Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Cheers to Perusing

When I was old enough to ride my bike outside the confines of my immediate neighborhood, my usual summer destination was Edison Park which was a straight shot down Mulberry Street about five blocks from my home, a journey that took me past rows of closely packed houses on either side. Occasionally, I took a more scenic route down 167th Street past Concodria Cemetery and near a bank of businesses that included a bar, a bowling alley next to that and a few doors further down, DeLock's which was an old fashioned convenience store with nickel candy and where we could buy the Sunday morning newspaper on Saturday evenings which was an unbelievable concept for me when I was younger and thankfully not allowed to wander that far alone on bike or on foot.

Either route I took to Edison Park was interesting to me in its own right but never as interesting as the park itself or the building across the street from the park. In later years, I would deliver groceries to Mrs. Shein who was in her seventies, I think, and lived in a small townhouse across the street from the other end of the park. She always complained about the cost of her purchases but tipped me five dollars every week anyway and always asked for me to make the delivery when she called in her order to the grocer that employed me.

But Edison Park was a playground of enormous capacity to a preteen boy. There was a public pool, swings, slides, one of those small merry-go-rounds that is operated by someone outside the ride pushing it faster and faster and where I learned about centrifugal forces and how far you could fly if you let go. And the park had an open field with a depression that could be flooded and made into a skating rink in the winter months. There was also a cement column about three feet tall with thick walls and an iron pipe in the middle that continuously delivered the coldest water I ever sampled and without the need to operate a crank or a valve. It simply gurgled and flowed, eager to offer respite from the summer heat.

As wonderful a place as Edison Park was, what provided even more of a draw for me was the library across the street. It looked like a fancy home and inside the air was cool and refreshing even on the hottest most humid Chicago area summer afternoons. My house did not have air conditioning and the Edison Library was a stop to enjoy, to savor the breathing of refrigerated air.

I did visit the library for more than its coolness. I had learned about the treasures of books from excellent elementary school teachers and I loved books for their words, what I could learn from them, and even for how they felt in my hands, how they looked in neat, clean rows on library shelves. I was in awe of how the library smelled with its oak floors, pine racks and the mixture of aging paper and hardcover fabric that had absorbed the scent of hundreds who had been there before me along with the dust of the ages.

Most visits, I would spend perusing the volumes, stopping to sample an author, read a chapter, put it back and pick up another. Or simply scan the titles, touching each spine as if to reach out and make contact with a far away place, a distant land, a foreign concept. Each time I went, I would check out books and I learned how to field a baseball, took a trip under the sea, and discovered the stars. Long ago, I had found Hal and Roger Hunt and read about their adventures then I stumbled across many more stories in that series and I read them all.

I Google mapped my old neighborhood and I found Edison Park. It looks a little different today. The merry-go-round is gone but the pool pavilion looks new. Swings are there but different, same with the slides. I saw the berms that contained the skating rink but I have no idea whether the city still floods it in icy weather. And it looks like the library still stands, at least the way I remember the library but I admit I am only guessing because all I have to go by is the top of the roof from a satellite view. But something has never changed. I still peruse books. I still bask in their scent, enjoy touching their spines and admiring them in neatly arranged rows. I choose books to read based on how the first chapter appeals to me or by what amazing knowledge I might be left with from them. The habits I developed on all those trips to Edison Park and its adjacent library have never left me and I still go on magnificent adventures or teach myself new things from the words arranged just so in books.