December 17, 2002

Backhand

Sadly – and shamefully, I think – the Brooklyn library system has endured a long series of funding cutbacks that have ravaged services. Still, the central branch – a magnificent Art Deco structure shaped to resemble an open book, with the back of the spine facing Grand Army Plaza and mirroring its curve – is just blocks from my apartment, so I often stroll over to look for something to read.

Yesterday I arrived with a list of five books to take out.

The first, “After Midnight” by Irmgard Keun, was not in the catalog.

The second, “Artificial-Silk Girl,” also by Irmgard Keun, was listed as on the shelf in Fiction. I looked in Fiction but it wasn’t there. I asked the librarian if it might be elsewhere, and she checked her computer. It was in New Arrivals, she said, so I looked in New Arrivals. It wasn’t there.

The third book, James Dickey’s “Deliverance,” was listed, like “Artificial-Silk Girl,” as on the shelf in Fiction. However, like “Artificial-Silk Girl,” it was not on the shelf in Fiction. I asked the same librarian if it might be elsewhere. No, she said, it should be on the shelf in Fiction. I asked if books are often not where they should be. Yes, she said. She had a nice smile.

The fourth book, “De Profundis,” Oscar Wilde’s prison-written, book-length letter to Lord Alfred Douglas, yielded the same result as “Deliverance”: on the shelf in Fiction, yet not. I mentioned to the smiling librarian having noticed in the catalog that other branches have copies of this book. Could a copy be transferred from one of those branches? Yes, she said. It costs fifty cents. You write your address on a postcard and the library mails you the postcard when the book arrives. Said cards are obtained from the something librarian up front. I went to the something librarian, who explained that as of December 11th, the library stopped providing this service. I told her, politely, that her library sucks. The way I say it was, “No offense meant, but this library really sucks, you know?” I know, she said. She had cool glasses.

The final book, “Down and Out in Paris and London” by George Orwell, was, like its brethren, not where it should be, which was on the shelf in Fiction. I asked the smiling librarian if it might be elsewhere, and she looked on her computer. Yes, there was a copy stored in the basement. How do I get this copy? I fill out a slip and give it to the something librarian up front. Ah, the something librarian up front. I filled out a slip and gave it to the something librarian, who suggested I return in fifteen minutes. To pass the time I read an article in “Tennis Magazine” about the Best Strokes of All-Time. Andre Agassi’s backhand was not mentioned anywhere under Backhands, which I found outrageous. I was fuming, but it was kidding kind of fuming. Then I returned to the something librarian up front, who informed me that “Down and Out in Paris and London” was not in the basement. I told her that the best way to find a book in her library was to have it fall on your head. I said this nicely, of course, with a smile.

You’re wrong, she said, that’s the second best way. The best way is to trip over it while looking up to see if it’s about to fall on your head.

We laughed then, the something librarian and I, oh how we laughed.