“Library Girls of New York: A Secret Place”
Author: Carolyn Rhodes
Publisher: Borgo Publishing
Price: $15.99 (Paper)
The millionaire industrialist Andrew Carnegie believed deeply in philanthropy. He was famous for giving a dime to anyone who asked, which sounds cheap, but isn’t really. Most millionaires did not want to be bothered.
Carnegie believed “Surplus wealth is a sacred trust which its possessor is bound to administer in his lifetime for the good of the community.” During the last 18 years of his life he gave away 350 million dollars, about 65 billion in today’s money. He is in this sense a forefather of Bill and Melinda Gates and other generous billionaires of today.
Since Carnegie also believed that one should spend the first third of one’s life acquiring an education, he especially like to endow and build libraries. Carnegie built some 3,000 libraries, in America, Canada and elsewhere around the world.
Of these, 65 were built in New York City and at first, 30 of these had apartments for the custodian and his family to live in.
Carolyn Rhodes’ father was one of these custodians. In this, her memoir of an unusual childhood, she tells how this was actually a 24/7 job. Every morning, early, her father stoked up the coal furnace so the building was warm for the librarians and first patrons when it opened at 9:00.
For their inhabitants, the buildings were not just warm; they were elegant. Carnegie favored the beaux-art style and hired fine architects. Besides living in beautiful surroundings, Carolyn and her two older sisters could use the library after closing hours and on Sunday to finish up schoolwork they still needed to do.
Over time Carolyn lived in three libraries—two in Manhattan and the third on Staten Island.
“Library Girls” is about life in these libraries but it is also her life story. We learn how she and her sisters played in the parks, went to schools and church, took first communion, had girlfriends and first boyfriends, and how she loved being a cheerleader at Curtis High.
But all this is told too quickly. Rhodes seems to be summarizing her life, as if in a hurry. And haste may have caused her to attribute “We have nothing to fear but fear itself” to Teddy Roosevelt and to misspell Esther Williams.
Scenes need to be fleshed out. We are told her 6th grade teacher, Miss B, was a tyrant; the students feared her. She ranted. But there are no details given. What did Miss B do or say?
Carolyn attends catechism class, where, compared to Miss B., “the cranky nuns were easier to get along with, even though some were very strict and showed us no mercy if we dared get out of line, like laughing and having fun seemed off limits. A handy ruler sat on the nun’s desk ready to smack any face showing signs of life.”
In a more developed scene, Carl Sandburg sings and recites to a group of schoolchildren. Rhodes remembers it well, quotes Sandburg, and the scene is a success.
After high school Rhodes lived a while in the Haight-Ashbury District of San Francisco, during a 60’s hippie stage. She trusted a cute stranger she met at a laundromat (he had a big, sweet, shaggy dog), but, after consuming “brownies laced with mind altering drugs and …pills sprinkled on top,” she lost a few days. It’s not fair to expect people to remember the 60’s.
Later Rhodes traveled in Europe and worked in New York theatre as a dancer and choreographer, including one show that featured Renaissance and Medieval musical instruments such as “sackbuts, zinks, [and] krumhorns” as well as lutes and bells.
As with several other segments, there was more to say. I would be happy to hear it.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.