In the fall of 1961 my father took me, age six, to a small storefront establishment on the main commercial thoroughfare of our hometown in Bayside, Queens. The walls were lined with eight-foot tall shelves of books, and it was quiet. It was also dark, but in 1961 only supermarkets were lit like the bright side of Mercury, so my little mind concluded that we were in a bookstore.
At the counter, a woman whom I took to be a cashier, instructed me to write my name and address. My father then told me that I could choose any book and take it home, but must return it on time. In the days before children were routinely exposed to the full panoply of human endeavor before kindergarten, my first encounter with a public library would have been fairly typical of my generation.
Also typical was the fact that eventually I moved away from it. Our family left Queens; I as an adult moved (many times, and long distances), and my own past—which included the historical past—became fixed in memory as a place golden-lit in low-watt incandescent bulbs and the muffled coziness of a middle-class childhood. The past had become a fixture rather than part of a process.
Last year I moved again and found myself, after 30 years of exile, back in New York City, but this time in Manhattan and with the sense of having landed on another planet. For a year, I analyzed like an anthropologist, New York Present in terms of New York Past.
But when a ReServe staff member called me about an editing and proofreading assignment at the Queens Library, I had a feeling almost like having been hit on the side of the head. Queens! That was a real place! Queens was Ur! It was where everyone’s parents moved to get away from everyone’s grandparents in Brooklyn! It was Home Plate! In the symmetrical bell curve my life was taking, I was now rounding third. That “doink” in my head was the past reappearing on the horizon as the future—close and finite and a little spooky.
Upon my return to Queens and the library that had led me to plight my youthful troth to the English language, my past became unstuck in time. I now have modern correlatives to people I left behind; hence the practices and attitudes of years ago no longer seem unconnected to reality.
The fellow who manages my office is around my age; we might have attended PS 169 together. (So that’s what happened to those guys.) When my friend at the next desk, an immigrant woman also my own age, discusses the fertile soil in her Long Island garden and the King Kullen where she shops, I recognize these not as emblems of a distant era but as aspects of ordinary life any time. One young designer and her husband are the same mixed ethnicity as my own parents; their baby will be raised as I was, half a century later. The social media director, a woman no older than my own sons, dresses as I used to dress in the 70s and is homesteading in Astoria as I once did in Yorkville.
Nostalgia is the romantic desiccation of youth (and not necessarily a rosy youth; romantics can wring passion from darkness, too) and can lead, in maturity, to the sense that the present is off kilter, when in fact it has merely changed position. In America, today, it is easy to surround ourselves with the comfort of the familiar and view every need to adapt as a battle against invisible forces trying to drag us ever further from an earlier, golden age. In fact, life is merely the constant readjustment of a childhood compass. That past that, in the guise of the Queens Library, had appeared like a ship on the horizon ahead has caught up to me, but the ship was not mine. I have waved to it, but I will sail past.
Lynn worked as an attorney, writer-editor, and teacher with extensive international experience. Most recently she was a middle school social studies and English teacher with the St. Bartholomew School in Bethesda, MD, an ESOL teacher at the Shenker Lanaguage Institute in Rome, Italy, and a supervising attorney on the Pro Se Family Law Project in Hyattsville, MD. To commemorate Older Americans Month, ReServe invited ReServists to write original essays about their current or past assignment. This is one of twelve essays. – ED