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The Hobo Book Exchange

One cold afternoon when I was eleven, my mother met me in our lobby—I remember the cozy heat—and showed me a newspaper. My father’s book was number one on the bestseller list. A burst of money fell from the sky. We moved to a formal, white house in Connecticut.

I did poorly in my new school. (Old habits die hard.) To help me improve, my parents sent me to a stately private school. Blonde girls roamed. One day, still new, I met a girl named Serena, who said, “We’ve never met a Jewish person before.” She didn’t say this unkindly, only to inform me.

I had never met anyone named Serena before. Or named Hillary, or Bootsie for that matter. (I only knew Marilyn, Lori, Devorah.) I had never been given a hockey stick before. Out on the field I swung my hair—not my stick, I never learned to play—and pretended I was one of them.

But I continued never doing my schoolwork. Occasionally I opened our textbook, and studied the delicate rendering of pearls and netting and lace encircling the necks of queens. But in their smug countenances I read: “Jews are not our kind.” There was to be a Christmas play, for which we spent hours learning songs. I sang wholeheartedly, although in truth I only mouthed the words. Eventually, I was kicked out of school. My parents threw up their hands.

There were lots of runaways then, it seemed; this was 1971. We met on trains. We recognized each other. Like hobos who exchange important tips, we tipped each other off about books. I had brought some books with me, and people gave me books. A Crock of Gold, by James Stephens; An Episode of Sparrows by Rumor Godden; Narcissus and Goldmund by Hermann Hesse; A Spy in the House of Love, by Anais Nin. Whenever someone told me “I loved this book” and pulled it out of a knapsack, I would study it—perhaps it had important information within. The trains rolled on. I held the books close. They felt beautiful, golden. I had the feeling that the books might form a constellation— that they might light my way home—wherever that was. 

Barbara Feinberg originated and runs a creative arts program for children (ages 3-14) called Story Shop, in existence since 1993. She is the author of Welcome to Lizard Motel: Children, Stories, and the Mystery Making Things Up: A Memoir (Beacon Press, 2004).