lot. He called us “the poster child for recycling.”) The other was my bookselling friend from Virginia. I think he was worried about what would happen to all the books. He told me, “I try to explain to other booksellers who don’t know you how important you are to the ecosystem of books.”

I thanked them both for the compliments. Then I went into the bathroom and looked in the mirror. Do I look like I’m dying? Maybe I should go get that nip ‘n tuck? Is there something wrong with me? My work at work and at home have not slowed a step.

At 3 a.m. Thursday morning I couldn’t sleep. I reached for the legal pad that is one of my bedmates. I scratched out:


To let go
To cease to struggle
To let it end
Easy to stop
Resulting in…
To not see what is next
To not chance that it might change
A black spring night
I know the ground out there
is aglow with gold
To quit in spring
And not see another
The burdens I pile upon myself
They are crushing me
I am bound, fettered
To escape
To be free to fly
To sacrifice all
in order to achieve nothingness
A dilemma.
The dilemma
Sleep would solve it
if it would but come
and free me for a spell

4 Comments on Article

  1. Norv commented on

    Oh goodness. I hope the new walls survive the winds pummeling me in Oklahoma this Friday evening when they get to Maryland on Saturday. Thank you for the weekly salve on my homesick blues.

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Great to hear from you Norv!
      Thank you so much for connecting.


  2. Susan Bruner commented on

    Chuck, I do not think I would recognize you if we passed in the street but somehow I am linked to you, through the books. My whole life books have been a wonder to me (pun not intended but hey it works). I have always could breathe a bit easier, deeper, fuller when I was in the presence of rows and rows of books. As a newly wed my ex and I had dates to the The James Brown Library in Williamsport, PA. So many books kept me occupied and safe from my own mental storms. One divorce, one bagel shop owned and sold, one BA/BS degree, one accident(me vs. Truck) a wonderful new husband and a goofy step son. Wonderbooks is now a gift for holidays and special events. Time and money mine to spend as I please in the lovely walls of Wonderbooks. I talk about those lovely walls that surround all those lovely books. I found your blog pre CoVid. Have read it voraciously as if I am updating family gossip of all that is happening. Such a delightful weekly event for me. Once I understood how integral you(as in the royal ‘you’: WonderBooks) are to the whole life cycle of books, I have been in awe. Thank you for all you do. Thank you for sharing all these thoughts, feelings, words with us the public. For many of us it is a comfort. I cry when I see books thrown away or destroyed by their being left to the elements. The future of the books at WonderBooks, the right hear apparent will appear, like so many other solutions have in the past. Have a great week.

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      That is a beautiful paragraph Susan.
      You should write a story!
      Inspiring words as well.
      Thank you!

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