I sat under the liquidambar tree beside the library, eating a salad roll. The tree was next to the library carpark and a man was sitting in the driver’s seat of a dark blue Ford, reading a library book. Rather than watch him I turned the other way so I was facing the street and the row of identical tiny brick houses across the street.
These brown brick houses face the white bricks of Riverwood library. I’m fond of the appearance of this library, its 70s brick symmetry, flat roof, series of hedges, and its letterbox (not a feature I’ve noticed at any other library). It looks both solid and inspiring, which was no doubt the aim of the architect.
At the entrance was a bronze plaque that detailed the library’s opening in 1971, as well as two other noticeboards with council information and opening hours, both of the type where little white letters are stuck to the ridged black board behind. This is my favourite kind of noticeboard, it reminds me of the rubber stamps you assemble from individual letters, and would probably be as maddening to change, with an alphabet soup of individual letters to search through. The sign for the opening hours was made up of tiles which clicked into the background:
Inside the library there were a lot of men in caps reading newspapers at the tables, as there usually is. All was as expected. The caps were for some kind of sporting team, or the kind of promotional cap one gets for free. The men were over 50, probably retired, both holding newspapers but having a vigorous conversation in Chinese. Beside the men was a surly teenage boy drinking a Dare choc milk and reading a book about World War 2, whether for school or for pleasure, I don’t know. I suspect the latter as he wasn’t in school uniform and he looked old enough to have left school. The is something unnerving about young war enthusiasts.
I heard a sound I hadn’t expected to in the library: the click clack of a sewing machine. Yes, there was a sewing machine set up in the kids area, near the bookshelf shaped like a caterpillar, and two women were sitting at it. One was giving the other a sewing lesson. Piled up on the table were plastic containers of sewing bits and pieces. The teacher leaned in to inspect her students’ work. Both were quite young, and I wondered whether the sewing lessons were a feature of the library, or a private teacher using the space. I thought of high school sewing lessons and how happy I’d felt when I could thread the machine properly, it made me feel very competant. I still feel competant, on the odd occasion I do it.
With the hum of the sewing machine in the background I looked over the non-fiction books. Riverwood is a reasonably small branch library so I’d be looking at books about self help and then books about how to play tennis, without quite having noticed the shift. I had been having one of those days on which I break my favourite teapot, bump my head on the corner of a cupboard and spill a whole container of Ecco cereal beverage on the floor (and that stuff is sticky, I tell you). Have I done these three things together before? Maybe not. But I knew the type of day well.
For guidance I picked up the book Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World by Barbara Ehrenreich. I’d read her book Nickeled and Dimed about surviving on minimum wage in America and found it pleasingly sparky, but when I opened this book to the dedication and read: “To complainers everywhere: Turn up the Volume!” the thought of living in a world loud with complaints made me shudder. Despite a habit of whinging, I complain publicly rarely, but in fact a few days earlier I’d complained at Marrickville library, in the cranky way of someone who has, for the second time, been told they can’t borrow a book because it is on hold to someone else, even though it is just sitting on the shelf (“Is that how it works,” I said, “you wait until someone wants to borrow it and get them to find it on the shelf for you?” What a grump. Sorry, librarian friends, for being one of those people.)
Her main argument in the book is that, rather than being forced to be positive, being realistic is a far more useful and healthy attitude. As I pondered this I looked across to the computers. They were fairly close by and I could see what the man closest to me was watching on youtube, “Nuba and Harley mating time”, a video of two Greater Swiss Mountain Dogs mating that has been viewed almost 3 million times. Was his interest personal or professional? I didn’t want to think about it too much.
Over at the desk a jovial conversation about hair was going on between the two men working at the library, a man borrowing books, and another man just chatting. The latter man was wearing a brown and yellow beanie and glasses with thick black frames. He’d been hanging around for a while, concerned with the ergonomics of the librarian’s desk and computer set up. This not getting much of a response he moved onto talk of the librarian’s recent haircut: “Looks a bit better but you didn’t get any on the top.” From this, a long conversation about bald patches ensued, each man rubbing their own bald patch as they spoke.
The atmosphere in Riverwood library was quite loud and jolly, with the sewing lesson, the bald patch conversation, and other sonic interruptions, such as the shuddering every time the automatic door opened. It sounded like a truck had roared past and shaken the windows, which is what I thought it was, at first, before realising it was the automatic door.
I glimpsed the computer screen again – now the man was watching a video of camels mating. I faced the situation with realism and decided I felt a bit disturbed by this, put my book back, and left through the shuddering door to the sunny afternoon outside.