After high school, and after the door-to-door magazines didn't work out (the marks didn't fall for it like they were supposed to) and after the architect's office didn't work out (I slipped/dropped/smashed the big glass ammonia bottle for the blueprint machine) and after the rubber swimming pool factory didn't work out (the smell, the wise-cracks, the dried-up soda machine) I figured at least I tried, so I gave it up, told them okay, okay, sent in the application for one of those Library slots somebody'd kept open for me.
(The army was a safe bet, with Korea over with, but I knew I'd screw on my bayonet wrong, didn't want to do that in public. Didn't learn till later you don't screw it, you click it. Same thing.)
Downtown made me wait two weeks, then made me Junior Library Assistant (Provisional) in the lowest-circulation Branch in the System. (They capitalized whatever they could get away with, for Morale, locking the barn door.)
My plan at the Branch, like the other jobs, was to save enough to buy a Jeep (nobody'd heard about the other four-wheelers) and do the Al-Can and the Pan-Am highways, take along Tom Paine and Jack Keroac and Dan Bear's Bow and Arrow Survival. So I tried to be frugal, not easy for a guy who hurts people's (meaning girl's) feelings and has to send flowers to say I'm sorry.
My job was check out, check in, dust, sort, lug, figure fines on and repair the books (not Books, don't know why); sometimes read them -- not supposed to, only on break. In no time at all I got to be snap-fingered at it -- and I'm the clumsy one -- and the dark pit yawned up. Because I never learned, the biggest failure of my life, how to pretend to be busy. It had to be the real thing, a regular spoiled brat about that.
Those slow times, I'd chase M.C. through the bookstacks, except the days her parents wanted her to go straight home from school, or she didn't have any homework to do at the Branch. But I couldn't catch her for more than one long second because my roving hands could lose me my job. The public workers' union was in bad shape back then, wouldn't have risked image and all to save me.
She'd threaten to report me to the Branch Librarian or the Branch Activities Coordinator downtown or her father or her football-brother or the priest. That priest, or ghost of a priest, never had a name, no "Father This" or "Father That" or even "Father Charlie," the rare Charles who knows better than to judge you up and down with angry sleepless eyes. A yawning pit of her own.
Those weren't threats, just a kind of practice pillow-talk; why else would she run so slow? Her real threat was she'd go to some other Branch if I didn't behave, her gentle way between the lines to say "Cool it, lover, much as I don't want to cool it either, but me so young and still in school and my Mom would have a fit and my Dad -- " Unless it was her gentle way between the lines to say "Bug off, geek."
But she wasn't meant for me anyway, one of the too many girls who cliqued and huddled after school and clicked their heels and conclaved their homework and whispered about us and hid our file, so we never knew where we stood, and warned each other my eyes were on them and better not get me excited or I'd stagger over and smile and stand on my head and do the stuff you have to do when you take them serious.
Lots of Italian girls, lots -- sharp, rounded, eyes full of fire. Even the wine-scented roses from Pius IX Prep had something to offer, if they wanted to offer. But they knew me too well, or pretended -- those quick strong tongues that whipped me apart, why would they lie? I was them, they were me, the chrisms and scapulars and funerals and weddings (always with guys strutting like Mafia soldiers home from basic) and baptisms and first communions, the long hard pews of St. Mike's Emergency, the long hard pews of the precinct's coffee room, the showdowns, the roll calls to dust off your pride and cushion the eight-ball rolling in your gut, the nudge, the whisper who to turn to.
You can't escape from a world full of sisters, warm roses pretending to be sisters. I wanted my Jeep.
She staggered in under a pile of books to return. Overdue? I don't remember. Even with the Job Description and the Manual of Procedures and the Syllabus of Discipline scowling down, I knew it didn't matter. They weren't even books for school and she wasn't ashamed of it, either. Usually a girl asked her brother or her friend's brother or even her boyfriend (if he was understanding) to check the books out or bring them back, so no one would know.
Mature for her age. (The books did it.) She thought the same about me, I hoped. (Mature for my age, or just plain mature?) And uh, she was Jewish, can't be helped. And she, her family, were refugees, meaning a lot of things, some unpleasant, but also meant she was safer here than back there. (Shut up before I eat my foot.)
She said she was Ruth Herman, her Library Card agreed, but it didn't hit me as a Jewish name (there's a catalog, must be out of date). I couldn't call her sweetheart or baby or darling (come on now, not yet, not yet) but Ruth or Ruthie wasn't strong enough. (Maybe not Ruthie.) Sweetie, honey, sugar, Baby Ruth the candy bar, also out, though sweets were big then, like flowers. I pretended to get her name wrong, called her Babe Ruth, which she didn't mind at all. When I sprang the news his full name was that close -- George Herman Ruth -- her eyes got wide, I'm sure they sparkled. (Where do you learn the secret?) So I sprang another: I asked her for a date.
Her eyes went off/on and blinked Why not? But her parents -- she was too young, and besides -- no matter. If I managed to be in Mr. Roosevelt's Park when she and her broad-minded big sister just happened to be walking . . . If you want to call it a date, call it a date.
(Not long ago Roosevelt Park was where you went when there was nowhere to go, after school or instead of school. Today you get in deep trouble there. Back then no one bothered you, no one noticed you.)
I managed to be where she said, when she said, and of course nothing really happened, but I didn't regret it. She had the light my dark corner needed. From then on, I managed. Mr. Roosevelt's Park was my life. Whatever went before, was just . . . whatever went before. In the bookstacks M.C. still looked interesting, but catching her looked worse now, so I grew old and creaky and couldn't chase so fast.
Spare time, I studied Yiddish, ghetto talk stuffed with poet's truth, but you've got to spit to pronounce it right. I started the Inter-Yiddish Society, the purpose to make it the InterLanguage. Not to grind down or rub out some other guy's language -- that's cruel -- but for whenever lonely strangers from mutual-alien shores washed up together. English and Russian, sure, had political, scientific virtue. Italian had cultural, musical, artistic virtue. (Comedians say there's more, but they're comedians.) Chinese had the world's biggest consumer market, and ages of ancient wisdom. But Yiddish had soul. No monopoly, but bouncing back. Those tenors tore your heart out. Robbed your soul blind. It was a secret society, and I was the member.
The Society took up time but I kept the Branch job. There was the Jeep to buy, key to the outside world. (I never told Ruth. I was saving it. Maybe when we eloped.) Till then, the books. Checking them out, checking them in, glaring at them lined up on the shelves, daring me.
All this time, Mr. Hogan the Branch Librarian smiled. He always smiled. He could have been elected something, all his friends in the YMCA, the Boys Club, AMVETS, the American Legion, the VFW, the Elks, the Police Reserves, the NAACP, the Knights of Columbus, Junior Achievement, the Sons of Italy, the Holy Name Society, the Lions, the Prince Halls, the Hibernians, the B'nai B'rith, the CYO, the PAL, the Dale Carnegie Club, and everyone kept telling me what a great and fabulous guy he was. He smiled. All those Clubs and Orgs and Sons of his, he outnumbered me.
Mr. Hogan knew Ruth, from being friends with her family's sponsors, Noel and Chris Liebman on Cushman Avenue. Noel was the son of Ruby and Doris Liebman from Newark. Ruby, in turn, was the son of Jacob Liebman (the Danziger Rabbi in the old country before the First War) and his wife, Leah. Danzig, since it was a big city, had lots of rabbis then, but he'd been the Danziger Rabbi because of some Catholic-like miracle -- but that's another story. Anyway, Mr. Hogan was a friend of the Hermans' sponsors, got Ruth's father into the YMCA (Noel and Chris had to explain the C didn't mean anything) and put in a word for the Hermans with the blood-sucking guy who owned the furniture-and-appliance store.
Mr. Hogan also spoke a magnificent Yiddish, with no reason to. I swore mine would be better than his. And more people to hear me.
When I was a kid I thought Cushman Avenue, where the Liebmans lived, and I think the Genoveses, was named for Cushman Pipe & Engine, who made those box-shaped motor scooters that put wings on your butt. From a scooter you graduated to full freedom, a Harley-Davidson or an Austin Healy or a Morgan, or dreams of them. If you had different ideas of adventure you dreamed a Jeep. It took you where Morgans don't go.
You could get lost in Roosevelt Park. Down the hill from the bandshell, across the cinder path from the playground, was for Ruth and me while her sister and her sister's boyfriend touched lips and fingertips deeper in the bushes. It was all right, they were A Couple, and Ruth's parents thought he'd make a good son. They said son.
But Ruth and Curley? Ruth and Corliangelo? Like those colliding matter/anti-matter worlds in Amazing Stories. Or like a big city split open by a wide invisible freeway, rush hour, and we're stuck in the grass on the safety island expecting a red light or an overpass or a slow day.
No way out . . . Her father's duelling pistol gleaming in the morning sun, my blood on the foggy grass, Ruth's lips on mine, darkness growing over me as voices comfort her, "His was a gallant soul."
Compromise, take up Buddhism or Baha'i, whatever's not poisoned yet. I used to be serious with the Church, when I had nothing to lose. It never worked. Now I'd go sometimes if Aunt Paula needed points with the other Sisters, good enough. So I snuggled in the grass next to a "them," wanting her, wanting time to speed up and bring her to when we don't need to keep things secret.
(Some Arts High kid used to take his trumpet up to the shell in Roosevelt Park to tell it to the empty meadow. After you hear it the first time, and there's nothing else worth hearing. Harlem Nocturne fit just right there, and anyone's brass take of Rhapsody in Blue. Even better as the sun came up. But I couldn't share it with her, not yet.)
Ruth smiled, shook her head, no compromises. In her eyes I saw the family around the Passover table, heard il vecchio begin the ages-old story, slaves in Egypt. I smelled the horseradish, tasted it, saw an empty chair next to Ruth, reserved for the prophet Elijah. Not Elijah -- he only gets the extra glass of wine. The chair was for me.
Her smile hid nothing, hiding behind leaves of grass. Still, it scared me. To marry her parents and uncles and aunts with their friendly, cautious, heavy eyes, heavy like an eight-ball in the gut. That freeway you don't in your right mind try to cross, rush hour, but it's always rush hour.
My eyes were cautious, too, watching me.
I looked up from the check-out desk -- or the overdue desk or the rebinding desk -- and found the Branch filling up with Ruth's friends, her friends' kid sisters, their kid sisters' friends, "Just looking," some giggling. Give them the broad, proud smile or the bashful one? (She's my girl and I'm her guy vs. Nothing interesting this week, Father.) I weaved through the bookstacks along trails blazed...long time ago...but they knew how to weave. You can't escape from a world full of sisters. I asked one -- the pack leader even without the badge -- what their game was.
A. Y. Tanaka