Notes on New York Public Library

New York is hot like an August day in London can be hot – the air is heavy, sunshine bakes the side walks, the city’s inhabitants are undressing in front of my eyes. A visitor from a cold, dispirited island, I am sweating in my suit, my last meeting of the day is over and I want to find a place other than my hotel room (boring), or a Starbucks (institutional, grubby, bad coffee) to sit and write and think.

I try the NY Public Library of Science, Industry and Business; as I walk into the reception a librarian smiles and asks me to sign a petition opposing a threatened $43m cut to the city’s public library system. I do so, happily. I ask her if I can donate a small amount of money to the campaign. She thinks about it and then says I can’t. I tell her I’m looking for a reading room. She suggests I walk over to the ‘Main Branch’, also known as the Stephen Schwarzman Building. “It’s the one with the lions” she explains. I walk back through steel doors into the street and go looking for the lions.

The Stephen Schwarzman Building (named after the billionaire co-founder of the Blackstone Group who gave $100million towards its renovation) is at 5th Avenue and 42nd; it is large and built in the classical style. When it opened in 1911 it must have been one of the greatest buildings in the city. I walk between the lions (during the Great Depression Mayor Fiorello La Guardia named them Patience (left if you are facing the main entrance) and Fortitude (on your right), explaining that the city would require both to survive), and up a flight of grand stairs into a hall of beige marble inscribed with ‘thank you’s to the Library’s other benefactors. There aren’t any signs of books, just an old security guard on duty and tucked under a staircase a mobile canteen selling tea, coffee, coke, potato chips, muffins and peanut butter biscuits.

Up marble stairs and then some more that rise steeply under a beautiful chandelier and I find a librarian sitting at a desk guarding a corridor signed ‘Staff Only’. I ask him for sanctuary and he gives me directions to what he describes as an intimate reading room. Following his directions I walk through the Bill Blass Public Catalog Room, full of people at desks, a room dressed in mahogany and smelling of the neglected spines of books, and glue, and the slow burn of human oils and acids burning the pages fingers have turned. At a junction another security guard sits. Here I turn left and I enter a large reading room, this is The Rose Main Reading Room; it is deliciously cool and the smell of books is stronger, almost herby, or as the east coasters say it, ‘erby’. Plain stone walls support clear glass windows full of the vertical lines of nearby skyscrapers and overhead a heavily painted wooden ceiling complete with skyscapes and clouds touched, just, by dawn’s rosy fingers. Huge chandeliers run either side of the room, and underneath row after row of handsome wooden reading tables and chairs. The tables are pretty crowded and in corners, especially around the entrance to the room, tourists cluster and gape good naturedly, as if the strange business of a library is these days worth checking out.

Pilgrim, I turn left and walk between the rows of tables, the noise of my shoes on the wooden floor raising heads bent over works of real estate case law and corporate finance and macboks playing DVDs and at last I come to swing doors opening into the The Art and Architecture Reading Room, and I push my way through them and I can go no further. I am in the inner sanctum. And for free. A stranger in this city, no US tax paid, no questions asked.

I deposit my computer and bag and coat and walk back through the Rose Reading Room to find a loo, and a water fountain. I love leaving things where I shouldn’t, and trusting they won’t be removed by anyone. They never are and each time I feel something life affirming has happened – most people are good, life need not to be over-regulated, just roll the dice. [OK, so there have been exceptions and I have just thought of one, which took place on my first visit to NYC. I was on a metro train through Harlem and I left my laptop on my seat in order to stand at the front of the car and look through a small window into the drivers cab and views of the track ahead. The elevated views of the city were mesmeric and I wondered at all the brick work and the iron and how green New York is once you get off Manhattan island and something made me turn around and watch a guy who was shuffling down the corridor to get off and I hesitated and by the time I was walking after him he was gone and with him my battered old Dell laptop which might have fetched him $25, though who would pay even that much for a laptop minus its adapter and so comprehensively second hand most of its keys shined? Feeling a little wounded, I told the train conductor, and two policemen and a German Shepherd met me at Grand Central Station and asked the dumb English guy some polite questions but by then it was too late.]

I am back through the swing doors into the Art and Architecture Reading Room, and the act of sitting down in into the enforced calm of a library, grim-faced and ready to procrastinate a little while before I settle down to anything, makes me smile at the memory of something else lost and now found.

If you run your own business, you live with more uncertainty than your peers who are employed. Until you really start creaming it, uncertainty is a given, and constant uncertainty exposes the business owner to the constant possibility of failure. This can be draining as well as motivating. The flip side is that you get to write your own script, and if you believe it is in the interests of your business to go to NYC in order to drum up some business that’s what you do, and should you find yourself with time to kill and a great city library unexplored standing there in front of you, you get to walk past its lions and up the stone steps and take your uncertainty and fear of failure and the grounding fact that it’s all down to you into an environment that is new but immediately familiar and reminiscent of long afternoons spent at university, occasionally fruitful ones, and more often periods of soul searching and prevarication and mooning about a girl and staring out of the window towards the life that one would lead just as soon as one got out in to the real world.

Sitting at my desk I remember moments of panic when I realised I was very nearly out of time, and looked down the shaft of just a few hours and comprehended how much needed to be completed, in such and such a way, to generate an acceptable score. I studied Modern History and for four years was recklessly under-tasked by my tutors – this encouraged general idleness and pleasure seeking interspersed by short periods of frantic attempts at recovery. The possibility that I might not complete simple projects, the heightened tension created by the shortage of time, made me feel sick, and gilded the silhouettes of the innocents strolling outside in Edinburgh’s George Square, and evoked an angry despair that one once again I found myself in this unpleasant position, forced with my back up against the wall of time.

Twenty years later, time has changed. Sitting here in NYPL’s Main Branch, the hours are not an issue. But the years matter more now. They feel heavier. I am trying to write but I am being distracted by an old man who roams the Reading Room. He is bow legged. He wears respectable grey flannel trousers, failing shoes, a white shirt, the collar a little too big but clean, a black tie, a black v-neck jersey with a tear under the left arm. His long white hair and beard are Tolstoyan. He has lovely big hands, capable hands, which gave me hope that he might be brilliant rather than mad, and in one of them he clutches a pair of glasses. But he is mad. He moves about the shelves, muttering and removing books which he lays open, alone and in small groups, on an unused stretch of table. He never stops moving and he never stops speaking, though sotto voce. While I held out for his brilliance and eccentricity, I thought his accent might be Russian. Now I think it’s just straight American. He marks a page in a heavy book, stares at it, pours over the inside cover, reads the date of publication, repeats it aloud as if profoundly surprised by something, and then replaces it, as far as I can tell, randomly on the shelf. The staff don’t seem to mind him. He wonders off. He is back, his eyes distracted, the fingertips of his left hand fluttering along the length of cluttered shelf.

At 7.30 we are asked to leave, and I gather my things and walk out of the Reading Room. In a public corridor the President of the Library, Johnny Marx, is introducing a schools’ drawing competition sponsored by Google. “Off this very corridor, we have rooms containing original manuscripts by Shelley, Twain and Whitman” he hollers. The crowd of school kids and their parents whoop and  whistle. The theme of the competition appears to be prehistory, which is perhaps how Google executives are privately inclined to regard the public library system. All drawings incorporate Google’s famous logo. Muscling my way through the crowd I squeeze in between a young mother trying to photograph her son standing by his entry. I hesitate. “Go right ahead” she says, without smiling.

Downstairs, t-shirted tourists fill the beige marble hall. Out past the lone guard, down the steps, between Patience and Fortitude. Trying to take my own photo, I see someone has taken a shit against the side of the Library. I smell it first, then see the excrement running down the white stone. Directly above is an inscription which from memory names education as the root cause of all victory. I try to see contradiction in the juxtaposition between man’s aspiration, and one version of our reality, but I can’t. The inscription wins out; the building endures. I walk on through the raised garden that runs the length of the library. A high flagpole looks like it might be made of ivory. Under a tree one woman is reading another’s tarrot cards in Spanish. Beyond them the evening traffic queues along 42nd Street. New Yorkers are doing what they do – they are heading home after a full day; they are anticipating an early start in the morning.

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