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— Hypocrite lecteur, — mon semblable, — mon frère! Brooklyn Public Library 1968-1970

June 15, 2012


Shelving returned library books is rarely interesting, but there are moments.

I wheeled the cart over to the 500 Section (Science). I should have started at Fiction and worked my way around the room, but I wanted to eavesdrop, and stayed longer than necessary to listen to two women sitting together, not reading but talking. They didn’t belong there, in the Young Adult Section—to my seventeen year old eyes, they were in their forties—at least. But as all librarians will tell you, you can’t kick them out. And they weren’t doing anything—not really.

The larger of the two, a full head taller than her companion, was heavily made up and dabbed her streaky eyes with a mascara-stained tissue.

“I was so beautiful; I used to be so beautiful,” she whispered.

She stared down at the magazine spread open on the table, her bulk encased in a mottled fur coat draped over her shoulders. A butterfly barrette above each ear held her jet-black hair in place. It fell in two thick sheets on either side of her head and sat stiffly on the soft fur. Next to her, clinging to her arm, a petite, sharp-featured woman murmured consolation, gently, almost prayerfully, like a litany of adoration.

“Yeah, yeah, I know. Oh it’s so sad. But you’re still beautiful. Really, you are. You are beautiful. Still.”

She held her friend’s hand, stroking her arm and staring up at her. They were a mismatched couple—or so I thought until a few years later I saw a picture of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas standing side by side. The pair in the library were a reverse mirror image of Gertrude and Alice, with Gertrude taller and Alice shorter.

Embarrassed for both of them, I rolled the cart to the 800 section (Literature), which was most out-of-order because all week an entire high school class had worked on research papers and wreaked havoc on the dozens of slender volumes of poetry (811) shoving them back on the shelves at random and badgering the division’s head librarian, Mrs. Roth, with questions designed to shorten their work:

“Can you recommend a poet I can write on? Frost? Ok. That’s good. What poem do you think I should pick?”

Poetry and the entire 800 section where what I liked most so I enjoyed the time it took to put Robert Frost after Elizabeth Bishop, Robinson Jeffers before Wallace Stevens, Allen Ginsberg before Robert Lowell, and paused to glance at favorite poems. Poetry had come alive for me in my Junior year at Nazareth HS, when Mr. Picardi, having no idea the effect it would have on at least one student, read The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock aloud. While in the infirmary in St. Joe’s the year before, I’d memorized Poe’s The Raven. Prufrock was the second poem I memorized. The poem spoke to me—I identified completely with Eliot’s song of a young man’s fear of an old man’s despair, but I couldn’t acknowledge any connection with the woman lamenting the youth I was still glorying in, while she sat right in front of me. I could see she was a troubled person; Prufrock and Eliot, whom I knew only from books, moved me more. But then, as another Eliot poem, Portrait of a Lady, from the same volume, Prufrock and other observations puts it: “And youth is cruel, and has no remorse.”

Unlike the odd couple, whom I saw only that once, there was a regular patron I saw repeatedly, who was Prufrock come to life.

The Gnome, as I cruelly dubbed him, was a dictionary illustration of nondescript: medium height, middle-aged, bald with the same monk fringe I now have. He wore drab brown corduroy pants and matching sweater vests. His face was that of a clown, but without the elaborate makeup. Sadness, loneliness, disappointment and frustration had been etched and frozen; under the thick brows his eyes were downcast.

I feared becoming him because I knew his secret.

He looked only at books with illustrations—not just any illustrations—they had to be photographs of men, preferably with their shirts off.

He sat at the table in front of the 700 section (art and photography, books on movies and film stars) examining the pictures. He stacked the ones he intended to borrow on his left and pushed the discards away from him, across the desk. This irritated me because I had to roll the cart around the table to get them for re-shelving and I sometimes wondered if it was a hostile gesture made in response to the scrutiny I aimed at him.

The other section he spent time in was less useful. Reference had more of what he wanted but couldn’t borrow: many of the more expensive art and photography books were held back from circulation for obvious reasons, but there were also a few dozen volumes of Screen World, an annual publication with photographs from every movie produced in the United States—many of them featuring the sexy male stars he stared at shamelessly.

He never once looked at me directly, which I took personally, until one day, on my way to the third floor employee cafeteria, I passed by and saw him sitting on the balcony overlooking the main entrance hall, waiting for a book to be propelled up from the stacks through a pneumatic tube. He didn’t look at the clerk who handed him a large, green leather-bound book, probably a volume on film history. He held the book sideways, didn’t see the glossy white streak that indicated a section of photographs in the middle, and handed it back to the clerk without even opening it.

I had that job for three years and saw him maybe a dozen times. I knew nothing about him but my connection to him was fraught because it aroused my shame, gave me, as Prufrock did for Eliot, an image containing a portent of one possible future. He did things I did as well. Unlike Prufrock—as far as I know a complete fiction—my doppelganger was there in the flesh, showing me what I didn’t want to see. I still wonder who else, if anyone, noticed him. His entire demeanor seemed designed to avoid notice—something I understood. After being thrown out of St. Joe’s, I was given the option of attending any Catholic high school I wanted. Regis, the best Catholic high school in the country, had accepted me two years earlier, but I’d turned it down to leave home and go to a boarding school. Regis didn’t accept transfers, so I chose the school furthest away from me where I knew none of the students. I suspected the last two years of high school, until I could escape to a distant college, would be difficult and I wanted as few witnesses as possible. Nazareth, in East Flatbush on the edge of Canarsie, was a subway and bus ride away—which meant I left the apartment every morning before anyone else and I joined the track team, returning as late as I could. I had already begun practicing my own version of Stephen Dedaelus’s “silence, exile, and cunning.”

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