A couple of weeks ago I was in the basement of the Science and Engineering Library at the University of Minnesota getting a little writing in before work. It’s a good spot — there’s a nice coffee shop, nothing in the stacks is intelligible to me on that floor so I’m not distracted, and it’s quiet and out of the hordes of university traffic. Only those looking for serious quiet go all the way down in the basement.
When I was done with my jolt of creativity caffeine, I packed up to head out. As I walked through the library’s security gate, I set off the alarm. I turned around and looked at the sleepy scruffly young man at the check-out desk. He looked as surprised as I did.
“I didn’t even go into the stacks this morning….” I said.
“Huh,” he said.
“Can I just go through then?” I asked.
“Well…I’m supposed to look in your bag.” He grimaced.
“Okay,” I said, heaving my giant bag up on the counter in front of him. He peeked in. Didn’t even touch it. Clearly, this was not something he did often.
“Would you like me to pull stuff out?” I asked.
“Yeah, sure.” So I pulled out the detritus that is my commuting bag — a couple of folders and notebooks, my knitting, sunglasses, The Horn Book magazine and two small books, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a bag of markers and colored pencils, the pouch of meds/lipstick/emergency supplies, some hand lotion, my wallet and phone, a pair of socks, the granola bar I couldn’t find the day before, my water bottle, lots of Kleenex and ticket stubs, and the program from my daughter’s band concert the night before. I threw out a couple of receipts while I was at it, and tidied the collection of post-it notes and recipe cards etc. while he stared at the pile. He looked to be completely overwhelmed.
“I can live on the streets for three weeks out of this bag,” I said.
“Wow,” he said.
“I’m kidding,” I said.
He looked at me nervously and then ran his hand half-heartedly over the paper items and picked up one of the books. The Wild Flag by E.B. White. (I wrote about it in Red Reading Boots a few weeks ago.) It’s the perfect size to slip into a purse and I’ve been carrying it around since I purchased it this summer. It’s also a pleasure to hold — worn, but solid linen-esque cover, comfortable size and shape etc.
“What’s this?” he asked, turning it over in his hands. He even sounded suspicious.
“It’s called The Wild Flag,” I said. “I purchased it in an antique store in Stonington, Maine this summer. The receipt is serving as a bookmark, I believe.” He pulled out the receipt, glanced at it, and then stuck it in somewhere else. Not that it matters. You can open this book up to most any page and start reading. It’s a collection of editorials.
“Who’s it by?” he asked.
“Is that the dude that wrote Charlotte’s Web?” he asked, looking suddenly awake.
“The very dude,” I said.
“My Mom read that to me a bunch of times when I was little.” He smiled. “I loved the rat.”
“Templeton,” I said.
“Yeah, Templeton!” He handed me the book back.
“So, may I repack my bag?”
“Sure!” he said. “You have a lot of stuff. But I know you didn’t find that book down here.”
Wherever this man-child’s mother is — she should be proud. He woke up early one morning and remembered Templeton all these years later. That’s the power of reading to a child.