The Germans call it a Wanderjahr. It’s when there comes a time in a man’s life that it becomes a duty to himself and his spirit to take one year off from whatever he’s engaged in, and travel to all of the cities and towns of his homeland where he once lived. I did this in 2009.
For some quixotic reason, halfway through my travels, coming up from Arizona where I had once lived for 20 years in the Valley of the Sun, I wound up in Salt Lake City, Utah – a place I had never visited. I must have spent three weeks there. I remember it was almost mid-March and cold, and so I spent the nights at one of the far-flung shelters, where they bussed us homeless guys ten to fifteen miles out of the center of the city. It wasn’t a good shelter and there was a lot of police harassment. I think I had to stay in Salt Lake City because my monthly allotment money from the state of New Hampshire, where I had been living for ten years, had run out for that month.
There was one scenic and all-enduring aspect of this citadel city of the Mormon religion that I will never forget: its downtown main public library. It was an architectural wonder, and at least half of its patrons were homeless men. It was comprised of three huge oblong, circular floors. The walls of the upper two floors were all blocks of glass that towered 50 X 50 feet, encasing a view of the massive Wasatch Mountain chain that surrounds the city like a giant fortress.
The library’s ground level was graced with cozy gift shops, bookstalls, juice and coffee cafes, souvenir kiosks, and a religious enclave. The upper two floors had trappings of European refinement. White café tables were placed with picturesque, proper spacing around half of its perimeter. There were avant-garde, comfortable lounges and chairs, and mahogany wood paneling for glass encasements containing rare classic books and artifacts.
It was perhaps the second or third time I had visited this library, grateful to be out of the cold, and coming out of the daze a crowded shelter put me in. Looking around, I saw my fellow peers with their uncut hair, torn clothes, and mangled shoes, all sitting there studiously reading a book or magazine, or working on one of the library’s computers. I was struck to starkly see, for the first time, the incongruity of people like us sitting down in a place of sophistication like that library, being treated like gentlemen by the staff, protected from the cold, quiet, studiously gleaning knowledge through the library’s books, magazines, newspapers, and computers.
It déjà vued me back to the other libraries I had frequented during the fifteen years of my homelessness, to recollect the same polite, professional attitudes by the librarians shown to me and my peers in an unharried, genteel, decorously furnished environment. This grateful musing spurred me to think deeper, rhapsodizing that maybe we were a new breed of thinkers. We are not men of position or wealth like Englishmen of the 17th century, who were educated in literature and the arts and named by their countrymen as The Literati. We are men torn from societal life who, nonetheless, persevere to acquire knowledge and dignity under almost impossible circumstances.
I conjectured further by asking myself how we started off to begin with, back when we wore loincloths and carried clubs, trying to learn more in a most unfriendly world. Perhaps we are the second wave of a new cultural age, where the fundamentals of living right had to be learned first by the men who are closer to its true meaning? Are men who can still paint on cave walls a “New Literati?”
Thanks for your time. This essay is dedicated to all of the humanist librarians who have taken the time with their expertise and energy to elevate the feelings the homeless man has for himself.
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