You're Not Gonna Like It, George —
One of my work buddies and I entertain ourselves from time to time by quoting from the movie It's a Wonderful Life. (Okay, so Mark and I are easily amused.) A favorite line is "Say, brainless!" as in "Say, brainless, don't you know where coconuts come from?" We are also fond of "Help you down?!"
But there was one line in that film that I never understood. When Jimmy Stewart's character George Bailey is freaked out over the scenario of his never having been born, he demands that his guardian angel Clarence to tell him where his wife Mary (the always radiant Donna Reed) is. George has to get physically abusive with Clarence before he finally spills the beans.
In a defeated, cracking voice, Clarence cries,
"You're not gonna like it, George. She's at the...LIBRARY! She's an old maid, she never married."
As a kid, I was always offended by this. Mary was wearing glasses and sensible shoes, serving the public in an honorable profession. Even better, she was unsullied by that sleazy Sam Wainwright. George should have been thrilled.
What the heck is wrong with the library? I used to think. Libraries are among my favorite places in the world!
I can still smell the musty interior of the Bookmobile forty years after choosing my first Mrs. Piggle Wiggle book. In elementary school my mother would leave me at the public library for hours while she ran errands. (Yeah, that was how it was back then, when people thought the word "pedophile" referred to someone who liked bicycling.)
It was during one of these afternoons I had a little coming-of-age moment, accidentally stumbling upon my first book of adult fiction. I had plowed through all the horse books by Walter Farley and worked my way beyond the Young Adult section to a novel about a pimp (an actual pimp, mind you, this is the generation before "gansta" culture) entitled — I kid you not — Nothing Black But A Cadillac. My cheeks flamed as I devoured the saucy parts and I thought, "Dear heavens, I wonder if the library knows they have a filthy book in here?!" (Out of curiosity, I recently Googled this title, and discovered you can buy a used copy of this tawdry Raymond Spence classic from Amazon.com for as little as 47 cents!)
Now I work less than fifty paces from my alma mater's library, and the lure is just too great to stay away. Oversized chairs and current periodicals call to me. Obscure cast recordings wait for me to whisk them away and share them through the miracle of iTunes. (Who would ever have thought one could find Gilbert & Sullivan in karaoke?) And art-house films on DVD, all free of charge and without late fees, are mine for the taking. (For one week; two if I extend.)
I love libraries of any size; along with museums, they are my churches— quiet sanctuaries of creativity. All those words, thoughts, and pictures enshrined in a place of hushed reverence, just waiting to be discovered. A visit to New York City is never complete without a good walk up the steps of the public library to say hello to the enormous stone lions. But I always like to see what kind of libraries the pokey little towns and suburbs of my home state offer. I think I have been to every public library within a thirty mile radius of my house.
Back to It's a Wonderful Life: years later I finally figured out that it was the fact that Mary was a spinster that devalued her in society's eyes, not the point that she spent all her time in the stacks. Still, every time I enter a library, I like to hear Clarence's exclamation in my head, the phrase my co-workers exchange when I occasionally vanish from my desk:
She's at the library!