My Life in Public Housing

My Life in Public Housing

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I grew up in a rough housing project. I don't think we had a tv at the time. There was nothing like a local swimming pool, or organized sports. Kids were just let out of school to spend the summer roaming in packs. If we wanted to play baseball, we would flatten the tall weeds in the field behind the project. When I was about 12, bored and fidgety as the summer wore on, I was allowed to walk the four miles to the nearest public library, built during the Civil War and looking very Southern and classical with its huge porch and Corinthian columns. I remember the screech of its long screen door, the damp cool air as one stepped inside, the musty smell of the books, and the small, round woman at her desk facing the doors.


At first, she was skeptical. But it turned out that the only people from our project who had taken out books before were my older sisters, and they had returned them, so I was allowed to take out one, me, a sweaty little boy, but just one book, as an experiment. Michener's Tales of the South Pacific was the book that struck me that first summer of reading, opening up a world beyond my tiny world. I was deliriously excited by my adventures in the South Pacific, but when I returned the book two days later, the librarian thought I hadn't read it.


"Didn't you like it?" she asked. And then I started to tell her about it.


Soon I could take out six books at a time, and she no longer kept an eye on me as I spent hours combing the shelves, picking out books, although once or twice she took away a book as too adult for me. Once I found a book that made no sense at all and took it her and she told me that these were the poems of Horace and that I could read them if I learned Latin.

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Years later I did just that. I think my abiding love of books began in the cool dark quiet of the old Library, with its the big shady elms outside, and its providential librarian, my first guide to books and their wonderful emancipation.

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