Just like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, when you're a kid, boredom grows in the summer.. Parents at work all day, leaving their children to fend for themselves with no money to spend and nothing but time on their hands. It was during such a summer, many years ago, that I first fell in love with libraries.
Not content to just sit in front of the television, my friends and I would bike down to the local library. The library opened mid-morning and closed at Twilight, which was perfect because we all needed to Get Home Before Dark anyway.
Sam, James, and I were in fifth grade. Too old to play with toys but old enough to be left to find amusement on our own. The Door Into Summer had been opened and we wanted to make the most of our break from school. We'd ride our bikes all through the neighborhood and eventually find our way to the library.
The library became our home base. An outpost where we would rest in the middle of our journeys around town or short jaunts between our respective homes. In and out all day, we took advantage of the library's air conditioning. An Uncanny Feast of free to read books and comics was just a bonus.
A visit to the library the summer before sixth grade sparked a years-long rivalry with one of the librarians. It was the first day of summer vacation. We were seated on the floor of the periodicals section, flipping through comic books, giddy as the joy of summer and the sense of freedom mingled within our hearts. Ms. Bower appeared behind us, announcing her presence by shushing us. The sound, a rush of air that might as well have been the winds of a particularly bad Hurricane Season, smashed through our mirth.
We stifled our giggles and did our best to remain quiet but that would not be our last encounter with Ms. Bower. Sam and James liked to make Infinite Jest of Ms. Bower. They poked fun at her frumpy clothes and stink-face expression. Outwardly I laughed along, but inside I always thought deeply about who Ms. Bower really was. Did she have An American Marriage? Or was she The Merry Spinster, spending her time alone, surrounded by books and cats?
From then on, whenever we were in the library we tried to be on our best behavior. Yet, we continued to have run-ins with Ms. Bower. She seemed to have a Vendetta against us. She didn't seem to harass The Other People in the library and instead saved all her Ill Will for the three of us.
Ms. Bower always wore two things: a frown and a flowery Perfume that made me sneeze if I got too deep a whiff of it. Whenever we got too disorderly, she would creep up and shush us. Then threaten to kick us out if we didn't stop being loud. We would acquiesce and behave for a while, but the next encounter with Ms. Bower always seemed to be just around the corner.
Sam, James, and I had classes with Ms. Bower's daughter and Ms. Bower often volunteered at our school. She never hassled us outside of the library, but she'd obviously been told about me and my friend's reputation by the other parents. James, Sam, and I were considered to be A Confederacy of Dunces.
We were underachievers and didn't apply ourselves. We were smart enough to scoot by in school without putting forth much effort. I was tall, lanky, and awkward as a Prairie Ostrich. I rode along on Sam and James' confidence. Sam was the kind of person who always thought the world at large knew Less than he did. He was brash and a fast talker. James was mirthful and pudgy. He who knew how to use humor to manipulate situations.
The library lost its Luster for Sam and James as we got older. By high school, it was like they were hearing a different Transmission than I was. We'd drive around smoking weed and Sam would Rant about all manner of things. He would wax philosophic about everything from politics and Celestial Bodies to television and Invisible Monsters, only pausing long enough to take his next hit.
Sam and I grew apart over the years. One day it just felt like there was A Very Large Expanse of Sea between us. Now it’s been decades since he and I last spoke. James died young a few years after high school. Apparently, no one ever warned him about The Dangers of Smoking in Bed. Through James death and all the other major negative experiences I've gone through in my life, I've always found my way back to my home base.
No matter how many times I enter my local library, I'm always struck by the contrast between The Yellow Wallpaper lining the walls, the non-descript gray steel shelving, and the rainbows formed by the book's spines.
The titles lined up in rows, technically ordered by name or number, shine in their random assortment as sunshine streams through the library's floor to ceiling windows. The tall rectangles, in all manner of shades and hues, forming unique mosaics along the length of each shelf. The Color Purple next to Red, White, and Royal Blue. With Tangerine above and Scarlet below. A spectrum of colors, ever changing as books are borrowed or returned to their place on the shelves.
The library has become one of my favorite places in which to people watch. I like to sit up on the third floor where they keep the periodicals. Only a few feet away from where Sam, James, and I used to sit all those years ago. From this perch I peek over the balcony and imagine backstories for the people I see on the floors below. I Leave the World Behind for a little while and daydream about those who wander past.
The girl in front of the motivational books, looking for titles that will help her line up the person she sees in her head with The Woman in the Mirror. The college student a few rows over, newly made aware of injustice and hoping a book will teach him How to be an Anti-Racist. The man who spent five minutes picking the cushiest chair. He opens his newspaper and flips past articles about War and Peace to the sports section.
A librarian's voice floats up from the children's area below as she reads to a group of kids. "Along Came a Spider," she says, holding the book so the kids can see the pictures within. The rest of the story is drowned out by sudden cheerful laughter from a nearby reservable study room. I listen to the voices on The Other Side of the Wall but can't make out what they are saying.
I glance around, but no librarian approaches to ask the group in the private room to quiet down. Maybe the new squad of librarians has a Live and Let Die attitude. Ms. Bower retired years ago and it appears no one has come along to take her place as the enforcer of the library’s solitude. Perhaps one day a different curmudgeonly librarian will take up that mantle. With a scowl on their face and a shush ready on their lips. Appearing the moment shouted joy and unbridled laughter rings out from between the shelves.
I love that at the library anyone can find a book to suit their taste. It’s a place where people can privately explore secret interests or openly celebrate their favorite passions. For me, the library is a place of comfort, discovery, and sanctuary. Where I can be alone with my thoughts or tucked away in a corner with a Beloved book. This haven of books and the magic they hold will always be my home base.