Central Library in St. Louis
Inside this wonderful library on a fall day in 1976, there were numerous characters who seemed to be lost in their own worlds. But I will never forget one man who broke the whisper rule and shared a bit of his own wisdom.
Karen and Me
I was a 19 year old college student and it was fall break. Friends were heading out of town on adventures and I was stuck in St. Louis, working nights as a theatre usher to pay tuition. But my days were free and so was my friend Karen. Karen and I shared an important ability, which is especially rare today. We were able to entertain ourselves for great lengths of time, without spending a penny. (Although we did spend a few coins at a photo booth once)
On October 25, 1976, Karen and I made plans to drive downtown and explore our own city as if it were Paris...without spending a cent. The main focus of our adventure would be the impressive St. Louis Central Library with its monumental entrance and palace-like interior.
First we wandered through rooms and studied the ornate ceilings and stained glass windows. There were arches and chandeliers that really did make us think we'd taken a trip to Europe.
It was hard to imagine getting absorbed in a book with so many distractions. Echoing footsteps...the smells of old books and polished wood...grand windows to stare out and pictures painted on the ceiling.
This library was established (long before the building) in 1865 with only 1,500 books. Who knows how many there were in 1976, but we cracked a few. We browsed through books of quotations and memorized some of the best, so we could later use them in nonsense conversation as we strolled down busy sidewalks. We thumbed through phone books from distant cities, looking for friends from the past. We sat in small chairs in the Children's Room and enjoyed some colorful picture books. Then we had an amusing time fumbling with some microfilm. I don't remember what we looked at, but I do remember that we were very pleased with our accomplishments.
It began to feel strange when we entered the Periodicals Room. The tables were full of men reading newspapers. There was something sad and timeless about this image. It felt like we were entering a library during the depression, with jobless men searching the want ads. Then I began to breathe in the stale odor of the room and realized some of these men had not seen showers in some time. I felt uneasy at first, to recognize the fact that the library was a shelter to many homeless during the day. But it also made me secretly glad they had such a wonderful place to come.
Observing the people in the library turned out to be just as intriguing as the architecture and books. In the Popular Room, Karen and I flipped through books while glancing around, wondering where these library guests came from. Business men on lunch hour? Old retired couples, tired of watching TV? And then my eyes stopped on a man, with matted hair and a coat almost stiff with filth. He looked up from his paper as I was staring and I was jolted by his strikingly handsome face. An actor, playing a homeless man? In that second when our eyes met I panicked that I'd been caught staring, but his eyes were distant and spacey. He grinned towards me, yet his mind seemed far away.
Karen and I moved to another room and chose books we were actually interested in and settled at a large wooden table. I studied a book about the 1966 flood in Florence, Italy. Karen chose a pictorial on Japan. We were suddenly aware of a man dressed in torn clothing standing over us, slowly shaking his head. He spoke to Karen, "You're turning the pages too fast. You're not enjoying each picture." We both sort of laughed politely and the man walked away.
The man returned a while later and leaned over my book. I could smell alcohol and his voice was loud enough to make others turn. "And you should keep a dictionary with you. Don't pretend you know all the words." Ordinarily I would have moved away from a lecturing stranger with booze on his breath. But there was something protective about this old library and something oddly wise and peaceful about this odd man. "Look at the quality of the pages!" he said with sudden enthusiasm. "Feel how smooth they are. You don't realize how beautiful these pages are, because you're so young."
Thank You, Library Man
Thank you for reminding us to appreciate books. Not just for the stories, but for the pages themselves and for the words that we don't always know. I don't remember how our conversation ended. In fact I didn't even remember the part about your alcohol breath until I found it in a journal recently. I do know that Karen and I felt a little odd after you left. You made us stop and wonder a bit. That's always good. And remembering you has made me wonder about that impressive library. I discovered on the internet that the 100 year old library just completed massive renovations!
It looks beautiful in the film footage! http://central.slpl.org/
To celebrate my birthday in April 2012, I decided to reflect on the past with a different kind of list. I've met a lot of people in my 55 years, but I'm going to stop and remind myself about the strangers I've met. These are people I met by accident, not through friends or work. For some reason, these strangers dropped into my life. Even though we may have only spent a few minutes together, these people have never been forgotten.
Each week, I'll spotlight someone I met in the past, who in some small way, made me stop and think.
Remember 55 Strangers