Authors: Gillian Roberts
“Then why not? Why not go for it?”
ULIANA CANCELED BECAUSE
NDY WAS ON A CASE
that kept him in the Greater Northeast. Mackenzie, the missing something, was two and a half hours late. He’d grabbed a sandwich by the time he came home, and he was so exhausted he fell into bed before I could tell him about even a piece of my day.
I sat at the table, the overplanned, show-offy dinner embalmed in plastic containers, and I poured myself wine and thought about my job, about Adam and his parents, and about me, and how I was living my life, sitting alone, drinking. My parents’ offer sounded like that of a genie with uncanny timing.
How many more signals did I require from the cosmos that I had come to the end of a chapter? Perhaps of an entire volume.
I poured another glass of wine and searched for one good reason why I shouldn’t wipe the slate clean and start all over.
For the life of me, I couldn’t come up with a single answer.
N THE EXUBERANT SECOND DECADE OF THE TWENTIETH
century, Philadelphia, flushed with civic pride, decided to break free of the modest and tidy grids of William Penn’s Greene Towne. A celebrated French landscape designer, Jacques Auguste Henri Greber, was asked to plan a series of grand boulevards. Ultimately the city’s budget didn’t match its ambitions, so only one of the boulevards was constructed, the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, the city’s own Champs Elysées, which cuts a diagonal swath from City Hall to the Art Museum at the edge of Fairmount Park and is lined with civic buildings that were copies of châteaux and palaces. These include the main library and its double, the Family Court, clones of the Hôtel de Crillon and the Ministère de la Marine, which are themselves twin palaces on the Place de la Concorde.
I like the idea of creating a palace for books. I wished my students felt the same way, but, with rare exceptions, they never would. This is likely a glimpse of the future, when books will have become relics of another era, a fact that makes me feel both stodgy and sad. But I understand that books are no longer pragmatic. Most likely the library’s seven stories’ worth of information could fit into a laptop computer, but I don’t care. I love the shape and feel and heft of books. Thinking about the potential waiting for me in any library fills me with joy—even more so when I enter this magnificent one.
I stood near the entrance, on a pattern of dark and light marble tiles, below high carved plaster ceilings, as my seniors
arrived one by one. We’d arranged to meet here rather than at school so that our tour could begin as soon as the library opened and so that I didn’t have to herd them here. Although I hadn’t known this when we made our plans, sidestepping the school had the added benefit of sparing me contact with Dr. Havermeyer. I could remain in the dark about my employment status for another day. Even in a temple of wisdom, some ignorance can be bliss. Or as close to bliss as I was likely to get these days.
Nearby, a bearded man wearing jeans, flannel shirt, and Phillies cap stopped a woman who’d been passing by him. He looked like an Old Testament prophet—if they’d favored plaid flannel—and, cradling a stack of green pages in his arms, he gesticulated, elbows, flyers, and all, pushing pages toward the woman, who shook her head. “It’s information!” he insisted. His voice was loud and odd—as if pebbles lined his throat. “Don’t thwart me! You act like a roadblock, and it’s information!” She murmured something. “It
about the library!” he said more loudly than necessary, given that he was perhaps four inches from her. “A library’s more than stones and books—it’s people! Our coalition—”
I couldn’t hear her answer, but I definitely heard him call her “bitch.”
The man seemed unhinged. I should call for help or intervene. Then I squelched the impulse. I had to get over this urge to butt in. Nobody wanted me to. The Samaritans were extinct—probably clubbed or sued to death by Evans ancestors, who didn’t think their meddling was all that good.
Besides, the uniformed guard at the entrance didn’t seem worried, so why should I?
Adam was the last to join the class. He looked as if finding us there was an unhappy accident. Lately he always seemed surprised and not overjoyed that the rest of us existed.
The sight of him, the memory of his parents, the overtones of what the conflict might mean to him and to me made me too raw-nerved to endure somebody else’s rant this particular morning, and I moved my group away from the flannel-shirted man and tried to tune him out. The woman—library staff, I assumed—looked terminally unhappy, almost doomed. She must face countless such people. The library was the petri dish for ideas, and for people culturing them. Some of the idea
bearers had to be perched at one or the other end of the bell curve.
I pulled out my attendance record, ticking off names. All eighteen accounted for, and time therefore to begin the spiel. “As soon as our guide arrives, we’ll start,” I said. Their expressions were resigned and impassive. I hadn’t expected them to cheer. I wouldn’t have minded it if they had, but I hadn’t counted on it. I decided to believe that their passivity was not apathy but a conviction that they had to be silent in a library.
In order to get them and their teachers through the senior spring semester, the art teacher, history teacher, and I had devised an interdepartmental challenge. That sounded better than
. We were attempting to seduce Philly Prep’s finest into using the library’s special collections to create and pitch a time-travel movie to imaginary producers. They were to write a plot synopsis, create storyboards, design costumes, and provide a list of required props. For extra credit, they could show a short film clip—a video, made at school, of a scene from their proposed work. Their characters could visit wherever they liked in the world, real or imagined, except the United States since 1950.
The teacher troika hoped they wouldn’t notice they were doing historical research, creating art, and using writing skills.
The students had found the idea interesting enough to show up this morning, which more or less meant we’d tricked them into reactivating their brains although they didn’t have to. The only pedagogical weapon left in our arsenal would be to fail them, not allow them to graduate. The kids knew that this option was excessive and took advantage of the fact. Besides, they terrified the staff with the possibility that if flunked, they’d show up in our classrooms again.
The flunking option was not used except in the most horrific situation.
Which thought pulled me back to Adam. Was he the horrific situation—or was his father right, and he was simply performing a baroque version of the senior goof-off? Even now he wasn’t a participant. He stood at the fringes of the group, dressed too warmly in a sweater and the long black scarf, which, as far as I could tell, never left his body. He
scanned the walls, the plasterwork ceiling, the glass special-exhibit cases, the staircase at the back of the hall, his eyes alighting on everything except the people in the lobby. It was not altogether peculiar behavior—the impressive building was unfamiliar, while I was all too familiar, as was the information I was reciting. I’d already given it to them back at school. Teachers and newscasters say everything three times. Once as advance warning: “This is what we’re going to do/learn/see—film at eleven.” Once as full-fledged presentation. And then to ram home what’s been said: “To recap today’s headlines …”
I was undoubtedly boring Adam. Still, his architectural surveillance went on too long, too continuously, too incoherently. What he saw apparently didn’t register, so he had to constantly revisit and recheck it. My Adam-anxiety level rose. It was becoming a chronic condition, infecting everything else in my life until I no longer felt at home even in my professional role.
“For example,” I said to the less-than-wide-eyed faces, trying not to notice Adam any more than I was noticing the plaid-flannel man who still agitatedly harangued the woman, “if you wanted to know whether cars had windshield wipers seventy years ago, there’s an enormous automobile reference collection. If this interests you, maybe your hero will be a mechanic. Or an inventor. Or you could find drawings of eighteenth-century buildings in the art department and use them for your settings. Or if your hero is a singer or music teacher, you might need something in the Drinker Collection of choral music, or the Fleisher Collection of orchestral music, or old programs of what orchestras played.” I was doing what I hated having done to me—reading them what they could read in their brochures themselves. But on I went, to keep them feeling like a class and to discourage wandering. From the corner of my eye I watched a security guard approach the man in the flannel shirt, who became even more agitated at the sight of him.
“The newspaper center has papers going back to the seventeen hundreds,” I read from the handout. “Braille books. And the print and picture collection has enormous possibilities, as does the theater collection, which’ll help you with motion pictures, TV, and radio. There’s a map collection, which will
tell you how the world looked whenever, or how people imagined it. Or how about information on the occult in the children’s books from the last century or earlier, or …”
We would tour the potential sites, then set the kids free to forage, to stumble over something worthwhile, discover a bit of the value and possibilities of research, and even have a good time. Plus get a day off from school. In exchange, they’d get credit from their art and history teachers, and also from me.
The security guard had calmed the plaid-shirted man enough so that the woman, looking grateful to be freed of him, headed toward us. The man in the flannel shirt started to follow her but was gently detained by the guard.
“Hi!” Her voice broke in the middle of that single syllable, like a pubescent boy’s. She coughed, then repeated herself. “Sorry!” she said in an overbright, hard tone. She looked as twitchy facing us as she had while dealing with the bearded man. She was not going to be fun.
She glanced at a paper in her hand. “Let’s see—you’re Philly Prep, right? Seniors?” My group nodded glumly. “I’m Ms. Fisher and I’ll tour you around, but first let me tell you a bit about the Free Library.” She spoke quickly and without enough inflection, had obviously memorized her lines, and was interested in something besides us. She wasn’t a particularly good actress, but I hoped the kids didn’t notice.
Which showed how deluded I was trying to be. Of course the kids would notice. Kids’ radar is astounding, a survival mechanism. It’s only when we age that we dumb down and pretend clear evidence isn’t so.
We followed Ms. Fisher to the base of the stairs. “Originally libraries were by subscription only. That meant you had to pay in order to borrow books.”
A blond man in a pinstriped suit race-walked through the entry hall toward us and detoured at the last moment around the group and up the stairs, double time.
Ms. Fisher gasped and moved sideways, as if to clear a path for him, although he’d been nowhere near her. He half turned, then shrugged and continued up. The man was in too much of a hurry to care why someone had gasped.
Ms. Fisher behaved as if she’d been accosted. She inhaled fiercely, fussed with her hair, smoothed her skirt, double-checked
that her blouse was tucked in all around, and finally pointed at a bronze statue on the landing above us.
“I—I was saying, um … I’ve forgotten. I lost track and …” She blushed, put her hand up to her mouth. I realized that she wasn’t much older than I was—thirty-six, thirty-seven, max, only five years ahead of me—and that she’d be pretty if she’d loosen up. Even the muscles of her face were straining, each and every visible one. In fact, all of her looked too tightly strung, about to pop.
“About how people used to pay for books. That’s what you were saying.” That was Cassie, one of the sweetest young women ever to grace a desk. Not the sharpest, by a long shot, whose combo of sweet, trusting, and dim put her in my kids-to-worry-about category.
“Thank you,” Ms. Fisher said. “Yes. I was going to point out Dr. William Pepper, there.”
A bronze statue of an unsmiling man in judicial-looking robes sat at the top of the flight of stairs, on a landing that was lined on each side with another flight of stairs.
“He was provost of the University of Pennsylvania in the 1880s,” Ms. Fisher said, “and he convinced his uncle, Dr. George S. Pepper, to provide funds for a free library. His uncle bequeathed a hundred fifty thousand dollars plus some of his estate to establish a free library with no rental charges. As large a sum as that was, especially more than a century ago, Dr. Pepper knew it wasn’t enough to build the sort of institution he imagined, but he hoped it would encourage other Philadelphians to endow the place. And as you can see, that’s what happened.” She was back on track, chugging ahead too quickly with her memorized spiel.
My kids eyeballed me at the mention of those illustrious Peppers—those students, that is, who didn’t start humming the Dr Pepper jingle. I let them speculate about family ties between their English teacher and the Peppers who could toss around sums like that. Maybe they’d treat me with more respect if they believed I was an heiress, teaching for the sheer larkiness of it.
I allowed my thoughts to sidle back to Mother Bea Pepper’s amazing philanthropy. It was not good to set the idea free where it could spin around my brain the same way as it had
all the previous night. I tried instead to listen to our guide, who was explaining that this impressive building was not the first home of the newly created Free Library, but that when it was built in the Twenties, it was the most modern library anywhere, and the most fireproof. “And now,” she said, “to the jewel of the holdings, a special place for all you book lovers.”
To whom did she think she was talking? Had she not noticed the glassy-eyed faces surrounding her? Wasn’t knowing we were from Philly Prep enough? Maybe the woman had a truly dry sense of humor.
We divided in half for the ride up in the surprisingly small elevators. “I love this part of the library most of all,” she said when we all emerged on a balcony on the third floor. It faced a twin balcony across the way, and between them, a long drop down to the wide staircase, stories below.
Ms. Fisher’s smile looked almost sincere. “There are true treasures here.”
“That why the place is sealed off?” That was Joey Nickles, who seemed always to be calculating the net worth of anything presented to him. “Like glass doors on the entryway. None of the other places have them.”
Ms. Fisher nodded. “Treasures,” she repeated.
Adam was wandering again, although there wasn’t much room or opportunity to go anywhere. Once you were off the elevator, you could walk into a wall in a sort of elevator vestibule, or you could go to the right, at which point you were on the balcony, with no exit except a return ride down the same elevators. What looked like it might once have been an alternate exit had an enormous wrought-iron gate sealing it off.
Ms. Fisher buzzed us in, and once we were inside, her speech resumed its hurried, nervous tempo, again sounding rehearsed. “This is a special place,” she began, shepherding us past closed cases filled with luxuriously bound books, and a case displaying etchings. I wanted to ask about the grandfather clocks positioned at each end of the entry hall, but she moved too quickly. “We have a priceless collection of books going back to 3000
,” she said, and then she paused, waiting for a reaction. I could have told her she’d get none, but she handled it by behaving as if she had. “Ah, yes,” she said, guiding us toward a cabinet, “you are of course skeptical
of a book from 3000
, but that’s because they don’t look like the books you read today. Such as these records, which are in cuneiform.” She unlocked a narrow drawer and lifted out a pinkish-yellow disk. “These are clay tablets with symbols pressed into them.” The students were shown a variety of tablets, some coin-sized, others fragments of larger pieces.