There was constant jockeying for respect on the block. Older kids were moving on to high school and new kids were moving into the neighborhood. The pecking order was fluid, and you had to keep proving yourself to stay on top. The yardsticks for success were unique, for example, smoking and fluent cursing rated high on the list of "qualities to be admired". Luckily for me drugs were not yet in play, and underage drinking was just becoming popular. My first encounter with booze nearly killed me. My father had put some shellac in an old Fleishman's whiskey bottle. I took a swig one day to see what all the fuss was about. After confessing to my mother what I had done, all I remember is her shoving slices of white bread down my throat with one hand as she beat me with the other.
Anyhow, back to the "liberry". The interior was dark and dusty, and the place smelled of books, a wonderful smell by the way. It was filled with tables where kids could read or do homework. It was also a place where old folks could come in from the cold and warm up for a bit. The walls were covered with card catalog files where the titles, authors and shelf locations were methodically listed, thanks to the wonder of the Dewey Decimal System. When you borrowed a book, the librarian rubber-stamped the due date for its return on a card in the back of the book. Every kid my age knew where all the forbidden books were like "Peyton Place" and "Lady Chatterley's Lover" ; if you held them in your hand, they practically fell open to the well-thumbed pages with the "hot" parts!
In the fifties, librarians were a strict lot. They were expert "shushers" and tolerated little guff from kids. This was way back when children still had some respect for authority figures, so we actually obeyed them! They could also be helpful and even solicitous when they found a little barbarian among us who shared their love of books. The lady shown in the 1960 photo at left is Eleanor T. Smith, a real librarian in the Brooklyn system; she looks like all librarians did then. Our librarian at the Saratoga branch would set aside books she thought you would like, and slip them to you rather than put them back into general circulation. Thanks to that kind lady, I got to read some good books I probably would not have picked myself. Yes it's true, I was a twelve-year old library gigolo.
Things have changed since I was a kid. Although "bookworms" are still not high up on the kiddy pecking order, they are better tolerated and less likely to be beat up. Reading materials are more available than they used to be, what with books being electronically down loadable from the library, books on audio CDs, and more branch libraries in existence than ever before. Ironically, computers have also created the greatest competition to reading as a pastime, with the rise of the hated video games to which kids are so addicted. Parents listen up, don't deprive your children of the gift of reading. Switch off the damn X-box and give them some reading time; they will thank you for it down the road.
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