“Mom, Can You Take Me to the Carnegie?” or How I Learned About Books and Sex
It was the one place they had to take you if you asked. It was about books and school and research and science projects and all things scholastic, so when you said you needed a ride to the Carnegie library, they got in the car and drove you. In my case, as a boy growing up, there was a bit more going on there than schoolwork.
I loved the library. That giant, sandstone-colored pile with the great broad steps leading up to an imposing, massive door. Where housed inside was that treasure beyond compare: all the Hardy Boys books, the entire series, though it took them a long time before the new ones ever appeared on the shelves. All the Tarzan books. The Black Stallion. Jack London. H. Rider Haggard, Edgar Rice Burroughs. These references age me, but I lived in West Virginia, where everything was decades behind the rest of the country; we were starting out further back in time than most.
It was always dark in the library, cool in the hot summer, warm and inviting in winter, and it had that wonderful smell of old books. When we first started going to the Carnegie we rode the bus because my dad had the car and he worked out of town. My mom, a voracious reader, would take me and my sister and leave us under the cool gaze of the library ladies while she went shopping. I don't remember when we started going, but I do remember I was so small I couldn't see the top of the table if I actually sat, rather than knelt, in the old wooden chairs. My sister, two years older, would find picture books, and I would sit and page through them.
But you're probably waiting for the sex part.
Flash forward six or seven years. One day while researching a school project, (Famous West Virginians? Leaves and Trees of Our State?) while I was flipping through the card catalogue, I glanced upward and was stunned to find that if you were positioned in exactly the right place, and I was, if you, oh, so casually, lifted your gaze toward the intricate pressed tin ceiling as if organizing your thoughts, you could look up the girl's dresses as they ascended the four stories of spiral staircase! Yikes! I was so shaken I abandoned the catalogue and went back to my table and sat, trembling, for fear I had been spotted: next stop, jail. Fortunately, I had enough sense to know that I should not start hanging out in that sweet spot, though I admit the impulse was there. But over the years, into high school, I wasn't above taking a peek skyward if I just happened to be climbing those infamous stairs. Ah, confession, so good for the soul.
After I grew tall enough to actually read the spines of books and take them down off the shelf, I would browse all four floors of densely packed books. (Free access to the books. This was a Carnegie Library innovation.) Novels or non-fiction, I didn't care. I was a small, bespectacled child, and the librarians had long ago realized I was reading far above my age level and should just be left alone. And so it was that in my early teen years I discovered, on the top floor, rear of the library, in a dusty, remote area no one seemed to have visited in years, the Medical Section. Books about the body.
With pictures of naked women.
Actual, un-retouched photographs. Unfortunately, these pictures usually depicted females with various diseases. Even as an innocent youth, I understood that some of the body parts probably weren't supposed to look the way they did. That on a healthy individual these bits might be more symmetrical or just simply more appealing, though I wasn't really sure. But by piecing together a mental mosaic over the course of a year or so of furtive page-turning, I came to have a good idea of What Things Looked Like. And many years later when I saw photos and later reality, I realized my jigsaw puzzle images were pretty much on the money. Bingo.
God, I loved the library.
Anyone else have a childhood library story? Send them to me as a Comment, or if you want to go longer, e-mail them to Thriller Guy at his alter ego's address, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can make them as long as your heart desires. We'll put them up and see if they spark other library memories.
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