When my older son, Nate, was about three we still lived in a crumbling duplex in which the ’94 earthquake had loosened every last thing in the place. As a result, the old-school heating vents were no longer firmly attached to the walls and could be slid away like the old incinerator shoots we used back in New York.
We loved all going to the local library, hanging out in the kids’ section and coming back home with armloads of picture and storybooks. Andy and I always took the responsibility to return library books and avoid fines seriously, bred into us out of respect for the hush of the archetypal library and the fact that although we probably bought (and still buy) more books than anything else, we didn’t always buy books because books can get expensive—and so paying extra money in fines during lean times seemed highly ill-advised.
And so it was that we were getting ready to head out to the library to return one week’s books and get the next batch when Nate informed me, proudly, that he had already returned the books. When you’re a kid, even “getting” to put the books in the return slot can be fun and exciting, and so why wouldn’t a heating vent that pulls away from the wall be a fun and useful place to return all the library books?
Nothing like being broke, stressed and thinking about how much seven or eight hard-covered books will cost—for the privilege of leaving them roasting by the fuming heater… wondering if they will be just the perfect kindling to burn down the building, and maybe even the rest of the neighborhood—a literary nod to my hometown yutz, Mrs. O’Leary’s cow.
After picturing myself in the stockade of shame at the library for losing children’s books… or in Dickens’s debtor’s prison along with his dad, I knew I had to do something.
It turned into a sort of game, where we went “fishing” for the books, using kite twine and duct tape to snag a good number of Sendaks, dePaolas and Scarrys (where the hell is Goldbug?) scattered in decades of dust, I-spied with a cosmetic mirror and a flashlight down in the basement, two floors below my son’s bedroom.
I don’t remember how much we ultimately paid for the few books that won’t be read again until Mike Mulligan’s steam-shovel digs them up to make way for a high-rise (I doubt it will be for a library), but I’m pretty sure I wasn’t beaten or imprisoned by the local librarian (although, prone to Stockholm Syndrome, I’m not sure if it all just didn’t deepen my affection for the library—an ordeal that me, Nate and the few random Private Ryanesque Tomes of the kids’ section that we managed to save all made it through together).
As for my son, however, a subsequent episode of Arthur, in which Arthur forgets to return a library book and dreams of being pursued by the “long arm of the law” (an animated hand that comes out of a helicopter to avenge an overdue library book) positively scared the diction out of Nate. It took months of processing, and trying to explain to a very young mind, the fact that this was comedic—that real helicopters don’t go after over-due library books and that the “long arm of the law” was not literally a, well, long arm of the law.
I love the literal mind just as much as I love the literary mind, from Chancy Gardner (“if the roots are strong, there will be growth in the spring” he answers on a talk show, in Being There, when asked about the economy when all he really knows is gardening) to my own kids (this was around the same time Nate suggested that a fruit-fly hovering about should bring his own fruit next time he “comes over”).
So, whether you’re on the lam with a library book, or hunkered down and hiding out with some fruit, let’s dedicate today to turning adversity into adventure—and to reading with our kids, even if we must brave the long arm of the law—swapping stories in the service of all our collective children.