“I’m going from my valley. And this time, I shall never return. I am leaving behind me my fifty years of memory. Memory. Strange that the mind will forget so much of what only this moment has passed, and yet hold clear and bright the memory of what happened years ago—of men and women long since dead.—“How Green Was My Valley” by Richard Lllewellyn
I have had the rare vantage point viewing downtown Los Angeles for four decades. Not as a journalist or reporter but serving from a cultural crow’s nest at a reference desk of the History department at Central Library smack in the middle of our metropolis. Over the years I have seen, heard, and smelled the big city like few others. By chance, I have met movie stars, music legends, famous writers, powerful politicians, and even a serial killer. I am taking stock here because on Friday I will be putting a period on my story as librarian and can’t help but anticipate the day as bittersweet. Most people look toward retirement with the joy of a kid waiting for Santa Claus to show up but I have actually worked in the toy shop. Retirement! On the horizon is the land of travel, golf, sleep, gardening, concerts, and long days without bosses or deadlines. It does sound grand in the abstract but staring at it a day away melancholy begins to surface. Many moons have passed since I began my career with the L.A. Public Library, more than enough to make me overdue by plenty but leaving such a place is not easy. If Friday was a cop show I would be handing over my badge and my gun but in my case, it will be my ID badge and the key to the closed stacks. These two things make you part of a ninety-five-year-old family toiling in Central Library. I will miss my “Valley” and the people who made up my village in downtown because they are the blood of my heart. I spent more than half my life in that quirky building at 5th and Flower. It’s almost embarrassing to say but I loved my job and mostly looked forward to coming into dear, dirty downtown to experience Los Angeles from the neglected broken hearts to the pinnacles of human achievement every workday. I had the privilege to sit at a reference desk for over forty years, watching my neighborhood away from home change sometimes spectacularly but often grotesquely. I arrived in 1979 by pure luck in the old History department of Central Library where there were more characters than criminals and serious research was commonplace. I have mentioned elsewhere the switchboard operator and the rotary phones along with hundreds and hundreds of telephone reference questions back when "we" were google from morning to night. The internet was a rumor and connections between ideas and subjects were in the heads of librarians. Bunker Hill was in the final stages of rigor and there were more sad-looking parking lots than skyscrapers around 5th and Flower. Yet, I was so proud of my workplace, so ready to announce I worked at the big library downtown that it broke me in two when the place burned in 1986. Most of my fellow workers survived, often painfully and when the grand old dame re-opened in 1993 it was one of the happiest days of my life. I settled into my cubicle then blinked and here I am.
I’ve been here for 8 presidents, 5 Mayors, many numbers of Microsoft Windows, 3 Dodgers World Championships, 11 Laker crowns, flip-phones, and smartphones, subways, a spectacular Olympics, a book, and the birth of a wonderful daughter. There were also the dark times of 2 catastrophic Fires, the Aids epidemic, the LA uprising, 9/11, a mental health sinkhole, and Covid. This grand old library was always my refuge and inspiration through deaths, divorce, and depression. This precious Village of Central has been tested but always held together by folks who share my love for the true value of the old beauty. There are just five fire survivors left but we have a tempered bond as strong as iron. Over the decades I have watched hundreds and hundreds of staff members pass through my life under the pyramid. Most of them were devoted to a noble cause and many stayed for the duration. I would wager every one has a bushel of great stories about bringing knowledge or guidance and even humor to the great washed or unwashed people of L.A. There is nothing quite like the variety in the ridiculous to the sublime public who visit libraries. I will miss the unpredictable curiosity of my patrons. Once I could rattle off “the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus” as one of “the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World” or patiently explain that I found no evidence that Columbus was wearing cuff-links when he discovered America. I could go on for several hundred more pages but it is only the law of averages when you get a hundred thousand questions there will be some bizarre fun in there. I learned so much from all of these inquiring Angelenos (or many other states when their libraries closed) that classrooms could never come close to these five hundred months of instruction. There were plenty of inquiries I could not satisfy…the existence of the Nazi tarot deck, the location of the Lizard People’s golden tablets, the Jesuit maps of Los Angeles… I knew how crazy people were long before the internet made it crystal clear.
I’m packing up forty years of worthless on the surface junk and saying farewell to a chunk of Los Angeles that is gone forever. Way too frequently I am reminded of mortality as my peers drift away, some to just memory. I may be “nothing really but the brief elaboration of a tune,” but the song was mighty sweet. More than ever I will miss those moments before the doors open and I had the old library to myself. It's weird how the smell of musty books can be soothing, even sensual sometimes. Susan Orlean described how the village of Central continues beautifully in her book but the power of standing amidst the wisdom of our justifiably maligned race is an experience for the lucky few. As John Prine sang “how lucky can one man be.” Touching on the true life of this library causes a great wave of nostalgia, a bittersweet longing for those deep friendships shuttered by death. Those who trained me back in 1979 were schooled by women and a few men who earned their stripes in the 1940s. Those folks probably marveled at tales of opening the new building in 1926. I am very proud to be part of the red thread that runs through almost a century and a half. Yet, it is time to dim the lights in the rotunda, to close the great iron doors on Fifth Street, and leave tomorrow to another lucky soul. Someone will take my place and hopefully will hear good things about me. Only my peers will tell the true story but I hope they can say I was fun to work with, just that will be fine with me.