As a New York Public Library cardholder, you already know that your library card is your key to the vast array of free resources at the Library—from more than six million books, movies, and more in our circulating collections to 300,000 e-books, hundreds of online databases, periodicals and magazines, and the thousands of public computers available across our 92 locations. To keep benefitting from everything that the Library has to offer, you’ll just need to do one thing: renew your library card.
This is what they tell me. That I’d better get myself together and prove my goddamn identity as a Resident of New York with a capital R for the capital L library. For that’s what it is to declare oneself a member of New York society–it means it is your entire identity: “living in New York.” All wrapped up in what it might mean to have a functioning library card in addition to being a functioning alcoholic. After all, are you the type of person to further perpetuate the demise of New York as a place that’s even remotely considered literary and arts-oriented as opposed to chock full of finance bros and other such Patrick Bateman types both male and female? No, it is your responsibility to prove to the world–nay, to New York (who is owed everything by everyone all the time by sheer virtue of non-virtue)–that it is still a worthwhile city, filled with plenty of worthwhile people who do such things as read (or rather, jack off in the bathroom of the public library, which is much less populated than any Starbucks one). And, failing that, at least meander through the “lion” library to pay homage to the Sex and the City movie, for it is where Carrie Bradshaw decided to have her botched wedding (but what isn’t botched when it comes to always trying to achieve lofty things when they weren’t meant for you? That’s the curse New York inflicts upon people.).
Yet what can you do to prove that you’re still a Resident of New York with a capital R without an actual residence? Not that you ever really had one to begin with while running around trying everything new (as the Broadway version of Eva Peron would describe it) to make yourself fit into a place that was designed to make most people feel like awkwardly shaped or extra, non-essential puzzle pieces. The library was no better at making you feel “at one” with the city. After all, when looking at those ominous leering lions on the exterior (that’s why the “set” was so ideal for Ghostbusters) that try so ferociously to declare themselves as having more clout than the largest library in the world–the British Library–one can see into the past. Understand that the library was created by the most elite members of New York society–just as everything else in New York is still “created.” Only it’s less about being under the guise of philanthropy and more about Google and Apple donating an occasional park or two named in their honor.
Those nineteenth century Edith Wharton types (except, of course, they were men like Andrew Carnegie) just wanted to offer the city’s less fortunate a place to improve their chances of acquiring any erudition (as if it’s something that can be transmitted to the average non-autodidact). Poor, helpless plebes that they were. And what better way to feel learned than amid a Beaux-Arts architectural style as envisioned and executed by Carrère and Hastings? For even if one doesn’t apprehend a word of what they’re reading, it’s impossible not to feel sophisticated in such a setting. That is, alas, unless you see its clientele of the twenty-first century. These are not dapper denizens hoping for self-improvement. No, these are mostly tourists wanting photos in the grand, anachronistic halls and stairways that serve as social media gold. As for books, what are those? Just another interesting–kitschy–prop for the picture, one supposes. And sure, there are other branches throughout Manhattan and the other still lesser boroughs (try as Brooklyn might to usurp the latter in cachet and iconicness), but this is the one that truly serves as the manifestation of the capital L library in New York. Of trying to belong to it and fit into it comfortably the same way you try to in the city itself. Both entities want you to prove your residence. That you’re willing to do whatever it requires to get something resembling a permanent address. Jump through the absurd hoops it takes to do so in a city that offers nothing but more problems to your already tenuous solutions. Still, you think, ah hell, I’ll do it for New York. I’ll do it for everything the city “means” (any such meaning long ago disemboweled by the alteration of certain zoning laws). Then again, I think about how impersonal it was for them to call me “Cardholder.” How insignificant it made me feel, just like living in New York overall. All they care about–all they want to know for sure–is that you are “card carrying.” A devoted Resident still committed to dosing yourself with the delusion that New York is “hallowed”–at least when it comes to championing literature. Then I realize it’s not just my library card that’s expiring, but any enthusiasm I have left to drink this poisonous Kool-Aid. Which is not even complimentary. Surrender Dorothy. Dorothy, who preferred to go back to Kansas. Drab as it was, at least it wasn’t a lie.
The lions watch you leave, still silently writhing and roaring from the phantom touches of creation by E.C. Potter and the Piccirilli Brothers. To them, you’re just another person defeated by a landscape so harsh in every way. This strange place–both New York and its Library–that wants so badly to convince people it’s open to all, and not, in the end just another place to underscore your so-called inadequacies and subpar class position. You cannot renew your library card today, sad peon. You don’t really live here. And you never really did.