As the day’s crazy news — rising COVID-19 cases, veto overrides and not, racism, community violence — started to overwhelm my thoughts, I sought an escape. Walking alone is currently my most satisfying means of coping as my new-fangled wristwatch keeps an account of each step in my fat-sole sneakers.
Things changed though, on Wednesday, when I chose an old venue to decompress, one that I visited a lot pre-pandemic: A library. This time I walked into the East Baton Rouge Parish Library on Goodwood Boulevard.
I went to a reference desk and was greeted by an exceptionally nice woman. I asked about the possibility of checking out a book I really wanted. Sadly, all four copies were out, she explained, so I had to put my name on a waitlist.
She looked at me, and asked, “Are you Pratt the reporter?” I was stunned. “I’m one of your fans.” Well, I’m not really a reporter, but I played one for over 20 years, a long time ago.
Her acknowledging me made me think: “Hey Mah Mah, (my late grandmother) there are people who know your little boy’s name.”
Her identification and my escaping into the library again brought back memories of the first library I ever visited, the Carver Branch Library on East Boulevard in old South Baton Rouge. It was squeezed between a shoe store and a laundromat. There was a bar, barbershop, hardware store and grocery store on the same block. Think about that.
The woman that managed that library didn’t know my name, but she knew my face. I was “Hey, little boy” who would stop in on hot summer days to enjoy the air-conditioned room, lay on the cool tile floors, start reading and fall asleep.
After a while, she would offer me cookies, a soft drink and a couple of books in the back of the library away from the other visitors. I guess she couldn't have other folks seeing me asleep on the floor. After a while, though, she started bringing me tougher books to read.
I was, “Hey, little boy.”
I usually checked out two books, walked the back way home because holding the books was not cool. Once home, there were five books in the house. One old book with which my cousins taught me to read with before I started school, my Bible and my grandmother’s Bible. My grandmother couldn’t read so I would read her fancy Bible, as much as I could, to her.
Libraries have always been my island, my place away from people, hard times and sometimes reality. I could read books about places I could never go and about things I believed were never meant for me. With the right books, I could dream it.
Like that great philosopher Dr. Seuss said: “The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.”
Books let me feel like that late spring day when you put down the umbrella and let the cool droplets fall all over you, a metaphor for those incredible words providing excitement as they washed over me.
Last Wednesday, I realized how much I missed it. I had not been in a library since the first breath of the pandemic. I walked around the sea of books and warm lights like I was re-introducing myself to a long-lost friend.
I laughed at a section labeled “New Large Print.” I know it has been there, but as I have now reached three score and seven years old, it finally caught my attention. One of the titles, “Death by Chocolate Snickerdoodle,” struck me as odd. I have no interest in reading it, though, because I know it will make me gain weight.
I was rejuvenated as I exited the library. But it struck me that I wanted to know the name of the nice lady that helped me. So I went right back up to her second-floor desk.
Her name was Paula and she recognized my name. To that first librarian, so long ago, I was “Hey, little boy.” I really wish I had asked her name.
Email Edward Pratt, a former newspaperman, at email@example.com.