Despite how much I complain about riding the T to and from work, there are times that I actually really enjoy the novelty and public-ness of the bus and the train. It makes me feel very of-the-people, even after I have spent all day sitting at the desk of a public library. Sometimes this is a good thing and sometimes it is a bad thing. Occasionally I do have a serendipitous run-in with a fellow passenger who is not afraid to strike up a conversation with a stranger…but who also is not on drugs or trying to scope out the electronics in my purse and calculate their possible street value. One such happy accident happened to me last week when I was reading an amazing book, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz.
I was on the crowded, after-work bus, unashamedly flashing the cover of Aristotle and Dante (a YA cover not to be ashamed of, as you can see to the right, though mine didn’t have all those impressive award seals on it) when a guy interrupted me: “Excuse me. Sorry to interrupt you, but I noticed the author of the book your reading and I know him!” Well, now I was intrigued, especially because I was reading Aristotle and Dante for the Boston Public Library Children’s Librarians book club and this interaction might make an amazing story for the meeting (0r a blog post)! Turns out this friendly gentleman, who will from here on out be referred to as “bus guy,” had worked with Benny, as he called him, at some sort of organization for transitional youth in El Paso, Texas. Benjamin Saenz had been bus guy’s supervisor and apparently a good one because bus guy had the best things to say about him. Benny had taken bus guy to meet his mother, a Mexican immigrant who lived in a tiny town in New Mexico, spoke no English and made some bomb chile rellenos. Benny would also often host his coworkers at his authentically (stereotypically?) Southwestern adobe-style house for parties and dinners. Bus guy remembered him as having “a lot of angst” but that he wrote beautiful poetry and was also an artist. After this amazing little biographical insight, I let the guy take my copy of the book long enough to read the synopsis and Benjamin Saenz’s bio on the back flap, and quickly type the book’s name into his iPhone so he could go buy it later. He was clearly very excited to talk about his old friend and just kept sharing little tidbits with me until his stop.
When all this happened, I had just started the book and was in a mad rush to finish it for book club. But after speaking with bus guy about Benny, I couldn’t help but slow down and look for pieces of him in the book based on what had been described to me. Everything from the setting in El Paso to the inner turmoil of the main character, an extremely lonely and self-tormenting Mexican-American teenage boy growing up in the 80s, seemed to corroborate bus guy’s memories of Benjamin Saenz. I was not at all surprised to learn that he is also a poet because the writing in Aristotle and Dante is emotional, precise, and uses repetition for emphasis in all the right places. Between reading the book and listening to the bus guy’s stories, I wanted to be friends with Benny too! I suppose I’ll just have to settle for befriending Aristotle and Dante. You should too.