Some of my most unexpected thoughts come to me while I’m walking in the city, and most surprising of all is when an old memory suddenly resurfaces for no apparent reason. On Saturday morning I decided to walk up to the Mid-Manhattan library, which is on the corner of 40th Street and Fifth Avenue, to borrow a book. It was sunny out but Fifth Avenue was all in shadow as I walked because it was still early. At about 30th Street, while I waited for the light, I thought of a little boy who I met a long time ago on a train.
I was only about eighteen years old then, and the train was going from France to Italy. The boy’s name was Pier Luigi. He was seven years old and his head was wrapped in white bandages because he had just had brain surgery in Paris. He was with his mother and father and his grandmother, and then there was one other lady and myself in the sleeping compartment we were sharing. I sat beside Pier Luigi. He was friendly but he didn’t say much. He mostly looked out the window and his mother and father and grandmother didn’t say much either, and they were very careful with him. I remember his mother opening a bag full of bread and cheese and sausage and making sandwiches for everyone, including me.
Across the street and up a block from the Mid-Manhattan library sits the big 42nd Street library and the two lions. As I went into the Mid-Manhattan I felt a pang of anxiety, because there’s a plan to do away with it and move its books to the 42nd Street library—once they’ve finished the gut job they plan for that library—all of which I think is wrong and terrifying. I went up the escalator to the second floor and into the P section of the fiction shelves, where I found the book I wanted: I Curse the River of Time, by Per Petterson. I don’t read a lot of modern fiction, but I got sucked into one of his other novels by accident this summer and felt like reading another one.
The second floor of the Mid-Manhattan library only has an escalator going up, so I pushed the button for the elevator to go back down. While I waited, I looked at a librarian sitting quietly at her desk working on something and I wondered what kind of opinion she might have about the plans for the libraries around the city. I heard it said in a ‘Save
the Library’ meeting that librarians were ordered by their bosses to keep mum on the subject should anyone ask, which says a lot about the plans, I think. I thought of the librarian I knew as a child and how it felt whenever she stamped the card with the due date and pushed a book across the counter to me. Here in the present day, the Mid-Manhattan librarian printed out a receipt for me with the due date and slipped it inside the front cover. As I left, I thought how much better the old way was, with the little pocket inside the book to keep the card in, because I always lose the receipt
and then I’m never sure when the book is due.
I walked back downtown feeling glad to have the book but worried about the library, and then my thoughts went wandering. Everything was very calm on Fifth Avenue. I walked over to Park Avenue and everything was calm there too, and I thought about all of the terrible things going on in the world at that very moment, and what the president has been saying and how much I don’t want us to drop bombs on anyone, and I saw a doorman standing in the sunshine in front of a big, grand old Park Avenue building. His eyes were closed, and he was standing on the sidewalk in his gray and white uniform as if he were sleeping. And just then he opened his eyes and looked right at me. I imagined what it might be like to live in one of those old fortresses, and how nice it might be to ride up and down in an elevator in stead of climbing all kinds of stairs. Earlier in the week I visited a friend in the Dakota, where the elevator has a nice, cushioned seat to sit on. I always sit when I ride in that elevator, and every time I do, it reminds me of a confessional.
I made a big circle back over to Sixth Avenue where, between 27th and 28th Streets, the wholesale flower shops had boxes of flowers and little trees standing all over the sidewalk. And almost hidden in the shadows between two buckets of leafy branches sat the mysterious gray cat who on occasion comes up, when the iron doors in the sidewalk are opened, from the depths of the cellar. Lots of the florists have cats, maybe because mice like to eat certain plants, and they’re always friendly. I had my camera so I took his picture and petted him.
All the while I held the book by Per Petterson in my hand. When I looked at it, I thought of the boy on the train again. Then I realized that what had probably made me think of him was the name Per, because when he told me his name, he had said it as if it were ‘Per Luigi.’ And I can still hear him say it. When night came on the train, the bunks were opened and I had a top one. After the lights were switched off, Pier Luigi’s grandmother tucked everybody in, even me. I can still see her silhouette as she stood on the little ladder and stuffed the blanket in so I felt strapped to the bunk. I don’t remember if she said anything. I don’t think she did.