Library Love

December 2006

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.

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