Tuesday, May 11, 2010


In the past week, I've spent two days at the main branch of the New York City Public Library, one of the most famous libraries in the world. The building is on Fifth Avenue, between 40th and 42nd Streets. It's known as one of the great research libraries and is an architectural marvel. Spider Man's uncle, Ben, also died outside the building in the first movie.

I've spent most of my time working in the reading room, pictured above. Much of the library's material is actually located underground. The library added miles of bookshelves starting in the 1980s, as facilities were built below famed Bryant Park. Visitors often come to the library looking for mountains of bookshelves, but if they actually wanted to find them they'd have to burrow below.

The outside of the building - perhaps best known for the two lions standing guard - is basically unrecognizable now as it undergoes a renovation that is supposedly going to be completed sometime this year.

I come here when I really need to finish some work. Few distractions. I feel more studious, sitting underneath the chandeliers, my laptop sharing space on the long wooden tables with the brass lamps. It feels like I'm in a movie, maybe something like The Pelican Brief where I'm searching for clues in an international conspiracy, or Philadelphia, where I'm scouring the books for obscure laws that will win the big case. A friendly but stern security guard enforces the rules, telling my neighbors to take out earphones and put away soda bottles (my Coke was well-hidden). He is more intimidating than the stereotypical 68-year-old woman who reminds people to be quiet, although that's only because he's armed. When it comes to verbal intimidation, there's nothing quite like an elderly librarian. Someone coughs more than once and another patron shoots them a dirty look.

Earlier I was down in the room that houses the library's microfiche collection. They have practically every issue of every New York City paper - and numerous out-of-city papers - just waiting to be read. After an early fiasco with the microfiche, I finally received some help on the machine. I'm very old school when it comes to technology - no iPod, no Facebook, no TiVo, pro-VCR - but even I wish there was something out there that could have replaced microfiche. But they are invaluable, as they're the only record that remains for countless newspapers and magazines. And there's nothing like looking at old newspapers (I now sound like a 58-year-old former journalism professor). Today I was looking at Daily News issues from July of 1961. There are the standard stories and photos that would rightfully shock people today: pictures of car accident victims or murder victims. They're horrific, even in black and white. But by God, readers needed to see the crumpled remains of those six people killed in a head-on collision.

Then there are the ads. How about a 3/4-page ad for Alpine cigarettes? A picture of a middle-aged man, smirking. The ad text: Now the menthol cigarette is as much at home in a man's shirt pocket as it is in a woman's handbag...the reason is Alpine.

Cancer: not just for women anymore.

Reminds me of the old Onion story: New 'Small 'n' Flaccid Ad Campaign Least Successful Ever

I could have spent the entire day poring over the film and old papers, but I eventually had to work in the reading room. It's peaceful, civilized, a tribute to what man can accomplish.

Quite different than the subway ride here. The car only had about 20 people. A well-dressed woman in her 40s sat on the other end of the car. A younger woman, looked like her daughter, sat next to her. I only noticed the older woman when I heard someone sneezing at 150 decibels. It's hard to phonetically replicate the sound. Something like, "KAPAFLOOOOEY." I looked up to see her doing it time and again, and each time, she sprayed liquid out of her mouth and nose and on to the pole in front of her and the opposite seats. Good lord. She did it five times as people moved to the opposite end. A middle-aged black guy, who looked like he'd seen it all in his time in New York, even said, "God damn. What the fuck lady?" He spoke for all of us. We watched her spray her germs and Ebola. She acted like nothing was wrong. Finally the younger woman got up and walked to the end of the car, through the end door that you're never supposed to go through and into the next car. About five minutes later they returned, this time right next to me and another gentleman.

Typhoid Mary stood over him, again ready to explode. He gingerly tried moving toward the wall while staring at her. She looked down at him and yelled, "What is your problem?"

"Nothing," he replied. He returned to his newspaper. Like me with my magazine, I assume he read the same paragraph six times. Meanwhile, the younger companion kept wordlessly moving around while the woman followed. They finally went to the next car while everyone on ours breathed a sigh of relief, while trying not to actually inhale. An incident like that does bond passengers. Usually everyone has their nose buried in a book or stares straight ahead. But when something like this happens, and in the moments afterward, we make eye contact and grin, sharing war stories.

"Did you see the snot?"
"What was that other lady doing with her?"
"We should warn someone not to grab that pole."

Maybe the woman didn't want to give everyone a disease. Maybe she just wanted everyone to chat, get to know our subway neighbor.

The library proved to be a refuge. And it had a lot of great research material about infectious diseases.


Jerry said...

What is it with you and old security guards? First the geezer at the Metrodome and now this. Pretty soon they will have a "wanted" poster out for you. Old folks can be pretty crafty...

Shawn Fury said...

I forgot about that guy. The Metrodome was as quiet as a library that day.