I know what you are thinking.
How in the world Mae did you end up in a fight with an institution that has lions guarding it?
I didn’t mean to. I never meant to. The library was my refuge, especially in the beginning of my being a resident here in New York City. I was broke and the library loans books for free so it was a copacetic relationship. One that included air-conditioning on hot summer afternoons. There was and still is no greater form of entertainment for me than reading with the exception of dancing. I danced a lot in the early days of my residency here. I was told once, “Pretty girls are the cheapest form of decoration.” I was also once referred to as “window dressing.” If it meant dancing in beautiful settings well, call me what you want as long as you just call me. Once a friend rang at midnight, “Mae it’s an incredible party. Come on down!” I crawled out of bed, got dressed and took the subway downtown. He was right, it was an incredible party. I have gone to some really amazing places and danced until the sun was about to rise. I digress though, that’s not the story I want to tell.
Back then, the late 1980’s to be more precise, I lived in a little tiny room up on 107th Street in Manhattan. It was a dark box of a place. Really, an expensive closet with one window that faced a brick wall. It was on the island of Manhattan and I had a 212 area code which in the end was the extent of all the charms that apartment had to offer. I didn’t own a TV or an air conditioner so when I wasn’t dancing I would read at night. My favorite books in the summer were by Somerset Maugham as they were usually set in hot locals. I didn’t have to imagine the horrifying heat his characters lived in as I too sweat in the humidity right along with them.
The fight I had with the library was over the book Theophilus North by Thornton Wilder. I remember really enjoying the book but it seemed very heavy the day it was due. I didn’t have money for the subway and was walking it down to 42nd Street when I remembered reading you could return a library book to any one of the library branches. It was in the fine print on the paper label that had the stamp of when the book was due.
There was a library branch on Amsterdam Avenue and 81st Street just blocks away from my sister Colleen’s apartment. I dropped the book there and went on my merry way. Weeks later I had an overdue notice that said I hadn’t returned the book. I went to the library and told them I had. It was my word against theirs. The book was missing. I ignored it thinking when it showed up all would be right with the world. I was in my 20’s and ignoring the problem seemed like a good solution.
The fees grew and eventually the case was sent to the collection agency. That’s when I knew things were getting out of hand. A letter arrived all in red lettering. It was serious and the fact I could I no longer take books out of the library compounded the problem. One of my friends is a lawyer and wrote a letter to the collection agency citing the book was in fact returned. I then did what I should have done in the beginning, I found the book on the shelf and brought it to the librarian.
One of the greatest lessons I have learned in life is most of what happens in it has little to do with you. I wish my 24-year-old self knew this. When I brought the book over the librarian and all of the paperwork involving my issue it was as though I was teasing a hungry lion. She screamed at me in a whispered roar. Embarrassed me at that desk in front of others and when she was through she hissed, “You are banned from the library for life. Never, ever return.” I hissed an equally as passionate, “FINE.” Then I walked out the door. I had not nor could I imagine it would take me 30 years to walk back in.
From that moment on I just read books from other people’s libraries. I discovered The Strand bookstore and life itself ran in other directions. I’ve told the story to various people over the years. One was a major contributor to the library and assured me the library had no qualms with me. If they did, he’d make sure it was resolved. I told him not to bother. I don’t know why but I could not let go of the fight. That was until a few months ago. I had sent a friend some books for her children at Christmas. She in turn donated money in my name to the New York Public Library as a thank you. It was that card that showed up that made me realize I really had to let bygones be bygones. The woman who banned me was surely retired by now and in hindsight…. she probably was dealing with greater issues at home. My stupidity alone could not have fueled such extreme anger. I have yet to get my library card but… I did walk past the lions and wandered the mighty halls again.
By the way, the guards had no idea… nor do I think they cared about my misplaced book of long ago.