WASHINGTON, D.C.—I am in town for the American Library Association’s annual conference. Imagine: fifty gazillion librarians, mostly women, wearing tennis shoes, pearls, and smiles.
Did I say fifty gazillion? Let’s make it five hundred gazillion.
I met an old woman from Kansas. She is a librarian in a small town of two hundred. I met a librarian from Martha’s Vineyard, one from Key West, a few from Salt Lake City, Sacramento, Lexington, Las Vegas, Sheboygan.
I met a guy from Morgantown, West Virginia, the hometown of Don Knotts. I met a woman from Andy Griffith’s hometown, in Mount Airy, North Carolina.
It was a busy day. I shook hands, hugged necks, and in a few cases, kissed librarians from every state in the U.S., including Alaska, and Hawaii.
Also, some from Shanghai, Puerto Rico, Iran, Montpellier, Moscow, Greenland, Sydney, South Africa, and one from Auburn University.
I have history with librarians. I was a seventh-grader when I dropped out of school, after my father’s suicide. My family’s life went down the toilet.
At some point during my youth, I started visiting the library. And I visited a lot.
The library was a dilapidated building. It smelled like mildew and old paper. It had floor heaters, mouse traps in the corners, and a bathroom not quite big enough to hold a representative of the Lollipop Guild.
The librarian was a slight, elderly woman who wore tennis shoes and pearls. She would often find me wandering the aisles and ask what book I was looking for.
She knew who I was. And she knew about my educational failures.
“I don’t know which book I want,” I would often reply.
One day, she handed me the book Lonesome Dove.
“Do you like cowboys?” she asked.
“You’ll like this,” she went on. “I’d bet money on it.”
I took it home and read the book in a few weeks. After that, every time I returned to the library, that woman had a stack of books waiting for me.
Sometimes, I would visit twice per week. She would lend me books on every subject. Poetry, fiction, history, science, music, and of course Westerns.
And I read them, if for no other reason than because someone cared enough to give me attention. And attention was at a premium.
Time went on, and eventually I attended community college as an adult. Librarians had a hand in that, too.
Anyway, I met more than a few librarians today. There was an old lady from Maryland, who has been a librarian since Eisenhower was in office.
I met a woman who learned to speak English in a New York library, who now teaches English as a second language in North Dakota. I didn’t even know North Dakota was a real place.
I met a man who defected from Cuba, and later got his dream job, working in education, up in Minnesota.
“Why Minnesota?” I asked.
“Because,” he said, with a heavy accent. “All my life, I grow up wanting to know what snow is like.”
“Well, what do you think?”
“I think I make a big mistake.”
And I met a librarian from the Houston County Public Library in Dothan, Alabama.
“We’re so excited for you,” she said, holding a copy of my book. Then we hugged.
Excited. For me. I almost got misty eyed. I don’t know why. Maybe because I am hormonal right now.
Or maybe it’s because one of my first times engaging in flagrant public speaking was at the Houston County Public Library.
I will never forget that day. I was as nervous as a man climbing a fifty-cent ladder. My wife and I arrived early. I wore a sport coat.
“How do I look?” I kept asking my wife.
“You look fine, relax, you’ll do great.”
But I was anxious. Mainly, because I expected only three or four people to show up, then laugh me out of the library. After all, why would anyone want to hear a drop-out tell stories?
But that afternoon, when the librarian opened the double doors, people came. Soon, the room was standing-room only. I got so nervous that I wanted to puke. I don’t even remember what I talked about.
What I do remember is telling a story about a librarian. The same one I told you. And I still can’t help getting emotional when I think about it.
I suppose life looks more beautiful when you look at it from far off angles. And sometimes it takes decades to get just the right angle. I don’t know.
What I do know is that every bit of my mismatched education, every book I’ve written, every story I have told, and each word you just read, can be traced back to a slight woman in pearls and tennis shoes, who once asked if I liked cowboys. To which the answer is yes.
But not half as much as I love librarians.
Hug a librarian today.