Fond memories–who doesn’t have at least one? Even growing up in a poor neighborhood, I had several. #Books figure in all of them; usually along with a dog. One of my fondest is of the Carnegie #Library in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania–the one on the Northside. I spent untold hours within its rooms; curled up in a corner somewhere with my nose stuck in a book.
At some point in every winter that I recall, at home our heat got shut off for non-payment. It’s hard to feed a family when your wallet is empty, much less keep the heat and the electricity turned on. Carnegie Library was always warm. And quiet. And never violent. No one got stabbed or shot or beat up within those walls. No one even yelled. That was back when libraries had a hushed, reverent atmosphere.
Oftentimes, when I’d walked in with my toes nearly frozen as they peeked from the holes in my tennis shoes and wearing clothes that were always too big for me, the librarian would smile and glance around then wave for me to come over to the desk. She would dart looks here and there like she and I engaged in a great conspiracy. I’d stand on tiptoe and lean as far over the counter as I could and she’d stretch toward me and whisper, “We just received some new books and I found a few I thought you might like.” Then she reached beneath the counter and drew out two or three or four books and slid them over the counter to my eager hands.
With a quick look around, I swiped them off the counter and tucked them in faded backpack I’d bought at a thrift store–treasures to savor. Sometimes, a sandwich lay on top of the books. Of course, there was no eating or drinking in the library, but she’d lean even closer and say in a voice only for my ears, “No one’s over by the table at the end of the A-B aisle in nonfiction.”
Though I visited that particular library many times every week from the age of six to the age of nine, if I ever knew her name, I’ve forgotten it. Her face, over the years, has blended with other faces, but I have never forgotten her kindness to a poor child in a rough neighborhood.
During the winter of my ninth year, my grandfather was murdered. Shortly afterwards, Mom moved us out of the city and into rural suburbia. I never saw my beloved library nor the kind librarian again, yet the impact of both still affects me to this very day. Every time I write a book, I remember her. I hope that my work honors her kindness.
Once upon a long time ago, I climbed on those concrete banisters. Sometimes, I ran up and down them; and, sometimes, I lay on my back and stared up at the sky and dreamed of a place far from where I’d grown up. This building was my sanctuary, my haven.