Reflections from Boston: Wednesdays with Arthur #9

April 23, 19

Well, really it’s a Tuesday, and I’ve come to my real home – different city (Boston), different day.  But It’s still me and it’s still a library, this time the Boston Athenaeum where I have a member since 1986. 

It’s kind of hard to describe a “private” or “subscription” library; in fact, I sometimes think the Athenaeum has a hard time describing itself.  There is a fee for membership, the surroundings are extraordinarily handsome, and the services for readers, researchers and members are generous. 

I know you’re in Florida, the palm trees are waving in the wind and the air is balmy, but this is Boston.  It’s fifty degrees; I’m wearing a silk undershirt underneath my other undershirt, my sweater and my raincoat. But the location is spectacularly Boston. To get there today I took the #43 bus that stops across the street from the gold-domed Bullfinch-designed Capitol building, and in front of the Saint-Gaudens memorial to Robert Gould Shaw, the white leader of a regiment of Black soldiers in the Civil War.

On the bus, I sit directly opposite a woman who is clearly disturbed – she’s wearing a hat with a rabbit’s head on it, but that’s not what marks her as disturbed.  What marks her as disturbed is her claiming loudly, repeatedly that she hates everyone on the bus, that everyone on the bus is her enemy, and that she has been attacked in a shelter. I am frozen in my seat, suffused with pity and with a feeling of uselessness. This woman needs to be in a safe place. She does not need to be on a bus, raving and miserable. I don’t know the first thing about how to help her. I get off the bus and walk the half-block to the Athenaeum, but I am shaken.

Need I note the contrast between this woman’s life and mine? I’m on my way to hear a book talk by Mary Norris, the author of Greek to Me: Adventures of the Comma Queen.  She is delightful, talking about her traveling, her reading, her writing.  I settle in to listen and immediately I am a world away from the rabbit hat, from the woman and her pain. 

Someone in the audience asks her to name her favorite translation of the Iliad, and she says “Robert Fitzgerald.”  Without thinking, I murmur yes, that’s my favorite too (although I’m thinking not of the Iliad but of the Odyssey) and the man next to me starts a conversation, identifies himself as the president of the Boston chapter of the English-speaking Union, gives me his card, and tells me of their upcoming gala at The Country Club (honest), a place so associated in my mind with restrictions against Jews (I don’t know if they still apply; be honest now) that I immediately lose the card.  The woman on the bus. The woman on the bus. 

The lecture is over, the day is young, and I am at a library.  I have just finished reading Going, Gone, Went, a hugely affecting novel, so I look in the catalogue computer for other works by its author, Jenny Erpenbeck.

Next to the computer is a little stack of printed request notes and a little box of tiny pencils.  This is what I mean by generous reader services.  I dutifully copy the information and ask a staff member where I can find the book.  She directs me to “the drum,” the semi-circular glass-block-floored book repository; she knows exactly where to tell me to look, and there’s the book I want.  I am not the woman on the bus.  I am the woman whom fortune has gifted immeasurably. Everything is to my hand here. 

I take the book, and on my way to the place where I always sit to begin to read, to see if I really want to commit to taking the book knowing that I will have to come all the way downtown to return it in three weeks, I stop in the periodical room on the second floor.  There on a specially designed two-sided table that runs the length of the very long room are hundreds of periodicals of which you have never heard, all of which beckon to this fortunate woman.

You can see I’m at the A’s.

Dilettante me, I skim an article in The American Jewish Archives and one in the AGS Quarterly, and take my book to my secret spot, the bench behind the aquarium in the children’s room where I can look out at the tourists in the Granary Burying ground (Paul Revere, Samuel Adams).  A group of about ten people is listening to a guide wearing knee breeches and hat with a tall red feather waving from the top.  I am not the woman on the bus.  I am sitting with a book in my special place, in a private library in Boston.

I decide the Erpenbeck book (The End of Days) is exactly what I want, and I gather my stuff and go to the circulation desk to check it out where Jimmy, who has been there for years, stamps the insert with a rubber date stamp (yes, they still do that: my late partner Robert joined just for the pleasure of that careful, antiquated gesture).

Athena, patron of the Athenaeum, with two admirers

My coat and wallet are in a locker in the foyer, and as I retrieve them, a young man comes up to the gatekeeper and says politely, “Excuse me, what exactly is this place?”  She explains that it is a private library and that the student fee for him to enter and see the first floor only is $8.00.  He clearly is not going to do that, but I, the woman not on the bus, remember my delight and surprise at the student who came to the Jaffe Center, looked in at the door, and said to us “What exactly is this place?”  I ask the gatekeeper if I can bring him in as my guest, and she says of course, and that’s how I met Jack Anderson, a student at Boston College, whose curiosity, good humor and courage brought him to the Boston Athenaeum and the woman who is fortunate every day of her life. 

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