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A fitting word for this Passover-Easter season, gifted to us by Susan Mesinai, a woman of many lives, many descriptions. I’ll choose one: WordWarrior.
On the muddled side of woozy — smoke, shots, bombastic bass — in one of the interchangeable blues-cum-rock dives populating the street demarcating the division between Chicago proper and my college town, propped against a wall teeming with St. Pauli Girl posters, I found myself next to the recently-graduated object of many a campus crush — hooded eyes, European motorcycle, suggestive mouth — wondering whether or not one of us had said something, if one of us was waiting for a response.
Time stretched. I struggled to make the most of this momentous moment, glean some secreted advance knowledge of the post-collegiate real world. Our silence — an eternity, a second — begged for filling. I asked the only question that crawled, clawed through my brain.
“So,” swig, gulp, “What’s life like after college?”
He nodded, resigned to such questions from those left behind, shrugged a leather jacketed shoulder, leaned down, his lips barely a whisper from my ear, and said, “You can read whatever you want.”
I reeled, spun through the crowd, burst through the exit. Gasped.
In the long slog through college prerequisites, lugging textbooks from class to library — fortress resembling a concrete Battlestar Gallactica — required reading voluminous, Sisyphean stabs at memorization, books became synonymous with desultory study groups, read-for-grade, all-nighters. Syllabi left no room for serendipity, magic, reading absent agenda.
Tantalizing, titillating, readwhateveryouwant.
Childhood, first encounters with block letters, more combination permutations than Legos. My mother and her coterie of sisters (teachers all) taught me to read as a reward for good behavior — picking up toys, proper potty pooping — WORDS! Once I mastered the basics, I had no use for adults. I dragged Let’s Pretend, my favorite book of fairytales, by a corner like a security blanket, utter faith it held the answers to every question I lacked language to ask.
Later, discovery of our small town public library, a building more ancient than Great Aunt Myrtle, dust motes dancing in mottled shafts of light like tipsy Tinkerbelles, a hall of books as hushed as Sacred Heart Church, patrons as reverent as parishioners. Rows of books, a cornucopia of sizes and spines, encased in protective plastic, free. FREE. Mine for the taking, albeit with the responsibility to return, but as the oldest of five children I was accustomed to sharing, well-indoctrinated in the fluidity of ownership.
Books — unlike movies, television, hemlines — unregulated by my Catholic parents otherwise diligent in safeguarding their first child’s soul. Unsupervised access. I took full advantage.
The grade school librarian graduated me to S.E. Hinton and Judy Blume, those first illuminators of the mysterious places between childhood and adulthood. I grew giddy with secret knowledge. I kept quiet. I read promiscuously.
Today, the totality of recorded human expression is at our literal fingertips. But a Google search lacks the transformative power of, say, the old Chicago Public Library, chiseled quotes from great authors extending heavenward, an ascension of words. Or a first pilgrimage to the New York Public Library, lions every bit as majestic and alive as picture book illustrations, the building an agnostic mosque, temple, cathedral. As if simply seeking were a quest worthy of grandeur.
“Pleroma” written with a DANDY RIOT cocktail at the Library Bar inside the Public Theater (the temptation to “riot” in a “library” too delicious to resist) and edited, of course, in the main branch of our New York Public Library.
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