Fiend of the library
“You know,” Rebecca Buerkett said, “that’s a stereotype we librarians have been trying to shake for years.”
“I’m sure,” I said. “But it’s not like it isn’t based on reality.”
“Agreed,” she said. “But not today’s reality.”
“Maybe not,” I said. “But a lot of people my age were imprinted with it. I sure was.”
The stereotype was about librarians being hardcore enforcers of their no-noise mandates -?especially when it came to children.
And that’s no lie. From my earliest memory of going to the library, at a very tender age, I knew the library’s Two Great Truths. One was you talked in a whisper (if you talked at all), and the other was if you raised your volume to an inappropriate level, you would be immediately told, in no uncertain terms, to close your yap.
The Saranac Lake Free Library’s official Director of Yap Closing was a classic -?Mrs. Worthington.
As a wee lad I thought she was ancient. As an adolescent I thought she was pre-historic. Certainly, she was old by any measure, except geologic.
She was born in 1890, which meant that in my childhood years she was almost as old as I am now. She retired at the tender age of 77, and amazingly, over the two decades I knew her, she didn’t age at all. For all I knew, she looked the same on her last day of work as she did as a blushing bride.
Plus she?-?like most of her contemporaries -dressed the part. They came from a traditional, black and white world, and they dressed in black and white. Or if they were changing up the color scheme, they might wear dark blue and white, or dark gray and white. And if they were feeling really racy, they might wear dark brown and white.
The library you see now is not the original one. The left wing (as you face it from Main Street) was added on in 1967, and then it was added on in the back as well.
The old library is the little brick building on the right. When you came in the front door, directly in front of you toward the back of the room was the librarian’s desk. And sitting at it was Mrs. Worthington, on guard, eyeballing whoever walked in with a death ray behind each lens of her rimless spectacles.
Actually, she wasn’t alone at the desk. On her right sat her assistant, Joyce Meagher. Joyce was the Yin to Mrs. Worthington’s Yang. She was a vision of loveliness, with fine features, beautiful red hair and pretty clothes that were not in earth tones. She was sweet and kind and a delight to deal with. Sadly, she was also not in charge.
I can’t recall any kid having an actual run-in with Mrs. Worthington, probably because we were all scared poop-sick of her from the get-go. I did, however, have what I’d like to consider a “disagreement” with the old gal.
The incredible vanishing Dope
I was standing at the desk, returning an overdue book and had to pay my fine, for which I had a quarter (Actually, back in them days, Bunkie, a quarter could’ve paid a month’s late fine). After I told Mrs. Worthington why I was there, she told me to wait while she attended to some paperwork.
Waiting was never my strong suit, so while I waited, I thought. And what I thought of was a great prank to play on Mrs. Worthington – I’d disappear right before her eyes.
I coughed, just to remind her I was there, and then as she kept going over the papers in front of her, I slid down in front of the desk, out of sight of her gimlet eye.
A minute or so went by and then I heard her call out, “Hello? Hello?” She obviously thought I’d left, which was my clue.
I sprang up in front of her desk, threw my arms out and pealed, “Ta-DA!”
It was, to any 11-year-old boy, a perfect show biz stunt, which I knew would make her dissolve in hysterics. I was dead wrong.
Instead, she bolted upright, eyes as big as pie plates, obviously in shock. But giving the old bird her due, she got her breath under control and recovered pretty quickly. Then she glared at me for what seemed like hours, before she spoke.
“Your money,” she said, levelly, in a tone that made me think the next thing she’d say would be ” or your life.”
No longer on my performer’s high and embarrassed my ingenious shtick had gone so far awry, I handed over my two bits, the very picture of meekness and contrition.
She handed me my change, but said nothing. Nor did she have to.
I bolted from the place, glad the whole episode was behind me. Sadly, it wasn’t.
Hail the conquering loser
When I got home, my mother met me at the door, a look of fierce displeasure on her face.
“Mrs. Worthington just called,” she said.
“Oh?” I said, feigning innocence.
“Yes. She told me about your brilliant performance.”
“Yeah,” I said. “It didn’t come off quite like I-“
“Obviously,” my mother said. “And now you know what you’re going to do?”
“No,” I said, knowing full well what I was going to do.
“You’re going back to the library and you’re going to apologize to her, that’s what.”
There was no negotiation, no compromise, no wiggle room, nothing. An apology was an absolute- you just manned up and did it. Period.
I trudged back to the library, full of all sorts of emotions, none of them good.
When I got there, I walked up to her desk, called her by name, looked her in the eye and apologized.
Keep in mind, this was long before anyone tried to understand the adolescent mind or rewarded moronic behavior with warm fuzzies and the like.
Mrs. Worthington said nothing. She merely gave me a curt nod and then pointed at the door, out of which I sprinted at warp speed.
After that, whenever I was within sight of Mrs. Worthington, I cringed inwardly, knowing she thought more highly of The Mad Butcher of Dusseldorf than she of me. And she probably always would. It was one of those things that as a kid you just can’t live down.
Interestingly, in writing this column I went into the library and asked Michelle Tucker for any information she had on Mrs. Worthington, and she gave me Mrs. W’s obituary. It was fascinating.
Mrs. Worthington graduated from Wellesley College and then had gotten a degree from the University of Wisconsin Library School. After that, she worked in the Cincinnati Public Library, and after that she worked moved to Rochester, where she organized and ran New York state’s first Bookmobile. And when I say she ran it, I mean it literally -? she drove the thing all over hell and gone, by herself.
There was also a great quote of hers about children. She said, “It’s a joy and wonder to watch their minds grow. I’m sure they won’t all be lost to that monster, television, that hangs over us!”
When I read the quote, a sudden thought hit me. I haven’t had a television for almost 50 years. So maybe if Mrs. Worthington, wherever she is, knew that, she’d forgive me for my juvenile blunder.
Then I had a second thought – maybe she wouldn’t.