The Boston Public Library is a place that inspires conflicting emotions in me; it was here that I retreated during a period of great uncertainty in my life, between jobs, to see if I could become an inventor. I buried myself in the patent library, then a collection of use-worn books and microfilm, along with a regular group of obvious crackpots, trying to develop a coffee warmer whose temperature would decrease as the weight of the pot was reduced by the gradual removal of the liquid within.
I had spent too many nights working late at the firm I’d just left only to discover, when I rounded the corner into the little kitchen opposite my office, that the glass globe of the pot had burst from overheating, sending glass flying and spilling coffee. I had an idea—granted, a little one—and I wanted to make the world a better place.
Like many other would-be inventors who frequented the library’s main branch in Copley Square, nothing ever came of my idea. I found some prior art that might be infringed upon by my design—the property of a large Japanese manufacturer–and so gave up, although I continued to haunt the halls and stairs of the library in my temporary idleness; I had nowhere to go, nothing to do for two weeks until my new job started, so why not make the most—or the least—of it.
I wandered around, taking in the wall paintings of The Quest and Achievement of the Holy Grail, culminating in the ascension of Sir Galahad into heaven. It was during one such reverie that I felt a presence beside me and turned to see the master himself, Jorge Luis Borges, the Blind Bard of Argentina.
“The story of the Holy Grail—interests you?” he asked quietly.
“The tale of the quest. It is as old as Homer. Every people that has passed more than a brief period on earth has fashioned one, and told and re-told it through generations.”
He seemed a genial docent of the place, which struck me as odd knowing that while he was the most literate of men, he created in The Library of Babel a place that drove its occupants to madness, murder, despair. The narrator of the story has traveled since he was a youth in search of a book in The Library of Babel; now aged and blind, he expects that he will die not far from where he was born, in the same library. Then he believes he will thrown over a railing by others, and that his body will fall endlessly in infinite space until it is dissolved by the force of the air that his down-rushing body cuts through.
“Yes, although I am a homebody, not an Odysseus,” I replied. “I don’t stray far from this neighborhood.”
“You are . . . a yuppie?” he asked hesitantly, reluctant to offend, but instinctively striving for le mot juste.
“Yes. Between jobs.”
“Umm. But you have something—lined up?”
“Yes. I thought I would take a couple weeks off, see if I could use them to break out of my rut.”
“Which rut is that?”
“The careerist 9-to-5 routine. I was trying to invent something, but it looks as if I have failed, and so I go back to the salt mines.”
“You wanted to make a lot of money with this invention of yours—correct?”
“Yes. It was a coffee warmer.”
He doesn’t seem impressed. “You should not be critical of yourself. Many people fail at what they set out to do.”
“True,” I say. “Still, it makes my upcoming return to the grind of work that much more painful.”
“It could be worse,” he says.
“You could come to the end of your career after having failed to do much of anything, and be pushed out of your job for incompetence or corruption or misconduct. And then you announce to the world that you are going to write your memoir—and never finish it.”
Seen in that light, he was right. I had many years of drudgery ahead of me, with at least the possibility of success—and a not-too-shabby paycheck along the way. “You’re right, but how often does what you describe happen?”
“Walk this way,” he said, then turned and tapped his cane on the floor as he lead me down a long hallway. I tried to walk his way, extending my hand like a blind man, but there were people watching me with disapproval so I gave up.
I followed him into a hexagonal room, which give out onto another, which led to a third, and so on. “Do you see this endless succession of book-lined studies?” he asked.
“They are filled with the unwritten memoirs that provincial Bostonian celebrities said they were going to write after they left the 60-watt glare of your local spotlight, but never did.”
Now that he mentions it, I realize he’s right. Every blow-dried anchorman, politician, executive director of a non-profit group or arts organization–when they shuffle off to well-deserved obscurity after having been cashiered by their board, or corporate headquarters in New York, or the Attorney General or a grand jury, they all say they’re going to take some time off and write a book. As if that’s an easy thing to do.
“You know, I actually won a bet on that subject a while back,” I say.
“Which one was that?”
“I don’t want to mention any names so as not to crack the thin veneer of fictional shellac I’ve brushed onto the facts . . .”
“Stop—please!” he says. “I commune with immortals, I don’t have time for your shaggy-dog conceits spun out to thirteen decimal places.”
Okay, so I got a little carried away, but can you blame me? I’m with a guy who opened the doors into the realm of the divine when I first read him at the age of eighteen. No more Steve Miller Band for me. Well, maybe “Space Cowboy,” the garish yellow album, but that was it.
“Fine,” I said. “So—show me around.”
He looks up as if he can see the spines of the books that line the walls. “This room contains the unwritten memoirs of politicians,” he said. “Within each book is the truth that one of your elected officials was too cowardly to reveal. Each eventually gave up or, if they hired a ghost to write for them, chose to conceal.”
It is indeed an impressive collection; the partisan who claimed to be non-partisan, the man who spoke continually of our state constitution as the treasure of our Commonwealth, then violated it whenever it stood in the way of his ambition. The three—three!—consecutive Speakers of our distinguished House of Representatives convicted of crimes; a fourth who narrowly missed indictment, perhaps because prosecutors got tired of the same boring routine.
“These politicians—I notice that they are all from the same party.”
“Yes,” I reply. “Democrats are so successful here, they leave no corruption for the Republicans!”
“Si—it is unfair.”
I examine a few titles, but find nothing that causes me to linger. “Interesting,” I say, “but unremarkable. Everyone knows politicians don’t tell the truth, so whoever buys a political autobiography is on notice that it is shoddy goods. It is like buying a pillow with the ‘Do Not Remove Under Penalty of Law’ tag missing.”
Borges hears me out, his hands on his cane, his body rocking ever so slight. “Si,” he says. “There is nothing to be learned here.”
We move on to the next room, which has higher ceilings lined with bulging shelves. “This is the Chamber of Excuses,” Borges says.
“Excuses for cowardly acts?”
“No—excuses for not writing,” he says. He lets his hand slip along the backs of the books until he finds, by feel, the one he is looking for. “Here,” he says. “Read this.”
He pulls out a book with the words “Social Media” on the spine and hands it to me. I allow it to fall open in my outspread hands. “Writing is 3% talent, 2% inspiration, and 95% staying off of Facebook,” I read aloud.
“True—no?” he asks with a sly smile on his face.
“Si,” I say. It’s a good thing we are inland and not near the ocean or I would say si by the sea. “You know our great director Oliver Stone?”
“The overweight paranoid?”
“That is him. He has an equation for writers: Ass + Seat = Writing.”
“Ah,” Borges says, tossing his head back slightly, appreciating the wisdom, the humor, the insight of the director of Natural Born Killers.
“Tell me, Jorge . . .”
“Please—call me Borges. Everybody else does.”
“Okay . . . Borges. I’ve seen enough—let’s move on.”
“On to the next room,” he says, and we enter a cavernous hall with high vaulted ceilings. “This,” Borges says, his free hand sweeping upwards, “is the Hall of Self-Delusion.”
“And who are the Self-Deluded?”
“The insignificant personality, thrust into the local spotlight by circumstance, merely because he or she is next in line, to strut and fret its hour upon the stage.”
If he’s going to start quoting Shakespeare, I’m going to have to take my game up a notch. “Like Rostand’s Chantecler, the rooster who believes his crowing makes the sun come up?”
“Precisely,” Borges says.
“Like the local weatherman who began to think of himself as a rock star, and hit on the daughter of friends of mine at a Christmas party?”
“Like . . . Nick Jagger?” I don’t correct him, figuring the library’s Braille editions of Newsweek from the sixties have been worn down to the point where they’re unreadable, and change the subject.
“What else can I learn in this library?”
“Follow me,” he says, and we begin to descend a spiral staircase, the kind I used to imagine I walked down as the last phase of self-hypnosis. We reach a dark room, one without the airy feel of the sequential chambers on the ground floor. It is the basement; the scene recalls for me Saturday Story Hours of my youth, and my mother’s misbegotten effort to spark my interest in flowers at the local Ladies Garden Club, Junior Division.
Borges walks unsteadily but without incident, holding the railing with one hand, his cane in the crook of his elbow, his other arm gliding around the center pole. The room is dark, a matter of indifference to him, but of some import to me until my eyes adjust to the absence of light. I take the last few steps gingerly and when my foot hits the floor, stop to reconnoiterer, as my 8th grade English teacher would put it.
Borges knows the way but I don’t, and so I must feel my way along the walls. “Where are we going?” I ask.
“To the Vault of Micturition.” I’m not sure what that means, and I’m getting nervous, but I can’t turn back and . . . just leave him here.
“Come,” he says. He’s put his cane down again and his tapping echoes from the stone floor down the long corridor. “We are almost there.”
My vision begins to return just as he stops. “This is it.” He must know exactly how far to go to every destination; sightless, he must have memorized each route and numbered the steps his feet must take. He raises his hand to the door, pushes it open, and—a burst of brightness explodes out of a white-tiled room, making me, like him, blind.
“What . . . where are we?” I ask.
“The men’s room. The lights come on automatically when you walk in.”