By Tony Stilt
The print version of this piece included poems by Eric Scott Sutherland and more photos by Brian Connors Manke. Follow the link to see the Sutherland poems and more Connors Manke images.
Everyone who knows the Lexington Central Public library knows that the fifth floor doesn’t matter—it is comprised of administrative offices, board rooms, et cetera. But the other four floors have a life of their own…
The heavy anchor of the Foucault Pendulum hovers lazily over a blue and gold map of the United States, its golden pointer aiming one moment at Ohio, the next at an area I assume to be Missouri, but it doesn’t matter. It is swaying and it is the centerpiece and it is ignored, largely. Across from it a congregation is forming: people in ragged-looking coats and winter hats stand before a set of metal doors, watching them. Ding. The noise echoes through the building, its high pitch ringing into the creases of the New Releases; it rustles the protruding slips of names hanging from items on the “Requests” shelves; its persistence breezes lightly its neighbor, the pendulum, towards Georgia.
One of the two elevator shafts is broken, leaving the crowd to wait on just the one, collecting gradually more people into its mass, listening to the ding of the elevator reach floors above, its cry audible because of the open-air center that the library boasts, elegant architecture. A little girl in a pink bubble-wrap coat tugs at her mother’s arm. A man clears his throat and more throat clearings follow suit. They are all hungry for a lift. Ding. The metal doors open and those getting off struggle through the impeding army of up-goers, all racing for their turn. Of the twenty or so waiting, only ten manage to get on. The doors slam like angry teeth. Ding. I look over to the stairwell; it is lonely and red.
Meanwhile I go find a seat in a red-clothed chair. A woman in a black hoodie is sitting on the opposite side of the room, reading. She is to herself, but when a library worker asks her if she would like to check out the book she is reading, whether he asked her out of profiling I do not know, she looks at him with a crooked kind of guilty face:
“Can I?” she asks him, eyes squinted slightly, maybe embarrassed.
“Of course. Do you have a library card?” She shakes her head. “Well then you can apply for one,” he tells her. “Do you live in Lexington?”
“I do for right now, but probably not for long.”
—-“Argo!” A man yelps, almost galloping over to the New DVDs section. He picks up his new companion and explains hastily to a nearby librarian that, although he already has the full number of items that he can check out out—I think it’s 35—he would like to put one back in order to get Argo—-“I haven’t seen it!”
The woman without the library card walks across the floor towards the exit. Her head is down in disappointment, it can be assumed.
A memory comes to mind: San Francisco, Eureka Valley Branch: “If you don’t live here, unfortunately, you can’t check out a book.” Ding.
At closing time at the library you can stand on Floor Two—on any floor, really—and watch down over the railing into the center of the library for each ding and, as the elevator doors open, see that, despite the library’s deception in creating the illusion that it must be empty, it is indeed not, and its inhabitants file out in droves at 9 o’clock, Monday through Thursday, hours are different the rest of the week. The Second Floor at night is, though, quiet and desolate. Not Third Floor quiet, but close to it. There are DVDs and CDs here, so it is a convenient stop.
In the day, however, the large floor-to-ceiling windows are magnificent in their inconspicuous view, from which an observer can watch the functions of the city—the changing traffic lights, the eternal flames of Phoenix Park, the couples walking Main Street hand-in-hand—in action. Near the window sit studious young men, each indulged in a laptop or an annotated book, all very successfully not allowing the tempting view beside them to derail their focus. I am not one of them. To my left I hear: “Where do we go now, mom?”
A boy with a little book in his little hand is being half-drug by his mother, her jeans faded and torn. Her hair is unkempt. She wears a look of confusion on her face and leads her son to a table to sit. Once seated, she surveys the room in boredom and desperation, and her little son looks in his little book.
A memory comes to mind: Subway restaurant, near Civic Center: A homeless father and his little son take turns eating from a six-inch sub, chewing slowly, making it last. Ding. Eternal.
Voices rise and fall near me and break my attention. I focus on the upturned magazine on my table, its large, colorful neon-green advertisement ever-so-appealing: American Spirit. The mother with the son surveys the floor still and the children’s section is empty I refrain from spending too much time there because I already feel suspicious enough so I must look it too I’m sure and a strange man standing near a child’s section of anything has never been taken lightly not when taking notes especially but it is there nonetheless and the mother too and the American Spirits and the dwindling subs and the burning blazes of Phoenix and the Courthouse juxtaposed and it’s freezing outside and the ding ding ding.
“Do you guys keep a complete list of all of the magazines that you carry?”
He says he doesn’t know and will ask Patrick. I wait. Not far from me sits a teenager, two-toned hair, black and blond, reading at his laptop.
The man returns, his voice is soft-spoken, he says: “He doesn’t have one anymore. Patrick used to be real vigilant about keeping a list.” I assure him it is not a problem. He says: “It’s funny, I’ve worked here 22 years and for 19 of them we had a list. No one has ever asked for one until now. I’ll tell you what; let me try to look it up on our online catalog real quick.”
(A man in a raggedy blue coat and raggedy blue beanie gets off the elevator ding and sets himself at a table not far from the teenager. From what I can tell, it is only the four of us around. The man promptly, almost procedurally, sits back in his chair, pulls the front of his hat down over his eyes, and, within seconds, is making a deep snoring-like sound. Bedtime in the library.)
“Here is how you can find the magazines in alphabetical order,” the librarian tells me. He shows me how and I thank him gratefully. I wander around past the newspapers and back to the area of the teenager and man. The teen seems to not be disrupted in any way by the man, whose snores are now echoing through the hall, combating, or mating maybe, their deep bellows with the high-pitched shrills of the ding but nothing is there, the doors must have opened on another floor.
A memory comes to mind: Presidio somewhere, shivers and through the fog Golden Gate, backpack as pillow, woken up at seven and finding another place. Quiet, sleeping Third Floor: Ding.
All is quiet, when, suddenly, ding and they are off, both of them, pace quick and authoritative and a walkin’ like they have a place to go and they do: the computers. Computer vacancies fill up quickly, especially at this point in the afternoon and especially when it’s this cold outside. I follow the young men and quickly lose them to the beast that is the Public Computer Area of Floor Four. There is a radiant Microsoft-blue emitting from the corner, it is blinding and distracts from the view of the city in the background (better seen on Floor Two). It is an abyss that I stare into. Noises of clack-clacking keyboards and mice and pesky children and Skype calls and unintelligible words and laughter consume the area. Tetris, Facebook, Gmail, Word.
Otherwise on the wall hangs a blue myriad piece, it contrasts the white walls and is easy to neglect because it is bland. A library worker is shelving books back into the Cooking section. He looks tired and sincere. He is to himself. Everyone is to themselves, save those in the computer area.
Ding the descending elevator stinks of body odor and bad food. A memory comes to mind: last train to Mission, running through grey corridors, torn carpet on the floor and it smells like piss.
Finally I am out of the library and walking through Phoenix Park in the winter ice. The library towers behind me, a nurturing home, loyal and grand and asleep.
To listen to a podcast of Tony’s visit to the Lexington Downtown Public Library, visit here.