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The Lover of Libraries

ISSUE:  Spring 1996

For a time, shortly after I graduated from college, nothing but a trip to the library would lift my spirits, and I eventually ended up spending my days there, like a vagrant. I say “vagrant” rather than “scholar,” because, if you are a chronic library user, as I am, then you’d have to be blind not to notice that your fellow regulars, at least in large-city systems, are more apt to be dressed in tatters than the tweeds of the Joyceans and economic theorists who, with their university privileges, have little need for public book-lending facilities, anyway. And so, during that heaviest period of my habitual library use, an odoriferous man who read phone books and softly wept would often sit nearby me. There was also a frail-looking woman with a fox-shaped face who emitted high cries. It wasn’t her clothing that was tattered, though; it was her mind. She usually wore a housecoat and neatly rolled anklets with her spotless white sneakers, and I saw her arrive by bus, so maybe she was an outpatient somewhere. I couldn’t begin to guess her age, but her cries sounded ancient. “Moses” is the moniker I gave to the bushy-bearded man who wore coarse brown robes, belted like a monk’s, with rope. He used to stand in the aisle between the banks of card catalogues, looking as if he had just parted, or was about to reclose, the Red Sea. The circulation-desk clerks didn’t seem concerned by him, though, so I wasn’t, either. In fact, I completely ignored these fellow patrons from society’s fringes who (I liked to think) had nothing to do with me and my library addiction. But then a longtime friend, who has worked with the homeless since before they were called homeless, told me about a library regular she knows, a man who has been known to sleep under bridges but who frequents the very place where I spent all those hours so many years ago; and I experienced the shock of recognition.

Back then, I lived in Washington, D.C. and might have chosen to go to the main library downtown or a branch—the one on Capitol Hill, for example, which was after all in my neighborhood, and the most convenient (and I often did visit it briefly in the evening, to borrow magazines). For my daytime stint, however, I preferred a high-class haunt: the U.S. Library of Congress. I’d bicycle down there early every weekday morning, arriving just as the heavy doors were being unbolted, claim a seat with my backpack, then dip into the card catalogue to make the day’s selections. I’d work in a small circle of light, preparing magazine articles “on spec” and essays of opinion that no one had asked me for. After lunch, I’d sit and read whole novels. Cynthia Ozick. Nadine Gordimer. Christina Stead. Unlike the nonfiction materials from which I took laborious notes on index cards in the morning, these afternoon books weren’t any that I couldn’t have read in paperback from the bookstore, even on my limited budget; still, I didn’t. For although my labor was as solitary as prayer, I had an overwhelming need to do it in the company of others. I guess it’s akin to a marathoner taking energy from the others in the race; or, to continue the religious metaphor, like someone who cannot worship at home: he or she has to do it in church. And so it was with me: to stay committed to my self-assigned literary activities, I seemed to require at least the illusion of a group effort. At the L of C, where I sat alone all day, speaking to no one save Reference, I could have it.

The homeless man that my friend told me about—I’ll call him David Balfour—has been spending the majority of his daylight hours at the L of C since at least the mid-1970’s. Mary Ellen met him at that time, during a period when she and others used to drive around in a van at night, offering shelter in their own group house to people who were sleeping outside. At first, Balfour didn’t accept their offer of hospitality, choosing instead to camp out in Rock Creek Park, which runs alongside Georgetown, Dupont Circle, and all the way up to the National Zoo. Eventually, though, David Balfour’s trust was gained, and he started dropping by Mary Ellen’s group house about once a month, on a weekend afternoon, to take a bath and to choose some new clothes from among their pile of donations.

Mary Ellen and her community lived in a four-story turn-of-the-century townhouse in Columbia Heights, a ramshackle neighborhood in the northwest quadrant of the city, far beyond the niceties of Rock Creek Park’s environs. I once wrote an article comparing police protection in various neighborhoods in D.C., and learned that the following crime reports had been filed for Mary Ellen’s block in a less-than-one-year period: 16 burglaries, five unarmed robberies, six armed robberies, five larcenies, and two assaults with a deadly weapon; in addition, two cars had been stolen and one stolen car recovered. There had also been two charges of arson, one for possession of marijuana, one pocketbook snatching, and one charge against a bootlegger. Still, once you got inside the front door, the interior was downright genteel.

The first-floor parlor had its fireplace intact, and Mary Ellen tells me Balfour would stand in front of the mirror over its mantelpiece for hours, smoke cigarettes, drink a cup of coffee, and talk about his work at the library, staring into his own reflection all the while. His color-coded calendar is one of his annual library projects. Every December he fills in on his homemade grids upcoming historic and scientific anniversaries as well as landmarks in the arts and the birthdays of important people. He gets his information from the several newspapers he reads in the L of C periodical room every day, his studies of atlases and historical almanacs, particularly those relating to World War II and the Holocaust, and myriad other materials, many of which he photocopies with the change he panhandles outside the bars of Georgetown.

When Mary Ellen described him to me, I convinced myself that I did indeed remember such a person from my days at the L of C. He was born in 1942, is white-skinned, with light brown hair, which he keeps neatly trimmed, and wears glasses. As for dress, he always wears a suit (“even if it’s absolutely coming apart”) and a shirt and tie. He prefers Western-type shirts that snap to those that button, because they are more durable and also have more give—handy when he wears his winter layers, including long underwear. The cold months for the homeless are a cruelty, and a challenge, and Balfour has managed by learning to wear six or eight woolen caps, one on top of the other, wrapping his neck in several long scarves, and himself in the biggest overcoat he can find. For a while he had a parka which Mary Ellen snagged for him from donations, and which certainly must have made him prominent against any landscape. It was three-quarter length, brilliant turquoise, had “hundreds” of pockets, was lined with black pile, and printed with a big black ABC-TV logo—a garment issued to the network’s film crews who have to work outdoors in all kinds of weather. Balfour wore and wore it until it gave out (“It had gotten wet too many times.” . . .), though he found it painful to give it up; he wanted to wait until Mary Ellen found him another one exactly like it, utterly convinced that if he waited long enough she actually would.

Balfour’s obsessive nature reminds Mary Ellen of the autistic character in the movie, Rain Man. She believes there is “a little piece of his brain that works like that.” It may be so, especially considering his difficulty with eye contact (as evidenced by his preference for his own image in the mirror). Still, he also reminds me a little of myself.

I, too, used to go to the periodical room every day, not to read newspapers but to look at the literary magazines that lined the back wall. The place was tucked away, upstairs in the annex, perhaps because the librarians didn’t want people like Balfour parking there. It didn’t matter: if you were diligent, you could find your way into any department. The massive circular main reading room was where I spent most of my time, being ogled by tourists looking down from the viewing balcony. I’d also go in search of needed materials in the rare book room. Librarians not tourists watched me in there (after they had perfunctorily supplied me with tiny tactile red velvet pillows filled with sand so I could keep the pages open without using my hands). For certain projects I made use of the law library, with its double-storied open stacks and its leather bindings; a few times, for picture research, I went to the prints and photographs division, so loosely run that, to my delight, I could rifle through all sorts of original materials. I even came to know the tunnel that connects the main building with the annex, making me, navigator of the library’s very bowels, feel like a true aficionado.

Sometimes I roamed the complex not because I wanted to explore, but because I’d arrived too late to claim a good seat, or any seat, in the main reading room. I certainly was pig-headed about my extravagant library wants and needs. In fact, my choosing to practically billet myself in one of civilization’s greatest storehouses of knowledge was even more immoderate than it might otherwise seem since, through my husband, Bob, I had an alternative access to all those books (those very copies, in fact)—to use at home, no less.

The L of C, as you may know, is only secondarily a national research library open to the public; its primary purpose is to serve the legislative branch of government. And so, since Bob worked as an aide to members of the U.S. House of Representatives, he was actually able to borrow many titles, ostensibly for a congressperson but, in truth, for me. All it took was a phone call to the library’s congressional liaison; within hours, the requested volumes would be delivered to his desk, wrapped in newspaper and string—mine to keep for as many weeks as I liked, as long as no other member’s aide called them back in. No one ever did. Nor did anybody ever think to investigate why Congressman John Conyers of Detroit or Congress-woman Shirley Chisholm of Brooklyn had suddenly taken to reading Jacques Maritain’s Art and Scholasticism or Dorothea Brande’s Becoming a Writer.

I don’t know how Balfour developed his L of C habit, though practicality must have had something to do with it; after all, it’s a public place with free all-day admission and bathrooms. As for me, I wish I could say that by spending my time there I was following the advice of Auden, who believed that the library was the perfect spot for a would-be writer’s apprenticeship. “Though the Master is deaf and dumb and gives neither instruction nor criticism,” he wrote, “the apprentice can choose any Master he likes, living or dead . . . lessons are all for free, and his passionate admiration of the Master will insure that he work hard to please him.” Anyway, I see now that I didn’t choose the library route because I am a pragmatist. (I’m not: if I were, I wouldn’t be a freelance writer. “Oooof. Freelancers—the migrant farmworkers of journalism,” a writer employed by a national magazine once said to dismiss me.) No, I drifted into my habit as an inordinate user of anything goes: unconsciously and unawares, though in retrospect I believe it was in part my early library experiences, back home in Greenwich, Connecticut, that surely set the stage for my later one. I also believe that the progression was fortuitous; after all, plenty of other aspiring writers hang out in bars.

As soon as I could write my own name “without assistance,” I was issued a children’s library card—my first I. D.—significant for someone who later would go to a library day after day trying to “make a name for” herself. A concrete measure of my personal growth (though I couldn’t have known those precise words for it at the time), the card was a pumpkin-colored strip of stiffened paper, the size and texture of a bookmark, which was kept in a file drawer at the circulation desk. With it I took out Millions of Cats, by Wanda Gag, literally dozens of times, reading it over and over as obsessively as I listened to my favorite musicals, which I also borrowed from the library. As a child, I adored cats, and it’s true that Gag’s subject matter was part of the irresistible appeal; but a more crucial reason why I think I borrowed that book so much was because I knew where to find it. What predictability in an uncertain world! Perfect for outpatients, the powerless, and other fragile or primitive souls. And yet, for what seemed like years, I didn’t understand how the nonfiction books were arranged. Why couldn’t they, too, march along alphabetically by author? (My sister-in-law, who is a librarian on Cape Cod, tells the story of a custodian who one night started rearranging the books according to size.) Sometimes I hid nonfiction books, hoping that when I wanted to take them out again I could find them more easily, according to the logic of my own system. Of course, they never stayed where I’d put them, convincing me that there was indeed a kind of relentlessly determined order at work, and that if only I could discover it, I would have true knowledge.

Needless to say, the librarians would have gladly helped me decipher the system much sooner than I sorted it out on my own, but I was a kid afflicted with shyness. Silence was my forte; no wonder I was so comfortable in the library’s speechless realm. There is one voice, however, that I lovingly associate with those early library hours. Mousy; hypnotic; childish; upper class: it belonged to Mrs. Priscilla Carden, and possessing all those qualities at once, it became for me the perfect voice for reading children’s books aloud. Half Magic. Calico Captive. The Witch of Blackbird Pond. There she stood, in her sensible green woolen suit and brown thick-heeled shoes, the rapt circle of us sitting all around her as she turned the pages and offered those enchanted worlds to us—though only the first chapter of each: to entice us to read the rest ourselves, she coyly admitted, then flashed her gummy smile, which directly pulled us out of our trance.

Another person figures in my memories of the Greenwich Library, but he’s someone with much more in common with Balfour than Mrs. Carden. My parents know his full name, because they went to school with one of his older siblings. We kids, however, knew him as Slippery Sam.

He lived in a room at the Y and looked like a cowboy (on good days, a lesser version of Kris Kristofferson), and could occupy no rightful place in posh Greenwich except at the library. The Slip, who appeared to be in his thirties (my parents put his age at 35 in the early 1960’s when I became aware of him), watched us girls from behind his newspaper, or so we imagined, and smoked (this was in the days when smoking was allowed in designated areas in the library). For a while, he wore a bloody green bandage wound around his hand (or does my imagination supply this?). Supposedly, he did odd jobs, like yard work (he’d hurt his hand on a lawn mower blade, someone said); but I never saw him anywhere but in his library chair.

This wasn’t in the same building where Mrs. Carden read to us. By then, Greenwich had outgrown that genteel space—an elegant limestone structure designed by William Tubby in the 1890’s and situated prominently on Greenwich Avenue, our town’s main street—and sold it. The building was razed, and an ugly F.W. Woolworth’s was built; in 1995, the Woolworth’s was demolished— a Saks Fifth Avenue is being built there next. (At an antiques show for a dollar I bought a tinted postcard of the old place. It’s a drawing, not a photograph, and doesn’t show the huge magnolia tree whose petals pleasantly littered its front lawn every spring; nor does it have the color of the facade exactly right; and it couldn’t possibly convey the feeling of wood and warmth inside.) In March 1960, a newer, “better” library building was dedicated. I remember the opening ceremonies, on a Sunday afternoon; I was nine, and my best friend and I rode up and down the elevator. A former Franklin Simon department store, it is located on U.S. Route 1 (called West Putnam Avenue, in that part of Greenwich); and it amuses me to think of David Balfour making his way right past it.

I know for a fact that Balfour has cruised by, because every summer he takes a “vacation” from his “job” at the L of C, and continues on with another one of his lifetime projects, which he began, like his library work, when he became homeless in the 1970’s. “I am traveling the highways in numerical order,” he told a Tennessee newspaper reporter in August 1979. Starting at the beginning of each old highway and traveling straight on through to the end, he was by then on U.S. Route 11, which passes through Chattanooga.

“The map is my Bible and the libraries are my living room,” he told a Chattanooga Times reporter, opening up for me the intriguing possibility that he may have actually stopped inside the Greenwich Library. Someday, he has confided to his diary, he hopes to have visited, among others, every single one of the more than 200 branch libraries in all five boroughs of Manhattan, He has already visited every branch library on Staten Island, of which there are eleven. A man who appeared to be a detective followed him around for the two days it took him to complete his rounds; and by the amazed way he relates the tailing in his diary, I can guess it was not a usual occurrence for him. In fact, Balfour was doing nothing that I hadn’t done myself, albeit on a much smaller, far less quirky scale: which is to walk into a library in a strange place—whether it be the Bodleian at Oxford University or the public library on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, one day during a tennis-camp vacation—to soak up the good feeling of being where I feel I best belong.

In a library in Montreal I experienced the feeling most profoundly. It was in the Westmount section of the city where I found a true Victorian jewel that not only houses books but has a lush greenhouse attached, plus a little park on the side, and tennis courts around back. What more could I ask for? On the day I visited, in May 1990, there was also a flower bed on the lawn planted in the shape of a workingclock (its hands actually moved); and Bob, the erstwhile congressional aide who is now a professional horologist, and I both wondered: what sort of heaven was this, made just for us two? We walked right in and fingered the card catalogue, and nobody questioned our right to be there, and I don’t believe anybody would have, unless we had tried to walk out with a book or two.

That must be why, though I have always loved libraries, this passion doesn’t extend to places that sell books. If it did, I’d be addicted to them, too, and I’m not; in fact, I avoid them. I feel dread, not excitement in bookstores; despair not elation. I might speculate that it’s partly because my early experiences with bookstores were not positive ones. The small independent bookshops I remember from the 1960’s in Greenwich were snooty, quiet as furriers, predating the chains. I recall venturing into one of them when I was an adolescent and being the only “customer” in the place, and feeling unwelcomed by the man who looked over his glasses at me. I had disturbed him reading at his desk, and couldn’t tell him that what I was looking for wasn’t a specific title but mere proximity to the merchandise. True, I went regularly to the Catholic bookshop around the corner from my parochial school; I was even allowed to use their phone to call my parents for rides home, so there must have been a certain amount of rapport between me and the woman at the desk; but that place had a lending library aspect to it, and I regularly borrowed—never bought—books from there. (Needless to say, Balfour would be discouraged from hanging out at bookstores.)

Even if I’m not under suspicion, I still feel uncomfortable in stores that sell books. At the Andover Bookstore, in the Massachusetts town where I live today, and where I personally know many of the delightful clerks, I often order my books over the phone, then pick them up at the desk as quickly as possible; I rarely browse. I know that some people hunker down for hours in the stuffed chairs by the fireplace, drinking the free coffee (in fact, a house guest of ours did precisely that, two or three days in a row). But I myself have never once sat in that cozy looking space. No offense to their hospitality, but my reading is a private matter. The tourists high above me at the L of C may have been watching, but they weren’t allowed to engage me in conversation about my taste in authors, and so on. At the Andover Bookstore, there are no such guarantees.

Given my deep affection for libraries, you’d think I would be one of the most exemplary patrons in the world; I can’t say I always have been. And confessing what I need to confess may be the real reason I have embarked on this essay of library memories. Once, in a Georgetown laundromat, I accidentally dumped an L of C copy of Joyce Carol Oates’s story collection, The Wheel of Love, into the washing machine along with my clothes; only when I sat down to wait and read did I notice it was missing. Another time, I spilled cranberry juice all over May Sarton’s At Seventy: A Journal. Just hours before, I had plucked it from the New Books shelf at the Takoma Park Library, in Takoma Park, Maryland, where Bob and I rented a house for a year; I had been its first borrower. A third book in my care, acquired for me by Interlibrary Loan here in Massachusetts, was eaten by my dog; that it was Konrad Lorenz’s Man Meets Dog may or may not have had anything to do with it.

I paid for the books gladly, contritely; and, considering that I have checked out thousands of library materials over the decades, I don’t think my casualty rate is egregious. In fact, I can only wish that those isolated instances of damage were all I had to concede. The truth is, though, that shortly after highschool graduation, I stole a couple of items from the Greenwich Library.

As you read those words, maybe you’re thinking that the curmudgeon in the Greenwich bookshop had been right to discourage me away from his premises. I myself cringe over the breach, especially after learning that some public libraries today estimate that they lose five to eight percent of their collections annually, despite their costly anti-theft devices, and that buying replacements takes such a bite out of their book budgets they hardly have a chance to grow. In my case, though I don’t excuse myself, I will say that I did carefully select the books I filched, and that my reasons for taking them, while not exactly clear to me even all these 25 years later, are definitely more complicated than the needed-them-for-my-research-paper type.

One of the books was Günter Grass’s first novel, The Tin Drum. A strange and eloquent tale of the Nazi era in Poland, it was assigned to me for my senior year Humanities course, which was team-taught by three great teachers and thoroughly entranced me. We were issued paperbacks to use in class, to be returned at the end of the term. And what a story between those pages! How agreeably shocked I was by its comic opening scene: in 1899, a political agitator in Poland, sought by Cossacks, impregnates a woman while hiding under her multiple skirts in a potato field; the woman, in the meantime, roasts potatoes and tries to muffle her moans of pleasure as the soldiers suspiciously circle her. How proud I was to be able read and maturely discuss such events. Grass’s novel was also the first fiction I’d ever read that did not rely on psychological realism to keep a reader interested, but used a variety of powerful poetic devices as well as postmodernist techniques, which, to my amazement, made perfect story sense, even down to the fact that narrator Oskar Matzerath, the grandson of the couple who coupled in the field, is penning his tale while an inmate in a mental institution. Most crucially, perhaps, the book expressed the central idea that good and evil—or, as Grass would have it, Goethe and Rasputin—are inextricably intertwined. Up until that time, these forces had been presented to me by church and school as separate, warring opposites, one of which, at the end of the world, would eventually destroy the other. Grass’s theory sounded much more like life as I knew it. Is that why, when I, a supposed innocent, spied a hardback of the novel on the library shelf that summer, I decided to put his theory into action (intertwining my innocence with a “crime”)? Whatever else I was doing, I purposely did not check the book out before leaving with it by way of the unalarmed exit.

The other book I stole, just a couple of weeks later, was also a German translation, one I read on my own, Demian: The Story of Emil Sinclair’s Youth, by Hermann Hesse. Thomas Mann called it Hesse’s “great novel of education,” so I suppose it’s fitting that it’s one of the purloined pair. “I heard Oskar playing his tin drum last night,” I wrote that spring in a paper comparing the two books. “It was noisy in the room where I sat trying to read Hesse, but I heard the Rasputin and I heard the Goethe and then as I listened more closely I heard both sounds together as he tapped them out for me. It was a beautiful beat, a full sounding rhythm. And it was then that I understood what Hesse was trying to tell me.

“I couldn’t sleep last night because Oskar’s drumming kept me awake,” I went on. “Beer and ginger snaps, Arthur Treacher and Minnie Pearl, rosewater and glycerine. Everything around me fell into place. In the beginning, there is always the Goethe and the Rasputin. In the end, no distinction between the two should be made.”

I wouldn’t want to analyze that last statement too closely. After all, it was written by a 17-year-old. I will say, though, that I’ve since read about people, especially women, who temporarily become thieves— kleptomaniacs—to relieve anxieties. What was I anxious about? Remember, I was about to leave home for the first time—shortly going off to college—and if I were going to steal anything, books would seem the logical, symbolic choice. Maybe my pinching those volumes was an attempt to take a piece of one successful instrument of my education away with me, like a bit of sour-dough starter, to continue the process in a new place. Beyond Wanda Gag, Mrs. Garden, and even Slippery Sam, I registered many other moments of personal and intellectual growth at the library. It was the place where I saw my first photocopy being made—fuzzy white letters on wet black paper; and where I discovered literary criticism—books written about books—and found the idea of it almost as incredible as the photocopying machine. Most importantly, perhaps, it is where I was first officially designated an adult, when at age 12, I was allowed limited access to the books beyond the children’s room. Youngblood Hawke, by Herman Wouk, was the first grownup book I tackled. A veritable doorstop, it was so heavy I had trouble holding it up while lying down in my usual reading position, but I pressed on, identifying with its hero, a rough-hewn young writer from the back woods of somewhere whose blockbuster of a first novel, Alms for Oblivion,brings him fame and a fortune—as well as an identity crisis. Of course, that unsettling part had nothing to do with my future plans. . . .

Since then, I have never even been tempted to steal another library book, and I would bet that no library that serves me today (or indeed invites me to speak or read my work at their special programs) would suspect my checkered library past. Certainly the local board that has appointed Bob a library trustee doesn’t suspect his wife of having committed such library transgressions.

You may also be happy to hear that David Balfour now lives in a group home, thanks to a turn of events that began after he had some minor trouble at the L of C. One day, he went to use a photocopier on which an elderly woman had put her purse while she used another machine—and, as Mary Ellen says, “David thought that was a complete affront to proper library behavior: that one should be taking up any space that one was not using.” And so he picked up the woman’s purse to move it and was accused of trying to swipe it.

“And I think that everyone eventually agreed that he had not been trying to take her purse,” Mary Ellen told me. “But this caused a big disruption in the reading room. And he was told he wasn’t welcome in the library anymore.”

Needless to say, the banishment was a major blow for Balfour, creature of obsessive habits. So Mary Ellen sent him to the law clinic at George Washington University’s National Law Center, and an attorney named Steve DelGuidice negotiated his return. After that positive experience, Balfour, who up until then had always avoided contact with social service agencies, was more willing to cooperate, and eventually got new glasses and a needed hearing aid. He also discovered that he qualified for a disability benefit, which led to the placement in the group home.

His future seems even brighter than that. Mary Ellen has this to report: “I was driving up North Capitol Street and I saw this guy riding a bike, going down into the underpass, and I knew it was David. He was shirtless, but he didn’t look like a homeless person. He looked like any man riding his bike on a summer day. Pedaling home from the library in rush hour. The commuter.”

As for me, I still must think of libraries as the safest port in any storm. Though I haven’t lived in Greenwich since I left for college in the fall of 1969, I wrote the following not too long ago in my journal:

June 1, 1992: Last night I dreamt there was a big tornado, and I took cover inside the Greenwich Library. The glass shattered all the big front windows that face out onto West Putnam Avenue, and I felt a little shower of it, but otherwise, hidden among the books, I was safe.


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