Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The Library

In my early youth of say 6 or 7 years, our library branch in Borough Park was housed in several storefronts on 13th ave. It was a dark cramped and strange place for a library to be and this finally changed in 1955 when a new library was erected on a once vacant lot just down the block from where I lived. This was big news and many of us in Borough Park followed the progress of this new addition to our neighborhood with keen interest. I was only 8 when it finally opened in that hot summer of 1955 and when the doors finally opened I was one of the first in line to get a library card. The children’s section was on the 2nd floor with cute little tables and chairs and loads of new books just waiting for me. It was a rather small library as far as libraries go but I loved it right from the start. It smelled good what with all those new books just waiting to be opened and read. I got my card and took my little self to the newly stocked shelves where I selected several books for checking out. I quickly went through the books that morning and brought them back a few hours later and picked out a new batch of books to check out. Again I went through them quickly and once again I took the short walk to the library where I returned them. Once more I picked out a few books and this time the librarian questioned me about why I kept coming back the same day over and over. “Look kid” she said. “You can’t keep coming back with books that you just took out a few hours ago.” “Why not” I asked. “Because its against the law.” Yeah right I thought. “Ok I’ll keep them for a day, but I’ll be back tomorrow.” “Fine come back tomorrow.” Over the next few years the library became my home away from my troubled home. Although too young to take out books in the downstairs adult section during my early teen years I would browse the shelves. One of my favorite forbidden pleasures was looking at a book called “Design This Day” which was published in the late 1940’s and was about well good design. It was well illustrated with pictures of industrial products, cars, and household items and for some reason that I couldn’t understand at that time there was a photo of a young nude male model (talk about good design) and although he was discreetly posed there was a bit of pubic hair showing and this photo became the erotic secret sexual image of my early teen years. Over and over I would go into the shelves and take a peek at my pubic hair photo friend. Of course I could never check the book out because I didn’t have an adult library card, and even if I did there was no way that I could ever muster up enough courage to bring it up to the librarian even though there was nothing about the book that would make her or anyone else suspect what the real reason was that I wanted this book. The library had a small record collection and when I was about 12 years old, I took my brother’s library card without his permission and would use it to check out some of the records. Sometimes I would sit at a table in the adult section with headphones on and listen to the scratchy recordings. Mostly I would listen to historical or spoken word recordings but sometimes I would pick out some singer that I liked or was curious about. I heard Billie Holiday for the 1st time here. One of my favorite TV shows growing up was Person to Person in which Edward R. Morrow would sit in a comfy chair chain smoking cigarettes and visit people of note, usually famous movie stars. The library had some of his “See It Now” (or were they called “Here It Now”) recordings and I would present my brother’s card to the librarian who would then give me a pair of earphones and would hold the card until the record and earphones were returned. One day however I got pinched. The steely mean spirited lady at the check out desk figured out that I was not my brother and asked me how old I was. “I’ll be 18 in 6 years I said. “Well come back in 6 years and we’ll issue you an adult card” the nasty thing said. “But in the meantime you can listen to the recording but I’m holding the card until your brother comes to pick it up.” I thought I would make a doody right there on the green and black checkered linoleum floor of the library. What to do what to do. I didn’t know if my brother would be angry or not with me, but I certainly wasn’t looking forward in finding this out. So I put on the old heavy bulky poorly designed headphones and sort of listened to the record, but my mind was elsewhere full of woe and worry. After listening I took the record back to the check out desk, and the nasty old biddy wasn’t there. Instead there was a nice young man on duty and when I gave him the record back, he handed me back my brother’s library card and I went out skipping to face the bright and sunny day. I could not believe my luck.

When I was around 11 and 12 me and my friend Marco Shalg who lived nearby would go to the library like some kids would go to the playground. Marco’s father was a Holocaust survivor and owned a launderette nearby. It was through Marco that I first really became aware of Nazi terror and the near destruction of European Jews. Sometimes I would see the tattooed numbers on Mr. Shalg’s wrist, and Marco would talk to me about the terrible times his father went through. Marco and me loved to laugh and have fun. One of our favorite things to do was to go to the library and ask the librarians for books that did not exist and then laugh hysterically when they would try to look up the title in the old card catalogs. “Do you have the book “The Big Bogie” I would ask her with a straight face as Marco would double up with laughter so hard that he would pee in his pants. We would also roam the stacks looking for funny titles and I recall our most favorite book title was “Bula Matari: Stanley Conqueror Of A Continent” by Jacob Wassermann Just my mentioning the word Bula would set Marco off into uncontroable fits of loud laughing that would shatter the silence of the library. He would throw himself on the floor laughing and peeing at the same time.. “Oh you are terrible Ira” Marco would say, as we walked home with Marco trying hard to cover the stains that covered the front of his pants. Marco thought I was the funniest person alive, funnier than Milton Berle or Soupy Sales or even Lucille Ball. Marco would laugh so loud in the library that many times an angry librarian would ask either him or the both of us to leave. “Oh you are terrible Ira.” Marco would say as we were escorted out of the building. One of our other favorite games was giving nicknames to the various poor hardworking-unsuspecting librarians who had no idea that we were laughing behind their backs. We would also like to sit in the chairs that faced the large windows looking out onto the street and peruse the many magazines looking for things that we thought were funny. For some reason a portrait of Sir Thomas Moore’s daughter Margaret Roper that was used as an illustration for a review of a new bio of her (“Margaret Roper” by E.E. Reynold) brought howls of laughter from us when we saw it in The Saturday Review Of Books. Once again we were told to leave the building. My two other best friends Howard and Freddy were jealous of my relationship with Marco. “What do you two laugh about all the time” Howard would ask. “Are you two homos?” Freddy inquired one day after the four of us walked back home from our junior high school. Of course me and Marco broke out in laughter and Marco dropped his books to the sidewalk and let loose with a stream of pee and hysterical laughing. It was scary. Luckily it was still winter and his heavy car coat hid the liquid stain from Freddy and Howard’s eyes. I was terrible, knowing that I could make poor Marco hysterical with laughter and pee any time I wanted to. As we grew older and reached our mid and late teens we didn’t see each other so much, our interests changed and we started to mature. In 1967 when I was 19 I moved to Manhattan, and Marco enlisted in the army and was sent to Viet Nam where he was killed in action. My mother told me this over the phone one Saturday in 1968 and I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. I think I probably did both.


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