The Library

Library LionOnce upon a time, I got in a fight with the New York Public library.

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.

The halls inside the library just make you want to learn.

The halls inside the library just make you want to learn.

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.

Library and a hint of light 1

Inside the library, I caught sunlight filling the dark spaces.

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.

Library staircase going downThe 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.

Stone Lion

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.

This entry was posted in Essay, Memories, Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to The Library

  1. John says:

    Several thoughts:

    I suppose one must really have to have been to NYC to understand why living in a tiny closet with no a/c and a 212 area code is really a good thing. 🙂

    I love that you love Maugham. “Of Human Bondage” is one of my favorite books, and have reread it so many times… I also like “The Painted Veil”.

    I had a similar experience with returning a library book to a branch different than the one I checked it out from … my library card was revoked, and it took about two years to get straightened out … I even knew a librarian at the branch I returned the book to, and had been working the day I brought the book back… I actually handed it to her, after asking if it was ok if I returned a book to this branch, rather than the main. She even got involved in trying to help me out.

    I don’t Library any longer …I tell myself it’s because the last couple of books I’d checked out were dirty — one had a blood spot, another something suspiciously yellow and crusty… but, really, it’s because I love owning books … I love that the book is MINE, and I hate having to give a book back…. 🙂

    • maesprose says:

      It was always my dream to live here and when I graduated from college finding a job was nearly impossible. The city wasn’t what it is today – hindsight being 20/20 it would have been worth investments if I had any money or vision. That closet was what I could afford in a semi decent neighborhood. The word “semi” holding a great deal of optimism. It was a weird little dream come true. You’re right though, I need to explain further what was so important about living in a closet in Manhattan. Another time…. another post.

  2. elroyjones says:

    Library Wars are the worst. I miss the naivete (irresponsibility) that allowed me to ignore things like overdue notices and telephone bills. I feel certain the Baby Bells united because of my constant delinquent status. I surrendered in the Library War and wrote a check because I couldn’t be sure I wasn’t a fugitive criminal and hadn’t just moved away leaving unfinished business behind me. Maugham describes sweltering humidity so that it is almost tactile to the reader.

    • maesprose says:

      Ha! I had no idea there were others like me when it came to the library. I did wonder what brought the Baby Bells together.

      I should probably pick up Maugham again – this summer holds promise of swelter…

  3. nancyspoint says:

    Quite the “library story” here. It makes me realize it’s been a really time since I actually checked out a library book. Libraries are extra special to me because my mom was the town librarian for years and years.

  4. maesprose says:

    Thanks for stopping by Nancy. I spent my childhood summers reading in the library. It wasn’t until I came to New York that all went haywire. I think in the end, it’s best to just stick to and really get to know one branch.

  5. LB says:

    Mae! I just can not believe that librarian! Let me just validate you: she CLEARLY had other problems in her life. She should have expressed chagrin that you were treated the way you were.
    Oh my!
    Isn’t it amazing that we carry such wounds / anger / sadness from events such as that? I remember comments, years later, that were hurtful or upsetting to me. I worry that I have done the same to others and because of that, find myself apologizing for comments that I have made that I later found no one thought twice about.
    Now books? They are a constant presence in my life and I love that they have been for you as well.
    By the way, I love the photos in this post.

    • maesprose says:

      You are right, it is amazing that we carry wounds/ anger / sadness and many times it’s unwarranted. Still, we do.

      I’m glad you liked the photos… and books. Why I adore them!

  6. Daile says:

    I have a similar story where an overdue book (which I had returned!) escalated into a hideously large library fine. And on principal I refused to pay it, because I didn’t have the book any more. I waited 10 years before finally going in to the library again last weekend and got myself a new library card. Because of all the technology changes they didn’t even know I had a sordid past. So Now I have a shiny new library card and can possibly save some money on books now I don’t have to buy all the ones I want to read!

  7. maesprose says:

    Ha! Love that you too have such a past with the library. Good for you for getting a new card!

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