Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Park Forest Public Library

The Park Forest entries have gotten such a good response, I've been meaning to sit down and write about Illinois Theatre Center. I just have so much to say about it, it's not really blog-length in my head. So let me just give the preface here. It is no small thing to say that of all the special things about Park Forest, and there are many, my favorite things all had to do with the Park Forest Public Library.

In the early days, there was the children's reading room. It had little kids' tables with slanted tops covered in extremely pleasing formica. The tops came together like little tents, and you could rest a picture book on the ledge and turn the pages at your leisure, reading without craning your neck. The reading room also had window seats, along the length of a big picture window, with pillows, where you could curl up on a rainy day. Those window seats made me feel like I was in a castle, not a library.

It wasn't long before I graduated to reading "chapter books." The "Y" section, real bookshelves that went up at least six feet, were our first experience with the card catalogue. The fiction was alphabetized by author name, and I began, of course, with "Alcott."  My mother had read Little Women to us already, so I went for the sequel, Little Men, and then Jo's Boys. In a recent PBS special on Louisa May Alcott, they interviewed a few well-known women writers who said that Louisa May Alcott was their first inspiration. I'd have to agree that Jo was my first model as well, and without her, I might not have been able to imagine myself becoming a "real" writer. The fact that she wrote when she was young, for her sisters and for the sheer pleasure of it, was exhiliarating. It gave me permission to take myself seriously, and to give myself over to books.

When I hit junior high, there seemed to be a greater emphasis on being physically active, probably as I became more bookish. My mother wanted me to go outside, but when I'd take a book and set up on a lawn chair, she'd prefer I "did something" like housework. Going to the Aqua Center was an approved alternative, however, a 2-mile bike ride from our home on Farragut Street.

The Aqua Center was next door to the library. So it was that I'd go off in my suit and shorts, park my bike at the Aqua Center, and walk instead over to the library-- sneak over to the library-- on a summer afternoon. I was through with the youth section by then, but had no real guidance for where to go next. It was easy to find the adult fiction, but it was also daunting. I really wish I'd met a nice librarian at that point, to recommend some books for me. As it was, I went to the place on the bookshelf where there would be books by me. Sink. It was empty, but just in front of "my" space was the good company I would have: Isaac Bashevis Singer.

This is probably where my love of Eastern European and Russian literature began. I started with Shosha. Then I read some yiddish fables he edited, and Enemies, A Love Story. I'm sure I read more, but those are the ones that stuck with me. I wish I had discovered F. Scott Fitzgerald then, or John Steinbeck.

I read randomly, and don't remember most of it. I remember mostly being confused and intimidated by the shiny novels that looked very adult. I avoided the ones with the skull and crossbones stickers (mystery), or the little magnifying glass stickers (detective), which were mostly the books my father read. He was an avid library patron, too. It felt odd to be looking for books in the same section as him.

I didn't find poetry until high school, doing research papers on the other side of the library. The reference section, along with the "800s," drama at 821 and poetry at 822, got my attention in high school. At that time we'd all go to the library to work on research papers, filling out slips to request magazine articles that had to be retrieved from the basement. When you got them, more often than not they didn't fit your topic, and you'd have to keep digging through the Reader's Guide to Periodicals. At some point, I also found 821 and 822, and started reading poetry and plays.

I'd hide out in the carrels along the outer side wall. In addition to anonymity, those carrels had another benefit. Sitting there, you could often hear the rehearsals at Illinois Theatre Center coming up through the floor. The Illinois Theatre Center, an Actor's Equity theater right there in Park Forest, Illinois, run by Steven and Etel Billig, opened in the basement of the Park Forest Public Library in 1976. I was twelve, and must have taken a class there as soon as it opened. My parents, and my friends' parents, were early subscribers (and my parents have subscribed to all 34 seasons).

How I remember the windowless basement accessible only by a steep staircase nearly hidden along the side of the building. It smelled of cigarette butts and paint and wood shavings and costumes with make-up and sweat deep in their period lace and ruffles. It was at the complete opposite end of the library as the children's reading room, and it was equally as magical. For me, for awhile, it was a door to a much larger world beyond that of my family. It was a fulfillment of the promise I'd always seen in the Park Forest Public Library, it's last and best offering.

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