Needing The Campus Library In Order To Live
Editor's Note: "Needing The Campus Library In Order To Live" is part of Michael Juliani's poetic series, "From Young Rooms."
“I often think of the image only I can see now, and of which I’ve never spoken. It’s always there, in the same silence, amazing. It’s the only image of myself I like, the only one in which I recognize myself, in which I delight.” -Marguerite Duras, The Lover
Used to the walking, it’s my head and music until it’s hello smokers, hello metal door, hello receptionist, each new visual coming in like a bright painting as I round each corner, pass each entrance. New worlds appear like an artist creates and finishes them just for my arrival, working feverishly as I move toward his room. This thought means the world is for me. Hello hall, hello desk. The outline of my head bobbing in the shine of the walls. As far as I know, it only matters that I’m the one who sees it.
I yank the buds from my ears as I’m walking up the steps past the plaque for John F. Kennedy and the palm trees sticking out the middle of the front lawns. The loss of music will awake you to the artlessness of your routine. No more soundtrack, no more movie. Everyone else gains dimension.
This time of night, around 8, or a little earlier, it feels like a blanket’s been draped underneath the clouds. Some people still have clothes on from the early afternoon when it was hot and oppressive. They’re walking fast to warm up on their way to a sweater and jeans. Skateboards, bicycles, maintenance carts, public safety cars. It’s become too dark to play frisbee. Gnats swarm in invisible clusters. Outside noise cancelled out so I can hear myself breathe and beat.
The quintessential 1960s movie, an epic of young confusion and intoxication, “The Graduate,” with Dustin Hoffman, a squirrelly but attractive man, had scenes from this campus right where I’m standing and right where I’m walking by. They tried to pass it off as Berkeley but some of us know better. After Hoffman’s character is done being lost between the legs of an older woman, the unbelievable Mrs. Robinson, he flies up the coast in a fit of wind to find her daughter, his hope for love.
I learned this in my morning Russian Literature class, “Love And Death In The Russian Novel,” taught by the department chair. The professor’s massive intellect for culture and language, sarcastic and excited humor in the vehicle of a proper refined voice, and overpowering loyalty to the beauty of widespread Russian magisterial corruption (he often joked about bribes) meets me every Tuesday and Thursday after I’ve done my reading. Pushkin, Gogol, Turgenev, etc., finishing chapters outside the classroom door.
In his office with windows overlooking a landscape of benches and strolling students, modernly built, he liked me but could tell I was between two rocks of life, there was always an awkward tension. He was too much like a selfish father, skipping between his interests and your necessary participation in them, seeming nice the whole time, gaining innocent trust.
“…anxious shame about not so much the carnal things that happen, but the heart that falls out the bottom of the body that’s been opened up by the fun.” -from something I wrote during this time freshman year, probably in class, probably in Russian Lit or my 8 a.m. American History lecture
Every once in awhile he’d let California creep into the discussion. Something about swimming pools or golden decadence. My whole head would perk. That’s how “The Graduate” came up. Seemingly out of nowhere, because I wasn’t following.
It was the oddest arrangement of classmates. A gentle fat kid with frizzy, awkward sideburns, who wore these unfortunate jean shorts everyday, dominated the expanse of a desk in the back and answered correctly any question involving the Bible. A pale anorexic girl nobody liked (teacher’s pet) who tried out for a Playboy photo shoot, bouncing on a hotel bed in black negligee that made her look even skinnier.
I went to the second seat in the third row, sat next to a girl I knew in high school, eventually stopped being able to pay attention. Russian literature was more than cool with me. The way it was taught was too stiff, too much about the country, not enough about the words. He was ignoring the calm spiritual landscape Dostoevsky created beneath the sweat of his dilapidated world. Therefore he was ignoring me.
After he mentioned the film, “filmed right here on campus in front of Doheny Memorial Library!,” I not only watched it on my laptop one night at home but would also feel a charge coming into the façade of the old building that had been there before but without a reference point. It’s a fortress that no doubt holds every famous Russian novel ever written. I had an outfit I’d wear in order to feel like I was being watched and studied. Red and black flannel, my ubiquitous brown fraying pants or oiled jeans, sneakers, leather jacket. I felt like the backpack ruined the flow of the jacket but I needed to bring it along for its goods.
“There’s so many careless angels responsible for me.” -John Frusciante, “Anne”
The other person was a guy I assumed was going to graduate school. Everyday he showed up in front of the library at five, ate his brown bag lunch of drab sandwich and apple sauce and water, and went inside for the next five hours straight, every day of the week. I always imagined him to be studying poetry or English. He only had one small book with him all the time and he read as if it were a manual to serenity he’d never find.
He took dutiful, voracious notes. A stiff pale white guy, harmless frame, glasses, always looked bothered by all of us and anyone he couldn’t see, perpetually scowling at words. Someone had beat him up in the playground as a child. A homeless man once quietly asked him for a quarter—“scuse me sir, do you have a quarter?”—as he worked and he merely looked at him and then over his shoulder for help. I tried to follow him home one night but he kept going beyond where I was willing to go.
With them I feel blurry, that’s what I want. Our triumvirate of therapeutic schedule. The library was/is my guide to showing up for life with important preparation. Even spending an hour or two, not getting much done other than my journal, means that I wasn’t somewhere else. It’s also a place to be if you don’t want someone to find you.
“—Once avoided an ex-friend here. long British lights hanging from gold/bronze tapestry up to Roman non-painting ceiling and only rudimentary books I once thought to be the whole collection lining the main walls. Always someone older here to end the night.” -from my journal, Tuesday, August 24, 2010
For a long time I didn’t know where the book stacks were. The two simple rooms that are obvious to shy people only have about two hundred books between them, and all of them not very interesting or helpful. Reference books. The complete history of Spain and Portugal.
There are many libraries to choose from on campus, but only two garner most of the attention, and I’ve only been to three or four. The philosophy library on the south end of campus, closest to the football stadium side of the world, which is lesser known, has the gothic calm of dripping water pipes and steam. It’s a room of old and carved out traditions, full of Nietzsche and Jung. I’ve been there once, in my army jacket, a beard, looking like a runaway hippie, reading Jim Morrison poems and trying to write my own, doing my journal, killing time before class.
Doheny, the main, old peremptory but lovely library is the one I attend and speak of most. Doheny has hundreds of thousands of books and volumes, rooms cordoned off with velvet rope, hiding arcane and gorgeous manuscripts, has couples having sex in the stacks when the security staff seems to be between shifts. That’s the big secret that isn’t a secret. People get caught doing that all the time. Leavey, the main undergraduate library with a fake pond in front of it, houses frat folk, international students, and socializers and I hate it. It smells like sweat.
Last night I had a desperate dream that I was smoking cigarettes in the middle of my room, forgetting that the windows were trapped shut or far away from my leaking, awful hands. I don’t smoke. This kind of hallucinated anxiety reminds me of the library, where I’d sit below those “long British lights” and play energies with the unassuming people sitting across table spaces.
I’d try to sit next to someone, preferably at the end of the Reading Room’s long hall, who I could bounce off of in terms of inspired molecules. In these rooms everyone’s on hold from the variety of life. Our differences come together into one seemingly common and focused span of time. In the rooms cool and dry and sacred like a museum. The word I think of when I hear library is “hours.”
The first book I took out from the stacks was a biography of Norman Mailer, trying to make myself feel better during a bout of stiffness in my writing muscle. Mailer’s life wasn’t the place to look. It was the only book I took out freshman year, a red hardcover with sheltered, scroll-like type. Back in the room with Ben, Mailer rested between stacks of novels looking like a raveled dictionary. I pretty much hated that book. The stacks are populated with boorish hardbacks, even the soft copies are laminated with this stiff plastic that pushes it over the edge. It feels like reading a piece of linoleum.
As a sophomore one of the first things I did was dissolve an afternoon into the library. It was hot August and I had nothing to do after moving in, I was the first roommate there of the four of us who didn’t know each other. At Mary’s apartment across the street they would be spending all day shifting furniture and making it warm for themselves, their fathers pretending to be carpenters and handymen, me sitting on the couch wasting their time. I went walking, glad to be back at school, newly inspired, and wound up in Doheny after going to the bookstore and being reminded how shitty the prices were and how free library books are. But first I met Mary’s dad, which wasn’t a big deal at the time.
“Metal heart you’re not hiding / Metal heart you’re not worth a thing.” -Cat Power, “Metal Heart”
The second or third day after I told Mary I had a crush on her, we were at the library, and I wanted to see what was on the very bottom floor. Mostly East Asian literature, it turns out, but in a couple neat rows they have old poetry collections of these infamously great little journals like Poetry L.A. and New York Quarterly. Bukowski’s in pretty much every issue of all of them.
For a few minutes I was seized, trying to find the youngest poets and their work in order to see how I compared to someone who had made it in 1980, when my parents were my age. Mary allowed me my excitement, and then I took both her hands, faced her for a minute, smiled (making tremendously easy decisions in my head) and kissed her for the first time.
“The subject was too slight. Who would have thought of such a thing? The photograph could only have been taken if someone could have known in advance how important it was to be in my life, that event, that crossing of the river.” -Duras, The Lover, again
I know myself to be a little regrettable when it comes to wasting time. Since August 20, 2010, right after move-in day, I’ve kept a daily journal. My whole relationship so far with Mary is in there—dinners, fights, kisses. Before these recordings I felt like I might as well have been erasing myself, letting my days slip and cave into the river. My life was remembered in projects of doubtful value. The poems that were piling and the short novel I wrote over the summer had enough of me in them to keep me calm.
That August each day was like a little swamp that became paper. Crossing the street, being on the curb in my shoes, pen in my pocket, watching the eyes of the people in the passenger seats of the cars turning right. My headphones in, the travel fine. I never mind walking if I have music. I usually don’t mind it anyway.
If there was a lull in the day I’d just go to the library until something came up, somebody called, or I just got cool with being long-limbed and alone. I’d get my tea, gather my looks. The last hundred feet before the doors either makes me keep walking around the perimeter so I can finish a song, have another dream, or I step up, pass all the smoke, the folks calling home, and go into the air-tight building of rooms.