Today's episode found me at the central branch of the Los Angeles Public Library. The way to do it is ride your bike - as parking downtown will run you about $6 a crack. There is also six-dollar crack downtown, but it won't get your car parked, stolen maybe...
It felt fantastic to be back on the bike. I hadn't been on it since I was laid off. I spent Sunday lubing the machine and adjusting the brakes and derallieurs, and trusty Shadowfax was back in fighting trim. Wide streets, low surface-traffic speed, and the artificial canyons of the high-rises make imagining the trench assault on the death star unavoidable. Downtown is full of bikes, teenage Latino bike messengers on tricked-out $2000 bikes. These are beautiful machines, the two-wheeled extension of "riceboy" import car culture.
The Central Branch is an amazing building. It's tucked across the street from Library Tower, the tallest building in Southern California. When you see a helicopter shot of Los Angeles, the tallest tower, crowned with green-white lights, is Library Tower. The Central Branch is hidden between all these giants, a groundling surrounded by Arco, KPMG, and PacBell. Constructed in the 30's in a "high civic fantasy" style, it's a warm yellow block of sculpted concrete, topped with a pyramid of blue glazed tile. The North Stairs into the library are footed with ceramic inlays of quotes from different languages - 100's of them. Spanish, Thai, Esperanto(!), mathematical notation, the value of Pi... it goes on for some distance, leading you through a surprisingly green and cool garden square.
Of course, this is a public building in the downtown of a major US city. Armed guards stand just inside the doors. The homeless and nearly homeless are snoozing in overstuffed leather reading chairs. But it's air conditioned, delightfully so. If I was homeless, this is where I'd be.
The collection is huge, as big as a major university library. The way they kept the old building while expanding to contain the modern collection was to build down. There is a massive atrium that leads down 5 stories, in a cascade of escalators. I head down to the lowest level, on impulse. I'm not looking for anything in particular - just wanted to go to the library. I can't check anything out, as I discover I have lost 3 books, among them a biography of Fidel Castro.
And this is where the excitement begins, innocently and mundanely enough. I wander the stacks, a great thing! I hadn't done it since grad school. There is nothing like it, feeling the weight of all that compressed thinking around you, letting the text pop off the spines and you crazy-8 your way through the shelves. Emergency Navigation - grab it! Brain of the Firm - grab it! Scott of the Antarctic - grab it!
I find the map area. There's an old transit map of the LA "red car" system. I discover that an electric trolley used to run up my hill, to within a block of my house! Sometimes I get a feeling LA could have been a paradise, and somehow took a horrible, if interesting, wrong turn. As I'm looking at the map, I notice an old composition book on the map table. I look around for the owner, and peek inside for some contact information. What I find is a journal written by a suicidally depressed catholic woman. It details her dietary problems, suicidal fantasies, catholic study groups and acting classes. One whole page is dedicated to a quote from Fidel Castro...
"History will forgive us."
This is synchronicity number 1. Then the phone rings at the librarian desk, and the reference librarian starts to take down a request to hardcopy a microfiche article from 1898 on the Fram. The Fram (which means 'forward!' in Norwegian) was the ice ship that Fritjof Nansen used in this 1890's bid to reach the North Pole. He later loaned the ship to fellow Norseman Roald Amundsen. Amundsen was the first man to the South Pole, beating Britisher Robert Falcon Scott, whose biography I held in my hand at that very moment. Synchronicity number 2.
I took this as a sign. I gave the library the journal for their lost and found, and rode home.