I moved to Chicago from Champaign, Illinois (and small-town Ohio before that) in April. After a few months of settling in and reading through the shelf of books in my apartment, I decided it was time to put down a root in the city and get a library card from the Chicago Public Library. On Saturday morning after I had finished the usual six or seven cups of coffee, I grabbed my backpack and bobbed onto the EL red line heading towards the Harold Washington Library Center in the south Loop.
How will I find Agatha Christie?
I grew up going to the Ida Rupp Public Library in Port Clinton, Ohio – A one-floor wonder with just the right amount of books to keep you satiated, and all separated by genre.
I remember being impressed during my years in Champaign at how much larger (two floors) the public library was there.
These were the experiences I was pulling from as I made my way into the largest CPL branch in the city. A woman inside informed me that the main circulation desk was located on the third floor. The number of floors was less of a concern than the number of security personnel I passed on my way up. The first test to my definition of normal: the library is no longer a haven – it’s another place in the city vulnerable to attack that needs safeguarding.
Getting a new library card was easy, although this one expires in two years. My still-functional Ida Rupp Public Library card is older than my dog who just turned 12.
After becoming an official CPL card-holding citizen, I asked the very sweet and friendly circulation desk man where I could find the “normal” fiction section, because their directories didn’t clearly specify this. He told me all fiction could be found on the seventh floor. I headed up.
Second test to my existing definition of normal: the fiction at this Chicago Public Library isn’t separated by genre, but author name. So many books – and I would have to parcel out the mysteries myself. I was fortunate to have a mystery author already in mind – Agatha Christie. An embarrassing omission – in my flustered state of mind I stupidly asked a security guard where the mysteries were located. She pointed to the circulation desk behind me where I could already see the amused look on the librarian’s face for having asked the security guard where to find a book.
“Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine” – Casablanca
Something amusing about big city life: despite Chicago’s size, there is almost always someone in ”your spot.” I passed row after row of books with no one to be seen for miles, and as I navigated to the “C” for “Christie” shelf, I found a girl standing. There we were. Shoulder to shoulder – hip to hip. I had to laugh.
“The brighter the light, the darker the shadow” – Pope Francis
Books are checked out on the third floor, so I carried my stack down the escalators and found a spot in line. I was 5 or so people behind a woman carrying a rolling suitcase and stuffed garbage bags. I guessed that she was homeless, something that is unfortunately far too common. She was upset with the library personnel and eventually walked away saying that “All things done to me will be revealed in the name of Jesus.”
After I checked out my books, I walked through the security scanner and unzipped my backpack for the security guard before I headed out onto the street.
Those last few minutes in the library with the homeless woman and the mandatory security check left me heavy-hearted. These experiences are part of a “new normal” – one where I’m hit with images of extreme human suffering and danger on a daily basis.
In his book “On Heaven and Earth,” Pope Francis uses the analogy of light and shadow to describe goodness and sin. In the city, I see darkness more than ever before. However, the darker the shadow, the brighter the light had to be that cast it. As I walked down the street to take the train home, I saw a homeless man sleeping on a bench. Next to his head someone had placed a stack of Keebler cheese crackers.