Death in the book­mo­bile

No one paid at­ten­tion if I sat near the shelves that held the teen books and read ter­ri­fy­ing sto­ries. Sus­pense. Mys­tery. Mur­der.

Los Angeles Times - - OP-ED - FES­TI­VAL OF BOOKS By Su­san Straight Su­san Straight has pub­lished 10 nov­els. She is fin­ish­ing a book set on Prince Ed­ward Is­land, and a story col­lec­tion set around the Golden State Free­way.

The River­side County book­mo­bile came to the Al­pha Beta park­ing lot on Fri­days from 2:30 to 4:45, and I would sit there on the long strip of car­pet in the air-con­di­tioned hum read­ing books not ap­pro­pri­ate at all for me, full of death — un­til the poor li­brar­ian who not only drove the coach but also checked out books and kept an eye on the pa­trons an­nounced that I had to go down the black rub­ber-grooved steps and head home.

It was 1970, I was 9, and those hours were my own. There were four younger sib­lings at home but no one wanted to come along, and I was not made to take them. I was thrilled to walk alone through the va­cant lot tall with wild oats and yel­low mus­tard, across the rail­road tracks where my friends and I set pen­nies and crouched nearby while trains melted them into cop­per, which seemed more valu­able as a hot smeared oval than one cent. I slid down a rain-made fis­sure into the deep ar­royo that served as flood con­trol and then across the as­phalt to­ward the thrum­ming en­gine of the book­mo­bile.

Book­mo­biles had been a fix­ture of ru­ral Amer­i­can life since the 19th cen­tury, when horse-drawn book wag­ons sten­ciled with gold let­ter­ing read “Free Li­brary.” There were low-slung black panel trucks in the 1930s, side doors open to shelves, with chil­dren sit­ting on the wide fend­ers turn­ing pages.

In the River­side Public Li­brary re­cently, I read the cat­a­log from the Ger­stenslager Co. in Wooster, Ohio, which built book­mo­biles for the na­tion. Chil­dren and adults stood in line to as­cend a few stairs and be in­side a real li­brary, al­beit one with shelves set on a slight in­cline, so books wouldn’t fall out when the coach was mov­ing.

My lo­cal brick-and-mor­tar li­brary had a small book­mo­bile start­ing in 1958. Then, in April 1970, Ger­stenslager sent a let­ter propos­ing the new coach unit — for $33,000. I saw the agree­ment signed by city of­fi­cials to buy my beloved book­mo­bile.

The blue-green sched­ule was in our kitchen. An owl sat at the base of a tree, read­ing a book, two in­de­ter­mi­nate ro­dents (one with huge eye­lashes) on a branch above, shar­ing a smaller book, and the tiny book­mo­bile leav­ing with a puff of smoke. BOOKS for EV­ERY­ONE, the sched­ule said, list­ing 25 stops.

I read all of the chil­dren’s books on those in­clined shelves. But no one paid at­ten­tion if I sat on the car­pet, near the bot­tom shelves, which held teen books, and read ter­ri­fy­ing sto­ries. Lois Dun­can’s “Ran­som,” about the kid­nap­ping of an en­tire school bus. Paul Zin­del’s nov­els set in New York, where old men died and teenagers used hal­lu­cino­genic drugs and had sex. I be­gan “The Out­siders,” by S.E. Hin­ton. In the first pages, Pony­boy, a poor kid grow­ing up in Tulsa, Okla., is at­tacked by rich kids, called Socs. For re­venge, Pony­boy’s friend Johnny stabs a Soc, who dies in a pud­dle of blood.

I was scared of school buses. And madras. I had no idea what madras was, but the Socs wore madras when they tried to kill Pony­boy. I loved Pony­boy. My neigh­bor­hood was full of Pony­boys, who were not at the book­mo­bile. They stole lum­ber and grew mar­i­juana and drank beer; one teenager up the street shot a bul­let into his front door to make a peep­hole.

Death was in my fa­vorite child­hood nov­els: Beth dies of scar­let fever com­pli­ca­tions in “Lit­tle Women,” and Fran­cie’s al­co­holic fa­ther freezes to death in a gut­ter in “A Tree Grows in Brook­lyn.” I cried each time I read those scenes. On the Teen and Adult shelves were dif­fer­ent deaths. Mur­ders: vi­o­lent, ran­dom, evil, cal­cu­lated, and com­mit­ted by hu­mans who hated each other, who had fallen out of love, who were so­ciopaths. Fear, Al­fred Hitch­cock once said, “is an emo­tion peo­ple like to feel when they know they’re safe.”

I moved on to the shelves la­beled Fic­tion, where I found a popular se­ries of books: “Al­fred Hitch­cock’s Tales of …” Sus­pense. Mys­tery. Mur­der. I brought none of th­ese books home; I read them there, while pa­trons stepped around me, and then slid them back onto the slanted wooden shelves above their des­ig­na­tions. I was ter­ri­fied of bath­tubs, men on trains, poi­soned drinks (my step­sis­ter had a ring with a se­cret com­part­ment for poi­son!), is­lands (where men hunted each other), pearls, ghosts and re­venge.

I would walk back home in a dreamy, fright­ened daze. In the ar­royo, step­ping on the mud flats, I imag­ined coy­otes rac­ing to­ward me. Up onto the train tracks, I breathed in the cre­osote of the wood. What if some­one pushed me from be­hind and I hit my head right there on the same metal rail where we laid pen­nies? I ran past the pep­per tree where older teens drank Coors, where some­one parted the branches like a beaded cur­tain in a door­way now and then to peer out­side, to make sure that I was no­body. I was no­body. I ran faster.

You’d think I would have been afraid of the ac­tual train, the flasher who ac­costed me on the way to school, the boys in my class who cor­nered me in the huge sewer pipe on the play­ground. But no — be­cause of fic­tion, I was afraid of pearls, which could stran­gle an el­e­gant woman.

I read James Mich­ener and John le Carre and Agatha Christie, too young to know the di­vi­sion of story and safety, or imag­i­na­tion and metaphor, but th­ese seeped into my con­scious­ness like the Rit dye bath into which my mother and I dipped jeans to make them new again. I never knew that madras was an in­no­cent cloth un­til I was grown.

I was 10, then 12, then 14. I rode the school bus for field trips, and no one kid­napped my class­mates and me, be­cause we were poor kids. I walked to school, over a wooden foot­bridge cross­ing the canal in the or­ange groves, where a boy later drowned. Mur­dered peo­ple were found in the trees. The Zo­diac Killer took a young woman from a li­brary. My friend’s fa­ther was hit while rid­ing on his mo­tor­cy­cle in heavy fog and then hit again four more times be­fore any­one stopped. When I was 18, a friend took his life by stand­ing in front of a train on those same tracks where the traces of our child­hood pen­nies had evap­o­rated.

And I turned into an or­di­nary girl afraid of real death, who took refuge in books. I read, and then, even­tu­ally, I wrote sto­ries, not to revel in fear and death but to make sense of them. Some­where deep in my head was the cool trem­bling of the book­mo­bile, where I curved my spine against the slanted shelves to stay out of the way of the oth­ers who passed by on their way out into the bright world.

River­side Public Li­brary

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