After catching the train from Engadine to Cronulla I went for a stroll around the suburb, past a fantastically 80s house with ferns visible through the front window and then down towards Cronulla beach.
It was a grey day but there were still people on the beach and in the nearby park. A woman with her white hair in a beehive sat knitting a pink jumper, the handle of the lead attached to her terrier looped around one of her feet. I stepped around the discarded remains of picnics and went to the kiosk at the beach to buy a can of cola. I asked for permission to enter the kiosk from the small guardian on the steps.
I had a desire to sit staring at the ocean, sipping Diet Coke through a straw. “Do you have any straws?” I asked the woman in the kiosk. “No,” she said, surprisingly forcefully, as if she was sick of the question. I remembered talking to a man in a pub once, years ago, who was vehemently against straws, and said they did nothing but went to landfill and were completely unnecessary. Maybe this woman was of the same mind. I went and sat on a bench and looked out over the grey waves. Seagulls flew in and landed at my feet, looking hopeful. “No crumbs here,” I said, “only phenylalanine.”
After I’d finished staring at the ocean I made my way up to the road, and stepped out across the pedestrian crossing. When I was halfway across, I sensed the van approaching me was not going to stop so I waited for it to drive through the crossing. The man at the wheel looked as if he was trying to hide the fact he had seen me. My brush with death over, I looked at the van as it drove up the street and read the words on the back of it: HOME LIBRARY SERVICE.
I’d picked up a pamphlet in Engadine library, which had the addresses of other libraries in the Sutherland area. The pamphlet had come to my attention because of the absurdity of the cover graphic:
What is in it for you, human-sized cockatoo? The pamphlet listed the address of the Cronulla library as Surf St, and I was pleased to see I was on the corner of Surf St. It was a short street, and by the time I reached the end I’d noticed no library, so I carefully walked down it again. I didn’t find the library, but I did find the Old Library Restaurant, bar, and “social”:
Ah, the future! I thought, peering in the windows. There were no books in there, just restaurant tables. What with my encounter with the home library van and this new setback, I wasn’t feeling hopeful about my Cronulla experience.
The Cronulla library has relocated to the Cronulla Central shopping centre, which you can access off the mall, although I walked the long way round past the vast carpark. The sign pointed to all the necessities of life:
All that is missing is a gravestone at the end.
While I’m no fan of shopping malls, I have to admit they are a good place to locate libraries, as they are where people tend to congregate. The library entrance is a surprise among the cream surfaces of the shopping centre.
The tables near the entrance were busy with people reading magazines and drinking coffee bought from “Cream”, the tiny hole in the wall cafe at the end of the room. A television was on, which seemed a bit ridiculous as no one was watching it. Like in an airport, the sound was down and the captions on. The show was an English drama set around a high school, with dialogue such as “We’re going to be in deep trouble if our A-levels go tits-up”. I watched as, above the library patrons’ heads, a drama involving a schoolboy with a large bunch of “I love you” balloons played out.
I had sat down at one of the tables, next to a guy and a girl who were working on laptops and chatting. The syrupy scent of Red Bull floated over from the open cans they had beside them. The boy had a big, ugly pirate ship tattooed on his upper arm, designed in such a way so it looked as if it was about sail out and attack. As they discussed the difficulty of the assignment they were working on I wondered at how they could concentrate with the cafe noise going on. The coffee machine was working at a thunderous volume. The cafe was more appealing than the coffee machines that are at some libraries, such as Auburn with its “beverage with the taste of soup” option.
On the other side of me was an old man reading a copy of The Leader, the local paper, as the woman who was looking after him told him there was still an hour and a half to go before his appointment. Would he like to look at some picture of Chloe? Oh, that would be interesting he said, but then was confused by the fact they had to go to a computer to do this. They set off to book a computer and I got up too, to look at the library.
In among the shelves were woven seats resembling sea urchins. They were arranged in clusters all through the library. A few people sat on these, reading, but the desks along the side of the room were more popular. Here people sat working on laptops and leaning over notebooks.
Astute observers will have noticed in the above photograph that the carpet is alphabet themed. Among the jumble of letters, the red ones spell “Cronulla”.
I browsed the non-fiction section for a while, with no particular aim. I flicked through 1001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die concentrating like I was choosing a tarot card. The song that I opened at was “Wood Beez (Pray like Aretha Franklin)” by Scritti Politti. Is my life really the poorer because I haven’t heard this song?
In another area I found myself looking at books about memory. I took “Memo” by Oddbjorn By off the shelf just because I was curious what someone with that name might look like. He is a World Memory Champion and the back of his book had this amusing graphic:
The next book I noticed on the shelves had a designer who had been similarly inspired by domestic life:
The library barcode obscures it, but the title is What’s Wrong with Eating People?
The book I chose to look at from this section was Total Recall: How the e-memory revolution will change everything by a duo of ardent Microsoft employees. In this book they write a lot about technologies to enable you to remember everything you have ever done. While this is an interesting idea, the book suffers from its tone of unimpeded optimism. What about things people don’t want to remember, for example? Well, they say that having photographic records of everything that has happened to you could be useful if you are a woman who has been raped, as you can show the images in court. This is perhaps not the example I would have chosen if I was them. One of the authors wore a device called a “sensecam”, which he wore around his neck for a period of time and it recorded photographs at short intervals, thereby creating a visual record of everything he did. An example he gave for why this would be great was that a guy could show the first time he met his girlfriend, without knowing at the time, of course, that she’d become his girlfriend. While I would be interested to see spy camera footage of me meeting my partner for the first time, I can also just remember it – I can “see” it in my memory. Would anyone else in the world be that interested in seeing those images? I don’t think so. The Sensecam is a step towards a completely solipsistic existence.
Perhaps I felt a bit adversarial towards this book because I have read similar ideas before, in the concept of the “Lifebox” by Rudy Rucker, a science fiction writer, mathematician, and all round interesting human being. I liked that the Lifebox asks you questions in order to construct the story of your life, so you are active in the process, rather than just wearing a camera. In his book The Lifebox, the Seashell and the Soul, Rudy Rucker combines his ideas with illustrative cartoons. I like the mixture of complex technologies combined with sketchy drawings: in this scene, kids enjoy asking rude questions of one of their long-dead relatives, whose memories persist in a Lifebox.
The next book on my pile was History’s Worst Inventions and the People Who Made Them. On the front was a drawing of a square-wheeled bicycle, and I though it was going to be like the books of Victorian and Edwardian inventions I’d seen around, which have strange, strange home inventions in them. Instead it takes a broader approach, and has chapters such as “The Discovery of LSD” (is it really one of the world’s worst inventions?), and plenty of war-related things. I wouldn’t argue that a landmine was a “bad” invention, looking at it morally, although in the sense of being successful, they are not bad at all. Other entries were more lighthearted, such as Crinolines and Zeppelins. For each entry there was a rating of why it was a bad invention:
The perils of the Crinoline, for example, included their flammability, the fact they swept ornaments off tables when women walked through cluttered rooms, and they could get caught in factory machinery. I liked reading about the failed pneumatic railways but didn’t agree that karaoke should have been included in the book for “crimes against music”.
I was reading the books near the row of computers and the front desk. From here I could see the librarians gather and disperse as they worked, and at some point I noticed that they all had similar hair, the same cut but different colours. I paid most attention when I overheard a man come up to the desk and announce “I have some minor, inconsequential information,” to the librarian with the blondest version of the hairdo.
His information was about the book Playing for Pizza by John Grisham. The book was marked with a detective fiction sticker, according to the key:
“It is not a detective story,” the man said. “It is a slightly black romantic comedy, not a detective story at all.” I wondered if he had borrowed it and was disgusted at finding it too romantic.
The librarian thanked him for his comments but said that this was “outsourced”, and so the library couldn’t change it unless it was a major problem, such as it being an adult novel classified under children’s fiction. Outsourced? I wonder at this factory where people put stickers on books.
For some light entertainment I looked at Extreme Face Painting. Use this book carefully, your children may not thank you.
A smash rang out and everyone looked up from what they were doing in the direction of the cafe. A glass had fallen off the counter, smashed on the floor, and time had stopped in the way it always does when a glass smashes. A moment later, seeing there was no crisis, everyone settled back into what they were doing.
I could see the old man and the woman who had been at the tables when I came in looking at pictures of Chloe, who, to my surprise, seemed to be a dingo. Also at the computers was a girl in a school uniform looking up information about Hiroshima. A black mini-hat was sitting perkily on her head. Near her sat a man reading a job ad for Mad Mex.
A lot of people were browsing the library shelves. One woman had been in the library as long as me, and was sitting cross legged on the floor, examining a book. This is my kind of style too, though sometimes I wonder if I am too old to look normal sitting on the floor cross-legged. A man strolled past me, shoeless, holding a can of Coke, like he was at the beach.
Distracted from my books I went for a final trip around the library. I hadn’t sat on one of the sea urchin chairs yet so when I found 500 Cameras: 170 Years of photographic innovation by Todd Gustavson I took the book over to one of them and browsed through it. I didn’t find the sea urchin chair very comfortable, but I was distracted by the cameras. I realised that a book that has the pictures and stories of 500 cameras in it is my kind of book.
I put the book back and again walked past the man who I had noticed earlier, watching Korean tv on his laptop. Earlier he had been watching a man playing hacky sack with pom poms made out of tinsel, and now there was a billiard table with the balls inside champagne glasses arranged on it. The object of the game seemed to be to hit a white ball around the glasses and not knock any over. It was curious, but I didn’t want to stare so moved away.
I could hear a woman talking to one of the library staff, who was showing her something on the shelves.
“Did you have a fire here?” she asked.
“Yes, back in September,” the librarian said.
“Gee, you’ve done well,” the woman replied.
The fire was perhaps the reason why the return chute at Engadine has been locked, as the Cronulla library fire was apparently caused by someone throwing a lit item into the book return chute. Curse these vandals!