The right to sleep in the Tompkins Square public library in 1935
[ people - march 09 ]
It is generally believed that public libraries are only for the benefit of all who enter to read.
In the winter of 1935, my bachelor uncle Lester went for the first time to the Tompkins Square Library or, more exactly, he entered the library to struggle through a hangover and he couldn't manage another block. The librarian, Ms Watson - brown dress, white neck collar, pumpkin round face, colorless lips, framed glasses, spinster, pale blue eyes, hair in a bundle at the back - all of her approached Lester.
"May I ask what you intend to do here? You look as if you are about to fall asleep," she said sharply.
"I was praying," said Lester.
"Well, but this isn't a church, mister. It's a library. You don't pray in a barber shop, do you?"
"As a matter of fact, madam," said Lester, "I do pray in a barber shop."
"What do you pray for in a barber shop?" said Ms Watson, bending over the table, closing her eyelids like a cop.
"I pray for a naked librarian", said Lester.
"Well, said Ms Watson, "let's see whether you get one at the station house. I'm calling the cops right now".
"No, you won't," said Lester. "If you do, I'll put a curse on you and your family and believe me there will be a death among you man or boy in six months!" (I was then eight and loved Lester for the way he cursed, tersely, in good Saxon prose.)
Dead silence... Ms Watson looked steadfastly at Lester, her eyelids closing, her mouth tightening as if she were about to spit, and then, raising her fist in the air, she burst into an uncontrollable cry, like a baby. Everyone in the library ran to her asking what had happened. "Did he touch you?""We know who he is!" "Tell me and I'll give him one right now!" and so on.
Lester didn't move. He looked at the mob, such as it was - there were only five of them with a median age of 68 - and he said to them in a deep, beautifully rounded Irish voice, "I'll put a curse on her if she calls the cops. I was about to fall asleep at this table after a day's work and no one to go home to and you know how lonely that can make a man feel, don't you?"
They indeed did know; it was why they were in the library, time-servers, no one to go home to, life dull as rain. Not a one of them had a job, nor did Lester have one, but when the library closed they were going home to tell of the job they nearly had that day, the interest that was shown by a certain hint of the employer, the way he nodded approvingly when told of the experience and references, they all count for something or else they're nothing, isn't that so, and if you yourself had been there and had seen how the clerk himself said good night with his thumb up and a smile thrown in, the feeling I suddenly had, as in a hymn, when I walked up the steps to the flat, and how in a dream only last night I was awakened with a start at a voice that I swear to Jesus Christ was my dead mother's voice, a sign, a real sign it was, that I was soon going to have a proper job.
And so it was that from that day in 1935 until 1939, September, when Poland was invaded and Ms Watson died alone in the corner of a second floor room in St Rose of Lima's Home for the Incurably Ill on Pitt Street on the Lower East Side, it was in that four year period that anyone could sleep peacefully in the Tompkins Square Library on East 10th Street between Avenue A and Avenue B, after which God sent us World War II and everyone had a job, and no one slept in the Tompkins Square Public Library.