Saturday, March 24, 2007


It's in, these days, to knock one's memory. Even the Thirty-Somethings admit they called the police to report a stolen vehicle, when actually they had just forgotten that they were driving the old Honda that day instead of the new Hummer.

And yes, indeed, I forget things. Though I've lived in Oklahoma almost two years, I still manage to rattle off my new zip code only on windless days. Recently I showed up at a doctor's office and insisted that I did too have an 8:15 appointment; I had just made it 24 hours ago, for heaven's sake!

"And what are you here about today?" asked the polite, puzzled receptionist.
"A routine skin exam," I answered quick as a flash.
"Ma'am? This is an optometry practice; we don't do dermatology."

Right date, wrong address. Could happen to anybody.

But there's this little old guy on roller skates. . . . And despite trivial lapses such as the foregoing, I'm pretty proud of him, frankly.

Okay, a tad of backstory here. Before the Emperor of Cyberspace ruled, before Queen Electronica reigned, a student needing research material went to a counter in the college library and wrote on a small slip of paper the Dewey Decimal numbers of volumes requested. A clerk behind the counter took the slip of paper and disappeared into the Stacks--the acres of metal shelves storing the thousands of available books. The clerk then hunted down the books, one by one, Dewey Decimal by Decimal. In about thirty or forty minutes, he brought them back to you. If you were a winner in the Stacks Roulette, one of the books might turn out to be useful. It took a graduate student most of the summer term to find the identical material that his grandkids can today locate online during a single TV commerical, while simultaneously text-messaging their chums.

Now, back to memory. In recent years, I've had a weird impression that my memory is under the supervision of that library clerk of yesteryear. Obviously he is much older these days. And slower. But you know, he's pretty darned good just the same. Somewhere he has obtained a pair of roller skates to get around up there--and I'm not talking in-lines here; I'm talking old-fashioned metal skates that clamped on your shoes and were tightened with a skate key.

The Old Guy clearly prefers the far reaches of the stacks, where the early stuff is kept, rather than the more recent material. For example, he can still deliver the first and last names of every one of my sixth grade classmates. Likewise, most of the long narrative poem, "The Highwayman," by Noyes. (He hasn't lost the last two stanzas or anything; I just never got around to learning them.) And he can put his shaky fingers on lots of other vital, if outdated information-- 'way more than most of my friends care to hear about, frankly.

More recent data, such as my zip code or the passwords for the ten different online accounts I seem to need these days, or where in the world I put last year's income tax files--all these are up front in the grey stacks of my mind, recently uploaded, as it were; and the Old Guy can't always make it that far forward.

Today, for instance, while discussing collegiate women's basketball over lunch (we're still hip-high in the NCAA playoffs here), we brought up an old scandal that made national news fully 20 years ago. A key player in that melodrama was a witness who showed up, uninvited and unwelcome as a tornado, at a climactic moment. The witness's name was in all the papers, and I knew it well, then.
But now the name was deep in the stacks, not anywhere near the tip of my tongue. Try as I would, I could not retrieve it. And it was all so long ago, and so trivial (to me) at that time, that I wasn't at all sure the Old Guy even had the information in his stacks. So I tried to put the question out of my mind.

Half an hour later, paying the check, I suddenly blurted aloud (startling the waiter clean out of his apron): "Nora Delany!" And indeed it was.

The Old Guy is admittedly slow, and his rusty skates creak and wobble, and he puffs as he hunts. But he's got a lot of territory to cover, and I hope he stays on the job for a long time yet.


Emily said...

It is the year 2067...I sit in a sunny corner of the day room, endlessly repeating the prologue to Canterbury Tales....
Somehow the idea that this could end up being the only "book" left in my stacks is very comforting; to that end I practice it every couple months or so (and extra during April, of course)

C. Carico said...

Maybe I better learn the prologue to Canterbury Tales, also. That way it would at least look like we were having a conversation in the day room.