As a child in the 1960s, I knew Ambridge to be jammed with pedestrians and big, new cars, morning and night. On most evenings, Merchant Street, lined with shops, bars and restaurants drew families that walked arm in arm, as they might in Naples or Athens. Clusters of clean-cut men stood on corners, smoking and waving to their friends, teasing or belting a few bars of “O Solo Mio” for the women leaning out of third-floor windows.
We spilled into public out of necessity. Families were growing faster than company housing could accommodate, with three generations occupying tiny apartments and houses built with full knowledge that immigrants demanded little in the way of personal space. These houses still stand, and are about the size of today’s utility sheds.
In my family’s house, we did homework at the kitchen table with my mother ironing behind us. When the session broke up, if I wanted to read, I retreated to the basement, amid the laundry, casks of fermenting wine and crocks of sauerkraut, my father running a jigsaw and listening to a ballgame on the radio.
The togetherness sometimes overwhelmed me. Craving solitude, I sought out havens—the woods or the cool order of an empty church. But my favorite sanctuary was the most richly endowed and widely ignored building in town.
As I climbed its granite stairs, I passed under tall bronze lanterns that told me the Laughlin Memorial Library occupied a higher plane than the street out front. Thousands of steelworkers, six times a day, marched past the library and onto the bridge to Aliquippa. As they crossed, they surveyed their destination on the bank ahead, a continuous massive building that stretched for six miles downriver, the Jones & Laughlin steel mill — J&L to locals—a hulking, fire-breathing monster, bound by railroad tracks to the riverbank.
I seldom noticed a mill worker stop into the library, or hang out there before or after work. They headed home, but not before filing into back door of the saloon at the end of the block. Inside ran a long bar with no stools. The string of workers threw back shots of whiskey and beer chasers, then, like hot billets traveling down the rolling mill, exited the front door on the corner, where their wives picked them up, efficiently juiced to face domestic life in close quarters.
The library rose above the herd. In addition to its elevation, its brass doors demanded that a skinny twelve year-old had to plant his back foot to pull them open. “There must be something really good in here, something important, like a treasure,” I thought. When I entered, another world opened before me, as if I had been transported far away and into a refreshing, invigorating, and oddly familiar dimension in time. Apart from the matron at the front desk, who greeted me with a pressed smile and a nod, I was often completely alone.
Alexander Laughlin, no relation to the owners of J&L, built the library in memory of his son, who had served heroically in the first World War, only to return home to die in a dentist’s chair. Laughlin, an Ambridge industrialist and owner of Central Tube Company, took his cue from Andrew Carnegie, sparing no expense in building this public temple of erudition, right up to the vaulted ceilings, cherry tables, shelves, cabinets, Italian marble floors and columns, leather chairs and an endowment that has kept it in sweet condition.
I took my pick of seats and views. Near the windows, sunlight warmed me. Facing the corners, I fell back into a wing chair and lost the world behind me. My family’s house, the Catholic school and church, our neighborhood and the houses of relatives all made me feel at home and part of a community, but the library made me feel whole, as if I could explore every corner of my own universe and the places I had never seen. The populace of books and the millions of ideas they contained set loose my dreams.
Drowsiness never threatened my quest. Instead, something I read while doing my homework had formed a question that nagged me, and I knew it could be answered by peeking in the reference section. The flat metal drawers of the card catalog spoke to me, promising entire volumes on the migratory fish of the Mississippi delta or the first closed sewage system. How could I resist?
I liked the way every step sounded important against the marble floors as I imagined myself pursuing knowledge and culture. In reality, I was simply scratching an itch, one after another. Chasing leads, I piled up fat books until I found one to take back to the table for closer inspection only to get waylaid in biography, following a thread from encyclopedia to compendium. Absorbed, like a miser with his ledgers or an archaeologist on his knees with his brushes, hours rushed by on a current of curiosity.
During hot summer days at home, my friends and siblings grumbled until one of the mothers took them to the Ambridge pool, a massive cement playground of chest high water. Mayhem ruled, pitched with peer pressure and wet, snotty, kid-on-kid cruelty. I was afraid of the water and wore a bathing suit the way a Chihuahua wears a tutu, so I begged to be left at home or taken to the library. In winter, movies offered escape from the busy house and family, but the library allowed me to direct and star in my own movie – a Fellini-esque chase, streaked with impressions, foreignness and startling facts.
Left undisturbed among maps and magazines, I investigated far-flung nations, their mountains, shores and people, their dwellings, their towns, leaders, legends and heroes. Connecting the word “culture” to the mold growing in Petrie dishes in science class, I slipped places under a sort of microscope and found the languages, arts, innovations, and literature feeding off the surroundings, climate, and history. New smells seeped out of the pages of Conrad, new fears out of the caves of Twain and I swam in all of it without bearings or sense of time.<!–[if gte mso 9]>
Noticing the sunbeams had slipped from the table and climbed the walls, I resurfaced with the feeling of having been swimming undersea or through a passageway between worlds–I remember as if it were yesterday because it still happens. I feel woozy, shaking off a familiar disorientation, wiping my palms down the length of my torso as if some slime remained from a membrane through which I passed. How long had I been away?
Novels were best for borrowing, so I went to the desk and checked them out. Finally, I savored one last exhilaration—walking away from the mess I left behind. The librarians insisted on re-stacking every book, so I felt like a rock star leaving a trashed hotel room.
Out on the sidewalk, nobody asked me what I had been doing there. I held my affection for the library privately, because what I did there felt illicit and indulgent. I could pretend there, to be purposeful and scholarly; the librarians probably giggled. The act came easily, though, captivated as I was by the excursions, stories, facts, no-shits and ahas. I wanted to do it forever. But, as far as I could tell, the hours led to nowhere in particular, no purpose – an admission that made me feel guilty, because every educated person I had met had become useful: accountants, lawyers, nurses, doctors, and teachers. Me? I was just feeding my fascination.
I hustled off to the Tick-Tock Dairy, a soda fountain, where I could call for a ride home and watch the workers get off the shuttle bus that carried them across the bridge from J& L. Their hair shined and their faces still glowed from the showers. They wore clean clothes and carried empty lunch buckets. Watching them, I pictured myself among them, one of the guys, joking, prosperous and woven tightly into the community. But as soon as I looked back into my milkshake, I dreamt of other places or another kind of life. I noticed the owner of the Tick-Tock, drying his hands on his apron while standing at the front window waiting for the guys to come in and buy cigarettes. He had found another way to live and work outside the mills and I admired him. Yet, I figured a time might come when I would join the boys outside.