I grew up in the projects, and there were two rules in my home that I learned real fast: Number 1: It wasn’t okay to ask my parents to buy me anything. Number 2: It wasn’t okay to leave the apartment. However, I was an only child with a lot of time to watch television and develop a lot of wants. Like I wanted to be a member of the children’s book club advertised on television. I wasn’t old enough for school and couldn’t read but, like the kids on the commercial, I wanted to open books and have animals pop out or find myself in a castle. This was pre-Amazon.com so the point-and-click system of book ordering was not so fancy: It was me pointing at the television and urging my mother “Call now!” every time the commercial came on. My relentlessness broke my mother, and house rule Number 1 was broken with a series of clicks: the rotary phone when my mother finally called, the peephole cover when the salesman knocked, the three deadbolts unlatched to allow him into our apartment, and his carrying case, opened to reveal the books.
They were glossy with thick pages and just a sample of what could arrive like the wonders of Three Kings Day – but every month! Because my infanta eyes beheld them, I claimed those books mine. What did I care of the try-at-no-risk terms, or that the salesman would return if we were not 100% satisfied? I sat with my book, poked my hungry fingers through the caterpillar’s feast, and felt sated. My parents, though, had no intention of keeping the books, and planned to return them after the two-week trial period. They didn’t think it would be a big deal to disrupt my satisfaction. The day the salesman returned, I kept my fingers curled through the holes as my mother pulled the book from me. I didn’t care what she said, a ‘nice man’ wouldn’t steal books from a child, so I cried for the police long after the door to our apartment was shut and bolted. I wailed for so long my parents became desperate enough to break house rule Number 2, and decided I should be taken to the library.
Our complex didn’t offer much worth leaving the apartment for and, young as I was, even I knew the unshaded playground wasn’t all that. It was just asphalt and scattered metal playsets with bars that felt like curling irons in the summer time. Ravenswood Houses did, however, have a community branch of the Queens Public Library. On a fated day, my mother locked our apartment door behind us, and we embarked on the adventure. We rushed through the hallway, past the stairway entrances because, like on television game shows, there was always a surprise behind closed doors. In the occupied elevator, my mother clutched me as tightly as she did her purse. The men on the benches outside our building greeted my mother as affectionately as I did by calling her “Mami.” I’d lost feeling in the hand my mother gripped by the time we reached the library.
The library surprised me from the moment we arrived. The door wasn’t locked, and didn’t close with a penitentiary clank. Anybody could enter, and the door sighed softly shut behind us. It was just one room with age-group designated areas but to little me, it was immense. I never knew there could be so many books. The glossy ones for children faced me at my eye level, even the caterpillar book. I took my love to a bean bag chair, and my fingers feasted. My paper library card granted me permission to take my love home and return to the library to leave with him again, or so many others in my arms. I dreamed of reaching the books in the towering cases of the grown-up area the way I longed to be big and bold enough to climb to the top of the jungle gym, and see beyond the asphalt playground.
I grew bigger, my curiosities increased and became more complex, and the community library seemed to get smaller. Other branches outside of Ravenswood had better and more numerous resources. These libraries were public, too, but on my first ventures outside of my ‘hood, they didn’t feel free to me. However, my hunger was never satisfied, and I feasted on the wonders I found in books. Animals and castles never did pop from pages, but I found knowledge that led me steady and sure beyond the projects, Queens, the United States, even across a mighty river to the land of New Jersey. I returned to Ravenswood recently and visited the library. It’s still on the ground floor of building number six, and I was surprised by how small that one room is. But I grew big in that little library, and bold enough to make my world immense.