It's my first stop.
I am beginning a new job in a neighborhood I don't know very well, a residential area without a lot of public amenities. The pocket park across the street, where I attended the vigil for a neighbor killed at the bus shelter a few years back, links community and mourning. Just beyond is a convenience store I've visited only once: I don't do plexiglass. The large Catholic church at the same corner reminds me a little of the Chicago parish of my youth; two outdoor benches, offering a bit of welcome and respite, have yet to be installed, though. Outside the branch library, the only seating is the edge of a concrete planter that must have once contained something green. But the library itself quietly calls: welcome home!
On my first visit to Capitol View Library, a familiar friendly face is surprised to see me so far from our last encounters across town, at another library where she worked and I often visited. I explain my presence in the new location and promise to bring the baby I'll be tending, quite nearby, as soon as I'm able.
As part-time nanny, I don't experience the adult-isolation of someone caring full-time for an infant. But I am very quickly very ready for day-time conversation that doesn't involve burps. And, of course, I am always ready for a new book...or four. My first trip outside with the infant yields a few new acquaintances, a few new mysteries to read, and, most importantly, the promise of a free and accessible, safe and vibrant destination for myself and my young charge.
The plot thickens.
During one of my visits with youngster in tow, the children's librarian invites me to an evening event celebrating National Novel Writing Month. I attend the intergenerational event, ranging from middle schoolers to adults long retired. Not one of us is interested in producing a novel – whether inside a month or at the end of some years – but we all share a love of writing, or at least a willingness to enjoy free snacks while sharing in the experience.
Adults applaud younger participants' contributions. The organizer has not anticipated how youth will react to some of the more adult themes shared, however, and some awkward moments ensue. Still, the spirit of creation and sharing is live and a regular monthly writers' meeting results.
We search for a format that works for adults and young teens. Over time, we hear from a playwright, a memoirist, an essayist, a team of young lyricists, an adult with a guitar shares his first song-writing effort.
Along with a variety of part-time jobs, I am a freelance with a local community paper. It's been a long time, however, since I've focused on more creative attempts at expression. Inspired by the group, I answer a local artist's call and submit a piece of creative nonfiction for an anthology. The piece will be published in the anthology, due out in March 2017.
Eventually, with a staff change, the Writers Workshop settles into a bi-weekly rhythm for adult writers. We agree to “homework” with some results that amaze ourselves and others.
Meanwhile, around the branch:
My small charge is still an infant, and the mom is showing me a new method of swaddling. We hear shots, and I look out the window to see if someone needs help. The situation is beyond that.
In my decades in the District, I have heard shots countless times, sadly watched the aftermath of nearby killings, and lost a colleague as well as too many friends of friends. I have attended untold meetings about community welfare and public safety, written about many of them for the community paper. I have never before actually witnessed a life taken and lost.
Crime scene efforts and official and community response continue for hours outside the window. Inside, after reporting the little I know about the tragedy, I settle into reciting psalms and hoping my inner state is not affecting the baby too much. I'm still a little shell-shocked, I guess, when the man next to me on the bus stop that evening points to activity across the street: power-washing the blood from the concrete.
I am personally blessed when, a few months afterward, a man I've just met notices the tears I'm holding back in response to an ordinary question and immediately diagnoses a malady I didn't realize I had. He puts me in touch with a local meditation teacher. Without asking anything in return, she helps me shut off the nightmare that had been on repeat for months, regardless of whether my eyes were open or closed.
St. Luke's held an ecumenical memorial service for 21-year-old Amari Jenkins, killed on their steps at high noon in summer 2015. But this neighborhood won't see grief counseling or organized community response for youth or adults, following this death or any of the other violent crimes that occur nearby. The need for trauma-sensitive environments is well understood but remains academic, rather than reality, for city schools.
A more recent Writers Workshop is interrupted, on a far colder night more than a year later, when one participant calls to say he cannot come because of shooting outside his door and another has to leave when her teen texts, from a location a few miles distant: “They're shooting.”
On one cold, sunny recent day, the child in my charge, now a toddler, was exploring library grounds on our way back home. During one of his repeated trips under the seldom-used bike rack, we met a pair of young people waiting to enter. The “elder,” a middle-schooler, had stayed home that day to watch a younger sibling, not more than 9 or 10, suspended for several days for fighting. The younger child reported already finishing a “school packet” and was ready to get back to school as well as inside to a library computer. Efficacy and morality of suspending children aside, current truancy law prohibits school-age children from using the library during school hours. So, cold as it was, these two eager-to-engage young people were stuck outside until they could plausibly enter.
Once inside, they join the regular throng after school at Capitol View: Young people using computers, playing with the table-top toys or art materials, reading and talking. A few take to letting off steam – running around, even cartwheeling on one recent evening – if no one is keeping a close eye. Some are accompanied by adults. Many are on their own, and some regularly use the library as a safe place to meet their grown-ups after school. Formal tutoring is an option, and most are happy to engage with any adult who wants to ask about their day or their reading matter.
This branch library is one of the last in the large city system to be renovated. Capital funds, always tight, have dwindled, and agitation for community-responsive building has fallen off over the years. Capitol View Library will soon be closing for several months, with no interim space in place.
I expect that I will shlep with my small friend to another branch, by bus or by stroller. But the closure will leave a huge hole in our days. And I know it will leave many of all ages asking, now what?
Virginia Spatz is a grateful member of the Capitol View Writer's Workshop, a branch activity in the DC Public Library system. The workshop began during National Novel Writing Month 2015, ironically drawing participants more interested in almost every other form of writing: blogging, poetry, nonfiction, memoirs, play writing, and song lyrics. The group allows writers, beginning or experienced, to share writing, explore process and collaborate with other writers. All are welcome. New time and location beginning in March, during Capitol View's renovation. Contact: [email protected]
Virginia Avniel Spatz maintains SayThisName.Wordpress.com for the DC community, blogs on Jewish topics at Songeveryday.org, and can also be found at vspatz.wordpress.com.