At the Library

I took my grandfather to the library today, hoping that I could use his driver’s license to get myself a card to what is arguably, one of the best public libraries in Southern California. I had gone in there a few times since we’d moved away, but because the city was no longer my city, I did not feel as tied to it as I once had.

As we walked toward the building, he looked up at the English words and said, “What is it called again, this place?”

“Library,” I said, using the English word.

“Ah yes,” he nodded. The letters made sense again, “Library.” 

The children’s section, where I whiled away many evening hours of my childhood, was still on the left near the entrance, where I remembered it, though this time instead of the facade of a castle at the entrance there was giant glass aquarium filled with an impressive coral arrangement and a half dozen bulgy-eyed dory-fish swimming around, lost in thought. I wondered what it was like to be surrounded by all that information and not have any access to it. I paused before the tank, thinking perhaps grandpa would want to stop and look at the aquarium, something my paternal grandfather would certainly have done, but all old people are not created with equal interests.

There was a small exhibit of Chinese paintings, among them a comical scroll of simple swans painted with a single stroke. They seemed like calligraphic cartoons, and I thought too, that grandpa would take interest in this, but he merely glanced at the paintings, acknowledged that they were Chinese art (as though it were expected the library feature Chinese art at the precise moment he decided to return) and walked ahead.

“Go ask them about the card,” he said, nodding towards the circulation desk.

A young Hispanic girl kindly informed me that as the card would be under my grandfather’s name, he would have to be present each time I wanted to check something out, even if it was for him.

And what if I were to get my own, but as a non-resident?

“It’s one hundred dollars a year,” she said.

I looked around at the marbled floor, the high glass ceilings, the art on display in various glass cases and on the walls. I saw a “Periodicals” section that seemed to have every magazine in the world on display, along with row after row of shiny computers all connected to the world wide web where whatever wasn’t on the shelves could be accessed via a single click. A giant Christmas tree stood at the far end of the library, decked out with expensive looking ornaments and surrounded by beautifully wrapped gifts. Opposite the children’s “wing,” was a reading corner, lavishly done up like some English baron’s living room, replete with a working fireplace, comfy arm chairs, and wood paneled walls. The library had real wood shelves, none of the aluminum fixtures used at most public libraries I’d visited, and the bathrooms rivaled those of any five star hotel. And of course there were the books! The Multimedia! There were multiple copies of the latest bestsellers, which at my town’s library were only available for rent, and a wide array of literary paperbacks, all carefully wrapped in sturdy plastic, though almost all of which seemed brand new. The books were barely touched, as most of the kids didn’t really seem to read anymore, but came to the library in droves anyway, to digest comic books and use the computers. In the corners and along the sides there were sturdy study desks with bright lights and electricity sockets – just like the ones found at any fine university library – and almost all were occupied by students from the local high school (right across the street!) and the community college.

Auguste Renoir Woman Reading 1875-1976

I thought self pityingly of my town’s small library, about the size of a three car garage, with its six outdated computers and a paltry magazine selection that was only possible because of generous donors. New releases were rented out for profit to keep the librarians fed, and I had the feeling the library survived off the failing memories of various seniors, whose forgetfulness meant late fees… it was a sad thought, but probably true. If it ever came down to a battle of resources, my town’s library would not even be David’s toe to the Cerritos Public Library’s Goliath. They had a sculpture garden. We had a rolling cart with out of print (not the kind you collect) books for sale. What our local library had were plenty of children’s books and an impressive selection of DVD’s and audiobooks considering the library’s limited sized, but then again most of the patrons – young children and senior citizens – had limited tastes or simply did not get their reading materials from the library anymore. A good library, one a city found worthy of sustaining, was hard to find.

If my grandfather wasn’t there with me, I’d have paid the 100 dollars. 

But he was there in all his frugality and I told him the price.

“That’s steep,” he said.

“But look at this place, Grandpa. You’ll just have to come with me once a week or so.”

He nodded with his faux grim expression, as though I were twisting his arm, but I could tell he didn’t mind.

“I can’t remember the last time I was here,” he said, as the girl started typing in my grandfather’s information.

“Cousin Wendy’s wedding,” I said, “She got married upstairs somewhere, in that nice bright room.”

“Oh that’s right.”

The girl finished typing and told grandpa he’d have to stand up to take an ID photo for the card.

“Wow that is hi-tech,” I said.

She laughed. With the resources at stake, it made sense.

Grandpa stood up and stared at the small camera mounted in the wall next to the circulation desk.

“Step back,” the woman said, and I repeated this to him in Chinese.

He stepped back as directed and gazed into the little lens. Just before she took the photo, he removed the blue baseball cap he was wearing. He smiled, though slightly too late. The photo came out as his photos usually do: him looking mildly stunned, as though processing some revelation. In this case it may have been, “What the hell am I doing at the library at 3 in the afternoon?”

The card came out and the girl smiled as she handed it to grandpa.

“It’s a good photograph,” she said, “Very handsome.”

He smiled and said thank you as he took it. With this wonderful key, we went off to look for books.

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