In 1989 if you wanted to do research you had to go to a library. The internet was unimaginable though only a few years later it appeared as if out of no where. So in 1989 with the intention of researching graduate schools, I headed to the main branch of the Boston Public Library. In the modern atrium was a photo exhibit of elderly people in a day program together though in many ways alone. I worked with elderly people in Boston at the time and was mesmerized by the expressions and emotions, the sparse locations filled with so much life that the photos conveyed. A tall skinny guy with glasses was looking at the photos as well. I recall he moved around me to see the photos better, although he was a foot taller than I, so I could hardly have obscured his view. I think he spoke first asking why I was so interested in the photos. I told him about my work which I loved. He told me he was waiting for a movie at the Cheri, a theatre on Boylston Street now long since closed. I asked him what he was reading. Not what he did, not where he was from, nor where he had gone to school. Just what he was reading. By coincidence we were both captivated by Flannery O’Connor. In 1961 she published “Everything That Rises Must Converge” yet we had both just read it. 1961 seemed like ancient history, though fewer than 30 years before that moment: a time when the world existed in grayscale and formality not the colorful time we inhabited. We talked about writers of the South and especially Thomas Wolfe whom I found hypnotic. Then he asked me if we could meet some time for dinner. I was a recent college graduate in drab clothes and oversized glasses. He was a tall skinny guy wearing a worn out work shirt. At the public library the ghosts who haunted the halls were homeless men with nowhere else to go, but he didn’t seem like one of those ghosts to me so I made a suggestion. Before a date we should read a book so we had something to discuss. I liked the idea of not talking about ourselves. I think I was tired of all the self-reference that comes from college life and here was someone game not to be absorbed in the day to day but rather in the idea of where books could take us. I suggested “The Tempest,” a Shakespeare play I had long meant to read. No sooner did I suggest it then he spoke as if he were reading my mind—he too had always meant to read that one.
Before cellphones there was call waiting and roommates and the calculus of whose call was more important and the vain attempts to remember to pass on messages. And so some days later the guy from the library got through letting me know he’d tried several times to reach me. We planned to meet and discuss “The Tempest” at a Vietnamese restaurant in Allston with four tables where you would bring your own beer. And so we did meet and although the Tempest was just a jumping off point it also told us a lot about one another. Ironically all the chance and coincidence of the play fell flat on us. It was the agony when Caliban said: “that when I waked I cried to dream again.”
The mysticism of “The Tempest,” not comedy but not tragedy. The simple agony of complex dynamics written gracefully and precisely by Flannery O’Connor. The idea that our connection was formed by the random spark of conversation and the solitary contemplation over several weeks that followed, that would not have happened if I could have googled grad schools at home, if he had been watching Netflix, if we had gone home and texted each other for hours. It’s not just the library that was magical but the moment in time where what seems commonplace today would have made that chance meeting at the Boston Public Library impossible.
— Jennifer Goldsmith
Fiction Stacks, Lower Level