The day my own dear Central Library reopened I got my name in the L.A. Times which elicited ragging from pals around the city. “As soon as I crossed the threshold I got down on my knees and kissed the ground,” it said in gushing prose, but looking back from my current vantage point that seems totally appropriate. Years of wandering in the desert were over and everything in front of me was brand new and full of hope. Kissing the floor in any public library may not seem like a good idea now but on that day the hallowed ground was antiseptic in more ways than one. I remember it well. Chunking is how psychologists describe that phenomena of the mental collecting of big picture memories of life passages. The brain manages to organize these recollections into categories that when lumped together seem to pass more and more quickly as the old planet spins us toward old age. It is the one LA freeway that is always moving briskly. While the last 25 years seem like weeks when I recall that sweet day I made my return to dear dirty Central Library, the previous 8 years to that wonderful day seemed like the biblical forty years. In my four-decade career, the reopening is at the top of my very best days at Goodhue’s masterpiece. I even have an old, wrinkly balloon stamped for the gala event that I keep for some reason and a cassette of celebratory songs I made just for the occasion. One of the songs was “Wellington’s Victory March” by Beethoven which fit the mood perfectly.
Finally, there was a conclusion to a molasses slow crawl to becoming a real major library again following the fire of 1986. The great day had arrived with plenty of “fuss and feathers” including lots of ink and airtime. It was October 3, 1993, and we had just a couple of days before the big show to prepare for the greatest outpouring of library love in LA history. I was so excited I showed up on time with my nine-year-old daughter and walked past already gathering giddy crowds to enter the building on the sweet Maguire Gardens side (once known as the Flower Street door). The long-suffering staff were euphoric, like kids let into Disneyland early and we were all being treated to a genuine hot, deluxe breakfast by the Biltmore Hotel, just to add a little hollandaise to the fabulous feast of the senses on that memorable day. The first thing I saw was a homeless guy briskly walking away from the buffet table with a face like the cat who ate the canary. His plate was piled with bacon, scrambled eggs, actual French croissants and he was balancing a glass of fresh-squeezed OJ in his right hand. It was that kind of day for everybody. Party time in downtown! Imagine the Super Bowl, the Oscars, the World Series and the NBA championships taking place at 630 W. 5th street. I saw old library friends smiling smiles you could not have wiped off their faces if the devil himself had tried. We had come home, minus a few dear ones but pretty intact considering the span of years and the plagues that had swept through our ranks in our time away. Staff were shaking hands with admin and hugging the formerly feared Betty Gay Teoman. It was just THE place to be in LA on that sunny Sunday and Huell Howser was there with Luis and cameras were clicking everywhere. The place just shone and everything was new and mostly working. The interior had that new library smell and when they threw open the brass doors at 10 a.m. it was wall to wall proud and happy Angelenos rushing into the ballyhooed gem of downtown. I could hardly stand still and joined the surging masses up and down the “Grand Canyon of books” even forcing myself and kid into a frame or two of the “Visiting” episode Huell was creating. It really was like Main Street in Disneyland on a summer day even if it was the fall. Central Library was at the center of the solar system or so it seemed.
The words in the morning papers and the stories on television and radio could not touch the pure joy of coming home where we belonged. Most librarians I have known are dedicated to service to their fellow man. It is not a job one takes on to gain wealth or glory but the rewards are great when looking at the big cultural picture. Beyond our sarcastic, dark humor, the humorous patron nicknames and the complaints about the craziness that exists in these public spaces there is something like genuine love. Standing at the top of the Bradley wing and looking down is all about that affection and satisfaction. Soaking up the library vibe in the rotunda or strolling through the Children’s department is like putting on the mantle of our profession. Being even a little cog in the big wheel of Central gave us pride in our work for building this magnificent collection and offering service to every bright-eyed kid, every eager immigrant, every homeless wreck seeking a little solace and a morsel of humanity. What makes library work so fulfilling is the knowledge that you are handing out joy and hope and healing in a hard and not terribly caring world. Over the years we have given confidence, dignity and self-reliance without charge to a very complicated human mosaic. We soften the sharp edges, strum the heart strings and give people a reason to join together for the improvement of the human race. “Love that conquers hate. Peace that rises triumphant over war. And justice that proves more powerful than greed.” All of this we offer in this funny building with the pyramid on top if you just know where to look. Coming home for us meant coming home to those ideals and holding up the light of learning, handing over the key to the treasure room back to the people. It was our chance to be heroes again.
An extended version of this piece appears in the book, Feels Like Home: Reflections on Central Library.