Saturday, September 22, 2007

"The Office" (Workstation series) 46 (East End & childhood edition)

I don’t remember too much from the years between age 11 and age 17, when I bugged out for college at the last minute but with a clear sense that it was an escape hatch. That’s not coincidence: I think I intentionally blanked out many memories (though I’ll still wake up with nightmares). My parents’ marriage was circling the drain and there was a lot of unhappiness, anger, and guilt. I fuckin’ hated high-school—I was that deadly combination of smarter, angrier, better-educated, and more mouthy than my contemporaries, and I thought the espoused values (buy stuff, go cool places, plan to get into your parents’ universities and then businesses, yacht in the summer, ski in the winter) sucked. I’d been a reasonably happy kid, but things got worse and worse, until by the time I was 14 there weren’t too many places in my home town where I felt safe.

But there was one: the local library, which ever since I could remember, was a refuge for me and my siblings. This was back in a decade when it was still safe, and accepted parenting practice, for our mom to drop us off at the library on a rainy Saturday, knowing that she could go off and do two or three hours of errands with no fear that we’d be unsafe or bored. We were all bookish kids, raised in a home environment in which voracious reading, and the curiosity, vocabulary, grammar, and speaking skills that result from it, were all considered legitimate and valuable (of course, it got the shit kicked out of us in the blue-collar neighborhood where we lived, until—rite of passage for each of the male brothers—we each learned to hit back, as hard as we could, and the beatings stopped).

I loved that library.

I loved the grownups’ reading room, dark-oak-paneled, filled with cracked-leather-upholstered overstuff chairs, with chiming grandfather clocks, the figureheads from old sailing schooners, nautical maps of the surrounding coastline, and a sense that time would pretty much stand still for as long as you wanted to be there. Years later, as I read Wodehouse and Dorothy Sayers, I always imagined those authors’ English gentleman’s private clubs to look like that room.

I loved the adult’s recent-acquisitions room, with big bowed windows that looked out under the oaks and maples on the library’s front lawn, though I didn’t spend too much time there—I wasn’t much interested in The Power of Positive Thinking and the latest Philip Roth.

I loved the stacks—my first experience of that sense of endless adventure that could emerge from the close-packed narrow aisles between jammed gunmetal-gray industrial shelves—that sense of adventure that came from finding the LOC number of a book you loved on the shelf, and then looking to its left and right, and realizing that, not only were there more books by the same author, but that those numbers almost always meant (especially for non-fiction) more books on the same topic that had drawn you into the stacks in the first place. Right there, right then, by the age of 10, I had figured out the tactile, visceral joy of getting lost in a library’s collected wisdom.

I loved what would now be called the “media” room—which in those days basically meant battered LP’s and a random collection of filmstrips (basically, spooled slideshows printed on film that could be shown in a cheap pot-metal projector sold to schools and weren’t as finicky as slide carriages or projectors). I found an awful lot of great music that way—records that would continue to be touchstones for me, like this one and this one, and it helped to spark that sense of curiosity and discovery about the mysterious stuff on records whose names, titles or artists I didn’t recognize: the world of music—like so many others worlds—is much bigger and more exciting if you seek out the things you don’t already know.

But where I felt most at home, earliest, and safest, the longest, was in the kids’ and young-adults’ books section. I wasn’t a huge fan of kids’ books, and had grown up with an interesting and complicated combination of 1920s kids’ books my mom had known, the fantastic resources of the Weekly Reader and the Scholastic Book Services company, who between them had set up a program that, on a monthly basis, brought a catalog of book titles into grade-school classrooms, out of which you could select as many as your parents would pay for (in cheap 25c, 45c, or 95c editions), and magically, a month later, a crate of books would appear in the classroom and your stash would be handed out to you. I always had a hard time concentrating for the balance of those days.

In that kids’ book room, which was down a staircase at the oblique back corner of the building, looking out its back windows to the sunken back garden and parking lot behind the library, were the books that got me through my late childhood and early adolescence. I can’t remember all their titles, but I’ve mentioned some before in these pages, notably Esther Forbes’s heart-breakingly great Johnny Tremaine. But there were others: Robert Lawson’s gentle and loving Rabbit Hill, The Tough Winter, and (my secret wish-fulfillment favorite) Mr Wilmer, about a Casper-Milquetoast-esque insurance drone in ‘40s New York who, discovering a remarkable gift for conversing with animals, rides his Man-in-a-Grey-Flannel-Suit notoriety to fame, fortune, a farm in Connecticut, friendship with a zoo lion and elephant, and an idyllically-beautiful redhead who falls for who he is, not for who the world thinks he is. There were the magnificent and inspiring picture books detailing the adventures of Jacques Cousteau and his cooler-than-cool crew. There were the obscure books of poetry and genealogy by local postmen and fishermen which taught me the history of my own home town.

But perhaps my favorite books of all, that I remember from that magical room where there was always time enough and where I was always safe and where no-one could hurt me, were the trio written by the great Kin Platt, who’d been a cartoonist, a gag-writer, a World War II vet, but in his fifties wrote a series of books about a teenage hero named Steve Forrester which changed my life—and, I suspect, those of a lot of 1970s kids.

The first one I encountered, the first one that Platt wrote but which was set later in Steve’s life, was the supernatural/psychological tale called The Blue Man, about a weird and mysterious guest who comes to visit Steve’s uncle’s rundown hotel in Maine, and the series of events that sets Steve off in pursuit of the eponymous villain. It’s a spooky story, which with hindsight I realize was occupying the same realm as The Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone. My elder brother brought it home, I remember, and I read it, but at 11 or 12 I was just sophisticated enough to have it scare the living shit out of me.

The third in the Steve Forrest series was also the third that I read: the wonderful, evocative, sympathetic paranormal tale The Mystery of the Witch Who Wouldn’t, which is the only kids’ (hell, only adults’) book I’ve ever read that deal with issues of the supernatural plausibly, as if they were neither fairy tales nor delusions, but simply not-yet-understood science. Steve Forrest returns, as well as his sort-of girlfriend Minerva (whose dad is a cop and is easily the coolest, smartest, mentally- and physically-toughest adolescent female in any of the young-adult’s fiction I read: as Steve narrates “she’s a good ball-player and she packs a mean punch. No one picks a fight with Minerva Landry”) and his best friend Herky Krakower, a polio survivor whose physical infirmity is no mask for the precision of his mind—both this book and its predecessor are full of references to codes, ciphers, and obscure learning, and Herky’s encyclopedic knowledge and computer-fast analysis make him the real hero of Witch, as well as incredibly imaginative one-off and bit characters, including the mandragora-addicted undertaker, his bleached-blond sexbomb nurse wife, and Aurelia Hepburn, the grandmotherly old lady from the Outer Hebrides whose white magic, in the climactic scene in a burning windmill in Long Island Sound, saves all their lives.

The second in the series, and surely a book that helped save my life and shape my future, is Platt’s masterpiece, Sinbad and Me. It’s the story of Steve’s twelfth summer when, having flunked math and facing summer school, persuades his folks to let him stay on in the house on the outer shore of Long Island, in company with his English bulldog Sinbad (easily in the running for the greatest name dog name ever). Left to their own devices, Sinbad and Steve find themselves in all kind of hot water: nearly drowning in an undertow trying to get into a locked summer home; investigated by both the FBI, the Mob, and Steve’s summer science teacher; and yet Platt still finds time for fascinating (to a young teen) plot eddies into numismatism, pirates, immigration history, the background and personality of bulldogs, and the architecture of Long Island (Steve is an architecture buff and first bonds with his science teacher because of Steve’s wonderfully engaging conversation about the eras of American architecture).

Sinbad was an important book for me, at the time I encountered it, for all kinds of reasons: it was about a kid my age who wasn’t sure what he was going to do with his life but had been left alone for a summer to figure it out, who knew he was attracted to smart funny girls but had no idea what to do about it, whose best friend was a nerd but who Steve freely acknowledged was three times smarter than himself, who would look out for the old immigrant lady who years before had saved Sinbad from poisoning, who knew he was smart himself and knew that some adults (and some of his contemporaries) were idiots—and sometimes got into trouble for acknowledging that he knew it, and who, when the chips were down, was going to stand up for himself, his friends, and his own growing sense of himself. It’s a wonderful, wonderful book, and was immensely important for me (and, I’d guess, several generations of boys-turning-into-men). It gave me the ability to articulate the kind of person I wanted to be, and it provided a template I could try to live up to.

For years I wanted an English bulldog, because of this book—and only dissuaded myself because I took the trouble to find out about all their health issues. As a result of this book I also discovered an interest in vernacular architecture, and a year later in junior high school was the team leader when my friends Larry, Jon, and I wrote a semester project on an 18th-century house in my home town that, for a bunch of 14-year-olds, was absolutely masterful (we traced the history of the house from sheep-cot to farmhouse to shoe-maker’s shop to mansion), found the old deeds, reconstructed the various facades and the construction techniques that would have been used to render them, and even found (wedged between rafters to stop leaks) early 19th-century newspapers which let us trace the history of the various repairs.

Kin Platt, Steve Forrester, and Sinbad and Me gave me a sense of how to get from the angry, bored, alienated, frustrated, over-amped kid that I was to the young man I wanted to be. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I read and re-read this book more than any other in that library—I’d even say that this book gave me the courage to decide, in April of my junior ear, that in August of that same year I was going to be going to school in New York—and to succeed.

The last time I was in that library—that place that kept me safe, my one safe haven during my adolescence—was several years ago. I was back visiting my folks, and thought they (and I) could use a few hours of “quiet time”. So I walked from their house on the waterfront, up the steep streets to the granite hills that made this town a peninsula rather than a bay, and to that library. The façade was just as I remembered it: red brick, white clapboard, slate roof, oaks and maples—but when I walked in the door, it was all changed: they’d done a renovation and not only all the furnishing, but even the rooms, and the interior orientation of the building itself, were all changed. It was so shifted around that I couldn’t even find the kids’ books room. It was—more than the sale of the house where I grew up, or the loss of my dad, or of 90% of the mementos I cared about—the last tie to my childhood.


But when I open the pages of this book—out of print for more than 30 years, and selling for inflated rates on Amazon so high they confirm that others love and miss it as much as I—I feel like I’m back home.


Banjosnake said...

Damn, dude. I can't even begin to match your beautiful evocation (not that matching it is the point anyway!) but I will say the the Houston Memorial Library in Athens, Alabama (never knew who Houston was)was a similar refuge for me, although my childhood was vastly different from yours and my methods of handling it just as dissimilar. I'll never forget the creaky wood floors, the librarian who seemed to scowl over her bifocals but always helped me when I asked, and the delightfully creepy red stained glass windows over the front door. The kids' books were right in front by the front bay window, down on the lowest shelf by the floor. God knew what incredible forbidden knowledge and lost manuscripts were upstairs.... I was just as worthless waiting for that box of books from Scholastic Book Services, and Cousteau was unspeakably important to a landlocked boy from Alabama. I've never even heard of Sinbad And Me, but you sure make me wish I had. I just read this morning that apparently every day 70 readers pass from this earth to be replaced by only 2... the library obviously served you well, my friend, and by extension, the rest of us who get to read what you write. Don't stop, my man; don't stop.

CJS said...

Thanks dude. I think books were a refuge for a lot of us. If I ever find another copy of Sinbad (at less than 171 bucks used), I'll make sure you get a chance to read it.

Charlie said...

I, too, just ADORED the Sinbad books. I was probably 8 or 10 years old when I read them. In later years I could not remember what they were even called, until a couple of nights ago I did a search on 'Sinbad dog children book' and found the references to Kin Platt. Those book hold magical memories for me. Like the memories of my first love at age 11. I bought them off of, paying $80 for _Sinbad and Me_. Well worth it for childhood magic. I can't wait to read it!!!

CJS said...

I haven't re-read it since childhood, actually--to cheap to pay 80 bucks for a dog-eared copy--but I hope to some day. Enjoy, and thanks for reading!

Patrick Bird said...

I am a bad human being because I loved this book so much that when I was 13 and tired of having to return the book to the library I checked it out once more from our big downtown library and then when it was due I reported it as 'lost'. I mowed lawns to pay the replacement fee, and kept the book ever since. Now, at almost 48, I still have that library-bound, mylared, bright dust covered hardback sitting with my shelf of favorite books. I'll admit that it, more than anything else, shaped my own recently-started book writing and self-publishing career. Kin Platt is easily one of my top two favorite writers no one I know has heard of (Tove Jansson is the other), and is still in my top five authors of all time.

Loved your blog post, and loved the series of libraries I visited through my childhood and young adulthood just as you did. I half fear returning to them now as I know they will either no longer exist or be changed beyond reason, but thanks for the walk through your youth and the books by Kin Platt that shaped them.

Christopher Smith said...

Dear Patrick: you might be pleased to know that the book has been reissued! Kin's son Christopher (model for Steve Forrester) has put together a publishing company and was kind enough to send me a copy of the reissue after reading the same blog post above. See