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One City

It’s not that I like to spy on people. And it’s not that I like to be a nuisance, either. But I want to meet the researcher who has a reserve shelf full of books with titles like Why Byron Matters, and I want to know, honestly, why. I’m working in the Wertheim Study in the New York Public Library, and I am trying to understand.

I took a quick poll of the books around me and got stern looks from my would-be new friends—the people, like me, with laptops and piles of notes and their own assigned numbered shelves. They seem like a nice enough bunch. But the room is tomb-quiet and any activity other than going to the shelf with your number on it, retrieving your books, and sitting down at your spot at one of the desks and “doing research” just doesn’t happen. No frolicking. No sex. But I am taking notes.

The Mexican American War. Nasser’s Egypt. A Metaphysics for the Future.

What could these people be doing in here? And would they like to help me with what I’m doing? Or find me a snack machine? They look at me sternly whenever I shuffle. It might be the filter of my own self-criticism coloring that, but I don’t think it is. I shuffle louder than I mean to. Then I go back to my little green desk lamp and sit in the chair I’ve claimed: a creaky oak thing cut for a schoolteacher’s ass. Comfy in a bare wooden way, like a paddle.

My reason for being here has to do with the Hertog fellowship program at Hunter College, where MFA writing students get paired up with novelists to work as research assistants. I’m not very good at it. I haven’t visited a library since I wrote my last history paper in college (economic depression in Great Britain during the inter-war period), and the list of books on my shelf (number 12, down at the bottom) is not so intriguing, or so long: Hammer and Tongs: Blacksmithery Down the Ages. Early American Ironware. Iron at Winterthur. Forging America: Ironworkers, Adventurers, and the Industrious Revolution. But I’m learning. I’m researching iron ore and the extraction and smelting thereof, specifically in 17th century bloomeries across New York State. Fascinating stuff, I promise. I also promise that I’m saving the specifics of all of it for a later blog (from one Williamsburg to another), in which I’ll somehow relate all of this to the Dharma (and the anvil of mindfulness!). But not today.

Today I want to tell you that initiating contact with fellow your human beings is much better than spying on them. Talking to people beats the feathers out of remotely wondering about them every time. I’m bad at it, both contact and the spying, though I try. Mainly through offerings of food. The other day in the Wertheim Study I offered a bag of tortilla chips—an ice breaker, I had hoped—but the unholy crinkling of the bag, the salty pop of its opening, the toasty rustle of its oven-baked contents—all of it was met with shock and disapproval!* First they looked at me—they looked those looks again, like I had done something wrong—farted in an elevator—but all I meant to do was make friends.

“Don’t you guys want any?”

One of them opened his mouth. “You can’t have food in here,” he said.

“But they’re baked. I have a whole bag and I don’t mind if you have some.”

I had an apple to pass around, too. It was a big one, and we all could have had bites.

But it was not meant to be. The Wertheim Study is not a fiesta, and my voyeurism-in-place-of-intimacy has been cut short.

*Fiction

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