I bet you’re all wondering, waiting with bated breath, to find out what a glorified check-out grrl does after she gets off work from the library.
Why, she goes to another library, of course.
Not usually, though. Just last night. I was feeling rather … bookish. After nine hours of checking in and out books on pathology, histology, and gynecology, I was itching for some non-medical ologies to read.
I’m not a good shopper. Or rather, I’m an excellent consumer. I am attracted to bright, shiny things, pretty covers, sales, percentages off. Once I got into the library, I was glad it was closing soon, or I’d have left with more than just one armful of books.
Note the “once I got into the library.” Yes, I got lost going to the main branch of the Birmingham Public Library. I’m telling you, only me. Only me …
The day that Chad and I went downtown to make my name change official, we were walking back to the car and he exclaimed, “Oh! You’ve got to see this place,” and started pointing to this gorgeous old stone building on the square, with columns and tall windows and the works. The summer before, Chad had worked on an event in the park and got to see the building regularly, but he knew I almost never came down to this part of the downtown area, so he decided to show me. We only spent a few minutes inside ó it was closing ó but enough to glimpse the dark wooden desks, small green-shaded brass desk-lamps, old oil portraits of dead white guys. Classy.
But not, as I thought, the central branch of the Birmingham Public Library. Nooooooo.
How hard can it be, when I usually turn south on 20th Street, to instead turn north on 21st Street? I must have a leaden skull. North, south, sure. Whichever. “Go that way” makes more sense to me than “go north.” But I manage to turn the right way down 21st Street and head north into downtown. Which was spooky and quiet, since it is after 7 p.m. and no one really hangs around after business hours.
After many trips around the block, I recognize that stately stone building Chad had pointed out to me last year. So I park, fairly closeby, and head around its back corner to the entrance. On the way, two middle-aged men hanging out on the corner decide to try out their mating calls, it being spring and all. “Hey baby,” one says. “Hey baby,” the other says. I quicken my step and do not make eye contact, as per my mom’s instructions o-so-many-years-ago when we first moved to Chicago. “Hey baby,” the first one repeats. “Hey baby,” the second one repeats. When they realize their dazzling prose is falling on the proverbial deaf ears, they decide to change plans. “Aren’t you a sexy thang,” the first one drawls. O god. And then I am around the corner and out of sight.
By the time I get into the library, I am definitely freaking out, reconsidering this whole trip, and reconsidering ever going into downtown Birmingham at night again. Then it hits me. The smell. Of books. Old books. Old, musty books. Old books that hundreds, maybe thousands of fingers have touched, opened, turned, worn. Okay, it’s worth it after all, just for that smell, the smell I have loved for as long as I’ve been a reader.
Maybe it is the delirious, blank smile on my face, but I am immediately pegged as “someone who needs help.” A charming security guard asks me what I am looking for, and I tell him, smiling, “the literature section.” My small voice echoes so nicely in all that wood paneling. The guard’s face lights up; I’ve just told an old, familiar joke. “You’re in the wrong place, ma’am,” he chuckles, and motions towards the door. “Here, let me show you where you need to go.”
No! No no nonono! This is the right place! This smells right! This is quiet and dark and I can even stand all the dead-guy pictures! But the guard is patiently waiting for me to follow him, and so I follow him, taking deep breaths of pulpy air before we’re out the door.
Once outside, he explains to me that we were in the Linn-Henley Research Library. “They’ve got genealogical things and stuff in there, real old stuff,” he grins amiably as we head up the street I just hurried down. I admire that grin, bright amidst his dark face like the streetlights against the dusk. His navy blue suit is tailored perfectly, and his nameplate polished. Now here’s a man who is proud of his job, I think. I want to be that proud of my job, someday.
Suddenly, I notice that we’re nearing the mating-call corner. Just as suddenly, I realize that I now have an escort. I straighten a little, slow my pace a bit. I am smug. But the men have moved on from their perch on the iron benches. The guard is explaining more about the different library buildings, how the library used to be in the stone building but it expanded so much it had to be moved. His voice is low and cheerful, and I don’t pay very close attention to the details. Until I see it.
In three-foot high, sparkling white letters, not twenty feet from where I parked:
BIRMINGHAM PUBLIC LIBRARY
It’s a new building, which disappoints me somewhat, since it won’t have the same smell. The guard graciously walks me all the way to the light I have to cross at, says, “There you go, beautiful, have a nice night,” smiles, and waits for me to trot across the street before he heads back. I am left with a smile of my own as I head up the stairs; I’ve forgotten to be indignant at the appellation.
Somehow, even though I work in a library, I am amazed, fascinated by all the books. Shelves and shelves of them, with call numbers I don’t recognize, people I don’t know milling around them. I wonder if I can ask for help, or if I will be too nervous to do so. I wonder if people who come into where I work are ever this nervous.
I don’t find the books I’m looking for. The first is called Isms: A compendium of concepts, doctrines, traits and beliefs from ableism to zygodactylism . I found it on a website through some strange link-to-link-to-link meandering earlier that day. The second is Neil Gaiman’s Stardust , which I’ve been curious about since reading and enjoying Neverwhere . So I am forced to ask an employee for help. This is the part I hate.
Why do I hate it so much? No matter how much logic I try to apply to these situations, I always think people are staring and laughing at me, or simply making their own (negative) judgments about me. There’s no outward evidence for this, but my thick fears have convinced me it’s so. Regardless, I approach the desk in the literature section and look expectantly at the sharply-dressed young man behind it.
“May I help you find anything?” he turns a tired smile to me, disengaging from his computer screen. “Um, I’m, um, I printed this out,” is all I can muster in explanation, thrusting at him the piece of paper that contained my catalog search on it. He studies it, smiles again, nods, and says, “Let’s see what we can find.”
No laughing. Not even a shred of disdain. I’m still barely shaking.
We discover, through a bit of squinting at the appropriate shelves, that the Isms book is nowhere to be found, and he explains to me that the library was the sad victim of vandalism a couple of years ago, and that the book was probably a casualty since it hadn’t been checked out in years. My heart sunk. That was my best bet book, see; the Gaiman book is not only brand-new but according to the catalog, also “in transit.”
In my library, “in transit” could last forever or it could be a few minutes. Dejected, I nod and start to leave.
But no, wait. What if there’s the slightest chance. Buck up, little camper. You can’t leave empty-handed. This is a library after all.
I follow the young man as he starts to head back to his desk. “Well, um, about the second book,” I start, and he nods and explains carefully to me that “in transit” means that someone returned it to another library and it could be a few days, but he would be happy to reserve it for me.
Again, a fork: I can nod, smile, give him my library card, let him reserve it, leave. Get out. Unfamiliar situation. Flight. Or, I can press on, since I did do the catalog search earlier in the morning, it might be there. Fight.
“I did the search this morning so it might have gotten here sometime today, maybe? Yes?” I must look so desperate. It’s only a book.
Again the tired smile appears on the young man’s face ó apologies bubble and rise into my throat, I know how it feels to be in this work-mode for hours at a time ó but he patiently goes to the computer to look it up. “Yes,” he nods. “It’s here.”
Dumbly, I follow him over to the new book display and just stare as he picks it up. Success. Success? Wait. I did this right.
With the slick dustjacket in my sweaty paws, I smile, thank the young man profusely, and start to go. But just then a surge of self-confidence rises in me, and I turn back. Faulkner, I think. Faulkner. Dr. Doctor’s favourite author is Faulkner. He has a black and white framed picture of Faulkner in his office, atop one of the rickety nightstands; within the thin wood rectangle, a jaunty, older man grins somewhere off-camera. The picture of self-confidence.
Faulkner. That’s what I need.
I do escape, finally, before closing time, with Stardust ,Absalom, Absalom , and T.C. Boyle’s collected short stories. The streetlights are a little lighter, or perhaps the night’s just darker, but I am whistling now, and smiling genuinely, something I don’t usually do when I’m alone. Armful of books, I cross the street and head to my car. The Casanovas are back on the street corner, mumbling something about my butt, and I ignore them but snicker to myself, hugging Faulkner, Gaiman, and Boyle close. Whistling turns to singing as I open the car door, and I realize I’m singing Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust” without embarrassment, without worrying about breathing properly or keeping in tune. Just … singing.