Sitting in the Learning Resource Center at San Diego City College. I am among at least 100 empty chairs, many of them comfortable enough to sleep in, though I hesitate to say so. I’ve done it of course. I have been left undisturbed for as long as an hour and a half.
“Learning Resource Center” is one of those increasingly common euphemisms I consider a form of computer-age illiteracy, a techno-bastard of the word “library.” But a library it is, and a very good one, a quiet (despite its location off downtown on Park Boulevard, off C Street), well-lighted place. At the moment I am sitting on the top level of three floors (the building is on a low hill), looking out a south-facing bank of floor-to-ceiling windows.
I can see the Coronado Bridge, the clock tower at the Twelfth and Imperial trolley station, high-rise condos that look like giant, twin disposable cigarette lighters, and the Hyatt, which I think of as the Cheese Grater Building, to my immediate right. Just below me and across the small parking lot is the Soon Lee Chinese laundry. To the left is City Boxing, where young women learn the art of Thai kickboxing. The Honeybee Café next door provides coffee, evening entertainment, and surprisingly good food. The adjacent bar is a dark and classic collegiate watering hole and showcase for local rock and folk perpetrators. Only blocks away, we have Petco Park, the epicenter of a real-estate storm of eminent domain and a corporate coliseum for a mediocre baseball team: the object of passion, pathos, or apathy to fair-weather fans in a fair-weather city. San Diego High School is roughly 100 yards behind where I sit jotting notes.
It is 9:10 a.m. and I have been here since the center’s opening at 8:00.
From where I sit, the closest shelf holds books on insects, birds, shells and other sealife. To my left are medical books, nursing mostly, and across from them, books on the paper and rubber industries, things like Paper: The Fifth Wonder and The House of Goodyear.
I have just spent an hour downstairs at the computer bank. (Though not a registered student, I’m told it’s okay as long as I’m willing to surrender my seat to a bona fide pupil if necessary — this has never happened.) I downloaded some articles on the Reading Room of the British Museum. I had been there in 1971 and reveled in the proximity to Dickens (“His days there were the most useful he had ever passed”), H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, Darwin, Karl Marx, Kipling, and Hardy. Also, my favorite and still-living autodidact, Colin Wilson, author of The Outsider, The Philosopher’s Stone, and The History of Murder.
In his novel The Longest Journey E.M. Forster once wrote (and he may well have written it beneath that famous blue-and-gold bowled ceiling): “In that book encircled space, he always could find peace. He loved to see the volumes rising tier above tier into the misty dome.…There he knew that his life was not ignoble.”
Here, at the Learning Resource Center, I may doubt the nobility of my life, but I am, for the moment at least, reassured that it is not deafening.
Yesterday, I asked a woman at the information desk what was the most interesting question she had ever been asked. “Not interesting,” she said. “Course work.” It took a moment to register.
“Any odd questions?” I asked.
“Oh, sometimes crazy stuff. Aztec civilization, Mayan civilization…” I decided against pointing out that these subjects might fall within the parameters of a consensual definition of sanity, and went instead to the bathroom, where I made a note about the lack of adequate ventilation. I tested the acoustics.
“Superior acoustics in john at LRC/SDCC,” I jotted. I began to sing “Born Free.” As free as the wind blows…dah da dah da duh dah…’cause you’re born freeee. Additional note: “Bring tape recorder tomorrow. Perfect echo. Tape a cappella ‘Daddy’s Home’ by Shep and The Limelighters.”
A student (I’m assuming) with a shaved head and a studded nostril and lip opened the stall door. I looked up and said, “Hey! I’m in here.” He stood there for almost ten seconds; maybe English was not his first language. He had on surfer shorts, old OPs or something. They hung not quite below his crotch. I waved my notebook and a copy of Mathew Arnold’s Essays in Criticism at him, open to a page on Milton and Shakespeare: “Shakespeare is divinely strong, rich and attractive. But sureness of perfect style Shakespeare himself does not possess.…Milton, from one end of Paradise Lost to another, is in his diction and rhythm constantly a great artist in the great style.”
I pointed with my Pentel at my notebook and said, “I’m working. You mind?”
“Sorry.” He turned away. His shorts, below a six-inch ass-crack, bore the logo in Gothic/Old English: “LOST.”
The following hour was spent in peace and pleasure. I dozed with impunity. On the right arm of my comfortable chair a small tray on a swinging hinge fit my laptop nicely, but for my nap I stacked the tray with what I hoped would look like exhaustive research on Agriculture. Principles of Field Crop Production (third edition); Plant Propagation: Principles and Practices (also third edition); Rice and Man: Agricultural Ecology in Southeast Asia by Lucien M. Hanks.
Stuffed in my back pocket was the novel I was reading: Adios Scheherazade: The Secret Life of a Sensuous Man by Donald E. Westlake. It is the fictional biography of a pornographer with writer’s block. I bought it, along with two other paperbacks, for a dollar over the weekend at the downtown Central Library sale.
* * *
The Central Library, or Downtown Branch, is an easy walk from SDCC and should not even be considered exercise. It is my primary learning resource center and I have friends who work there. Observations, I urge you to remember, are entirely sympathetic with the staff, if not the neighborhood or the city.
Working at the Central Library must be as challenging, in unguessable ways, as it is entertaining on a daily basis. Possibly, the entertainment factor wears thin, but as evidenced by the workers I’m familiar with, the labor-of-love bulwark remains.
I’m waiting for my 15 minutes on the Internet, sitting in a bank of chairs in a direct line from the checkout desk and across from Information and History. The magazine rack is behind me, and I kill a little time with Men’s Fitness. Mark Wahlberg mocks me with his abs and that look that says: “Hey, Pacemaker Dude. Drop and give me 50.” Unfazed, I mentally compose my e-response to a professor of exobiology at Tacoma College who sent a couple of inquiries. “Do you like dogs? Which Captain, Kirk or Picard?”
My thoughts are interrupted by a quarrel, growing noisier by the minute, between two women also waiting for a computer. They look like members of a Lakeside PTA group auditioning for Jerry Springer.
“I didn’t see no name on this chair. You were gone. Too bad.”
“You don’t need no two chairs. Whyn’t you lose some weight?”
“My weight’s none of your damn business.”
“You gonna give it up, or am I gonna call security?”
“Call whoever you want, bitch.”
At this point, my friend, Shawn (not his real name) and the security officer on duty come over. Shawn is big, with a low center of gravity, but very mellow. He surprises me with an air of authority I haven’t seen before. “Ladies,” he says, “You settle down now. I want one of you to move over there and don’t talk to each other or you’ll be asked to leave.”
Amazingly, they obey without fuss and thus flunk the Springer audition.
“Fine work, Officer,” I tell him.
“Hey, how you doin’?”
“Good. People still accessing a lot of porno here?”
“Well, we’ve always had the rule that it’s not allowed, but it’s an ongoing thing. The library of course has filters, but they can be removed if someone’s doing some kind of educational research or whatever.”
I don’t tell Shawn that I accidentally called up a porno site a few years ago. I was looking for a date and stipulated “over 40” and was hit with options titled “Granny Does Detroit” and “Luvin’ Up Yer Mom.” When I accidentally clicked on them and saw the photos, it was like a car wreck. I couldn’t look away for the whole 15 minutes. I had no desire for sex through much of 2003.
Giving up my chair and place in line for the Internet, opting for a conversation with Shawn, I ask about the bathroom on the second floor. “Whenever I go in there, seems like someone is taking a bird bath in the sink.”
“Yeah, we can’t monitor that all the time. We can’t have cameras in the bathroom.”
“No, of course not.”
“Writing about the library again?” he asks.
“Yeah, but not just this one. And it’s not about the usual sort of thing. It’s kind of a survey of which libraries have the most comfortable chairs to sleep in, the acoustics in the bathrooms, difficult or interesting questions librarians might get, and could you prepare an entire meal in this library or that.”
“It’s not a criticism in any way. For example, I sympathize more than I can say with the people who work downtown, like you. People have been great to me for years. Someone is bound to misread this and think I’m suggesting it’s your fault, or the librarian’s fault, that people are cleaning their entire bodies in the bathroom or that there might be more people at this branch with mental disorders acting out in strange ways than at other branches. I’m not. I’m not really saying anything. I’m just observing.”
“Uh huh. I know you can make Cup o’ Noodles and Top Ramen soup, if you get hot water from the coffee guy out there. Buy a cup of tea but you don’t actually…”
“I like to consider myself a Friend of the Library, though I’m not an official member.”
“I don’t see making a whole meal. Who would want to do that?”
“I don’t know, it was an editorial guideline.”
“But acting out. Yeah, were you here when that guy was weaving, zigzagging around the middle of the street trying to get hit by a car?”
“We have to call the cops more often than other libraries, maybe. Maybe every two weeks. People make out in the restrooms, shoot up in the restrooms. Anything and everything.”
“I’ve never actually caught anybody, you know.”
“Right. I’ll tell you about this…person the other day. A woman complained about a man in the women’s bathroom who wouldn’t leave because he claimed he was a woman. Another guy and me had to check it out. Check him out. He said he was legally a woman. He proved it right there.” Shawn grins here, this terrible grin.
“You mean he showed you his…”
“His proof, yeah. Ha ha.”
“What did he…you know, did he drop…”
“He just proved it.”
“He showed us his driver’s license. SEX: F.”
“You know what I get a lot?”
“People coming in with pets, claiming that their animals are service animals and they are not. We can’t allow just every animal in here.”
“Service animals are like seeing-eye dogs?”
“Yeah. It’s a crazy world. People should know this is not a place to come and bring your animal or a place to sleep.”
“The chairs here are pretty uncomfortable.”
“Or a place to eat or bathe or have sex. Seems like we shouldn’t even have to say this. Then there are people who sit out in front drinking and insulting patrons and we have to call the police. Why come to the library to do that?”
“I don’t know. It’s a crazy world, like you say.”
“Yes, it is.”
* * *
I knew I could get my friend Catherine Greene to give me some usable stuff. A week earlier, I’d asked her to think of interesting questions she’s been asked. Catherine is in Literature now; she’d been in History for a long time before that and has helped me for over ten years. I did not expect to get inside inside stuff, because being a librarian at this branch has got to have its similarities with being a cop in a wild precinct. Certain stories and jokes are never going to get out of the building. Catherine conducts tours of the library, including its basement, and several years ago she took me on a private one. The basement of the Central Library proved to be even dustier, more gothic, dramatically ill lit, and darkly romantic than even the images with which my childhood, pulp-infused imagination might have dreamed up.
Catherine handed me some notes she had typed regarding interesting queries. My favorite: “I regularly receive queries from a man in the California state prisons who prefaces his questions with: ‘I am a resident of San Diego when not falsely imprisoned.’ ”
“If the Virgin Mary was about 15, why wasn’t God charged with statutory rape?”
“When Wild Bill Hickock was killed while playing poker, he was holding two pairs, aces and eights, now known as the ‘dead man’s hand.’ What was the fifth card? (This is unanswerable, unless an eyewitness account surfaces.)”
On another sheet she had typed: “Last week a patron from Temecula wanted to verify the authority of a quote attributed to Winston Churchill. Neither Literature nor SERRA could verify it as Churchill’s; it was found to be by a somewhat obscure Victorian writer.
“The patron is an artist who has been commissioned to sandblast 35 quotations into a stone wall erected at a new MTS trolley stop. Of her 35 listed quotations, we could only verify three; most of the quotations had been taken from the Internet.
“She was disturbed and anxious about the provenance of the other quotations, and in light of the recent similar public-art problem at the Livermore Library [11 out of 175 names were misspelled on a mosaic] was concerned as to how to handle the situation. The commissioning board would have to be told (they had already approved the quotations). We recommended that she take several of our quotation and proverb books, find new (editor-verified) quotes, present them to her board, and inform them about her ingenuous efforts and the increasingly necessary cautions that the public must adopt in approaching the Internet as an authority. Had she not come to SDPL for the initial quote verification, the trolley stop might have had 35…well, you get the idea.”
Yes. A 35-part stone monument to the Internet’s due diligence. This might have given rise to expressions like: “This information is all netted up.” Or: “I swear on the information highway!”
On Greene’s list of questions, one stood tiredly alone, with the weight of a stale chestnut getting older by the minute: “Do you have The Code by Leonardo Da Vinci?”
Catherine, as on occasion she relates to visitors on her tour, spoke to me about her sympathy for an increasingly large number of people — especially at the Central Branch — who frequent the library, enjoy reading, and cannot be issued library cards because of a lack of a home address. She describes a common scenario where a visitor and would-be-patron spends much of the day at the library and begins reading a book. At closing, or whenever they do leave, the book cannot go with them, and they do not wish to leave it where they found it only to return the next day and find it checked out. Often the book in question is placed in a thoroughly unrelated section of the facility. “It’s why we find, say, erotic novels in the automotive section.”
And while the Central Branch understandably would rather say it isn’t so, no one flatly denied that, on occasion, a library lover or two with no residential address has found him- or herself locked in the building at closing time, pleased to spend the night among the restful stacks.
* * *
When I first moved to San Diego, a kind of trial move in October 1977, the year my son was born and my wife had had it with living in Brooklyn (a place I thought thoroughly American and suited to the Chicagoan in me very well, thank you), we came to Coronado. This was such a surreal transplant, I spent four months looking for bartender/
waiter/bookstore work in a disassociative haze aided by coastal fog, alcohol, and the local library on Orange Avenue. The library was my base camp as I eventually only pretended to look for work, instead catching up on the sleep our two- to five-month-old son deprived us of. The patent failure to support my new family could only be ameliorated by Scoresby scotch (a cheap and brutal whiskey) and the library, which was a vastly different room 30 years ago.
With its picture windows looking onto Orange and A avenues, and the parklike acre or so flanking its wings, during those late months of 1997 and January of ’78, the Coronado library was a vessel that carried me to England as I read the autobiography of Colin Wilson, (Voyage to a Beginning). I fed my hunger for both fiction and nonfiction about the British empire in the 19th Century by dipping into the at-that-time fashionable diaries of officers’ wives posted to “Providence-forsaken colonies” and the James Ogilvie novels by Duncan MacNeil. I was on a mission to write a novel, an idea born in an imaginative fever I’d had 15 years earlier in a library in which Hemingway might have done his homework; this was two thousand miles to the east, on the border of Oak Park and River Forest, Illinois. More on that place to follow.
I did find work at the service bar of the Hotel Del, sweating in a polyester red vest/jacket and bow tie, concealed from guests in a glass booth stocked with liquor, sweating out the coffee and Irish whiskey I consumed and learning Spanish from the room-service waiters. I also found part-time work as a bartender in the Fiesta Room, a cocktail lounge off La Avenida, a restaurant no longer there — at least in that family-dining incarnation. The Fiesta Room was, for me, a nightmare of near-comatose alcoholic Republican golfers, who never seemed to actually golf and who kept trying to speak to me in horrific Spanish, far worse than my own at the time. A sadistic moron named Tarazzi or Terrizzi or something like that, who eventually fired me, managed the bar. The reason I mention the job is that a striking mural in La Avenida was the backdrop to this four-month nightmare. The mural is first-class work of its kind, salvaged after a devastating fire totaled that Coronado landmark-of-a-restaurant, and now greets you as you enter the renovated library on that island I once described in a novel as “a town full of retired admirals living with their parents.”
The mural was painted by Alfred Ramos Martinez in 1938 and titled El Dia del Mercado. Gus and Barbara Theberge donated it to the City of Coronado in 1994. In the literature on that painting that I picked up at the front desk of the library, I read that Chiang Kai-shek once recruited aviators for the Flying Tigers on the sidewalk outside the restaurant.
Once inside the new library, the passage of 30 years was in abundant and bittersweet evidence. To the right as you enter is a display case full of neato, boffo souvenirs from WWI. Here is a Haenel rifle, some German helmets, swords, trench shovels, gas masks, and one Kaiser-type Pickelhaube helmet you would not want to sit on. Also, what looks to be a first English edition of All Quiet on the Western Front.
The renovation, opened to the public in June 2005, is sleekly impressive, and, with regret, I am tempted to add, sterile. Though it is undoubtedly a much better library now, it has little of the suburban modesty that characterized the place for years previously. Wide-screen computer monitors have replaced the temperamental old ones. The staff (many of the same faces) are as smart, courteous, and helpful as ever. The place now puts me in mind of, say, the Love Library at SDSU, a kind of set for a science-fiction film about a vast digital police station where books are secondary to the specious data highway we have all embarked upon.
I had meant to include in my roundup “The Library of Love,” as I came to think of it, ironically — that cool and perfect place — and to suggest the number of “keggers,” for example, that could be held simultaneously in the facility. I could think of little else to say about it, being no architectural aficionado nor megabyte maven or maniac. I also considered including the Horticultural Library in Balboa Park, with its peaceable ambiance, its next-door senior lounge, one of the great reading spots downtown, comparable, in its shabby-chic way to the Wagenheim Room at the Central Library (which I’ve written of elsewhere). But none of these places have moved me or marked me in the way the four libraries I’ve chosen to write about here have.
* * *
The very first library I fell in love with, as a second home, was the Oak Park/ River Forest Library in suburban Chicago. During a return to Chicago in 1991 at the age of 40, I borrowed my brother’s 1963 Triumph Bonneville and rode, sans helmet and with only goggles, from the city to that northwest suburb of Oak Park, where Ernest Hemingway once lived, and then to its western edge, where it borders River Forest (the fifth largest suburb in the world — at one time, anyway) and where I used to live as a kid, delivering newspapers to the foreboding mansion of gangster Tony Accardo, one of the last of the original Al Capone mob.
That motorcycle daytrip in 1990 is a memory of as nearly a perfect day as God rations out. Springtime in a Midwestern city: the air sharp, keeping one focused and attentive, coupled with crosswinds bearing warmth and a floral yet human scent, like the breath of an infant, or perhaps that one woman you once knew all too briefly. At the edge of the park, between Hemingway’s playgrounds and Accardo’s dark fortress, sat the library, a brick and ivy-covered cottage, far smaller than the one provided by memory.
Among the most pleasant memories of childhood are those of sitting in one of two facing red leather chairs that seemed to envelope me. These flanked a great fireplace, often in use during winter months. I would sit for good periods of time with volumes of New Yorker cartoons of which The Addams Family series by Charles Addams were favorites. I eventually checked out all the Hardy Boys books they kept downstairs in the children’s library and was, I suppose, unaware that one could always ask for others. I supplied myself with several dozen volumes at two dollars each from Sears, Roebuck, a decent bicycle trek to Irving Park Plaza (an early shopping center in the Paleozoic era). This triggers another memory of negotiating an armload consisting of The Great Airport Mystery, The Tower Treasure, The Twisted Claw, and a few others by Franklin W. Dixon, while riding my J.C. Higgins through a gathering tornado down suburban streets against headwinds so strong, they upended the front wheel of my bike, and I managed the longest wheelie ever for a personal best.
In those capacious, wine-colored chairs, I read young-adult books about — for some reason I suspect having to do with my mother having taken me to see The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, then reading the book — China. Once I hit Pearl S. Buck and The Good Earth, the librarian suspected it was time for me to graduate upstairs and get an adult card. My interest in China faded, as very little of the stuff I knew how to find rivaled the beheading scene in the Deborah Kerr film. I must have been 10 or 11 when I discovered science fiction, but that was not in the River Forest/Oak Park library. I literally picked it up on the streets.
My younger brother and I, having just moved from Chicago’s West Side, full of Italian and Polish immigrants and near a pocket of “hillbillies” from Appalachia, were astonished at what suburban residents considered trash and so put out on the curb. We would go “garbage picking” and bring home embarrassing odds and ends of refuse. One genuine treasure I still maintain might have been highly collectible, gone now with priceless baseball cards and bottle caps, was a carton of leatherette-bound hardcover books from a British publisher and dated from the 1920s. Among these (along with — to me — expendable Brontë and Austen and inscrutable Shakespeare volumes) were Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea, Journey to the Centre of the Earth, and Around the World in Eighty Days. I also hauled H.G. Wells’s scientific romances, Rafael Sabatini’s Captain Blood, and a few other swashbucklers, including Scaramouche, which has one of the best opening lines ever written: “He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.” (The line is carved over one of the entrances to Yale University and is to this day visible.) Here, also, were P.C Wren’s novel Beau Geste and The Four Feathers by A.E.W. Mason, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and the ultimate treasure, Frankenstein. I read Frankenstein first, and 20 years later, read in Brian Aldiss’s Billion Year Spree that he considered that book to qualify as the very first science fiction novel — in the contemporary sense. So I boarded that wonky bus to nerd-dom at the beginning of the line.
Back at the library, I picked up A Century of Science Fiction edited by, I think, Damon Knight.
In all, I probably spent a good part of my preadolescence (or pre-rock-and-roll years) in that library, where I also discovered Junky by William S. Burroughs (and I wonder how that got in there in the early 1960s, or if I imported it myself from a drugstore rack) and I Was a Teenage Drug Addict by someone or other. Neither of these books had what I suppose was the desired effect on a kid, warning me of horrors along that road, but instead whetted a morbid curiosity, a dark romanticism defeated in later years only by the underdocumented boredom of drug abuse. My alternate libraries were suburban rooftops, primarily that of our family’s garage, where my parents’ fights were muffled and carried only sporadically by gusts of wind and the slamming of doors. One experience, hardly wholesome and fit for a Reader’s Digest memoir, was nonetheless a pleasant and perversely sentimental snapshot from 1965. A friend’s older brother had sent him opium from Vietnam. My brother and I smoked it on the rooftop of my grandmother’s home in Berkeley, Illinois, as I read The Time Machine aloud and we gorged ourselves on fresh cherries, within easy reach from a neighbor’s tree.
It was during that period that I first fantasized about being a writer, incorporating the idea that I might be issued a pipe and a .45 caliber pistol as Mickey Spillane was depicted on some paperback cover. It was a further dream that I might return to River Forest one day from Africa or the Antarctic to find my own adventure novels on the shelves of that local library. This was a dream that materialized that day in 1991 when I found my first published book in hardcover on the fiction shelf there. I also found red leatherette chairs to either side of the shrunken fireplace that could not have been the same chairs at all; over the years, they too had grown impossibly small. When I left the library that spring afternoon and straddled my brother’s Triumph, I wore a smile that remained locked in place — by wind, centrifugal force, and destiny itself, by God — all the way back through city streets and the northern lake country and into the night. n