The Castle On The Hill

for the great chaperones of
public libraries everywhere 


In Derrydowns Park, a ravine nestled between a quiet middle-class neighbourhood on one side and government-subsidized row houses on the other, Toronto’s Black Creek lives up to its name: in the deepest parts, it is inky and ominously still. It was in this ravine that the boys and I from the projects first experimented with—then sold—bona fide Jamaican ganja; where we skewered live frogs over the fire pit; and where we each paid a quarter to the impossibly good-looking Edgar Hernandez to let us watch him have sex (“latino-style, boys”) on our side of the bridge with his blond-and-blue-eyed conquests from the other side. A place where, even as we amused ourselves in its shadow every day, York Woods Library was as foreign to us as the Taj Mahal.
York Woods was then, as it is now, the only public library in the Jane-Finch corridor, and a five-minute walk from where my life, over the course of my youth, unraveled. The choices back were simple: settle into a life of crime or get an education. Throughout middle school, I dashed between the two like an exhausted envoy trying to keep an uneasy truce between rival gangs. There was Jonathan Ftorek, the brainy Slovakian kid who gave me math lessons in his basement while his parents smashed plates against the walls and assaulted each other above us. He dreamed of a life in the Armed Forces to escape the combat zone that he called his home. Then there was Ajay Walker, the Born Again Christian drug dealer, who stocked empty cupboards and freezers with food when families groaned about late government cheques. It would not be until Ajay’s life came to a mysterious end during a drug deal gone to hell that I considered his life anything but heroic.
I was fourteen when I ventured into York Woods for the first time. That summer, down in the ravine, a girl I had a crush on let me fondle her tennis ball-sized breasts with my trembling hands. She hinted at unrestricted access if I procured a copy of Michael Jackson’s Thriller album for her. Without the money to buy one, my friends suggested stealing it from the library. So, with a plastic Price Chopper bag in my hand, I pushed through the heavy glass front doors and approached the desk. A woman with disarming brown eyes and thin lips glanced at my empty bag, then offered a wry smile. I told her that I wanted to listen to some music, so she led me to the audio-video section where, with exaggerated dismay, she announced that someone had signed out the only copy of Thriller. She then directed me to a book about popular music that might be of interest, and so, resigning myself to a loveless fate, I followed her to the second floor. We walked past shelves crammed with books. I had never seen so many books in one place before and an all-too familiar feeling came over me: the library was, like the projects, a place where I felt distinctly like an outsider.
She pulled a book from the shelf. In it were unfamiliar photographs of men and women—Miles Davis, Nina Simone, Bob Dylan, Billie Holiday, Joni Mitchell—whom I would later come to worship. We returned downstairs and she issued me a library card. I read the book as I walked home, and from the opening page I could feel the grip of the seductress with the tiny breasts loosening her hold on me. For the first of many times, a book became the perfect salve for a broken heart.
I went to the library almost every day after that, staying as long as I could to avoid being pulled into the vortex of delinquent pursuits and the emotional, often violent, uncertainties at home. I finished I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings while congregants mulled around the parking lot of the Baptist church across from the library entrance. I recall involuntary gasps like I was about to be jerked underwater each time this black girl’s life rural in Arkansas mirrored my own, the eldest son of Korean immigrants living in Canada. I read Alice In Wonderland on a tangerine-coloured couch at the west end of the library, occasionally stopping to daydream of my own encounter with a waist-coated white rabbit down in the ravine. I stumbled upon the Canadian classics Anne Of Green Gables and Who Has Seen The Wind and wondered if it was possible that Anne Shirley, Brian O’Connal, and I, were all from the same world, never mind the same country. In a cubicle by the fire exit, raw passages from Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing were seared into my memory, passages that prompted me to think about my own quest for a missing father figure, a man who had abandoned our family soon after we moved into the projects, and who I would not “find” again until, years later, his illness and my forgiveness merged into one sentiment. And upstairs, I hung around the Poetry and Philosophy sections, assuming a posture of world-weariness because pale girls from the university, wearing knitted berets and melancholy expressions, sat in the aisles reading books by Leonard Cohen and Irving Layton. I leafed through work I would not truly understand until life’s mounting losses began to metamorphose into reflection: Rilke, Akhmatova, Nietzsche, Camus. It was a magical time, when books were less about following the rules of grammar than they were acts of resistance and prophecy—written oracles held up like x-rays to illuminate what I could not see and, often, what I did not want to see within myself. That this time gave me proximity to sad, beautiful women was an added bonus.
And yet it was not only for the books that I went, but the theatre, tucked away in the north-east corner of the building. Here I saw my very first professional play, about a curious boy who explores various planets, including ours, to cure himself of his loneliness. The library became my inter-planetary space and I imagined myself as its Little Prince. I began to feel more and more at home there and—with the help of those seemingly-ordained chaperones, the librarians,  who found secret gratification in directing me to the many doors within myself—much less alone. One of them, a woman with a shock of curly white hair and reading glasses fastened to the tip of her preposterously Gallic nose, recited fairy tales every Tuesday afternoon to school children. There was one story about a king who lived alone in a castle on a hill. It was Thanksgiving, the harvest was plentiful, and he wanted a special child to come up and dine with him at his buffet. He sent a messenger into town to go from house to house and find that special child, but to no avail. Some were too shy, others indifferent, and still others too boastful, none who were worthy of the king’s company. He almost gave up until he noticed a lame boy walking toward him on the street. The boy smiled so bravely, held his head so high, that no one would have noticed his tattered pants and the holes in his shoes. The messenger asked him, "Are you ready to feast with the King?" The little boy looked up into the messenger's face. "Yes," he said, "is there room at the table for me?" The messenger looked at him and said, "There is plenty of room at the table for you."
At York Woods, an abundant feast was displayed before me. There the indignities of poverty and the plundered hopes of childhood gave way to the promise of something richer. And although I have not returned to the library since leaving the projects for university, I have since learned that, although fairy tales were recited to children to impart life’s lessons, it was I, with my innocence and ability to wonder so eroded over the years, who has needed them the most. Once upon a time, in that library perched on top of the hill, I was taught to cultivate a less dismal reality out of my circumstances— I was guided back to my true childhood. There I was able to re-invent myself in the image of one who was worthy, one who could adjust the arc of his own life’s narrative—who had learned, at last, that he would be applauded and not reprimanded for indulging at the king’s table.

6 comments:

  1. My son's grade 3 teacher made sure every child in his class had a library card and we walked there once a week so the class could pick out books. Without Mr. Taylor and the Mimico Centennial branch, some of those kids may never have had the chance to go to the public library. Hopefully they all still have a library card. Instilling a love of reading is so important, especially in boys. Keep our public libraries strong, they define a great society.

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  2. Piece moves me more each time I read it. Lovely.

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  3. While I take issue with live frog skewering, I am 1,000% behind this post. And the way you open it, describing a childhood spent in mischief and escapism in the ravine, are pitch perfect.

    This has made me think about the library of my own youth. In a village of only 2,500 people, many of whom could not afford any other kind of entertainment, it was as central to daily life as the post office. Thanks for evoking those memories, Sang. xo

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  4. I loved reading this. I was a child immigrant and my Father instilled in me the value of the public library. My branch was Wychwood. Every Wednesday at the end of the school day my Father would wait for me at the gate. We walked together to the library where every week I would take out three books. I still have my original library card. What I loved the most about the Wychwood library was that there was a big fieldstone fireplace in it that they would actually use during the chilly months. I used to fantasize that this was my home.

    Thank you for writing this wonderful and awakening memories of my own childhood.

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  5. Sang, a poignant story, simply told.

    Libraries made our lives so much easier when we immigrated to this country in 2008.

    I wrote about it on my blog. Here's the link: http://www.generallyaboutbooks.com/2009/02/library-past-present.html

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  6. What a beautiful post! Thank you!

    I visited York Woods as part of my quest to see all 98 TPL branches and found it to be a wonderful branch: http://c-raine.com/2009/09/02/york-woods-is-library-75/

    Thank you again for such a meaningful piece!

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