Life Among The Stacks
by Flynn Washburne, April 5, 2017
If one were, as I am quite likely to draw an analogy between some aspect of one's life and the Simpsonian universe (I have made fairly clear my position on the program; I say that to be a human in full, to gain insight altogether cosmic, common, and comic and to fix your position in space and time and maximize your effectiveness there, the Simpsons is all the canon you require), then my early tenancy on the planet, specifically my initial foray onto the educational landscape, would be most accurately compared to Lisa. Not Bart, as you might expect from someone who's made something of a career of denting, splintering, exploding, or otherwise reducing to rubble whatever framework I occupy or space I displace. Such anarchic and destructive impulses as I've contrived to incorporate into my persona took root in adolescence and beyond; in my early years I was an apple-polishing, gradegrubbing, teacher's wet dream. I adored school beyond all reason and was never happier than when a test was announced. As the class groaned en masse, I squirmed in giddy anticipation of another opportunity to flaunt my superiority. Always — but always — the first to finish, I'd hand my paper in and stretch out expansively at my desk, legs outstretched and fingers interlaced behind my head.
As the teacher delivered her lessons I would sit as rapt as a border collie waiting for the ball to be thrown, arm twitching and ready. I threw myself entirely into every project, assignment, book, or exercise, haunting the public library for materials and information beyond the narrow scope of elementary-school resources to gain an edge. I lived for the report-card comments and notes sent home from my teachers: "Flynn is a joy to have in class. I wish I had 20 more like him. I predict great things for him," etc. I wallowed in the praise and reveled in the process. I loved learning, but more than that, I loved being the best. I may not have have been the tallest or strongest or most athletic, but in matters academic I simply could not be fucked with. And I managed it without taking refuge in geekdom, never becoming one of those bespectacled solitary book-toters who use intelligence both as defensive barrier and offensive weapon. I had girlfriends, kicked, punched, and threw balls around, and showed every sign of becoming a successful and well-rounded human.
Shit, though, as so many people tritely observe every day, does happen, and due to various domestic upheavals, stepdad problems, creeping adolescent cynicism and general wretchedness, by the seventh grade I was listening to Black Sabbath and Alice Cooper, spray-painting swastikas and choice AngloSaxon vulgarisms on any available surface, toying with accepted conventions of private property, and experiencing the sort of listless, perfunctory academic career one normally associates with children so engaged. My teachers regarded me with suspicion and mistrust, and rightfully so. I was generally drunk or stoned in class and disruptive when not asleep. Halfway through class I'd usually leave to go smoke in the bathroom and discovered the teachers really didn't care if I came back or not.
In the summer between seventh and eighth grades we moved for perhaps the tenth time in two years and I was sent off in September as per usual, trusted to show up at the new school to register myself. On the way I made a command decision. School, I said to myself, is clearly not for me. Fine for others — I'm not knocking it but I think I'm better off educating myself. I walked right past West Junior High and headed for sanctuary.
The West Side branch of the Colorado Springs Public Library was tucked flush against a pocket park on a leafy side street in the quaint neighborhood called Old Colorado City, one of the cozy stone edifices so thoughtfully strewn about the country by Andrew Carnegie. It was there I spent the first day of school, and I enjoyed sitting there quietly reading so much that I came back the next day, and the next, and so on. It was a simple thing to raid a locker at West for some dummy textbooks and since I'd never registered, to the school I didn't exist, therefore no one called to question my absence. In joyful limbo I spent my days reading, eating my lunch in the park when weather permitted or right there at my usual table when foul. The librarian, oddly enough, never ratted me out or seemed to find anything strange about a 13-year-old kicking it in the stacks all day during school hours. She was quite ancient, though, and probably either didn't care or was unable, as I find I am now, to determine or even approximate the age of anyone between the ages of 10 and 30. She probably thought I was an L.P.
My routine continued throughout the fall and as you might imagine, it was the failure to bring home a report card that was my undoing. By Christmas vacation the jig was up, though I'd managed to spend an entire semester on my self-directed educational program of the works of Kurt Vonnegut and Robert Heinlein.
Being a born reader, I'd always had an affinity for anyplace books gathered, but it was that fall of 1973 that they became symbolic of something grander and greater, a true sanctuary where the chaos of home and the rigors of school faded into unpleasant memory. Both libraries and books took on a larger role in my life with me retreating into either whenever the world threatened, each individual book becoming a sort of synechdochical library in which I sequestered myself.
This modus vivendi continued and continues throughout my life, and I have always been, regardless of whatever other descriptors may be used to define me — addict, thief, fugitive, scoundrel, vagabond, rascal, what have you — a reader and a library patron, usually daily. I can always find a reason to visit, if it’s only just to wander the stacks in hope of happening across some previously unknown author to fall in love with. There are new books to check on, and I always have a question or two gnawing at me and requiring a reference section. Yes, I know there's an Internet for that, but I find that information sticks more effectively when I research it in the traditional manner. For the depiction and celebration of the unclothed human form and all the myriad prurient mischief it can get up to, the Internet has no equal; ditto communication, as it could take on both the phone company and postal service with one hand behind its back. For music, I am fine, if a little bereft, at the loss of record stores and the ascendancy of MP3s and streaming music. But there's just something about big fat-ass books full of facts and numbers and diagrams that the Internet can't touch. A gravity, an authority, a weight both figurative and literal.
I could probably take the Internet more seriously if it didn't have all the fake news and silly videos, but what with all the commerce, frivolity, and specious material, the whole operation remains suspect. I have of course availed myself of the libraries in Ukiah and Fort Bragg and encountered the usual impediments to enjoyment generally found slouching around the place, i.e., the fragrant and footloose hairbags using the building as temporary shelter.
Now, I never want to be the kind of guy who singles out any group for any reason, as I am firmly of a we're-all-in-this-together mind, and I would never want to restrict anyone's access to any public facility. Nor would I want to criticize anyone's lifestyle choices regarding hygiene and sanitation. If you don't want to bathe or deodorize, so be it, but when you gather en masse in a small heated space the atmosphere reaches a point of saturation fairly quickly and I regard the funkification of my sanctum sanctorum as a personal affront. Not only that, but to the homeless a library is four walls, a roof, a heating system, and a bathroom (albeit sans hot water; this passive-aggressive attack is one of the less elegant solutions at which municipal authorities have arrived. Not only does it prevent the homeless from addressing the very issue [cleanliness] bugging the authorities (and me), but it forces the rest of us to walk around with virulent bacteria on our hands).
This is a criminal underutilization of resources, like using a laptop as a cutting board. A library, when you think about it, is a kind of miracle. Within its walls, I am no longer ignorant of anything. Whatever I want to know or know how to do is right there at my fingertips or steps away, and that to me is the ultimate in security and contentment. In those rooms I am as close to omniscient as is possible for a human to be, and while I do not aspire to godhood, the rationalist analog to the Holy Spirit suffuses and elevates me in the library. There, I am in church. And speaking of...
The Fort Bragg public library has an area of, let's say, 1000 square feet, very little of which is unoccupied on a day-to-day basis. There are I don't know how many churches in town. Let's say 15, with square footage amounting to the tens of thousands, all of which is completely empty a substantial part of any given week. Even the busiest church that runs several services, Bible studies, prayer circles, and AA meetings still lies fallow for much longer than is civically responsible and ethically imperative. A lot of big talk about charity gets tossed around within those walls; I say put your buildings where your mouths are. Let the homeless kick it in your pews when it rains. I can't imagine whatever scoring system you're operating under not slapping a few hashmarks on your slate for such selfless action. You can always hose the place down after they leave, and you guys have those high ceilings that are much better equipped to assimilate their fragrance. Do the right thing and let's give the libraries back to those who understand, appreciate, and need them.