One of the principal joys of being retired is that you can spend time to save time. Back when I was gainfully employed and wanted a certain book from the library, I would go to the library here in Larchmont, usually on the weekend, and if it was not on the shelf, I’d order it by placing an inter-library request. Usually within several days thereafter, the library would call to inform me my book had arrived, and the next time I could get there, I’d pick it up. It’s a good system and allows readers to access books held by any library in Westchester County.
Now, however, when a book is not available at my own library, I look to see which other libraries have it on hand — then I just go there and get it. I spend time driving to another town and back in order to save a few days’ waiting, and the libraries usually aren’t busy during daytime on a weekday.
For example, my book club currently is reading SPQR — A History of Ancient Rome, by Mary Beard, which I’m enjoying in all its grand, gory voluminousness. I got my copy from the library in Rye, NY. The Rye library is lovely and has good parking, but its staff, although genteel, are somewhat thuggish, and I expect any day now a Rye Police Department car will be outside my house, bearing a search warrant for the overdue item.
Yesterday I wanted to pick up Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, the Anita Loos minor classic, that I’ve never read. My daughter is doing a paper on it, for a Modernism class, and of late I’ve tried to read some of what she is reading so I can offer my thoughts, if requested. Recently we read Richard Wright’s Native Son which I’d escaped reading in high school or college. It’s an in-your-face portrait of race on the South Side of Chicago, circa 1940; well done in my opinion, but I was happy to turn to the froth of Gentlemen.
The book was not available at Larchmont so I checked the catalog listing and found the two nearest copies were at the Eastchester and Mount Vernon libraries; oddly, the latter showed it under ‘nonfiction.’ A judgment call? Sometimes there’s a fine line between fiction and history: I confess that most of what I know of the French Revolution probably is from A Tale of Two Cities, and all I know of whaling is from Moby Dick.
I drove down to Mount Vernon. I know there are some relatively nice areas of Mount Vernon, with solid houses and apartment buildings and well-kept lawns, but I was not in them. The way to the library took me through depressed and depressing neighborhoods where every building looked grimy and decaying, sidewalks were littered, streets potholed, and, to my chagrin, most intersections devoid of street signs. I finally got my bearings at the corner of Third Street and Third Avenue, but the streets seemed all one-way the wrong way to my goal.
I pulled into the parking lot of a huge supermarket which had to be just two or three blocks from the library. I parked and walked. I was the only white person I saw. A grizzled man was returning glass bottles to an outdoor recycling machine next to the supermarket; it wouldn’t accept one of them, so he tossed it into the corner of the enclosure, where it shattered. As I left the parking lot, I passed a yellow line on the street; above it on the wall, a sign said ‘Stop! Your shopping cart will halt once you cross the yellow line.’ A product with a name like Cart-Lok was in use; I noticed a little gizmo on a wheel of each cart. Who steals shopping carts? I considered a thief meeting his modern Fagin: “Good haul today boss – I got some gold chains, a 2015 Lexus, five credit cards — and a shopping cart!” Really?
I walked to the library past more of the same, everything broken, dirty, abandoned, trash-filled. Not at all threatening, just depressing. To a progressive, the neighborhood shouted “This is unfair – how do you expect people to succeed and flourish when they’re surrounded with constant reminders that they don’t count, we don’t care about them, the country’s not built to serve them.” To a conservative, it said “OK, it’s poor, but there’s still homes, cars, supermarkets — and a few out of control guys are ruining it for the rest of the locals.” Both of these are true.
The library is a faded yellow-brick building I first mistook for a school; looks to have been built sometime in the 1930s through 1950s. For a building of its size, the front doors seem small, unobtrusive. Inside, stairs lead up, past the door to a street-level room that is being used for voting. Stairs up to a detector – for metal, or unchecked-out books? The upper lobby is handsome, with dark wood on the walls, stained-glass skylights, arched murals of ancient Greek temple scenes at either end. Inside, the main room is for nonfiction. Fiction is around a couple of corners, follow the signs, another large room. The book is not on the shelf. I head back to the main desk and say, “I’m looking for a certain book…” and immediately am told to ask at the reference desk in the next room. The staff at the main, circulation desk are young black women; at the reference desk is a middle-aged white guy.
He types in the title. I observe his typing, upside down from across the counter. “We have it, but it’s not coming up.” I suggest he maybe try “DES in Blondes” as I saw him type it without the E. Some computers are very literal and very dumb. (And some patrons clearly are getting obsessive in their old age.) But that’s not the problem; then he finds it, and frowns: “It’s listed under nonfiction – that’s just a cataloging error.” The book is in storage in the basement, but he has a meeting in his lunch hour so he has to leave; his colleague will help me.
She has just arrived, a nice looking woman, late thirties. She says she’ll go get it, but I ask her to first take care of the lady behind me, who has been waiting. The middle-aged black lady behind me, who’s here to pick up papers to register for something, says that is very kind of me. I mumble ‘sure,’ missing my chance to say “I’m happy to give my time, of which I have much, to increase your convenience, of which you need more,” or something equally snappy.
I wander for five minutes while she’s helped. I find the biographies section and am scanning them, working backwards from Z as the shelves happen to be arranged, around the outside of the room. I get to S and a few R’s, but the next set of shelves is empty. The books pick up again six feet later, with L’s. One whole set of shelves is bare. I look around in the room but can’t find the missing sequence anywhere.
When I return to the reference desk the librarian has just finished with the lady and says she’ll go now to get the book I want. I ask her about the biographies. She looks pained. “We had a very bad leak over that section.” So are the missing books someplace in the basement, drying out? “No, I’m afraid they were too damaged to save.” So, they’re being replaced? A pause. “We… hope to replace them.”
Well, so much for Mandela to Robeson. Not to mention Obama. And, less race-consciously, one of my idols, Mr. Cole Porter. Or Annie Oakley, James Naismith, Marshall McLuhan.
We look at each other. I want to hug her, in consolation. (My education, obtained chiefly from musical comedies, warns me against this. “What can I say, my dear, to catch your ear? I need you badly, badly, madam librarian…”) We both know that the lives changed are not those between the covers of the books, but those attached to the hands reaching for books not there.
She returns soon with the slim volume. I go to the circulation desk, which is a large, D-shaped hollow ring with space for maybe ten staff; just one is there. I go round to her and hand her the books and my card and she says, “I don’t need your card; you’re just returning these right?” No, taking them out. “Oh, the checkout is on the other side.” She then walks over to that side, followed by me outside the ring. At this point a young woman shows up and says “Pardon, I have an appointment for 2:30.” I’m mentally praising her promptness, as it’s 2:26 on the wall clock. Then the librarian asks her who she is seeing. “I haven’t got a clue,” she says. She didn’t catch the name. Uh-oh. I think back over the hundreds of appointments and meetings I’ve shown up for; I have never not known whom I was to see. How does that happen? The librarian calls a couple of people, asking if they expect to interview someone at 2:30 — this evidently is for a job. As I get my books checked out, they are still searching.
As I leave the building I notice that the voting going on in the anteroom is for the library’s annual budget. Several young women, all black, come in to vote as I’m leaving, and I hold the door for them. They wouldn’t show up just to vote against the budget, would they? So I am encouraged.
Walking back to my car, I pick up some litter from the sidewalk; I remember there was a trash can next to the supermarket. (I get these sudden moods of philanthropy; like temporary insanity.) I took out three books in all, and because I like to finish books, I expect they will be overdue when I return them. I can return them to the Larchmont library. But I know as I leave that I will come back to Mount Vernon to return them, and to pay the overdue fines there. A bargain.