Jacob Horowitz slammed the door shut to his third floor Upper West Side apartment and carefully double-locked the Segal deadbolt and the Fox lock that his son insisted that he have installed. He no longer bothered to walk down the hall to press the worn brass down button to wait in vain for the agonizingly slow elevator to open at his floor. Everyday, there were new tenants moving in while the older ones were rolled out on gurneys. To Jacob, the new residents were thoughtless pricks who held the elevator door open at their own floor while they busily unpacked. Jacob pulled the fire door open and slowly trudged down the two flights of stairs to the lobby in the foul-smelling stairwell lit only by a buzzing flourescent bulb that had blackened at both ends.
He pushed open the heavy door to the lobby, which stuck at first and then gave way with the bone-jarring snarl of rusted metal against metal. The doorman was sitting upright on a hard-backed chair with his head drooping down and his eyes closed. He was passed out, as usual. This good-for-nothing was the oldest son of the building super, who made himself scarce except around Christmas time, and of the super's first wife, who had the immoral but practical sense to run off with a returning Vietnam veteran just after the kid was born. "I'm going out now!" Jacob shouted, just to piss him off. And, louder, "I'll be back later!" So much for security, Jacob thought, as he walked out onto the sidewalk and shivered in the December cold. He tucked in his muffler, pulled up his collar, and set off for the neighborhood library.
On the way to the Bloomingdale branch of the public library on 100th Street, he crossed West End Avenue, and then Broadway. Because of the latest round of budget cuts, his branch no longer opened earlier in the morning. Instead, its opening time alternated between 10:00 or noon, depending on the day of the week. While he plodded on, he could not let go of the thought that it was not yet the afternoon and the doorman, whose wages came out of a portion of his monthly rent payment, sat unconscious in the lobby, rather than performing his less than onerous tasks of one, simply staying awake, and two, watching the damn door.
Before he retired, Jacob had always been peeved by inequities and the iniquity of colleagues who tried to and did get away with doing little or nothing, but who earned the same municipal salary that never seemed to keep up with inflation. He was always angered by the walking dead who lumbered up the front steps of the high school each morning to then benumb and deaden the 30 or so students who sat before them five times a day, and who then had the audacity to come alive only when it was time to gather around the time clock to punch out, a daily ritual that was done away with only after much union pressure. Of course, these were the same teachers who were the first to complain about the general lack of motivation shown by their students, most of whom were members of "minority" groups, also known, in the parlance at various times, as "modern urban youth," or the "disadvantaged" or the "disenfranchised" or one of the many other euphemisms du jour.
Like his colleagues, he was also plagued by students who rarely did homework assignments, or failed multiple-choice or true-false tests by choosing incorrect answers at rates that were way beyond the realm of statistical probability. Reading, correcting and marking five sets of poorly-written essays, or even paragraphs, killed a weekend. It was torture to Jacob. Worse yet, some students rarely showed up to attend class at all. This was, however, a blessing if the kid was a miserable pain in the ass. But he didn't hold up their shortcomings to the same scrutiny as he did the perceived sins of his uncaring colleagues. After all, kids were kids, and these kids really were from disadvantaged homes. But what were the excuses of the never-to-be-satisfied, always-complaining faculty members, who fled with the kids out of the building every afternoon and then escaped up the Henry Hudson Parkway to their middle class homes in Riverdale, Hastings-on-Hudson and other points north?
But his 34 years of teaching were in the past. He had been retired for 13 years and it hadn't turned out the way he had expected, though he didn't really know what to expect. He never wanted to use the term "retired," but had referred to his state of non-working, with some irony and humor, as a "long-term sabbatical." Nothing substantial came along to end the sabbatical and, inevitably, inflation took a severe bite out of his financial well-being. Even his reduced Social Security benefits, which kicked in seven years ago, didn't make much of a difference. And the current recession wasn't making it any easier for him, either.
When he retired, Jacob and his wife Arlene, an art therapist who continued to see several private patients, were both in good health. One day, six years into his "sabbatical," Jacob returned with the mail from the mailboxes in the lobby. As he stood in the foyer of their apartment, he heard a hollow-sounding thud from the kitchen, a sound he'd never forget. Instinctively, he knew what had happened, and he ran into the kitchen, where his wife's crumpled body lay, unconscious and inert. He tried to talk to her, to get her to respond, but it was no use. Even his panicky attempt at CPR only inflated her lungs, for she must have died even before her body hit the linoleum.
He cradled and rocked his wife's lifeless body in his arms and reached for the cordless phone to call 911. He waited for what seemed like an eternity for the paramedics and the police to show up. He held her in his arms as she began to cool and he moaned and he wailed and he shouted at her to come back. He begged and he pleaded and he furiously pounded his fists against the floor. But when they arrived, they could do nothing but pronounce her time of death and try to comfort him as best as they could before zipping her up in a large black bag and taking her away. There was no bringing her back. His life was irrevocably changed, as hers was ended, the instant the blood vessel burst in her brain. The home that they had shared for so many years felt empty - a lifeless shell - like the chasm in his heart.
The sparsely-attended funeral at the Riverside Memorial Chapel, five stops downtown on the number 1 local, was supposed to be held within 24 hours according to Jewish law, but had to be put off for an extra day to allow his son and daughter to fly in from their homes in Phoenix and London, respectively. As they hugged their father and held each other, they both claimed to be shocked and deeply saddened by their beloved mother's sudden death, but it sounded to Jacob as if her death was more of a temporary imposition to them than the devastating loss it was to him.
Jacob and his wife had raised their children to think for themselves. They mixed cynicism, skepticism and disdain for authority into their upbringing, but his children's seemingly callous reaction to their mother's death - he thought he could read between the emotional lines in his hyper-vigilant state - put him off, pushed him away, and made him wonder if the previous 62 years of his life had actually made a goddam bit of difference in the overall scheme of things. Despite the kind, encouraging words of well-wishers and passing acquaintances, his enshrouding feeling of powerlessness and futility, coupled with seething anger and loneliness, became the pervasive driving force that governed his mood, his day-to-day functioning, and his way of dealing with his newly unforgiving world.
As he crossed Amsterdam Avenue against the light, he flipped up his gloved middle finger at a cab-driver who had the audacity to honk him out of the way. This singular act of aggression and false empowerment took some doing because his bony fingers often ached, despite his Extra-Strength Advil's fight against the dampness and the cold of the winter days. He used to yell out obscenities, but even that took too much strength. So the occasional one-finger salute had to serve the purpose. His wife was no longer around to subdue his anger, to gently pat him on his shoulder when she noticed him beginning to fume.
As he passed through a maze of police and private vehicles parked on the sidewalk in front of the precinct house, he silently cursed their self-indulgence and their self-ordained privileged status. And when he got to the library a few minutes after noon, he had to wait outside for another ten minutes with a handful of patrons until the custodian, who doubled as a security guard later in the day, finally relented and unlocked the heavy plate glass doors. On his way in, Jacob loudly pointed out, "I thought you were supposed to open at twelve o'clock today."
The custodian at first politely answered, "I'm sorry sir, but you know we're understaffed." But then in a more belligerent and exasperated tone, when he realized it was Jacob, he added, "You know, I already told you this a million times. If you don't like it, why don't you write a letter to the mayor?"
"Fuckin' son of a bitch," Jacob responded under his breath, but loud enough for the custodian to hear just the gist of his profanity, if not the actual words. He wanted the custodian to get the message that he would not put up with his kind of crap.
Because of their brief interchange, Jacob was not at the head of the line at the desk to ask for the day's newspapers. The two copies of The New York Times were already claimed and he had to settle for Newsday. Jacob thought that Newsday was only step above the Daily News and the Post, which were more suitable for lining the bottom of a birdcage. Jacob took out his reading glasses and started leafing through the paper but he couldn't concentrate. The articles looked like fluff pieces and the Newsday headlines, which were sometimes supposed to be humorous or a clever play on words, were vapid and trite. On page six, there were photographs of grieving mourners standing in front of a church and then gathered around a grave site. Jacob wondered how a newspaper could lower itself to invading the most private moments of grieving people. Of course he knew the object was to sell papers, but what unmitigated gall and lack of sensitivity!
He got up with disgust, flung the newspaper down on the table, and walked over to the "new fiction" area, where a cart filled with newly circulating and returned books awaited shelving. New books! Now this might be worthwhile! Maybe the new Grisham novel was on the cart, though he assumed that many patrons had already put in their reserve cards for it. He knew that sometimes - in fact, quite often - the clerks made mistakes and didn't hold back a book that was supposed to be on reserve. So he meticulously went through the new books on the cart, savoring the unique way they felt and smelled. After he had knelt down on one knee to search through the books on a lower shelf, he sensed that someone was standing too close behind him, hovering over him.
He hated these impetuously thoughtless people, because he always had the good sense to give others their own space and then to wait respectfully until they were done. He looked up and noticed that it was an ill-kempt woman with oversized coke-bottle glasses who had done the same annoying thing to him before. He looked up at her, but she didn't budge. Instead, she moved the cart slightly further away from him so that she could get a better look at the books on the lower two shelves. "Hey, waddya doin'?" Jacob asked with a sneer.
"I just want to see what books were on the cart," she replied, with passive-aggressive innocence. "Just like you."
"Well, how about waiting until I'm done?" he answered. "Then you can have the whole cart to yourself." He did leave unsaid, "And then you can stick it up your ass." Arlene would have been proud.
"Well, of all people," she harrumphed and stalked away, her huge pocketbook imperceptibly grazing the back of his head.
To Jacob, this was just like all the rest of his encounters with people who didn't give a damn, and it seemed that all they wanted was their own way, and wanted it when, and wanted it where, and wanted it how they wanted it. And it seemed to be happening more and more often, as if the whole city was going to hell.
On the bottom shelf was a new John Le Carre book, "Single & Single," that he had not seen before, but it was a paperback edition. More and more lately, the public library was buying these less expensive editions instead of the hardcovered copies, for obvious financial reasons. Still, he didn't like reading them and did so only when he had no other choice. He liked not only the larger, more legible, print of the hardcover editions, but their heft and the way they felt when he held a real book in his hands. It often burned his ass that the branches on the more affluent East Side, like the one on 96th Street branch and the Yorkville branch, probably had many more books in hardcover. Jacob would have to walk down to 96th Street and then take the crosstown bus through the park to get to them.
The Le Carre book was a find for Jacob, nonetheless. He particularly liked the understated speech and mannerisms of the English and the grimy and gray atmosphere that Le Carre helped him to create in his mind. He carefully got up because he didn't want to wrench his back again. He took the book with him and walked over to a terminal to see if there were any hardcover editions available in the branch. As he expected, there weren't any. Why even bother? he wondered.
He noticed the old woman glancing through the books on the cart and he laughed to himself when she turned back to glare at him. He was tempted to give her the finger but thought better of it. What would he gain by starting up with her? She was probably just another of New York's craziest.
He took the book to a vacant table in the back, where it was the most quiet, sat down on a wooden chair, and started reading. He quickly became intrigued with Le Carre's story about the grisly death of an English lawyer in Turkey and how and, more importantly, why his death was associated with a huge but anonymous deposit of sterling in the bank account of the baby daughter of a lonely children's magician. Jacob lost track of time and, wonderfully and magically, his arthritic aches and troubling thoughts were forgotten as he was drawn into Le Carre's convincing and complex world.
Most of the elder patrons of the library had gotten up and left well before three in the afternoon to avoid the dismissal time of the elementary school next door and the inevitable influx of children into the library. They claimed that they couldn't "take" the children's pent-up enthusiasm and energy. Their comments to Jacob about "those kids" were often tainted by thinly-, and not-so-thinly-disguised racial animosity. And at three, like clockwork, children streamed in to collect around the tables to socialize, to do homework, and to giggle and whisper together. Some of the librarians were ill-trained to deal with the influx of raucous children, who, after all, were just acting like children. Their shushing and their stronger entreaties for quiet were often met with ridicule, even by children who appeared much too young to be so nasty and rude. Unlike the other older patrons who were long-gone, Jacob vicariously thrived on the children's passion and excitement, and he felt uplifted and stimulated by just being around them.
Later still, the second shift of junior high and high school students showed up and they claimed the tables furthest away from the scrutiny of the librarians. There, some worked on their school assignments while others just made believe, but their over-riding reason for being there was to be together somewhere that was safe and warm. Why else would they come to the library? If the library workers could only learn to respect their needs and get to know them, Jacob thought. Instead, they automatically resorted to getting the surly security guard to quiet them down and, worse yet, they sometimes called the police precinct across the street. Jacob was amused when the police showed up and made the librarians look like horse's asses because they couldn't keep order.
Jacob's table was the last to be filled. Four high-school-aged kids, two boys dressed in oversized shirts and oversized jeans, and two girls who were wearing provocatively tight clothing, looked around for an empty table. Seeing none, they noisily sat down at his. They acted as if Jacob was encroaching on their space. He kept reading but listened with half an ear to their banter and braggadocio, their often vulgar vernacular language and their youthful sexual posturing. Hearing them at unguarded moments like this reminded him of how good he felt about being a teacher when he was able to get to really know the kids. This rarely happened, except on school days that were poorly attended due to religious observance or severely inclement weather, or during the "circus days" at the end of each term - the carnival-like days when many kids cut class and walked the halls because they knew that their final grades had already been submitted. Even though "bell-to-bell teaching" was blindly mandated by an administration cursed by its own head-in-the-sand thinking, nothing of any academic importance actually took place. But "Mr. H," as his students called him, savored these special days because a few of the faithful did bother to show up and a small cluster usually gathered around his front desk. These were the times when they were able to drop their student vs. teacher facades and talk together like regular folks about things that really concerned them.
"Hey, old man. Whatcha reading?" There was sudden silence at his table as one of the boys blurted out the question to him.
Jacob put his book down and took his time answering. He slowly looked around the table, made eye-contact with each of the four, and then quietly responded, "It's a book about spies. It's called 'Single & Single,' and it's by the famous English author John Le Carre."
He knew that his matter-of-fact answer would cause their eyes to roll - he had seen that dismissive reaction far too often when he stood in front of his own classes. Unfazed, though, he continued. "John Le Carre wrote a lot of spy novels, like 'Tinker, Tailor Soldier Spy,' and 'The Spy Who Came In From the Cold.' "
He waited a few moments. He knew from experience that if he took them seriously then they would treat him similarly. So he went on. "Did you ever hear of 'The Tailor of Panama,' which was made into a movie with Pierce Brosnan, who's one of the guys who've played James Bond, and Jamie Lee Curtis, who was in 'Halloween Resurrection' and 'Blue Steel'?" He paused. "Well, it was Le Carre who wrote the novel, 'The Tailor of Panama.' " Another pause. "And what about 'The Russia House,' which starred Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer, who was in 'I Am Sam,' 'What Lies Beneath' and 'Dangerous Minds'? Sean Connery was the actor who played the first James Bond. You also probably saw him in 'The Untouchables,' 'Finding Forrester,' 'The Hunt for Red October' and a whole lot of other movies. Some of them were even on TV during the last couple of weeks."
By the looks on their faces, he knew he had their attention. Even though he assumed that the dry drollness of the Le Carre novels was a little beyond them, he knew that they might find Ian Fleming's James Bond novels really compelling - just like he did when he read most of them so many years ago.
"You know, this library has almost all the double-oh-seven books, like 'Goldfinger,' 'Live and Let Die,' 'Dr. No,' 'Thunderball,' 'Diamonds are Forever,' and so on. If you'd like to read them, you can check them out. Look for Ian Fleming. Fleming's his last name. They're in the fiction shelves or on the paperback racks, under 'F'. But you've got to have a library card."
One of the girls, who had been busy cracking her gum, quickly said, "Yeah, we know that."
When Jacob taught, many of his students had never read a book unless it was assigned. Some never even bothered to open up the book. He hoped that if he could get just one of these kids sitting at the table to take out a book and get turned on by it, then his effort might be worthwhile. He knew that many adults were already a lost cause, but he thought that if he could reach one of these kids, then something really good could come of it.
Jacob hoped that he hadn't pushed it too far with them, and, suddenly feeling hungry and tired, he decided to leave. "It's been a real pleasure speaking with you," he said as he pushed his chair back from the table and stood up. He made eye contact with each of the kids, smiled and said, "I've got to get going. You all take care."
"Hey, take it easy, man," said one of the boys.
"Bye," said a girl, with a finger wave, as she turned back to sit closer to her boyfriend.
Jacob slowly walked to the front desk to check out "Single & Single." As he began to leave, it took a lot for him to stifle the desire to wait and see what the kids would do next.
On the way back to his apartment, as the frosty twilight segued into night, he stopped while the evening crowd of hurrying commuters streamed up the subway stairs at the corner of 104th Street. He had to wait for a few moments in front of the Rite Aid drugstore before he was able to elbow through them and then cross Broadway. Another Rite Aid - another Duane Reade - there seemed to be more of them around everyday. They seemed to procreate and proliferate like weeds, like the ubiquitous Ray's Pizza or Starbucks, like the out-of-control welfare bastards who sprout up in the projects...
But Jacob abruptly suspended his negative train of thought, as if his loving wife had surreptitiously put her hand tenderly on the back of his arm to calm him down, because a novel idea began to stream into his consciousness. It started with: There are a lot of books all over the apartment that, in my lifetime, I won't ever hope to open. After I die, even my children would give them away, or toss them into the nearest dumpster. That is, if they even bothered to come to the apartment to clean it out instead of calling up a janitorial service long distance on their cell phones.
His mind drifted to the day many years back when he constructed the six eight-foot tall bookshelves with "five-quarter by twelves" - twelve-inch-wide boards of clear, knot-free pine planks that were sturdy enough to hold their four-foot spans of books without bowing. He had borrowed a circular saw from a neighbor to cut the eight-foot lengths in half, and then carefully lined up the shelves and their vertical side supports so he could drill holes for the six-inch-long counter-sunk lag screws. Since his wife didn't appreciate the spare appearance of unfinished wood, he had stain them as well. He brushed on the Minwax mahogany stain as directed, but it seemed to take forever to dry. He remembered Arlene's worry and concern about the noise waking the babies, and her complaints about the sawdust that managed to spread all over the living room. And how, even weeks later, they would still find bits of sawdust in every nook and cranny.
Now, a huge number of loosely categorized books were crammed into every available space on those shelves, and still more stacked in teetering piles in the back of the emptied-out walk-in closet that his wife had once claimed for herself. There were many groups of five or six books on a specific subject that had once suddenly intrigued them but the books remained unread when their fleeting interests just as quickly waned. They had accumulated so much stuff, but especially the books, over the years. Jacob and his wife laughed about religiously subscribing to what Desiderius Erasmus had said: "When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes." Even now, it was hard for Jacob to walk into the local used-book store and leave without buying something.
He chuckled, thinking back to the time when his daughter joked - that is, when they were more a closely-knit family - that she and her brother had considered all the things that they'd have to go through "if you guys die." They decided that they might have to pull off a Gilbert Grape, referring to the film, "What's Eating Gilbert Grape." At the end of the movie, because they couldn't afford the funeral for their morbidly obese mother, the children torched their decrepit and ramshackle house with her body still in it. Jacob slowly shook his head with dismay because he knew there just too many things in the apartment that he was left to deal with.
Then the second part of the idea logically followed: What if I took each of those books, one or two at a time, and simply gave them to those kids in the library? Just gave them away, no strings attached, for them to read and then maybe pass on to their friends?
Abruptly, he stopped in front of his building, staggered by the entire concept. He knew that even when he was teaching, there were barely enough paperback copies in each class set of "The Catcher in the Rye" or "Macbeth" or "The Call of the Wild" or "Jane Eyre" or "The Scarlet Letter." The books were usually locked up in the closets at the back of his classroom or in the perpetually disorganized store room; sometimes the paperbacks were bound with cardboard to lengthen their usable lives. All of his fellow English teachers depended on those students who were absent for days or weeks at a time to never reappear so they'd have enough copies to hand out so students would did come to class. That way, they would not have to share. He knew that the current budget crisis made conditions even tighter and he would bet one of his meager pension checks that many of the school kids had never gotten to read and savor a real hardcover book. This time, he decided, some of them would. And little by little, his overwhelming oversupply of books would be diminished.
Jacob smiled and nodded to the doorman, who was conscious and even cordial this evening, as he strode purposefully into his building. He felt his chapped lips splitting open as his smile continued to widen but he licked his lips and ignored the discomforting twinge. His excitement grew and his mood brightened as his idea continued to germinate. And he stood just a little bit more erect as he waited in the lobby for the elevator to arrive.
May, 2003 Copyright © 2003, Lloyd B. Abrams