Saturday, September 20, 2003

Crime and misdemeanor

Like it? 
The public library’s main branch reopened this week after two years of renovations. I saw the pictures right here in The Herald News, and it looked very nice in there — too nice, in fact. After seeing a picture of the gorgeously redone lobby taken from the second floor, I dashed myself against the walls of my apartment, grinding my teeth in agony.

I love the library and admired the renovations, but I was wracked by guilt. I committed a monstrous crime in my youth: I took out a book in 1995 and never returned it.

The volume that led to my downfall is “Side Effects” by Woody Allen, a collection of his short stories. On June 21, 1995, I checked out the book fully intending to return it two weeks later.

At least I read it, ladies and gentlemen of the jury. It’s not as if I checked it out to play street hockey with, or ever used it to beat small animals and children. I read it cover to cover several times, even the Library of Congress bullshit on the bottom of the copyright page.

After two weeks, I didn’t return the book. I was reading it obsessively, memorizing it, analyzing every word. I would have worn it as a hat if it had provided more shade. It was also never in bookstores — and even if it were, those books cost actual money.

You must understand: Woody Allen is one of my favorite authors and filmmakers. I admire his work more than anyone else’s. Dig this excerpt from his short story “The Condemned”:

“Lying back on his bed ... he appeared to be some kind of inanimate object, like a large football or two tickets to the opera. A moment later, when he rolled over and the moonlight seemed to strike him from a different angle, he looked exactly like a twenty-seven-piece starter set of silverware, complete with salad bowl and soup tureen.”

To hell with Shakespeare!

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, did the library actually expect me to give up brilliant prose like that after only two weeks?

For the first six months or so, the library sent late notices to my house with alarming frequency. A cleansing fire took care of them nicely. After a while, the notices stopped arriving, and with a fiendish cackle I moved “Side Effects” from under my pillow to my bookshelf, where it fit in nicely with my growing collection of legally acquired books.

Then the paranoia set in. I began to suspect that the librarians knew all about Woody and me.

“Why don’t you bring that book back?” my wife asked one day. "I bet they won’t charge you for it.”

“Forget it,” I said. “With my fines, it’s grand larceny.”

I went to the library, looked up books about the Library Police, but was too chicken to check them out. I imagined they were going to set up traps for me — complicated snares involving buckets of KFC original as bait and tranquilizer darts shot into my neck. Eventually, I stopped going. The false noses and oversized wigs became too cumbersome. So I borrowed books on my wife’s card.

Years later, wandering through a bookstore, I found a thick tome called “The Complete Prose of Woody Allen.” It contained, among other things, every story in “Side Effects.” I brought it home and stuck it on the shelf near my library book.

“Does this mean you can bring that old book back now?” my wife asked. “I’m tired of taking out stuff for you.”

“I can’t bring it back!” I spat. “I’ve come too far to stop now. The overdue fines will bankrupt us.” I cocked an eyebrow and twirled my mustache. “Oh yes, my dear — ‘us.’ You’re an accessory.”

“They have those amnesty days,” she said, “where you can bring in overdue books and don’t have to pay the fine. Why don’t you call and find out?”

So naïve! “That’s just what they want you to think!” I brandished the book at her. “They’d love to get their hands on a prize like me. And while I’m occupied, they send the Library Police here to take it away from me.”

“You can always drop it in the box, you know.”

I removed the library book from its shelf and stroked the cover. “It’s mine!” I hissed. “My precious...

And so it was until the library reopened after its renovations. I read all about the way it was fixed up, with new skylights and stacks you can wander through.

“It’s supposed to be beautiful in there,” my wife said. “Hint, hint.”

“Of course!” I yelped. “They fixed up the joint — just to torment me! They know I can’t check out books without paying my fine! Oh, they’re clever. They are clever.”

Bring the stupid book back already!” she yelled.

So on Monday, 426 weeks after the book was due, I crawled back into the library. I had calculated my overdue fines, at 10 cents a day, to be about $298.

I didn’t have $298, so once I entered the bright new lobby, I made sure I had an unobstructed path out the door in case I had to make a run for it.

The librarian — a nice lady and not at all like the cruel-eyed federal agent I had expected — scanned the book. “It’s not in the computer system anymore,” she said. “Oh, well.”

I braced for more. “Is that it?”

Apparently, it was.

Since she didn’t know of my awful crime, I said, “Can I get a new card?”

“That’ll be one dollar,” she said.

I felt like kissing her. Now I have a brand new library card and a brand new library. I’m a born-again book nerd.

Incidentally, that same day, I used my new card to check out a jazz CD. The library wants it back on Sept. 30.

I like jazz.

I like jazz a lot.

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