READ IT AND REAP: For reasons still unclear to anyone but my therapist — and she’s not telling — I’ve always taken a dim view of special projects dedicated to “the children.” Over the years, I’ve received thousands of press releases about various and sundry kids’ museum projects, and each one has activated my “bah humbug” button. Maybe I’m too in touch with my inner W.C. Fields, who got it at least half right with his, “Anyone who hates children and animals can’t be all bad.” Like many of you, I, too, was once a kid. But obviously unlike too many, I still retain the facilities to remember. Let’s leave it at this: If I was ever the “future” that we are repeatedly told the youth of today represent, few of us would ever have made it into the present. Given my Lord of the Flies proclivities, I consider myself lucky to have crawled out of my own past. In a town where nonprofit fundraising is a high-stakes racket, I’ve long suspected such kid-focused projects have drawn a disproportionate number of individuals looking to feel way too good about themselves by doing way too little.
But this past Sunday, I and all my grumpy attitudes were given serious cause for pause. I happened to pass by the downtown public library, where the movers and shakers were assembling to celebrate the grand opening of the new and improved downstairs kids’ wing in the offing since 2009. Yes, the obligatory giant scissors were on hand for the ceremonial ribbing-cutting. All the big shots and bigwigs were milling about, sizing up the microphones and TV cameras with the intense nonchalance of Olympic sprinters stretching and shaking their withers just before crouching into their blocks. What made this event stand out, however, were the hundreds of kids on hand for the event. Did I say hundreds? By the end of the day, it would be thousands. And their families. Yes, there was free food, face painting, music, jugglers, and a sketch artist who allegedly draws the fastest caricature this side of the Santa Ynez Mountains. Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider — who boasts some seriously credible pipes — would belt out a few karaoke standards: “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” or the more contemporary “Let It Go,” from Frozen. Even more striking was the demographic spread of the crowd. It was decidedly not your typical Juan Crow assembly dominated by well-educated, civic-minded honkies. It was 50 shades of brown, pink, and white, with even some black thrown in, making it the most ethnically diverse gathering Santa Barbara has seen since Fiesta.
Admittedly, I’m a big sucker for libraries. When I was a kid, I would go to the library with my father. It was one of the few things we did together with any regularity, and the trips there and back were uniformly terrifying. In person, my father was reserve, intelligence, and dignity wrapped into one intensely quiet, good-looking package. When Gregory Peck played Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, it was my father whom Peck really wished he could be. But with nine loud, hungry, out-of-control mouths to feed — never consulting with my mother on the matter, my father was always surprised the last one of us was not, in fact, the very last — my father had his demons. During the drives to and from, he would quickly slip into a white-hot reverie of the most soul-searing profanity I still have yet to hear equaled. There was plenty of blood, lots of Jesus, several more bodily fluids, a little bit of Christ, and a few obscure saints thrown in for good measure. Eventually, I would summon the courage to ask if “everything” was all right. About this time, he would also be driving down the middle of the oncoming lane, his theory being this made us more visible — hence safer — to unobservant motorists who might otherwise smash into us. It apparently worked; he never got in an accident. In response, my father would fix me with an anguished rictus grin that was somehow meant to reassure. It never did. It was always a matter of huge suspense whether we’d make it to our destination. We always did. As a result, I am hardwired to regard libraries as places of death-defying sanctuary.
Like my father, I am a shameless reading addict, forever on some binge and bender. Books remain very much my first drug of choice, though I’m still searching for number two. Reading and writing are mundane miracles, an amazing form of collective magic by which otherwise arbitrary scribbles are assigned a range of proscribed — though equally arbitrary — sounds. These are then combined in a host of specific ways, conjuring forth a range of meanings that enable us all to read each other’s minds and to hopscotch through the centuries. Talk about sorcery. In this context, libraries function as the equivalent of time machines, and public libraries allow all of us free passage.
With this in mind, I was quick to extricate my head from my rectum on the matter of civic projects special to kids. The downstairs of the library — once the repository of old newspapers and microfiche machines and a resting place for those seeking solace from the din of their inner voices — has now been transformed into a tremendously inviting place for kids. It manages to be cozy yet expansive, four times the size of the previous upstairs kids’ section but filled with spaces intimately designed for play, discovery, and exploration. The bookshelves themselves seem lower and bigger, hence more aggressively accessible. Half a million people visit the library a year, probably making it the number one downtown destination. Of those, 40 percent are kids. Last year, 4,500 kids got help with their homework there. Think how many more it might be in the new digs this year. Anyone who hasn’t checked it out already should do so. Hopefully the ride there won’t be quite as hairy as mine.