I can still hear the silence of the Williamsburg branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, my favorite childhood haunt. It was full of the apologetic creaks of careful footsteps on the wooden floor; the squeaky twists of double-loop-back chairs gotten up from or sat down in; muted sighs, muffled coughs, sneezes (followed always by a whispered ``Gesundheit''); and an almost churchlike softness of voices at the checkout desk, where always the librarian, Miss Rose, a spinster, would say, ``May what you take home with you today be good company,'' and the patron would respond, as if to a prayer, ``From your mouth to God's ear.'' Many of the patrons were older people, pensioners, who lived alone in old tenement buildings that had been halfheartedly renovated. Great gusts of icy air blew through these buildings, and wooden stairs that led up many flights cracked under footsteps like dead twigs and branches wrapped in frost. The rooms were cramped, spare of cheer, and with such tight fingers did the landlords control the heat that the radiators barely worked up to a tiny knocking. Flowers that winter painted on the windows bloomed, unmelted, for weeks.
No wonder it was with faces of almost childlike joy that the patrons came, every day it was open, to the library. Off went the woolen hats and scarfs, the heavy coats they'd worn against the iron cold outside, and right away they would head for the coal-burning stove that stood in a corner. There they could warm brittle fingers and chase away the cold of their rooms. And it was nice to be with others, too. The very nearness of others was a kind of warmth.
Afterward they would take a book or two from the shelves, sit down at a table near the stove, and read. These were their ``day books,'' and if they didn't finish them in one sitting they would check them out and take them home, where they became ``night books.'' For hours and hours they read in the sharp light that slanted through icicle-clustered windows. Reading, for them, was like making new friends. It helped to keep them from feeling that life was over just because they were old.
If there was anything amiss at the library, it was the matter of overdue books, the ``night books.'' Every day Miss Rose would pay an official visit to the table of an offender and whisper in his ear that his fine -- she levied one of a nickel a day for each book -- was growing. And the offender, perhaps an old man whose sheepishness looked up at her out of eyes the color of worn pennies, would give her the tired smile of one who has wrestled with his faults all his life, and whisper back, ``Soon. Soon.''
I remember one dark day with the slightly ashen foretaste of snow in the air. All the patrons were sitting near the stove, as always. These old people knew me, had greeted me with looks of kindly approval when I came to the library early, before school, and then came back after. I was ``the little Jonah who swallowed the whale, instead of vice versa,'' a tribute to my reading of ``Moby Dick'' in one week-long gulp.
This was the day I had come to say goodbye to everyone. My family was moving all the way from the East to the West Coast, where my father had gotten a new job. Soon the bigness of America would be between me and the old library.
Going up to the checkout desk when she wasn't busy, I whispered to Miss Rose, ``Am I all paid up on my fines? My family's leaving Brooklyn this week. We're going out West, where it's all uncivilized and primitive. I just wanted to say goodbye.''
Miss Rose smiled at me sadly and caressed my cheek with her hand. ``You're all paid up,'' she whispered. ``And it won't be so bad out West, don't worry. They have libraries there, too.'' Then she did something completely unprecedented. Speaking in a voice distinctly above a whisper, she said to the patrons, ``David's leaving us. His family's moving West.''
All the patrons stood up. It was as if the breaking of the silence meant that something momentous was taking place in the library, something they should stand up in honor of. I smiled at them, and then looked around at the stove-warmed chairs and tables and books, and in that moment I realized why I loved it there so much, and why I hated to leave. It was a place where lives weren't wasted. The illustrious writers of old had their earthly hereafter in the books there; the living ones had theirs here and now. Old people found warmth, company, purpose. And a boy learned that his imagination was bigger than a whale.
Before I left, the patrons, seeing it was all right with Miss Rose, gathered around me and made their goodbyes. Some clasped me by the shoulders and gave a squeeze, as if to set me firmly in my childhood; others shook my hand, as if to hasten my manhood. Some had a piece of advice, of wisdom:
And all, with their eyes, asked me, ``Don't forget us.''