Blue Highways, Leaves of Grass and the Parkdale Library
I don't know what exactly I expected to find at the library that summer. Rows of gleaming shelves and neatly stacked books, probably. No sound but the humming of fluorescent lights and the thump of rubber stamps. The librarians would be demure types - soft-spoken and intellectual. I thought of the place itself as a sort of solemn temple to the written word. With these images in mind, I was startled by my first glimpse of the employees' workroom. As it turns out, librarians read the People magazines before they go on display, and complain to each other about bratty kids that file through, and they leave sticky bottles of Mountain Dew in the refrigerator. Such are the secret lives of the people who used to strike fear into the hearts of my second-grade classmates.
For me, it was a slightly jarring introduction to the working world. I was starting my first summer job, and, after hours, reading Blue Highways and thinking about journeys. William Least Heat Moon crossed the country over fifteen years ago, devouring Walt Whitman and "gathering the minds of men" (410). I was crossing a small threshold of reality, gathering observations on the behavior of men. He turned his back on the trials of life and I was watching its eccentricities; he was growing cynical and I am still completely green. Yet to me in June 1999, our journeys seemed almost identical. So as Least Heat Moon studied Leaves of Grass, I studied this road diary and tried to follow its winding philosophy.
It was the philosophy that came in handy - especially the parts that Least Heat Moon picked up on his way from the book and from the people. Among other things, Whitman wrote, "I have no mockings or arguments, I witness and wait" (396). Useful advice, as it turned out: arguing with the methods at Parkdale Branch Library is a waste of time if you can just sit back and watch. My fellow student assistant Molly, for example, was a variety show by herself. She was an impish thing, with a wheat-colored ponytail and an arc of bangs over her forehead. Her face was square and freckled; her eyes never opened more than halfway, as if she were perpetually examining something.
"C'mon," she would say, "lemme show you how to sort magazines," and then I was being pulled to the racks and nudged onto a footstool with her interrogating me all the while. "How d'you like it so far?" she asked. "It's nice enough, I guess," she answered herself, "but I'm outta here in August, thank God." And so on, until we had finished whatever it was I needed to learn. She was most animated around five, when another student, Matt, got ready to leave. "Adios, amigos!" he always said, and she would reply with a "Sayonara!" Sometimes they worked their way through over a dozen languages...