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Genius Loci: Citizen of the Stacks

One of the conditions of early childhood is that you must ask for nearly everything that you want. Some objects are out of reach — the ice pops in the freezer —  and permission is a constant requirement. Can I play outside? Can I watch TV? Can I have a glass of water?

And there was always the risk of No, and the disappointment, frustration, shame, and longing that accompanied rejection.

The one place I didn’t have to ask for permission was in the children’s wing at the Ames Free Library. I earned the right to a library card in the first grade by proving I could form the letters to my first and last name on the application. The librarian led me to the picture-book corner where the shelves were my height. There on the red leather bench under the picture window, I found my answers to questions about life and eased my loneliness. I had many questions as a child and not enough people available to answer them.

I was lonely for all the usual reasons that children are lonely and because I had recently lost the company of my extended family. When my family immigrated to the US from the Philippines, we left our family compound where we lived among dozens of cousins, aunts, and uncles inside a walled perimeter on the same plot of land. I had lost a country, too.

In America, we inhabited various roach-infested apartments in Chicago and Boston. By the time we landed in a house in North Easton, Massachusetts, when I was seven, I had lived in as many different places as years I’d been alive. The buildings in town looked like castles. I found out later that five were designed by the same architect, H.H. Richardson. One of these buildings, the Ames Free Library, was commissioned in 1877, a few years after Richardson designed Trinity Church in Boston.

The library was a gift from the Ames family, who made their fortune manufacturing shovels, and I accepted this gift every week. As my mother waited parked out front, I climbed the long walkway to the library’s entrance, a low arch trimmed in Longmeadow sandstone, the wooden doors hidden to the left of the entrance on the porch. Later, I learned about the Chinese men who dug the railroad using those Ames shovels. But as a child, all I cared about was getting my books.

I pushed through the dark doors into the library. It was as quiet as a church and just as mysterious. The one toilet in the cellar required a skeleton key and a walk down a narrow spiral staircase, where you were met with the ghostly marble bust of the library’s benefactor, Oliver Ames II. Only library staff was allowed to fetch the books from the balcony under the barrel-vaulted ceiling.

My library card was a house key to my true home. Well before I was actually an adult, I was allowed to cross the border into the adult section. When I searched the wooden card catalog, I would always go to the drawer with 959.9 of the Dewey Decimal System and read the name of the place I had come from, which no one had ever heard of.

The summer before I entered college, I worked as a clerk in the library and sat at the glass-topped desk dreaming of who I would become. All that time, I had never thought about all the people who had written the books on the library shelves. The adults I knew were doctors, nurses, teachers, and housewives. And yet, almost a quarter century later, I became a writer. I found stories in that Richardson building early in my life and never stopped looking for more.