The most popular volume in the branch library was the medical dictionary. Heavy, dated, it had to be retrieved from a locked glass case, had to be consulted on the premises. The borrowers, coughing behind their hands, concealed avid worries about their health. But the causes for concern were all too obvious: those racking coughs, hoarse whispers; open sores oozing serum, limbs swollen with purple pressures; eyes rimed with yellow matter, crumbs. One woman I observed over some months had something the matter with her nose. From the nose it progressed to her eye. Nose, eye were being eaten away by some inner acid. The other eye cheerful enough. A feisty type she was, short and energetic, big bony elbows and a corn-cob pipe. At last she began to wear a bandage. One wondered what this bandage could be concealing that must be yet more terrible. Leprosy? That’s what I would always think of: one’s vocabulary of suffering is so limited. Maybe that’s why these people were boning up. But what was the use of pondering these pages? It can only have excited fresh anxieties, deeper fears. The medical dictionary was returned without comment. Miss Rose, the Reference Librarian, would take back the germy, contaminated thing and lock it up again. Lock it up and then—she couldn’t help it, kindly as she was, with her loud rude voice and her knocking heels—she’d sneak back to the John and scrub her hands with green soap.
I lived in the neighborhood, a few blocks walk from the branch, and saw a lot of this. There is more than urban poverty in Uptown. The population is heavily Appalachian, American Indian, and these people bring a special rural desolation. The city blight extends to natural objects; the streaked grime of melting snow—characteristic of Chicago buildings in winter—can be seen here even on the faces. Also Puerto Rican, black, Mexican, Korean, pensioned-off Jew, coexisting without racial strife. Rebellion was a private and individual matter. Uptown runs east to the lake-front, so it is bounded by fancy buildings, motel architecture. Early in the morning, salesmen who have breakfasted in cozy coffee-shops will be seen cruising its dismal streets in their big cars, loaded with racks and sample cases. The same thing happens again in early afternoon, the leisurely hours of businessmen’s lunch. These are the times when the younger and prettier girls ply their trade, during commercial hours, working a conventional shift. It’s only the old warhorses who come out at night. Heavy, cold-skinned legs covered with bruises. These bruises are like the old woman’s bandage—not a matter for the curious. Conjecture is inadequate, but this is standard: this is how you tell a whore in Uptown. Mountain children dance barefoot in the snow. The public pay phones are much in use here; in drugstores, lobbies, you overhear the most intense, private conversations. “Oh yeah, who’s threatening who?” says a thin girl in haircurlers into the receiver, while a toddler clings to her slacks. “Suck my box, that’s what you can do.” On a street corner, next to an empty newsstand, a couple of men and a woman are warming their hands over a trashcan fire. Gaunt, dingily cold; the woman’s shins are naked. She wears a babushka, sunglasses, and a split fur jacket. “This neighborhood is really going to the dogs,” she is saying, loudly, wanting people to hear . . . the undesirable elements? Who can they be? But all this means is that everyone is conscious of degradation in Uptown. Everyone has the right to object. “I’ll drink to that,” says one of the men, wiping the mouth of the snug pint-flask as it passes around.
But Chicago winters are not all bad. Sometimes it gets cold, really cold, 10 or 15 below. An icy exterminating cold, sweeping down from the north like a moral force. Dung freezes in the street; germs drop dead; vermin starve. It strikes at corruption; breathing seems less injurious. The air is pure and full of truth. Walking down Argyle Street, Broadway, on my way to the library, I was in a position to appreciate this especially.
The reason I was working for the library is somewhat obscure, but I’ll tell you. This was a special new program for what they called internes, or technicians—I forget the particular quasi-scientific designation. It didn’t really matter; for me, the appeal was that you could work half-time. And with the Public Library, half really meant half: 18¾ hours—half the 37½-hour week. Benefits accumulated at half-rate; half the vacation time, half the sick pay, half the insurance coverage, and so on. They were nervously precise about all this; but, once again, I was in a position to appreciate. I’ve had a lot of part-time jobs in my life.
In fact, I was always looking for part-time work, lesser commitments. Like most struggling writers, I wanted to avoid putting my heart and soul into anything; I was saving myself—my Serious Self—my Spiritual Powers, my Best Energies. O ye of little faith! Also, of course, this is a female trait, or it was, anyway, before the great crest of Women’s Liberation. So I got it both ways. All the women I knew worked at such jobs, around libraries, universities, social agencies; or else, were on the lookout for them. And the way you could tell such a job was simple: it was understood that it was not serious. There was always some catch. The pay was smaller too—but this limitation was the real compensation. “It’s not a real job,” that’s what you always heard. One’s true abilities, one’s inner ardors, were not expended, were still intact. Everyone was secretly keeping herself for better things.
I was, incidentally, a divorcee (vulgar word) with two young children, and had to work. Which is only to say that I had my role cut out for me; it was a struggling, ungraceful role, so I struggled ungracefully. And all this was really baffling to me.
Had it not been for the medical dictionary, there would have been little traffic at our Reference Desk. Borglum Branch was not very busy. A sort of club of elderly gentlemen competed daily for possession of Barron’s and the Wall Street Journal. If you didn’t have today’s, yesterday’s would do. Miss Rose kept these papers in the right-hand drawer, smelling of peppermints. She herself smelled of bath oil, a surge of pine. A thin elderly spinster with uneven hems and furiously powdered cheeks. Friendly, the permissive type. (Mrs. Speer, the Head Librarian, was the other, the watch-dog type; censorious in her judgments. Hence the lurid books in locked cases.) Maybe Miss Rose kept these papers in the drawer just so she could have an excuse to open it once in a while, exchanging a warm remark. “How are you today, Mr. Adorno?” She knew them all by name. A grittily poor neighborhood, the most despairingly poor in the city; but the financial papers were in great demand, and the old men in their baggily empty coats, with their Woolworth’s spectacles, trembled when they asked: eying the drawer. For the patrons—the regulars, the same ones who showed up every day—were familiar with our procedures, knew them better than we did. Indeed, any departure troubled them; they had a strong sense of the appropriate, and were particularly strict about the rule of silence. They knew their rights. There was something wrong with the fan-belts in our blower system; it made gentle, trifling noises, palpitating and fluttering. The regulars complained of the distraction, an impropriety—it detracted from the mood. Miss Rose herself had a loud self-betraying voice and heels like circus snare drums. A novel situation: the regulars used to tell her to be quiet. This was supposed to be a library, wasn’t it? People were supposed to shut up? She went gallantly back and forth, elbows locked with books, followed by frowns, clicking tongues. “For shame! It’s not ladylike,” one gray-haired old lady would whisper to me, shaking her head. “It’s not refined.” The old lady wore gym shoes and her fur coat was fastened with diaper pins. “‘Her voice was ever soft and low,/ An excellent thing in woman.’ Pass it on,” she’d say. She herself seemed peculiarly vociferous.
But Miss Rose also had her admirers. Mr. Cohen had been asking her out to dinner for years. Tall, in his hat and heavy coat, he was another of our regulars, sat every day in the same chair at the same varnished oak table. Armchairs were provided, sunnier spots in front of large plate windows; but the regulars scorned these—too casual, maybe. Their habits were more rigorous. They were not here for browsing, that had to be understood. For them the library was an alternative to idleness. Old ladies, speedy in sneakers, in fur coats fallen on evil days—standard dress on Broadway that winter; narrow men from queues at day-labor agencies, fingering back numbers of magazines; pensioners poring over the market reports with trembling hands. The fascination with the stock market of these impoverished old men always seemed brutal to me, like the preoccupations of the diseased with the medical dictionary. But who knows what fantasies of wealth and power were fluttering in those rib-cages? Sickness, failure, old age, neglect: you got the impression these were temporary reversals—the utilities disconnected, the heat cut off—one could live with such interruptions. The thin pages—of Barron’s air-mail edition especially—rattled like tissue paper in the musty quiet.
Let us speak frankly. Where are these people to go? There are no clean well-lighted places. Bus stations are too sorrowful, with their dead television sets coming to life twenty minutes for a quarter. The all-night movies, where ushers used to nudge your shoulder if you snored too loudly, have converted to porno-houses and charge too much. One mourns their passing. I am thinking in particular of the Clark Theater, once the most illustrious of such institutions. For the Clark served Art too, these facts were inseparable; odors of winos’ holey socks mingled powerfully with the dust of Desenex in college-boys’ sneakers. Open twenty hours out of twenty-four; tickets were cheap; the double-bill changed daily. Another thing that was changed very often was the seats. The customers moved in and out of them with strange restlessness. Watching Grand Illusion, The Thirty-Nine Steps, you couldn’t help taking this in out of the corner of your eye. Eyes sliding, oily surfaces in the emulsive light. Under folded jackets, in hidden laps, hands are reaching; slowly, with painful efforts at concealment—very distracting—uncoupling zippers. In the same way the little old ladies in the balcony timidly peel their candy bars. The Ladies Gallery is an invention of the Clark—“For Ladies Only.” But it is not only for the fainthearted. Some of the women straddle their seats boldly; two seats, three seats: a shopping bag on either side. And the shopping bags get noisier as they get emptier.
Sometimes a man gets into the Ladies Gallery, possibly by mistake. But as far as the ladies are concerned, it’s intentional. They give him looks that could kill. All up and down the rows, in their hearts they are jabbing him with hat-pins—no longer handy, alas. Some day the worm will turn, the righteous will be justified, the meek will inherit the earth. But for now there sits a man in the Ladies Gallery, an unholy hairy-legged intruder. When the usher arrives, he’ll throw him out.
The fellow next to you jerks his head back, sets himself against his seat. A few small defenseless whimpers—then a grunt, a noise of very minor satisfaction. But the tension goes. He fumbles, rises at once—jacket folded over his arm. Off to look for another seat. His place is taken immediately, but this is a more familiar type. The Clark Street panhandler with upturned collar, sugared whiskers. He loosens his shoelaces, stretches out his legs. His chin sags to his chest; his head bobs freely; with a loud, snickering snore, it drops on your shoulder.
On saturday nights there was the motorcycle crowd, boots, hairy chests, crosses, earrings. The gobs from Great Lakes, pea-coats three deep in the lobby. But these don’t matter, they can go elsewhere. Maybe that hasn’t changed anyhow. Its most loyal customers the Clark has deserted forever. On the last night before this reform a brawl broke out on the darkened floor. A drunk got noisy, crashed a bottle, startled wielding its jagged neck. The situation was intimidating. Finally a lanky black man rose calmly from his seat and pointed a gun. “You get out,” he told the drunk, waving the gun at him. It was very dark of course, hard to see; but in the flickering light all the movie aficionados recognized the weapon, its steely gleam. We weren’t Humphrey Bogart fans for nothing. “I’s fixing to concentrate. Drop you bottle, man.” It was an Orson Welles festival, The Magnificent Ambersons. Bustles, ostrich plumes, and Joseph Cotten. The black man sat. The drunk, disarmed, left readily. Other patrons followed in droves. Outside in the lobby he was lynched by the mob—his peers, other winos, panhandlers, senior citizens with umbrellas. These were the ones who had the real beef: where would they go tomorrow?
There remain the neighborhood branches of the public library, overheated rooms and yellow-varnished tables. The library is really the same sort of institution, assuming a responsibility to the cultured and the rejects—sometimes the same—the old-fashioned derelict, the harmless eccentric, the pensioned poor. What about the Christian Science Reading Room, you say? But that’s just the point: a few newspaper racks, preachy pamphlets, this is arid stuff. It lacks the one thing indispensable: the dramatic element. Even the el stations are better than this; in Uptown they were certainly preferred. Turnstiles, traffic, mind-throttling trains darkening overhead; newspapers, magazines, exotic jungle covers—but here you get into private enterprise, and browsing is risky.
Picture then the Chicago Public Library, the downtown edifice, distantly resembling Fort Dearborn. But its massive staircases are Italian marble, glowing with an inner whiteness. The auditorium a Civil War Museum, full of artillery, heavy cannon. The same theme upstairs in the vast high-ceilinged gloom of reading-rooms; crossed swords, seals, flags draped everywhere. Guard-posts, kiosks, flank the turnstile entrances—and the doors to the public lavatories. Stationed in hollow marbled corridors. Funny business goes on in libraries, everybody knows that. It’s got something to do with all those stacks, the dark heavy books. Their presence is somber and primary. You are reminded that Reason is a human passion, like any other, an instinct, a drive. It is not strange that people respond in its temples with primitive gestures, flashing switchblades, unzipping flies. No, the public library is much closer to the Clark Theater than it is to the Christian Science Reading Room. And bars, flophouses, disqualify themselves at the other extreme. For the connection is not haphazard; it must be intimate, necessary, this mingling of serious things, the High and the Low, Art and Despair. The public libraries of great cities are among the last institutions remaining for the socialization of these quiet dissenters. This is one of the unavowed, but truest functions. It is even more evident in the branch libraries, outposts flung beneath the elevated tracks of the great provincial city. Here you sense the exile. And the least deviant among these are in fact employed by the institution, and serve the rest.
Mrs. Speer was nearing retirement. With some relief. Wrapped round her head the gray braids were harried, wisps escaping. She had pale, mistreated eyes. The rimless glasses go without saying; likewise, the tailored suits—under which, less severe with herself, she wore frilly blouses, the flimsiest nylon. Very revealing, and the buttons were always coming undone. An odd mixture this, dishabille and desiccation. Her breath was stale and strong—almost desperately so, reaching out to you, her essence.
Borglum Branch was losing customers continuously, and—at a more alarming rate—books. There were two schools of philosophy in the public library. One was that it existed for the sake of circulating books. The other was that it existed for the sake of preserving them. With any bureaucracy in the public service, this is what it all boils down to, eventually. Mrs. Speer belonged to the public-enemy school.
Anyone who pushed through those glass doors was immediately suspect. Even patrons returning books were eyed with mistrust: we were given orders to ask for their library cards. Just in case. Pasted above the check-out machine, where you could keep your eye on it while you stamped the cards and stuffed the pockets, was a list of defaulters: card-holders who owed hundreds of dollars in overdue fines, delinquent books. Names like Rockett J. Squirrel, Hedy Lamarr, J. Edgar Hoover. The public-enemy theory is not outright error, not downright contemptible.
Mrs. Speer’s efficacy as a supervisor may have been judged in terms of circulation numbers—books outgoing, active, revitalizing, indicating that the library was a live force in the community. But in her own heart she knew that the public had to be protected from itself. These were not borrowers, they were thieves! And the ones who were not thieves, mutilators. Bindings loose, pages missing, pictures defaced; mustaches, pubic hair, scribbled in with ball-point pen. Also telephone numbers, shopping reminders. Read in steamy bathtubs, under dripping submarine sandwiches. And people had wept over these books, rent their nails, torn their hair. Of other traces of temporary human habitation, artifacts, I won’t speak. The books had to be preserved. At some branches, the big Webster’s dictionary was bolted and chained; things had gone that far.
And all this was in Mrs. Speer’s breath.
A man was hurrying in, a great armload of books up to his chin. Through the glass doors you could see his car double-parked in the street. “Ask to see his library card,” Mrs. Speer whispered sharply. For she knew I didn’t like to do this and kept an eye out when I worked behind the desk. And now she had spotted him coming and moved in, her breath as close to me as her elbow. More prodding. Together we watched the man struggling through two sets of doors, puffing as hard as the engine—wheezing outside into wintry air. He hoisted all his books onto the desk and started away, unburdened.
“May I see your card?”
Taken aback, he reached distractedly for his pocket. “How come? What for? Nothing’s wrong?” Angry with me, fumbling through his billfold.
“Because this lady standing right next to me is my boss, and she just told me to ask you.”
Wise guy. It wasn’t kind. I was lazy and proud, a difficult combination. And Mrs. Speer was definitely not a bad sort; it was just that years of working as a public servant had made her peculiar. There is a certain socialized insanity in these categories. Schoolteachers used to have it. Once I read a note posted on the bulletin board in the high-school principal’s office; it was from a teacher who had retired, gone to live on a chicken farm. I had been in her English class. We read Ivanhoe. That is, she read it aloud to us, sitting behind the desk in her smock, her cheek in her hand. Her crimped white head. On her desk, under her desk, piled on top of window-sills, along radiators, from head to foot in her closet, were stacks of colored notebooks, theme papers. They were all on Ivanhoe. These theme papers were a requirement; the colored notebooks too—no grade issued without one. But everyone knew how grades were distributed in Miss Bozzich’s class: “Neat” girls got E‘s; girls who wore blue-jeans, G. Short boys, F; boys with long legs, protruding from the childish seats, failed invariably. There was no appeal. All classes were the same. Each day before her reading began, someone had to get up and tell “the story thus far.” As we progressed into the story, these daily resumes naturally got longer. Besides, we had caught on; some of us were deliberately long-winded. By the time Miss Bozzich started to read, the bell would ring. We had reached a point of impasse. I remember the close print, the thick rough paper, the name of dark Rebecca. . . . But we stopped on page 98. Next semester it would begin all over again. “My little chickens are so nice and polite—so well-behaved; much more grateful than my students ever were,” she had written in her note.
Anyway, after the double-parked man, my services were not often required at the desk. But Mrs. Speer already had her chickens. These were the new books, stacked on the long table in the back room in tall neat rows. On top of each pile, a note: “Do Not Disturb, J. Speer.” Mrs. Speer was cataloguing these books, and whenever she could she’d go into the back and shut the door. This was her retreat. The books already on the shelves may have been used, grubby, touched by too many hands; but these books confronted her in all their original splendor. The room was fragrant with their newness. Mrs. Speer loved these books, loved them apparently as physical objects. This was something else you discovered in libraries; there were those who read books, and then there were those whose attachment to them was of another order altogether. I can’t say what the nature of this attachment was. But one thing for sure: all the shipments of new books that came into Borglum went straight into the back room. And they tended to stay there. A virgin forest. No one else was allowed to touch them; and if, through necessity, you had to budge a stack or two—for they mounted up on the typing table, the files, the chairs, you couldn’t get through—then there were those notes, warning you that here was a Secret Order, not to be imperiled.
The thing was, the cataloguing had already been done at the Downtown Library. The books came carded, pocketed, and numbered, and all that remained for the branches to do were a few perfunctory clerical tasks. At one time, the cataloguing had been indeed the special office of the Head Librarians; but now they had been freed from such musty associations, ordered out of their dry cubbyholes, to put themselves—in other words—into circulation. This was the idea; not Mrs. Speer’s idea at all. She had put up with this new dispensation for a time, until her husband died. This had happened not long ago, and shortly thereafter she had made the simple readjustment necessary to her sanity. She had simply resumed cataloguing.
The cards that came with the books were disregarded, she started the whole job afresh, from scratch. Did she get the same results? Who knows? For the trouble with this, as with most individual solutions, was that things were against her. There really was too much to do. And the steeper the piles sprouting under the thick oak legs, the more she pondered. The intricacies of cataloguing seemed to multiply—refracted, like prisms, rainbows. She talked about her “problems,” the “tough nuts” she had to crack. Was a volume on Colonial Furniture—History? Handicraft? Art? Was Horticulture a Science or a Hobby? You see? She had lost her nerve for making such fundamental decisions.
Some of this Miss Rose had told me; some of it Mrs. Speer told me herself, for when I first came she intended to have me help her with the cataloguing, she confessed that she needed help badly—her breath desperate as usual. But this task had been promised also to my predecessor, an M.A. fresh out of library school; she never got to do it. So the young woman had made a point of telling me. And cataloguing was her specialty! Her field of academic concentration! Perhaps Mrs. Speer did not trust such avidity. I presented the opposite case. Mrs. Speer saw that I had no lively interest, was not keen for the complexities. Also, she didn’t care for my typing, which was as rapid as a machine-gunner and riddled with errors. Flack flack flack. She was afraid of it! Listening to those brutal noises, her pale glance would fuse behind her rimless glasses. So Mrs. Speer could not trust me either, a totally accurate instinct. The time had not come for her to surrender. She could not relinquish her task; nor, what it amounted to, the books. She may have been protecting them in this way, delaying the inevitable process of attrition, despoliation—borrowing, mutilation, theft.
She put off giving me my instruction; the subject dropped, disappeared altogether. But this was what usually happened. The library technician (interne) was a semi-professional, semi-clerical position; you were supposed to do everything, make yourself useful, fill in the gaps. But employees were Civil Service, fingerprinted in City Hall; people already had their places, their allotted tasks, and did not wish to share them. It threatened their own role in the institution. What with one thing and another, it was proving difficult to find a spot for me at Borglum.
Beebee, sitting on her high stool at the circulation desk, hunched over in characteristic bad posture, was not less protective of her overdue notices than Mrs. Speer was of her books. Strange, but in the library employees themselves were forbidden to read, it was against the rules. Which was why Beebee was always hunched over like that, a passionate book-worm, passionately concealing the pages of some contraband book in her lap. Glancing down at it possessively as her fingers riffled the files. She wouldn’t let anyone look over her shoulder. But when she did this—when she glanced down—you could see the slovenly, dandruffy part in her strong black hair. Beebee was like dark Rebecca; that is, she had certain vital characteristics: that black hair, the white sharply-modeled nose, heavy Sephardic eyes. But Beebee was terribly untidy. Coarse wires straggled from her bun. Her gums—the kind that played a prominent role in her smile—were rimmed with dried blood, her teeth furred with green moss. Beebee lived at home and had a boyfriend named Henry who was not Jewish. This was the dilemma, the present interest, the focus, the drama of her life. Henry would meet her at the library—meetings proscribed and rare—very tall, thin in the face, with long big teeth and foggy glasses. His hair was inconsequential. After they said hello, that was it; they never seemed to need another word. Henry in gym shoes would sprawl across the counter on baseball-jacket sleeves, gazing after Beebee, hunched busily on the high stool, her striking and disorderly head ducking over the files. From time to time she’d lower her white elbows to her lap, sink her chin into her hands, and gaze back. This collapsed Henry. Their slumped shoulders heaved a loud, prolonged sigh.
This was our current event too; what we talked about over coffee break in the back back room. Sitting round the chrome-legged dinette. Should Beebee leave home and marry Henry? Defy her parents? Deny her faith? What if Henry converted?—he looked convertible. Etc. Listening to our advice, sipping sweet tea through green teeth, Beebee grew evasive and dreamy. Her dark, high-crested glance had a certain remoteness. She liked to have us talking about her life, didn’t want to end the discussion too abruptly; still, she was a private and secretive soul. Most of us kept our lunch in the refrigerator, but Beebee kept hers in her locker; and she went in and out of this locker as jealously, possessively, as she dipped into her files—fines, overdue notices, privileged information. She’d slam the tin door if you caught her. Probably she had nothing more terrible hidden in there than some books; but books, come to think of it, were the worst thing you could hide. In a library. The pall of suspicion hung over us all. We were surrounded by temptation, breathing books.
The clandestine had a natural appeal for Beebee. It was actually Miss Rose who took the more pressing interest in her plight, for Miss Rose had a story of her own. In college she had been engaged to an interne; drafted as a medic, he had been killed in the war. And after Stanley was killed . . . “Well after Stanley was killed, I knew I’d never find another man as good. ‘What’s the matter with you?’ my mother would say. ‘You’re too particular.’ Well I couldn’t help being particular. After Stanley.”
Her elbows, planted on the formica top, were steeped in bracelets—these bangles had a way of sliding up her thin arms. Her light blue eyes were flush with the level of the teacup, brimming over behind horn-rims. I may as well get it over with, the whole description; the peering near-sighted expression, the bold nose, the (sometimes) hennaed hair. Beads, powder, taffeta skirts, fumes of pine—all this loosely assembled; when Miss Rose tucked in her blouse, her slip would pop out; when she hiked up her slip, something else would give. She bought her clothes in the gloomiest shops on State Street, under the darkest influences of the el-tracks; bounty signs posted all over the place announcing that shoplifters will be prosecuted; mirrors—like hub-caps—spying down from every corner. If you catch sight of your face in such a mirror, distorted, spoon-shaped, you look like a criminal. But how could Miss Rose ever look like a criminal? Who could make such a mistake? When she discarded her glasses, her face was defenseless altogether. Once it greeted me thus from behind her desk, weakly beaming: cocked to one side; fresh powder, thick as flour, but carnation pink, an inflammatory hue; and she was mischievously sucking on a peppermint. What was this all about? I had mentioned that a friend—male—would be picking me up at work, and Miss Rose had made herself presentable. It touched me. Garish? Loud? Yes, I suppose so; offense is the best defense; the vulgarity was there. It hurt. It has to be mentioned. But after all it was just there. It was an accident.
This was not the first time I had heard such a story. Sister Grace, my ex-husband’s aunt, had converted to the Episcopal Church so she could become a nun; her lover had been killed in the First World War, and she wished to dedicate herself. There was a parallel; the same motivation, a removal from the mainstream. Sister Grace’s convent occupied a lovely big house on Brattle Street in Cambridge; the nuns were always polishing the lustrously dark stairs. They had cats, and a black cook named Cleopatra, Was she a good cook? That I can’t tell you. Seated at lunch, at the long table laid with linen, crystal, silver napkin rings, the long leaded windows trailing shadows of ivy, I found I couldn’t taste the food: it was all too institutional. In their idleness, the nuns doted on the cats, imitated them; now they made cats’ tongues, licking cream. Bland faces, white surplices, gray habits; and many aged women boarded with them, their mothers. It seemed that the mothers of these nuns lived to a ripe old age. The widows’ securities helped to support the convent; all this New England gentility was on its last legs. But Sister Grace was one of their real mainstays, a nurse specializing in terminal cases. In her spare time looking after other elderly nuns and their even more elderly mothers. They had problems; they fainted in Filene’s basement, they fell off subway platforms in Mass. Square. Sister Grace would tell you; a fine old woman, drawing herself rigid and upright, fixing her gaze on a far corner as if she were reading off a chart. Broken heads, hips, colostomy bags. She dealt in misfortunes. Miss Rose, being Jewish, had chosen the bookish way. After Stanley? But there was no after.
I would urge Miss Rose to take Mr. Cohen up on his offer. “Why not go out with him? He looks presentable. He seems like a gentleman.”
“Oh yes,” Miss Rose would say, hastily affirmative. After all, he was her suitor! “Mr. Cohen is certainly a gentleman. A gentleman of the old school. A very fine man.”
“So? How come? What’s a dinner? No lifetime commitment.”
It seemed that she liked to be teased in this way. On such cold nights, waiting at her bus stop—she was afraid to stand alone on the dark, chill, sharp corner—she would allow it, anyway. Safe to talk when her bus was coming. Looking out after the vague lights that would come dipping up to the curb. People were always urging Miss Rose. If she took a certain exam and passed it, she could become a Head Librarian herself. No routine promotion, this was a leap, and her salary would increase considerably. Everyone thought she should do it. But Miss Rose was afraid to take this exam, she shuddered at the thought of it, the very mention sent her fluttering. And it must have been mentioned with some regularity, since this had been going on by now for years. Like Mr. Cohen.
She shrugged. “After Stanley. . . .”
“Oh Miss Rose! You know that’s a lot of baloney!”
Her eyes lit up. She cocked her head to one side in its fluffy angora cap, peeling off her glove to get at her bus fare. She always carried the change in her knitted mitt. “Yes,” she said cheerfully, “I guess it is. Yes, I know it.” And climbed aboard in her galoshes.
How could the tall, politely bespectacled Mr. Cohen, keeping an eye on IBM, Bunker-Ramo, and Xerox, but having all his money in a mattress somewhere, or possibly even in the lining of his coat—it looked bulky enough—how could he compete with a dead man, a war hero? And a doctor on top of it? How disappointed he looked whenever he saw me sitting at her desk! Presenting himself faithfully, laying his hat across his chest:
No Miss Rose tonight?
It was not that Miss Rose needed or desired assistance any more than anyone else; but she was softer than anyone else, more vulnerable, she had to give in. That was how I had finally ended up spending most of my 18¾ hours at the Reference Desk—the one place in all that moribund, underused facility where there really was the least to do. This was the backwater of backwaters, and one became preoccupied with its significant facts. The fan-belts; the Moody’s Guides, Commodities and Futures. The Children’s Library was in another wing, a totally autonomous sector, a brighter, more spacious room with its low tables. And Mrs. Endlin pasted colorful book-jackets and snow scenes on her bulletin board, kept a jar of candy canes on her desk. She had right instincts. Plump, red-haired, her vital juices still flowing. Her breath was sweet. It was as if dealing with children had kept her healthy—saner. But her cactus plants were doing badly, they looked gray.
We had our flurries of activity. On Friday afternoons, invariably, there would be some barroom bet to settle. It was payday, and workmen having a few beers in a nearby tavern would fall into aimless arguments. World records, batting averages, the age of the Pope, the name of President McKinley’s assassin. This meant a delegation: three, four solid laboring men, shouldering their way in a body, asking here and there and directed at last—mistrustful, unconvinced—to the Reference Desk. These presentations used to remind me of scenes in old movies, when such heavy naturalism was still in vogue, in which the striking workers confronted the boss, swivelling behind his big desk. There was suspicion here, too, there was a kind of hostility. They were still hot under the collars of their lumber-jackets.
“We want to see a copy of ‘If.’ ‘If’ by Rudyard Kipling. It’s a poem. ‘If you can keep your wits when all about you. . . .’”
“It’s ‘head,’ stupid.”
“It’s ‘wits,’ nit-wit. Wits.”
“It’s ‘head,’” I said.
They all glared at me. They were not going to be patronized. Even the man who had his money on “head” was against me, seemed about ready to change his mind.
“Can you show us in a book?”
Did I think they were going to take my word for it, just because I was sitting behind a desk? It was just that for me it was always easier to rattle these things off; the truth being that I didn’t know where to find anything. But that would never do. They weren’t going to take anybody’s word—except Kipling’s. Proof they were after, the evidence had to be produced. Sometimes they would make a copy on the duplicating machine; money changed hands.
Also bound to put in his appearance at least once a week: a big Sterno-breathed man, bareheaded, towing a little boy. The kid very small, hanging on by his mittens; and his nose was running. But they had the same way of standing, straddle-legged, buttoned up in their pea-coats; the same crew-cuts, revealing the same long bumpy skulls. The kid’s bumpier, more tender; you could see the furrows and worries of his scalp through pale fuzz. His face as pale, unoriginal.
This man always had a quotation for me to look up.
“Let’s have a copy of ‘The Face on the Barroom Floor.’ Just the last line—” he would add impatiently—“I know the rest.”
He had me there.
He pointed to the shelves: “It should be in this one over here: Beloved Hymns and Popular Verse.”
The next time, what? “Let’s see—I think it’s that line from Thoreau. About marching to the footsteps of a different drummer. It’s in Walden, but it might be easier for you to find it in Bartlett’s.”
Becoming familiar, you see, with my limitations.
I never figured out what this was all about. Did he want to test me and trip me, or just to make sure he kept me on my toes? I, me, being here not an individual but an entire institution. Maybe he visited other branches too? It’s possible. A one-man citizens’ committee, self-appointed in his rounds. Confronting me, big and rough and fortified with alcohol against the cold like a vigilante. The little boy, expressionless, licking his clear, shining lip. They qualified as regulars.
It was strange that the one outstanding fact of life in our library—the fact that so many of our patrons were regulars, more faithful than any of us (some certainly put in as many hours)—was never mentioned. It was unmentionable. More ordinary patrons took out books, swelled our credit, kept us in business. Regulars of course never took out any books; what for? they didn’t need to. “She’s very good with the old people,” I heard Mrs. Speer saying once into the phone—a conversation about Miss Rose’s promotion. She meant: the regulars; but she did not know that that was what she meant. Our real business, our real function, this went unacknowledged. And what about those Board of Directors meetings downtown, in the immense flag-draped room with its black cannons that had boomed over Gettysburg? Plans were being drawn up, funds sought, for the expansion of the Main Library building. It was a limestone white elephant, but it couldn’t be torn down; it could only be surrounded. Architects submitted fanciful sketches: malls, trees, glass walls surmounting the old gray bulging stones. Did anyone ever get up at such meetings and say: “Do you think the bums from Clark Street will go for this? After all, they’re the ones who spend the most time here. And what about the old ladies with the shopping bags? If we make the place look like Saks Fifth Avenue, will they feel at home?”
Popkin, a thin old man, scrawny-necked, in a long coat which reached to his ankles—a peculiar shade of naval blue—went in and out of the stacks in a rapid shuffle. A timid soul, singleminded, turning neither left nor right, with his matted white head, shuffling headlong, tiptoeing forward with a book, some precious volume, always tucked under his elbow, nestling in his armpit. He was hatching it. Miss Rose told me he was a poet. But what if you said, “But Miss Rose—have you ever noticed that Popkin comes every day? the whole day? day and night? that tiptoe shuffle?” What would happen if you said this? And what about Judge Brady. A big, open-faced man with an impressively white mane of hair; not a real judge, of course, but he had the more primary qualifications. Stern and impassive, a pillar of dignity, easing himself down in his chair at the varnished oak table—a sturdy oak himself—about to preside. Over what? Why always that chair? Or tidy little Mr. Adorno, eyes hugely magnified, with a bright polished smile, teeth regular, alight in his apple face. He was eighty, as he was always saying, always asking me to read aloud for him notes he had scribbled to himself. Listening, all teeth and eyes: nodding, Yes, yes, that’s right. What was? My transcription? His thoughts? Or something else entirely.
And then the tall, straight, gray old woman who dropped in every day to use the bathroom. Gray?—from head to foot: gray hair, gray face, gray coat, gray dress; and finally, a pair of laced-up combat boots. She stayed in long; you could hear the toilet flushing—but continuously, endlessly; it went on without let-up. It was, almost, a natural phenomenon. Yellowstone. Niagara Falls. The water, rushing hoarsely, was being sucked straight into the earth. What could she be up to? But no one else could get in there. One simply had to wait until she decided to emerge, dripping wet—long and thin and gray as a wet-mop—and sloshing out of the door in her thick-soled boots. What about pneumonia? an old woman going about drenched in the cold. But it may have been a health regimen—her own—some people take cold showers. Was she perhaps doing her laundry in the John? Or dunking her feet, some kind of physical therapy? Whatever—she seemed to survive. This activity titillated; roused a few eyebrows, a few glances of wild surmises; but that was all. Our business was books—checking them in, stamping them out, cataloguing, shelving. Minding our own business. At Borglum the level of tolerance for individual variations was very high. It had to be, the facts were too peculiar. And this—a wondering glance at the bathroom door, emitting its awesome, unmistakable noises—this was the closest we ever got to acknowledging any of that other business. For this was the one thing that could not be tolerated: to have characterized the services of the public library in this way.
Miss Rose, second-in-command, took charge when Mrs. Speer was not there, which meant she had to close up most late nights. Such responsibility worried her wretchedly. She was no authoritarian, not a bossy bone in her body. She’d go knocking about in noisy agitation, heels clattering, dragging kitetails of lace petticoat. Perhaps she hoped to rout everyone with this noise? Or was she concealing the pounding of her heart? There were always some patrons who objected. Surly, looking at the clock: “What do you mean, it’s closing time? It’s five to nine.” When the page-boy—Alfonse, a tall, stooping, black high-school boy of a downcast and moody disposition; or so he seemed, shoving the heavy cart, always behind a barricade of books—when Alfonse came loping and trundling through the reading room, dumping books on his cart in his dangerously offhand way and warningly dimming the lights, it was taken as a personal insult. Why not? It was a personal insult. The regulars had as much right to the premises as we did—squatters’ rights.
The heavy-shouldered, unshaven man, slouching on his elbows, pressing the heels of his hands into his eyes. This one always came with a companion, another gaunt familiar type of the neighborhood, a mass of dry hair, haggard fur. But all this haggardness, hair, still attracted the eye; its color was gone, not its wild vitality. She had been a great beauty, squandered powerful gifts, that was the impression she created; her chair thrust back, her fur coat flung open, legs crossed, raw-boned, raw-boned and bare. When the time came, she’d shake her friend’s shoulder. But others, alone, could not be persuaded so gently; shaken by the shoulder, they might not take it so kindly. If they were asleep, you never knew—as in the legends of the Islanders, their souls off, wandering, might not have time to return.
But Miss Rose could rise to the occasion:
“If you don’t go quietly,” she’d say, her voice forced and violently tremorous, “then—well then—we’ll just have to get the page-boy to throw you out!”
Alfonse’s dark eyes lustrously widened. He was extraordinarily tall, but thin as a rail, with long reticent hands and feet—and no inclination for being drawn out in this way. Stooping behind his barricaded cart. This was a bouncer? At such times we were conscious of our lack of manpower.
This was another fact of life in a branch library. There was an unspoken rule: none of the staff could leave at night until all of us were ready. We would assemble at the desk in our wraps (I was reminded of the terminology of kindergartens, cloakrooms, fire-drills), waiting to depart together. This was protocol. And it was like a drill; Miss Rose, timid, would test all the doors again and again; the lockers, the cash-drawer, even the bathroom: was anyone hiding? One has fantasies about being forgotten in such places at night—public facilities, museums, even department stores. Once at the zoo I walked into the lion house after closing time; the door had been improperly locked, sprang open. The long gallery was deserted, and from dark cages, behind thick bars, the big cats were already talking to each other. Their powerful growls rolling down the cavernous hall like thunder. They knew. And one sensed something like this about the library at night, when we waited to leave the darkened building; gloomy and depopulated with all its brooding stacks of books. If you were left alone with them, would they talk back to you?
When Miss Rose had locked the front doors, she would lock them again. Fingers stiff in knitted gloves fumbling with the keys. At last she would fling them down the brass mouth of the Book Depository—a final precaution. She never transported these keys with her. What if she took that famous exam and passed it?—that’s what she was afraid of. Then what would she do? It was enough to have to worry about locking up on these nights! The fluffy angora head peering down the dark slot, just to make sure. . . . Done with formalities. Now it was time to hurry, waving goodbye, going our separate ways at the corner; and as we dispersed, remembering the grimness of the neighborhood. A general observation, but there were particulars. Beebee had been followed to her el station a couple of nights by one of our patrons. Her departing figure, in flats and babushka, kept turning, looking backward.
We all knew who this was, a young man in a leather jacket. He was slight, fair, with ridges of kinky blond hair; pale eyes, bony orbs; a preponderant forehead. And he had a nervous tic of the jaw; you could see the muscles leaping under his skin. It seemed that he took out books on remedial reading—a laudable enterprise—and sometimes he sat and studied them. But one foot never stopped tapping under the table; one blue-jeaned knee jerked constantly up and down.
As soon as Beebee saw him, she climbed off her high stool and concealed herself behind the tall hedge of the circulation desk. He kept shifting in his seat, glancing over there. He’d reach deep inside his leather jacket, draw out a straight shiny object, a fountain pen perhaps? Crouching over as if to write. Then the kinky blond head looked all around, the eyes darted in their corners, the muscles jumped in his cheek. He’d slip the object back. Someone might be eavesdropping on his thoughts, that’s what it looked like; reading his mind in every random twitch.
But who could be eavesdropping on him? Not at this table. Judge Brady, unbending even over his books, sat erect, reading at a distance through his magnifying glass. Another man dozed on folded arms. As for the gray-haired old lady with the diaper pins in her coat, it was Miss Rose she had her eye on—fiercely waiting to pounce on her. What could that loud person be up to now? Approaching the table, very pink in the face, heels battering, rapid, noisier than ever?
No sooner had Miss Rose leaned over to speak to the young man than he bounded up—so suddenly, violently, that his chair crashed over backward. His clenched fists struck the table.
“You goddamned lousy Jews. You’re always telling people what to do!”
“If you’re going to talk that way,” said Miss Rose, thickly, her heart at once in her throat—“If you won’t keep your voice down—”
“Fucking niggers and Jews! That’s all you’ve got in here anyhow. And you think you’re running the whole goddamned show.”
“Such language,” the old lady whispered. “But you hear everything these days.”
There was a murmur throughout the room. The financial pages stopped rustling. For a moment, all you could hear were the fan-belts, flimsy, fainthearted. A violation of the library’s inalienable silence. But the young man had all the attention now. And he knew it; zipping his jacket up smartly with a jerk of the chin, methodically picking up his books. His swivelling eyes were taking it all in. “I’ll be back,” he said—announced, looking all around, addressing the whole room now, his audience. “And I’m going to fix you lousy Jews if it’s the last thing I do.”
“Oh yeah? Why don’t you start right now then?”
It was Mr. Cohen, rising, drawing himself up to his full height and slamming his hat on his head.
“Oh yeah?” This was Mr. Adorno. He shoved his chair back with a deliberate, threatening thud. All over the room chairs were scraping, tottering. The old pensioners, rising; sleepers, waking. The young man tossed down his books and put up his fists. He began to back off, cautious, elbows gripping his chest.
They were closing in; gaunt men, baring their arms. Mr. Adorno, with his big soft eyes and bright teeth, kept grinning thumbing his nose. Popkin’s timid, frothy white head peeped in and out as he tiptoed round and round with his rapid shuffle. They all seemed merely to be skipping round, for that matter; like boxers from the past, bantamweights, keeping their guard up, shifty moving targets. Politely almost; an old-fashioned match, with their old-fashioned rules. You could see their enemy’s eyes darting behind his knuckle-ridges. Not quite believing this. Only Judge Brady stood firm, feet planted, one arm doubled up in front of the other and arching his back in a stand-offish way. A most honorable, upright John L. Sullivan, Gentleman Jim. The Marquis of Queensberry himself!
Miss Rose tugged at Cohen’s coat-sleeve, but he shook her off.
“He started it.”
They were waiting for him to swing first; he did—an arm shot out, jerked back. The old women gasped. This was for real! Then Cohen took his swing—very wide, spinning himself halfway about under the weight of his own long arm in its heavy sleeve—and the young man ducked easily and crouched again. Taunting now, jerking his twitching jaw, flexing his shoulders in the leather jacket.
The situation was serious. Even worse, it was sensitive. We weren’t so much worried that the fellow would land a punch and hurt anyone—though his knuckles were sharp, might damage an old face. But what if one of these old guys should have a heart attack and drop right on the spot? All this fancy footwork, crowding toward the enemy; such excitement was dangerous. But no one dared to say this. Mortal injury? yes, but there was something more touchy, more serious, with these old men especially. It seemed to me that this was the influence of the Six-Day War last spring. Cohen, the other old Jews in their overcoats, saw themselves suddenly as warriors, men of that strong arrogant race they were breeding these days in the desert. And maybe the rest of the old men, not Jews, felt something of this. Why shouldn’t they? They were equally aroused; weak, counted out, they had had enough too. The worms were turning, the meek were inheriting the earth. . . . And you couldn’t interfere with them. You couldn’t, at such a moment, bring to their attention the fact that they really were old and feeble. Judge Brady’s firm face was congested and purple. And Mr. Adorno! Such bright ferocity—at eighty! The gaunt man in his shirtsleeves (his once heavy frame!) was coughing; lungs wheezing. All that the timid librarians were worried about was protecting them from themselves.
“Do something, Alfonse! Do you think I ought to call the police?” This was the last thing Miss Rose would ever do.
“What are you waiting for? Break it up.”
“You may need the inhalator squad instead.”
But somehow they had managed to surround him; a skinny arm grabbed his collar, a heavy coat-sleeve hooked his belt. They pinned his arms. “Let’s show him the door, boys,” Judge Brady shouted, and they hustled him out—jerking, kicking, the kinky blond head, bony orbs, swivelling.
“Kikes! Crazies! Niggers! Bums! That’s all you’ve got!”
They ran him into the street. He disappeared. Very soon the police arrived, partners, a low-slung heavy-set pair in fur-collared jackets. They were wiping their caps dry. For it had started to snow, and clots of the stuff slid from collars and brawny leather shoulders, dripped and melted all around them.
They put their caps on again. “What’s the trouble?”
It was past nine, but none of the regulars had left, and no one had asked them to. Now everyone started talking at once; everyone had a complaint, an injury. The old lady clicked her tongue as she knotted her plastic rain-bonnet under her chin. Such language! In a library! Where you had a right to expect some consideration! Miss Rose, under compulsion, forced herself to repeat the young man’s words. The old men told of a knife. And Beebee—who had not yet poked her black head out from behind the counter—reported being followed.
But the cops, listening to all this, were more and more and more unmoved. Their eyes grazed slowly on one old face and on another—the aged kooks in their shabby coats, abominable smelly furs, weakly indignant. Big deal! This arousing incident bored them completely. They looked toward each other. You could see what they were thinking: Kikey Cohen? Nigger Alfonse? What’s to get excited? Facts, just facts. They and the young man were in significant agreement. For the second time that night, the unmentionable came close to being, humiliatingly, mentioned.
They held up their hands. “Okay, cool it everybody.”
“And here’s Judge Brady. And he’ll tell you. He saw the knife.”
Judge Brady had gone outside to watch. To watch what? Now he came in to report.
“Is he really a judge?” asked one of the policemen, forgetting about the knife and for the first time lifting his eyes, showing a flicker of interest. He turned round respectfully.
“It’s snowing so hard you can’t tell much!” The big white-haired old man was full of breath-puffing, snow-stamping enthusiasm. He blew his nose and hastened out again.
The cop turned back. “Will you push the buzzer and let me in?” He wanted to use the bathroom.
“Give us another call if this fellow shows up again.”
As a matter of fact, the young man continued to hang around Borglum, in his familiar leather jacket. He was eventually arrested, locked up; he had a history. But this didn’t matter now.
The cops left then and we locked up. It was snowing forcefully. Not one of your fresh, swirling paperweight versions; not the pelt of dreamy white Xmases; but a wet cutting sleet. The north wind was blowing it all horizontally. It grappled with clutched coat-collars; the streets were already covered with the stuff. All those gym shoes in that peroxide slush! Judge Brady and Mr. Adorno appointed themselves to escort Beebee to her el train. Others trudged off; the street lights were melting. Mr. Cohen, trying to touch his hat in the slashing sleet, asked Miss Rose if he could see her home. She demurred—she would always demur. But, after all, tonight was different; it was time for a little charity. She consented to be walked to her bus stop. He grasped her elbow, she pinched his thick sleeve; and they bowed their heads to the snow.