Friday, November 9, 2007

Tuesday, March 3, 1987

It most definitely was not a dark and stormy night. The grey skies over Manhattan showed no sign of yielding to spring. New Yorkers were still wearing gloves, mufflers and earmuffs as they exited the subway, watching the warm moisture from people’s breath as it escaped from the mouths of strangers.

Having worked for the past thirty-four years at Columbia University, Edith Susnick was a familiar face to many people on campus. Short and thin, with closely-cropped grey hair, the soft-spoken librarian had steered countless students toward the information they needed for their research. Edith had always kept her part of the library functioning with pristine efficiency. Although she was extremely polite and attentive to their needs, Columbia’s students often wondered if Edith ever heard a single word anyone said to her. Many suspected she was tuned to some high-pitched frequency from an alien planet. Most people on campus assumed she was still a virgin.

The hard truth? Edith Susnick was a hopeless romantic who, when asked why she had never married, would quickly explain that her marital status had absolutely nothing to do with sexual preference. Several decades ago, Edith concluded that the social ritual of dating a man was such an intellectually stifling chore that it really wasn’t worth the effort. Given the choice between suffering through dinner with some arrogant boor who couldn’t control his ego or a good novel, she much preferred to pick up a book, turn on some classical music, and keep herself entertained in perfect solitude.

Susnick was what people of her generation liked to call "headstrong."

Throughout her long tenure at Columbia, Edith had made it clear to a string of chief librarians that as far as she was concerned, any work which did not require her presence in the main reading room could be accompanied by classical music. Thus, the radio in her tiny office was irrevocably tuned to WQXR-FM.

Students would often snicker when they encountered Edith in the stacks. On such occasions, as the librarian searched for a book, her left foot could be seen tapping in rhythm to the beat while, with her right hand, she absent-mindedly conducted symphonies which only Edith could hear. Although several members of Columbia’s faculty liked to tease the old woman -- calling her "The Walkman Librarian" -- she didn’t mind their jokes at all. With a Sony Walkman clamped to her belt and a set of earphones around her head, she was quite content.

Indeed, as long as she had her music and her books to keep her happy, Edith Susnick was more than satisfied.

Many people at Columbia imagine the librarian to be a hopelessly eccentric spinster who probably had no social life. And yet the object of their scorn had quite a reputation. In her own way, Edith was a minor celebrity, known throughout New York’s music world as the queen of the Met’s standees. Having attended several performances at the Metropolitan Opera each week since her eighteenth birthday, Edith knew hundreds of people who shared her love for opera and classical music.

Her intense passion for opera had caused Edith to memorize every fact about every artist who had ever sung at the Metropolitan Opera. At home, in her sprawling rent-controlled apartment on West End Avenue, she had dozens of cartons filled with autographed programs, newspaper clippings, and photographs dating back to 1950. Although some of the opera company’s administration hated her guts (many accused Susnick of leaking information to the press about future casts and productions), the singers all acknowledged Edith to be an extremely loyal fan who had been visiting them backstage and requesting autographs ever since their Metropolitan Opera debuts.

On the morning of March 3rd, Edith was midway through her coffee break when her boss, Harold Silverman, barged into her office, effectively shattering the beauty of Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik with his presence. Looking up from the New York Times crossword puzzle (Edith had been momentarily humbled by its request for the five-letter name of Cyzicus's wife in Greek legendry), the old woman laid her glasses on the desk and waited politely for Harold to tell her what was on his mind.

She knew he would.

The two librarians had established a working truce several months ago after Harold arrived from Chicago to take over Columbia’s library. Although Edith had been trained in the old school of library science, had tenure with the university, and could not be fired from her job, her casual rapport with the students irked Harold (who was at least fifteen years younger than Edith and anxious to establish himself in everyone’s mind as the university’s chief librarian).

The way Edith saw things, Harold was not only a pompous Yuppie obsessed with computer technology, he was also a dull techno-jackass filled with ridiculous ideas about how to apply a crazy new style of management to running the library. Harold’s newfangled ideas would have been all well and fine with Edith had she not been so suspicious of her boss’s lifestyle. For a professional librarian, Silverman seemed to be strangely lacking in curiosity. In fact, Edith doubted that he ever read a book in his spare time.

How could he if he was always hanging out in singles bars? It just didn’t make sense.

Although they worked together in what appeared to be professional harmony, there was no love lost between these two librarians. Since joining the faculty at Columbia, Harold had become convinced that Edith (who seemed to go to a concert or performance at Lincoln Center every night of the week) was both an absent-minded fool and a sexually frustrated old bitch. He did little to hide his disapproval of the music which could always be heard coming from Edith’s office. As far as Silverman was concerned, any music distracted people from doing their work. However, on this one particular morning, as he stood before his colleague, Harold was all smiles.

"Oh, Edith. I have a new cataloguing project," he announced, "and it’s the kind of job which only you would have the patience to tackle. We need to free up some space for the library’s new computer room. So I’ve decided to put all of those old masters’ theses which are stored in the basement onto microfilm. What I’d like you to do is assign call numbers to each thesis. It’s a job which will take at least three months. But, the way I figure it, you can do all of the work here in your office while listening to your trusty little radio. I’m sure nobody will want to bother you."

Edith was immediately on her guard.

Why, she wondered, was Harold being so solicitous? Did he want to keep her out of the main reading room in order to cut down on her contact with the students?

Or had everyone else on the library’s staff already turned down the job?

Edith knew that, on a good day, most of the people who worked in Columbia’s library had a maximum attention span of ten minutes. So perhaps she had been handed the job because of her sheer tenacity. Everyone who worked at Columbia knew that Edith found great pleasure in accumulating useless bits of information that no one else could possibly care about. Maybe Harold was playing with a full deck of cards this time.

"How many manuscripts are there?" she asked.

"God only knows," groaned Silverman as he reached for the doorknob. "There must be a quarter century’s worth of dissertations in those cartons downstairs. I’ll ask one of the aides to bring a few boxes up to your office so you can start in on them tomorrow morning."

Before leaving the room, Harold paused for a minute and fixed his gaze on Edith. "Just do me one favor, Susnick. One favor, only," he sneered. "Try not to read each and every manuscript. Okay?"

As Harold closed the door behind him, Edith weighed the pros and cons of her new assignment.

She resented the fact that this job would keep her out of circulation. After all, half the fun of library work was in helping people find information.

But, at the same time, she relished the idea of being left alone in her office for three solid months listening to WQXR. While this assignment could involve some fairly tedious work (Edith didn’t doubt for one second that plowing through all those manuscripts would take a lot of time), at least she might discover some interesting new facts to add to her collection of useless trivia.

And so, as the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra began to play Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony, Edith went back to work on the morning paper’s crossword puzzle. Now, if only she could think of a five-letter word for large gallinaceous birds of Central America!


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