Like a dream, this image repeats -- I’m in the Art Room, in the public library back home, pushing a big load of oversized books. I stop at the back of the room and look out the high, arched windows. Outside, a simple city street. The heavy rain in the streetlights, illuminated circles. The blackwet pavement, the brick row houses behind towering oak and maple trees. A stop light, green then yellow then red, reflecting off the pavement. An occasional car.
This image is a frequent visitor. It’s a clip of personal video from my adolescence. I am a "library page," pushing a book truck through the Art Room. Piles of quartos and folios. The Dutch Masters, the Impressionists, the Ancient Greeks, character sketches, bunched and overflowing in high, wooden stacks.
I started noticing them back at that old, Albany library. The array of characters marching through the building. As if the books emptied, spilling them everywhere. Incredible characters with amazing stories. Sometimes they told their stories outright, sometimes they were told in their dress, their gait, their silence.
Back from college, I worked the circulation desk in summers. My favorite character was a guy his buddies called "The Professor." The guy was Groucho’s double with a surreal entourage. Long before the film The Fisher King, they had the look of Robin Williams and his band.
I too, out of respect, called him The Professor.
"How are you today, Professor?"
He’d peer out of his drooping, dirty glasses, from under three shirts, and a thirty-year-old sports jacket. His face unshaven for six days, heavy with stubble.
He’d lean forward, looking left, then right.
"I’m flying a mission tonight," he would say. "My B-17 is up at the airport."
"We’re hitting Frankfurt tonight, though I probably shouldn’t tell you."
"Not to worry. Loose lips sink ships."
Of course, he became my instant hero.
One day, I was having breakfast in an old, silver diner, when The Professor emerged from the kitchen, with an arm full of clean dishes. His day job, I supposed. There were others in Albany. A fellow who called himself "Michael the Archangel" frequented the library. Somewhat touched, he would greet me, many mornings, just outside the library, from a righteous position atop a telephone pole. I would sense his presence, look up, get my Bible quote of the day, and go into work.
Like most characters, he was a sweet, good man, simply playing a deep left field.
One day in the library, I found Michael at the Xerox machine, the flap open, his two hands working the coin slot and the "start" button with amazing precision. The bright green light repeatedly passed over his face, left to right. When I asked him what he was doing, he replied, "The rays are healing!"
After graduate school I served as a reference librarian in that same library. The parade of fascinating people continued.
Somewhere back in the ‘70’s, this guy approached me at the reference desk, seeking access to the local history room. We required ID for this access, and made sure that admittance was only for legitimate research purposes. We were also concerned with theft.
This fellow was rough around the edges, but polite. He fumbled for his ID as he told me his story. You see, back then, Greyhound was selling system-wide, monthly bus passes. Ride the USA coast to coast for one modest fare. This man was living on the buses. Living on a fixed income, he received a check the first of every month in Cleveland. He would return to Cleveland the last day of each month, buy his next month’s pass, and shove off. He traveled the country living and sleeping on the bus. Everywhere he would go, he sought out the public library to read about the region’s history.
There had to be one person doing this.
These stories, these characters, go on and on. In Anchorage, years ago, on the reference desk of the old downtown library, a man approached talking rapidly, as if his mind was flying and his mouth was walking. He said that he just got into town, after biking from Whitehorse, Yukon Territory.
"I’m working on a book," he relayed.
"Yes, OK," I said. By now, I had been a reference librarian for years, and could sense a good story coming. You see, some of my colleagues, in these instances, would raise a shield, to deflect the incoming arrows. Not me.
"I’m going to call it The Deceased Phonebook."
"It will collect phone numbers, well, the former phone numbers, of the prominent dead. Let’s say you were curious about Hitler’s number..."
"Or what his area code might have been..." I added.
"Yes, ... or Mozart’s."
I couldn’t tell if he was kidding about Wolfgang. I didn’t think so.
Since, this fellow has been a wellspring of a million book ideas. His books, I’m sorry to say, haven’t made it onto the shelves. He walks around with a conceptual library of a ten thousand titles, all written by himself.
Libraries are natural gathering places for local authors, visiting scholars, and the occasional, visiting literary elite. The reference staff is at the centerpoint of this nexus. I’ve met and worked with Pulitzer Prize winners, upcoming stars of genre literature, and substantial scholars moving into groundbreaking territory.
And let’s not forget the characters emerging from the media collection. The stacks are full of film and music characters as well. I’ve come to view life from my perspective at the reference desk this way - it’s like a great, interactive Fellini film. I can almost draw an imaginary border, an imaginary screen, around people as they step up to the desk. Characters pouring out of Amicord or 8 1/2.
Of course, interactively in this instance, suggests that I, too, am a character.