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Saturday, October 1, 2016

Saint Karen, Librarian

I don't know the source of this image
Karen, I'll be honest. I didn't want to go to your memorial.

Listen, it was Friday evening, the last Friday in September. I had spent the day alone, planning lessons, concocting future disappointments for my students. Also I am wrestling with an open wound recently inflicted by ham-handed medical students. Poking it – was it going numb? Sniffing it. Had the penicillin not done its job? It was Friday – no medical access, for me, till Monday. Regretting my entire life that brought me to this medical no-man's-land. It had been overcast all day and it was already beginning to get dark; leaves swirled and danced as if to entice light to linger at a not very good party, maybe to strangle some last-minute joy out of it; but no.

It's funny. My Polish, Viking, and Lapp genes render me allergic to clement weather. I spend April through September wrestling with the Sun god. Apollo always triumphs, reducing me to a slick, impotent puddle. My Southerly-facing apartment with its fifty square feet, or whatever it is, of windows turns home into a brick pizza oven.

And yet it's always the same.

Various portents tap gently on shoulders and announce the earth's passage. School supplies go on sale. Farm stand workers stop stocking their bleacher-seat shelves with tomatoes and corn and now tote pumpkins and stack haystacks.

For me, someone without TV and radio-dependent, it's often this: I'm walking along at an hour when I had, just the other day, been walking in full sun, and suddenly I can't tune in an AM station. I go home and turn on the radio and, again, nothing but static. The sound of bacon frying.

I don't understand it, but AM radio does not work as well after the sun has set. In autumn and winter my access to AM radio is diminished.

I have discovered that if I place the radio on something solid, like the couch, and not hollow like the shelf, and turn the radio speakers to the west, the stations come in crisper. But if I forget and reposition the radio, suddenly I am a stick figure off on the fringes of the map of civilization, isolated in a remote lighthouse. The other night, as I cooked dinner and struggled to make out the words being spoken through the static from my favorite AM station, my radio seemed to be bringing in Gregorian chant. The monophonic murmuring haunted me. My radio seemed to be tapping into an abbey in thirteenth century France. Radio as a time travel device is of course nonsensical – but at times it has, for brief moments, violated spatial constraints. It brings in stations from Buffalo, NY and even Canada, and that makes no sense, either. I always want to grab someone to make them listen but there is no one to grab, and by then, after I have been told what to wear in downtown Montreal, the station has evaporated.

I live in a city in the twenty-first century. Funny how my radio's malfunction can suddenly throttle me into the wilderness, into centuries' past, and into a thorough awareness of my own isolation.

So, no, last night I did not want to go to the memorial. Because though I curse the sun all summer, when it finally does what it does so very predictably, I always find myself thinking, Really? Is that it? Am I going to have to put on a jacket now? And worry about whether or not cars see me as I cross the street?

But I really didn't want to go to your memorial because I didn't want you to be dead.

Outside it was the gray of a film noir. Roads were slick. I walked.

Your library was five miles from my apartment. There is a library less than a mile from my apartment. It is New Jersey's first public library. The majestic current building is over a hundred years old. It contains magnificent, original oil paintings on its high-ceilinged walls.

Why don't I go there?

Where to start.

Black Lives Matter. Trump on race. Political Correctness.

How does a little person like me say what's true and not get steamrolled by words-like-troops, punctuation-like-tanks, silences-like-barriers, assumptions-like-hanging-judges, accusations-like-career-suicide?

I am white. Paterson is mostly black, Hispanic, and Muslim. When I walk the less-than-a-mile to the local library, there are incidents. Beggars, drugs addicts, cars that won't stop driven by people who threaten to kill that white bitch (me.) There are sometimes punches and spit. Not often but once would be enough, and more than once.

And then there is the local library staff. I ask for a book. A book they have reserved for me. It's on the shelf behind the woman at the counter. She says she doesn't have it. I say I see it; it's right behind her. She says she doesn't like my attitude. She abruptly turns around and talks to her supervisor. This takes a while. Other patrons form a line behind me. She comes back and gives me the book.

Enough of that and you just stop going.

Now, multiply what I just wrote by millions. And talk to old Jews and old Italians who used to live in Newark, or Irish who used to live in Paterson, or people I know who used to live on Liberty Street – until they were mugged / robbed / arson / drug dealing.

Yes, black lives matter. Maybe these white ethnic lives mattered, too. Their ancestors didn't own slaves; their ancestors were serfs and sweatshop workers. Those tiny little, pristine homes that stara babkas cleaned so scrupulously, sweeping the streets in front. The cafes where Italian men sat around sipping cappuccino. But they are gone from Newark or Paterson. And no one dare tell the story of why they left.

So, Karen, I went to your library, five miles away.

Listen, Karen, I keep asking myself why we didn't do more. And it comes down to this. When I was talking to you, I always felt ashamed. I walked to your library. If it was summer, I was minimally dressed. I sweat. If it was winter, I was in a coat that got hot and heavy as soon as I walked inside. I smelled bad and I was dressed poorly in clothes meant to survive a ten-mile roundtrip along a four-lane highway.

And you, Karen, always looked so beautiful.

And those final days?

Karen, you worked in two different branches of the library. I never knew which one you were in on any given day. So when I didn't see you for a while, I thought, she's at the other branch.

Till that day when I saw a flier on the counter. "Memorial for Karen … " I started crying.

Karen. You were so alive.

I keep looking back for signs.

You: "How are you?"

Me: "Sad. My sister Antoinette just died. How are you?"

You: "Sad. My husband Fred just died."

Did we honor each other's pain? As I checked out books?

So, your memorial service.

As soon as I walked in from the cool, dark, rainy night – God lord, how long have I been shaking my fist at heaven, raging against sun and heat and dryness? And here it was cool, and damp, and dark, and I hated it and wanted the sun back; there, I've said it. As soon as I walked in, I was glad I came.

The library did itself proud. There was a crew of librarians at the front door to greet us and guide us into a side room. The room was brightly lit. There was a table in back with food. Food! How great. I didn't expect food, but it was such a nice touch. Sparkling apple cider, cheese cubes and pepperoni, crackers, those decorative Italian bakery cookies that don't taste like much except sugar and flour and probably artificial vanilla but that look very nice. Fruit.

Against another wall, a collage of quotes, some by famous people, some by people who knew you. This, from Martha Graham: "There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost … It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you."

Parallel to that table was another table, loaded down with books about art, knitting, and cooking. Your knitting group had donated six hundred dollars to the library; the library used the money to buy books about things you loved.

In front was a collage of photos of you. None of them adequately captured your beauty. Your sisters and stepdaughters sat up front.

The room was so full I had to strategize to claim a seat. Very good. You got a good turnout, Karen!

A spunky, petite, no-nonsense grey-haired woman snapped us all to attention. She didn't say much of anything. Just asked if anyone wanted to say anything. Another gray-haired woman, still in her raincoat, said she didn't want to get up front but would say something. She did.

"We can't hear you!" the overflow crowd protested. The woman tried to speak more loudly but we still couldn't hear her. She sat down. We applauded.

I didn't want to wait; waiting would make me nervous. I charged up front. Someone handed me a microphone. I took it.

"Can you hear me okay?"

Yes, people said.

I said, "I am a writer. I spend all day writing, alone. I love that. I need solitude to write."

I thought of all the years I spent in shared houses, struggling for that "room of one's own." How hard I gauged at life to get the solitude I have now.

"But when I am done writing for the day, I crave people. After I moved back to New Jersey after a long time away, this library became one of my key stops. That was because of Karen.

"I am a heterosexual woman," I announced, just in case any man there might fall in love with me. Never know. "But I really appreciate beauty, and Karen was beautiful. I think of her, and I see the sun. Her hair perfectly coiffed, her jewelry, makeup and clothing all perfectly selected. Her smile.

"Karen was very knowledgeable about movies, and we always talked about what we had just seen. One day, in the course of conversation, I mentioned that I had never seen The Godfather.

'You've never seen the Godfather?' she said, outraged."

I imitated Karen. Everyone laughed.

"'No,' I said. 'It glamorizes the Mafia … '

'It's a great movie!'" I said, imitating Karen again. Everyone kept laughing. "It doesn't glamorize the Mafia, it depicts the Mafia! There is a difference between depicting and glamorizing!"

"So, every time I saw Karen, we would chat, and towards the end of our conversations, as I was moving toward the door, she would start saying to the person next to her, 'Would you believe? This woman thinks she is a film fan, but she has never seen The Godfather!'" Big laugh.

I changed tone.

"I am a teacher," I said. "And my students think about the future, about what they will do with their lives. About how to be a good person.

"Karen smiled at me. She shared her beauty with me. She greeted me. She paid attention to me. She engaged with me. She brightened my day, like the sun. Karen was a saint. It's very easy to be a saint."

I sat down.

Behind me were three females, obviously a mother and her two daughters. They all looked so alike, as if they were dressed up as each other for Halloween. The mother was nagging her daughters, who were looking stubbornly unmoving.

The mother went up front and said, "And my daughters should really come up here now," and she stared bullets. A bit of discomfort in the audience. But the daughters did get up and they sang a lovely song, using their phones for the musical accompaniment, about how the departed are still with us, in a sense. And then all three of them burst into real sobs. It was something.

A woman got up. She pointed to her scarf, which she had knitted with you. She brought up the Holocaust, which struck me as a bizarre violation of Godwin's law, but then she said that there was this guy, who resisted the Nazis, and he was in a concentration camp, where he wrote that the only thing that matters is human relationships, or something like that, and I understood her. She was saying that you, Karen, had formed good relationships, and that that's the biggest thing there is, bigger even than the Holocaust.

More speakers. A couple of people said, "I tried to be there for her at the end, but … " and I'll never know the predicate of that sentence, because we were not close. I'll know only the lingering regret.

A woman next to me leaned over. She liked what I had said. She confided that she regrets that maybe she was not as sensitive to you as she should have been towards the end. One day she asked you, "How are you, Karen?" and you replied, "Everything sucks," and that was so unlike you. And she wanted to pause, and reach out to you, but she was in a line in a library, a bead on a string, and couldn't stop the line. She had to allow the bead behind her to move forward. And she regrets it to this day.

A geezer got up. He had thinning gray hair, not many teeth, and his wrinkled shirt was encased in suspenders. He said he worked with you. He said "Karen was no saint! She could really lay into you if she didn't like what you were doing!" And he said that the other night he dreamt he was at work in the library, and Karen was there, and walking around as if nothing had changed, and yet only he could see her.

We all gasped and nodded.


Karen Marie Stiner Kaplysz 1956 - 2016

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