My Babysitter, the Public Library: An Essay by P.T. Tyx.

By P.T. Tyx

In the summer preceding my entry into fourth grade, a salesman from Buddy Rogers Music Store in North College Hill, located a few miles from my home in the Cincinnati suburb of Finneytown, came to my house to try to sell an accordian to my parents.  I was terrified of the complicated-looking contraption.  In order to operate it, one had to finger piano keys for the melody while pressing chord buttons with the other hand as both hands pushed and pulled the bellows.  However, the salesman’s pitch did convince my mother that I needed to learn to play a musical instrument.  Before the summer ended, I was driven to downtown Cincinnati to Wulitzer’s, where I was given my choice of devices to toot, bang, or flute.  After some deliberation and subtle coersion (after a viewing of price tags), I selected a cornet.  The next Saturday I began my trumpet lessons in the Wulitzer building’s upstairs in room 2 under the tutelage of kind, sensitive Mr. Ellis.  As I spluttered the first bursts of sound from my cornet, my father had a brainstorm in the hall outside my lesson room.  After years of being hog-tied by the responsibilities of fatherhood, he at last devised a means to give himself a few sweet hours of footloose freedom, since he was too cheap (frugal and deeply concerned about my welfare) to ever hire someone to watch and care for me.

When I was done assaulting poor Mr. Ellis’ nerves and musical sensibilities, my dad walked me hand in hand three blocks to the downtown branch of the Cincinnati library system, where he then dumped me (deposited me to cultivate my erudition).  En route we passed the Gaity Burlesque house, which to my (and undoubtedly many others’) mortification was next door to the magnificent, modern structure of glass and metal that sheltered the Main Branch Library.  We passed posters of Bubbles Boom-Boom McBane and Red Hot Rita from Rio, middle-aged women in trumped-up bathing suits who exposed ample cleavage.  It seemed odd to me that sin was in such close proximity to education, but then, of course, I had not yet gone to college.

The book fountain that today sits in front of the main entrance of the Main Branch of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County.

Entering the automatic doors of the high-security library, I was frightened at first and not a little surprised that my father would abandon me alone in this labyrinthine, multi-storied building with its on rush of strangers, people of color, and sharp-toned white women who manned the desks stationed in the enormous rooms.  It is a mystery to me why my dad stowed me (illuminated me to the wisdom of the ages) among these rows of manuscripts and reference materials, because I had never seen him previously go to a library of his own volition.  Perhaps he suspected that my mom would show him more mercy for setting me loose in a place of higher learning than she might have if he’d loosed me somewhere else.  My mother had been a sheltered child, whereas my father, by my age of nine, had already been roaming wild in less desirable city neighborhoods doing riskier activities, as the scars on his side visibly attested whenever he went swimming with us at the lake.

At any rate, he stepped into a respite of release and I was left to fend for myself. I decided to make the best of this weird adventure.  I went up and down the elevators to my heart’s content and sampled from every water fountain I could locate.  I watched wrinkled old men in equally wrinkled suits bend intently over manuscripts.  I opened and smelled the pages of books with copyrights that predated the twentieth century.  I listened to Jewish accents squabble with the righteous shrill of the book-stampers.  I skirted out of the way of young people, university or high school students determined to get their material as quickly as possible, as they stormed through the aisles.  I was hypnotized by the steady flow of people in line to get the inside of their book and magazine covers punched with a stamp that made a very satisfying ka-lumph sound.  Then a nice lady with a soothing voice inquired, “May I help you, sir?”

I startled and quickly scanned around to figure out who she could be speaking to.  I judged it must be me. I politely replied, “Huh?”

She looked quite official in her grey business suit as she leaned down to ask,  “Are you looking for the children’s section?”

I had no idea what she meant, so I gathered what dignity I could muster and confessed, “I dunno.”

She slicked back her already immaculately coifed hair and with less warmth in her tone informed me, “The children’s books are on the third floor in the children’s section.  I’ve noticed that you are acquainted with how to use the elevator so I have no doubt you will be able to find the children’s section on the third floor on your own.”

“Oh, is that where you keep the books for boys my age?” I said to show her my smarts.  She nodded in that way which adults used to signal that we nerdballs were dismissed.  I took my cue and shot up to the third story.  There I found not only my favorite water fountain with really cold water, but also an entire floor devoted to children’s literature.  Sunlight through the giant windows beamed trapezoids of brightness across the rows of books and carpet.  I ambled through the aisles pulling out mold-scented pages and brand-new covers wrapped in crinkly plastic.  I was attracted to beautiful old-fashioned pictures that were nuanced and exquisite and I recoiled at the artwork that was block-like with primary coloration and which depicted humans and animals like creatures drawn by a three year-old.  I discovered books about cowboys and Indians, dogs and cats, sports heroes and famous generals, millionaires, movie stars, rocket ships, and weather.  My feet and back started to hurt so I sat at a table and began to read.  Then, out of nowhere, my father rushed to me.  “What are you doing here?” he yelled in a mixture of desperation and exasperation.  I could feel the library ladies flinch and bridle at his loudness.

I responded quietly, “This is the place for kids.”

My old man looked around him and his survey verified my statement.  “Okay,” he muttered, then more hopefully added, “Well, what do you think?”

“Yeah, I guess it’s all right,” I said, and that was how, for the next four years, the library became my babysitter.  It became a part of my Saturday morning routine: trumpet lessons, the library, visits to my grandparents, and grocery shopping at Findlay Market.  Eventually I drifted down more and more to the adult regions where I found biographies of great athletes like Eddie Matthews, Babe Ruth, Jim Thorpe, and Sal Maglie.  I became lost in tomes about the Civil War and enjoyed collections of short stories by O.Henry that were the most clever and touching things I had ever read.  Over the course of the years I delved into printed works about history, religion, ethics, philosophy, classical music, morality, sex, science, art, film, and literature.  Those Saturdays introduced me to directions of thought I might never have encountered otherwise.  However, to be honest, the library did not induce me to a life-long love of reading.  I never developed a passionate relationship with books. For me, the library was more like the spinster who lived down the street and sometimes volunteered to spend time with me for an hour or so while my folks ran errands.  She was prickly and thought of “having tea” as a fun time, but she was good to me and brought me little crocheted presents at Christmas and Easter.  She urged me to converse and be mannerly and she exposed me to the kind of things a boy would usually give no mind.  I guess you could say she helped civilize me.

P.T. Tyx lives with his wife near Greenville, Ohio.

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