We meet on a bench outside the university library, which I have exited because it is a joke of a winter afternoon -- which is to say a beautiful afternoon and you don't need anything heavier than a Desi Arnaz shirt.
Anyhow, we are on adjacent benches. I am reading the collected works of James Russell Lowell, about which more later. He is reading a thick sheath of papers with one hand and with the other is busy feeding the squirrels from a large bag of peanuts by his side. The bag says, "Jimbo's Jumbo Peanuts."
Benefiting from all this generosity are about a half-dozen squirrels, scampering and posing.
"Aren't they something?" he says, friendly-like.
"Rats with pretty tails," I growl.
"Yes," he agrees. "I've noticed with the Bush twins that things with pretty tails usually get fed."
Like a Texas Hold 'Em player, I look at his face for a read. He gives his name, which I can't quite catch, but which sounds something like "Chapel Hill."
Without any real encouragement, Chapel goes on to say he is a librarian on his lunch break and during his breaks, he both feeds squirrels and imitates them. "My bustling activity concerns this manuscript, a draft copy of a high school course in American history. User-friendly version. I'm working as a 'textbook evaluator,' picking up some extra money." He holds up the manuscript, which looks only slimmer than the Beijing phone book. "Scribble, scribble, eh, Mister Gibbon?" he jokes. At least I assume it's a joke. I don't get to talk to many librarians.
"From the first page, it's more about the Las Casas depiction of Christopher Columbus than about Columbus himself," Chapel Hill declares.
"Well, did Las Casas even sail the ocean blue in 1492?" I say, because it sounds agreeable.
"Note these illustrations," he says. "All these male manicurists and female mechanics. That's not even accurate today."
"Don't worry about it," I urge. "High school, you said? They just want to know what's going to be on the test. They know illustrations won't be on the test. They'll just draw mustaches and genitals on them."
"Look at this," he goes on. "These stalwarts of the West are no longer 'cowboys,' but 'cowpeople.' It's no longer enough to sing 'I Enjoy Being a Girl.' You must also abhor being a boy."
"I'd like to see one of them call Clint Eastwood a 'cowperson' to his face," I chime in.
My favorite textbook evaluator is getting red in the face. "Two sentences each devoted to the reconquest of Guadalcanal and the Philippines in World War Two and two-and-a-half pages to the internment of Japanese-Americans in Nevada and Utah!"
"You really ought to calm down," I say calmly. "You're getting a pretty good case of nosebleed there. It's getting all over the peanuts."
He gets up in a jumble. "Thanks for listening," he says. "I wouldn't have bothered you, but I could see by your choice of reading matter that you were probably a true lover of the written word and thought you might share my distrust of the New Wisdom." And he is gone.
As I noted earlier, I had a book of verse by James Russell Lowell on my lap. Libraries do that to me sometimes. I see how certain books by certain authors remain virginal, as their unstamped take-out slips testify. The authors of these books may have once cherished immortality, once even thought they had achieved it. After all, they had published, which put them ahead of millions of aspiring writers who wept bitter tears and glared at their names embossed on book spines with jealous eyes.
But now? No college professor assigns their texts or even mentions them. No browser of the library shelves finds them by happy accident. I sometimes walk the aisles and run my tobacco-rancid fingers over these books, taking quiet pleasure in the excesses of the typesetter's art. I open them, and if the take-out slips indicate that the dreams of immortality have faded to oblivion, I bring the book home for a night. Perhaps only I am keeping the memory of this author alive, and so even though I am sleepy this evening, I will make the effort.
Today's project will be James Russell Lowell. Once, he was the best-known man of letters in this nation. A Harvard man and an early supporter of temperance, vegetarianism and women's rights. On the plus side, he once described his contemporary Poe as "three fifths of him genius and two fifths sheer fudge." His name may strike a small spark of recognition in the student of literature, but have any actually read him? The poem "To The Dandelion": "Thou art my tropics and mine Italy; / To look at thee unlocks a warmer clime; / The eyes thou givest me / Are in the heart, and heed not space or time: / Not in mid-June the golden-cuirassed bee / Feels a more summer-like warm ravishment / In the white lily's breezy tent, / His fragrant Sybaris, than I, when first / From the dark green thy yellow circles burst."