Mean Ladies: One Writer’s Search for Fun & Friendship at New York’s Oldest Library

Original location of the New York Society Library, photo from 1893

One Writer’s Search for Fun and Friendship at New York’s Oldest Library

by Leslie Cohen

I came upon the New York Society Library innocently. I was looking for a place to write. Clean bathrooms? A plus. Probably wouldn’t get my laptop stolen? Also a huge selling point. When I learned that the library was the oldest cultural institution in New York City, that it was housed in a mansion on the Upper East Side and was frequented by Henry David Thoreau, Edgar Allen Poe, Tom Wolfe and Wendy Wasserstein, I was ready to join the ranks of New York’s literary elite. I looked around at the encased leather-bound books, vaulted ceilings and mahogany chairs and thought this is where serious writers go to write. That is, if you can get away from the social politics, which I could not.

It wasn’t long before I fell prey to my baser instincts: I wanted to make friends. Everyone was at least 30 years older than I was, but I didn’t care. It was high school all over again and I was the new kid in school. I spent my first month quietly observing. My mission was simple: to make this a place where I could leave my apartment in the morning and say, “Well, I’m off to visit my friends at the library!” And then, upon arrival, I would receive a series of high-fives.

I had my work cut out for me.

Observation 1: The fifth floor was where the cool kids hung out, and by cool kids I mean, the ones who were under 70 and not asleep. If you ever dared set foot in the second floor “reading room,” where no electronics or any objects of this century were allowed, you would see such frightening relics as people who were alive during the Second World War and newspapers, the former asleep under the latter.

But the fifth floor was where the serious writers went. I prided myself each time I went up there. I looked at the others, mostly women, and smiled, feeling a deep sense of camaraderie. “Naps,” I rolled my eyes. “Am I right?”

Certain cool kids, of course, were on the fringes. And those were the ones who occasionally visited the second floor for a midafternoon siesta. They did it on the sly, very discreetly, and usually hustled in and out, so that nobody would know that they were doing it. But we all knew. There are no secrets at the library.

For Whom the Critique Group Tolls

Observation 2: The key to success in the library was silence. I was careful that none of my devices made any noise. A single beep or vibration and you were OUT. A “bless you” to an errant sneeze nearby caused immediate looks of hostility. I may have said it a few times on my first day, but eventually, I learned. “Bless you” was for amateurs. The early days! I was so naïve.

Observation 3: In order to make friends, you needed a “library pick-up line.” I had one locked and loaded which I thought was basically comic gold. I’d run into one of the ladies outside the library, and I’d say, with a wry smile, “so do you think they’ll give us gold stars? For being here so often?” She’d smile or shake her head no. I’d say: “Yeah, I think mine got lost in the mail.” And then we’d bond over a shared hatred of the U.S. Postal Service. I was sure that with the over seventy crowd, this would kill.

Observation 4: The coolest ladies were the ones who were friends with the librarians. It made me so envious. Imagine, I thought, that elusive level of cool where you could just casually converse with a librarian! Unfortunately, this one would be difficult. In my early days, one of the librarians caught me sneaking a cashew, and snacking of any kind is vehemently against the rules at the library. I’ve imagined my death many times, but now I’m absolutely certain of how it will go down: I will die choking on a cashew at the library and nobody will save me. Because it’s against the rules.

Observation 5: There is always a Queen Bee, and this one was named Barbara. She met the trifecta of library coolness. 1) She’d had several books published 2) She was friends with the librarians and 3) She was under 70. Oh, Barbara. A friendship with her was like a dream. She seemed to know everyone. She had the coolest clothes. If I could only get in with her, I would be golden. I knew how it worked. I went to high school! Oh my God, was this the point of high school? I was so excited and delusional about the prospect. I stayed up nights thinking about how I would befriend her.

I waited for the perfect moment, and eventually, it came. The sun was shining. I was sitting outside the library, casually eating a sandwich, and Barbara walked by. She said, “I love your sweater!” And I thought: Is she actually talking to me? I couldn’t believe it. I can’t remember what happened next. I think I said thank you and started babbling about a sale at J. Crew and maybe we could check it out together sometime? So embarrassing. Then, we started talking about writing and a book that we’d both read. Yes, I was quite certain that Barbara and I had had the best conversation.

“See you up on the fifth floor?” She said, with a wink and a smile, the sun shining behind her, creating a halo around her golden curls.

“Yes, definitely!” I replied. I was a library convert! I would never leave! They would bury me up there on the fifth floor and my gravestone would read: She lived to be quiet.

Barbara introduced me to her friends, like I knew she would. As a result of my connection to her, I established a rapport with two other ladies. I bonded with one about how the librarians really should inspect the fifth floor more carefully: Did you hear that guy with his computer that made a noise EACH time he got an email? How outrageous! It must have happened every 40 minutes! I bonded with another about the frigid temperature in the room and wasn’t there something they could do? Curtains or something? She totally ate up my gold star line, by the way.

I was making progress. I was in.

But then, one day, I made a dangerous error. I took a bag that contained a small piece of a bagel that I had finished earlier and threw it out in the garbage on the fifth floor. The next morning, the entire library was papered with signs that had a picture of an ant and said “ANTS HAVE BEEN SEEN ON THIS FLOOR. NO FOOD.”

Because of me? Did anyone know? As I walked around the library, I felt icy stares from the ladies. Had they seen me with the brown paper bag? I felt like I had a scarlet letter on my chest. B, for bagel. I didn’t know what to do. Should I admit to my sins? Apologize? If I looked hard enough, surely this place had some sort of confessional? All day, I was tormented by my guilty conscience, and pictures of ants.

Later that afternoon, I ran into Barbara. “You know, you really shouldn’t be eating in here,” she said. I walked away from her in a daze. Was it Barbara? Had she turned me in? I felt betrayed and lost, in a world I no longer recognized.

From then on, I went into the library with a new attitude. I couldn’t be confined to their brand of library puritanism. I’d been rejected and I accepted my fate. I would work in solitude. I drifted back inside my own mind. I popped a cashew into my mouth, and, like Hester Prynne and so many renegades before me, I was free.

Born and raised in New York, debut novelist Leslie Cohen is the author of THIS LOVE STORY WILL SELF-DESTRUCT, released January 23, 2018. She studied fiction at Columbia University, and wrote a weekly music column for a newspaper in Colorado before working in publishing for several years. Follow her on Twitter at @sortafunnystory.

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