The Unexpected Treasure of the Public Library

I’m feeling overwhelmed by some family stuff today, so I thought I would spend some time thinking about a happier, easier time in my life when my oldest brother introduced me to the Nashua Public Library. I want to note that while this post is based on actual events, there will be some dramatization as I only really remember the broad strokes. Any similarity to persons, real or imagined, is intentional but may not be 100% accurate. Nashua, NH, is a real place, but has changed quite a bit since I was there. It’s still about an hour north of Boston, MA.

This post includes references to bicycles and libraries. And books, I guess. And a river. The Nashua River, to be exact. And a bridge across that river. Neither the river nor the bridge are major players here, but details help flesh things out, yeah?

Note to self: Stop rambling and get to the damn story.

Right.

O, Brother

My oldest brother, Gerry, played lots of roles in my life growing up. He taught me a lot of things, including how to throw a baseball and football (not at the same time), how to play basketball, how to ice skate, how to play several card games, etc. He was sometimes my guardian (not in a legal capacity) when he took me on bike rides and also lots of fishing trips. He was often my tormentor as well, but this is a happy post, so we’ll leave that alone for now.

The adventure begins

I forget how old I was, maybe 6 or something like that. But one day, Gerry came to me and said, “Let’s go for a bike ride. I want to show you something.” Being the youngest of three boys, I was always eager when either of my brothers wanted to spend time with me.

Gerry and I got on our bikes and rode down our street, Chandler Street, to where it ended at a t-intersection with Canal Street right across from the Sanders building (big defense contractor, I think). I use “down” both in the colloquial sense of heading in a southerly direction and the fact that Chandler Street had two significant hills. The neighborhood was, and still is, referred to as French Hill. We lived partway up the northern hill on Chandler Street so the first chunk of our journey was downhill quite a bit.

We banged a right on Canal Street, eventually riding past the apartment building my mom and I would eventually move to when we lost our house to foreclosure in my teens (not going into this right now; happy post, remember?), until we came to Main Street and hooked a left.

A quick terminology note

In Nashua, there was no turning. No one turned. It simply wasn’t done. Whether you were in a car, on a motorcycle, on a bike, on a Big Wheel, or even just plain walking, if you changed course in a right-hand direction, you “banged a right.” If you changed course in a left-hand direction, you “hooked a left.”

The grammarian/writer in me wonders why one needed to even specify the directions at all since the words “bang” and “hook” are already different. But I was not consulted at the time. And I’m not sure if this linguistic idiosyncrasy is still in place in Nashua since I have lived in Minnesota for over 20 years. Just trying to keep it real.

The adventure continues

Main Street heading south took us over the Nashua River across the Main St. Bridge. Apparently, city planners were not rewarded for creativity. After a few blocks, we then hooked another left and headed up the hill on Park Street, a process that required me to get off my bike and walk it since I didn’t have the pedal power to make it all the way up; and the zig zagging up a hill that increases distance but allows for a shallower angle of descent was not an option as we were limited to using the sidewalk.

Arrival

At the top of the hill, I was out of breath, tired, and thirsty AF as this was a pretty long ride for me at the time (a little under 1 mile). But when Gerry brought his bike over to the rack, and motioned for me to do the same, locking them together, I figured we were close to what he wanted to show me.

The main entrance to the library had these tall, heavy doors, as I remember. In my memory they a dark metal or perhaps wood. Recent pictures I can find online today show glass front doors but I don’t know if my memory is mistaken or if the library just has the wrong goddam doors and they need to fix it. There’s just no way to know.

A new world of treasures

As Gerry led me into the library, there was this smell that I can’t forget. Oddly enough, it smelled like books. Like when you open a book that may not have been opened for a while and there is a kind of sweetness to it. It smells so inviting. I still get hints of this smell when I go into libraries today, but not nearly as strongly.

The main desk was right in front of us, a large wooden countertop that went on and on in both directions. Behind that counter were the library staff helping patrons check out and return books, answering questions, and many other duties. Checking out books required one of those hand stamps, because this was back before libraries, at least this one, were digitized. It was magical.

Off to the left was the card catalog: rows and rows of little drawers of index cards, each corresponding to a volume in the library. It was still based on the Dewey Decimal System, as I recall. I had not learned that system yet, though. I also had not learned what a total fucking asshole Dewey himself was. I’ll let you look that stuff up on your own. Again, this is supposed to be a happy post.

Off to the right, as I recall was the multimedia section containing racks of vinyl records and albums with headphones for listening. No computers, for sure. This was the early 1980s after all.

Wrong treasures, dude

As I marveled at these new-to-me surroundings, I realized that Gerry was repeating my name with gradually increasing volume, trying to recapture my attention. He had banged a sharp right immediately upon entering the library and I had missed it. There was an alcove there. He gestured to have me join him. He leaned down toward the wall as I approached, but stood tall once I reached him, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, and an air of absolute contentment.

Gerry had brought me on this journey to share with me a treasure. That I may know of it. That I may share in its wonder. That I may pass on this knowledge to those I deem worthy. There was a small stepstool next to it, which Gerry pulled into place with his foot. Without it, due to my size, the treasure would have been quite literally beyond my reach.

I stepped up onto the stool and leaned forward. Gerry pressed the button on the right of this magical device and the most delicious, ice-cold water hit my lips. Like the smell of the library, the water had a hint of sweetness to it (I don’t want to think about what that was). I drank and drank; the smell of the books forgotten; the soft thuds of the hand stamps behind the desk forgotten.

“Remember this bubblah,” he said, as though passing on the greatest wisdom. This device, if you have not gleaned via context clues, is known in most places, I believe, as a water fountain or a drinking fountain. But in Nashua and the surrounding area, they were known as bubblers, or, more properly pronounced, “bubblahs.” There was one on the other side of the doors, that you could reach by hooking a left as you entered the library instead of banging a right. He motioned across to that left one, “That one sucks. THIS one is always like this: ice-cold.”

The journey home

When we were both satisfied, he led me back outside without even a glance at the books or any other vessels of knowledge the Nashua Public Library kept preserved within its walls. ANYONE could go there and get books and stuff. But our purpose was life itself.

As we biked home, I felt like I was changed. A new person; one equipped with the location of the finest drinking water known to humankind.

Riding a bike down Chandler Street is glorious. Up, on the other hand, is fucking awful.

Epilogue

Throughout my childhood, I went back to the library many times. Each time, I banged a hard right on the way in and drank from that glorious bubblah. There were even times when I went to the library and there were books involved.

I haven’t been back to the Nashua Public Library in decades. And even if I did, I don’t think I would have the courage to drink from that bubblah. The idea of drinking from a public water fountain today makes me feel ill. I think it’s one of those “remember when we were kids and used to do this and OMG how did we not die” kind of things. Lawn Darts. Driving around in the back of my dad’s van on folding lawn chairs.

But I enjoyed that bubblah while I could. And Gerry was right. It was always ice-cold.