New York Public Library, Main Branch
November 21, 3:21 PM:
More tourists here than natives with any mind for reading apparently – and more people in search of free wireless, and accessible toilets - still once you have paid your respects beneath those matching, surly lions on Fifth Avenue and also two layers of texting, surly security guards who pretend to care about the contents of one of seven compartments in your satchel (unrifled: a PowerBook, camera, night-vision goggles, cyanide pellets, egg-timer, travel-size Scope), then finally you have arrived inside the glorious expanses of the Rose Main Reading Room, which is bigger than any football field, with massively dangling bronze chandeliers, and twenty-one rows of community style tables, and naked gold-leaf angels playing flutes and diving spread-eagled and everywhere felicitously posing. The sightlines are boundless, and potentially inspiring – nine massive, arching windows even invite you to gaze out into the fiftieth floors of neighboring midtown office buildings – except for something that looks like a gingerbread train station dividing the great room in half, with an unobtrusive clock perched near its middle, and three-digit arrivals scrolling across a very small board.
This station is where you hand in a little slip of paper that is either a wistful or tenacious remainder from the era of Dewey Decimals, and this station, with its nine little arching windows that mirror the ones looking out on Manhattan, is the last place you will go if a book cannot be found anywhere else in the city.
The book I was looking for – A Crowd of Cows - was recommended to me by a lady who was kind enough to let me use her pool a couple of times this summer in the country where I was visiting my parents. She also recommended The Magic Carousel, and even provided me a copy to borrow when I told her about my ambitions for these, and for all of the similarly forsaken classics - whether yesterday’s or fifty-years-ago’s - then she paused and inquired correctly:
“Yeah, but how do you plan to make any money from that?”
I don’t know. There were copies of these books available through Amazon, it turned out, but no cover art, and only the barest of synopses to point to, though, really, in fairness, some of these volumes cost about a buck, so where’s the giant leap of faith?
Well, you have to know these books are out there to begin with; good luck with that. I liked The Magic Carousel – I thought it felt guileless and old-fashioned and transporting - and put it up a couple of months ago, but my pool lady friend was relying on memory in the case of Cows which she mentioned had gone up in flames many years ago (um, I didn’t ask), so here I am finally calling it up from something called the Research Collection where a single copy has apparently been languishing, otherwise inaccessible to the public, for God knows how many years.
“Rajankovsky,” said the guy who helped me fill out my little piece of paper with a Call Number – J 591.01G – pronouncing the name of the illustrator, knowingly, fluently. The guy was about sixty.
“You’ve heard of it then?” I said, adjusting my monocle.
“Well no. But Rajankovsky. Shouldn’t it be a herd of cows though?”
Yes, it should. This I discovered after forty or so minutes (“It’s way down there,” said the kid in the gingerbread window, offering a nod toward the scary looking dumbwaiter behind him, and the dusty infernal circles where it descended). And it’s a colony of bees. And a brood of hens. And a kindle of kittens. A pod of whales. This is material for exactly the sort of game we can delight in playing with our children on very long car rides, and generally fits into the wider spectrum of childish, inexhaustible trivia to which the more serious-minded among us are often in the habit of complaining, “Oh, can’t you please let it go?”
No I can’t. A pride. A trip. Your turn. This book (like The Magic Carousel) is indelibly a product of its time: the greens and browns and pencil sketches of excessively cheerful children may or may not evoke kind memories, and the livestock is unequivocally that (pigs “give us bacon for breakfast”), still there is anyway something refreshingly honest about books that come rooted in some present – whether it’s ours or it’s not – rather than polished of all traces of age. So many books fail for being timely or otherwise instructive in some immediate, unimpeachable way, but there are just as large a number which reach for some timelessness they cannot pull off.
Oh, and guess what a crowd of children is (or used to be) called? A passel:
“It plays in the sandbox and throws a ball and feeds the puppy and plants daffodils and swings high as the sky or just sits quietly and looks….”
A rustling has begun all around me, and there are charging, impatient directions being issued where I cannot see them. In seventeen minutes, all of these hoodies and raincoats and backpacks should need to be collected, and all of these millions of hurried keystrokes should need to be completed (hopefully to any purpose), and one final photograph snatched. The light may be golden and flattering, but it is everywhere uneven, and I hover with my camera from as many different angles as I can imagine, not knowing if this is even permitted, and casting skittish glances around at the security guards who seem suddenly hedging toward their holsters and signaling one another on their walkie-talkies. That shutter slashes once, twice - still not right.
Though maybe, I imagine - now reaching for my cape, and twirling my moustache, and throwing my voice into the furthest, highest corners of the ceiling as a diversion – maybe this doesn’t need to be goodbye after all. Because what is it they’re actually researching down there in Research Collection, when you think about it? And how many years will pass between now and the next time someone summons this story from its dungeon? How can they even know it survives?
Deep breaths. The air seems thicker around me, and darker, though perhaps that is owing to the goggles. The voices behind me grow sharper, then nearer. I pick up my step, one angel above me now swirling and winking – or is she flinching? – a witness to everything borrowed.