Woburn Public Library, Interior. Built in 1879, the library was designed by H.H. Richardson in a style that became known as “American Romanesque.” Photo by Lisa Williams, taken 8/30/2023.
This story won’t make a lot of sense unless you understand How Things Were Back Then.
There were no cell phones, and there were actual commercials on television (not cable, you understand: old fashioned broadcast television) that implored adults to look around at 10PM and consider whether or not they knew where their children were.
You got a house key and a box of Pop Tarts and called it good. No one was going to call the cops if they saw a kid walking alone, but there was still an age – let’s call it ten. Or maybe nine, yeah, let’s say nine, below which neighborhood propriety said if you were out, at work, or someplace else, you should get a babysitter for your kid instead of leaving them alone.
But they didn’t say “get a background check” or “hire an adult.” So I don’t think my parents understood who they were turning me over to.
I rarely saw the babysitter by herself. She was a teenager, and we’d get picked up in a car one of her friends, also a teenager, drove. There might have been seatbelts but if there were…we didn’t use them. We’d get in and then we’d go pick up more of their friends.
They all wore the same color bandanas. I don’t think they ever stole from anyone except their relatives. Mostly televisions, but one time a vacuum cleaner. And I probably bored them, because I only ever bugged them to go to the library.
I read countless novels. It was an emergency, to be without a book. I remember being in the upper stacks in the folklore section and reading about the folklore of every holiday, especially my favorite holiday, Halloween. I never visited the kids’ section, and I feel grateful now that librarians let me check out anything I wanted, even though the books I checked out were written for adults and not for kids. Over the few years I was a patron I read Stephen King and War and Peace and lots of books about stars and history and travel. I read On The Road and Howl. And nobody ever hassled me about anything I checked out.
Woburn was a tough, white working-class town then. It was pretty common for me to hear racist slurs and homophobic jokes when adults got together in backyards to grill burgers and drink beer. Today when I visit I see people of color. I’ve even seen a Pride flag, something I never saw growing up. At the same time, stories about homophobic hazing on school sports teams1, and a town police officer ousted after revelations that he participated in the “Unite the Right” event in Charlottesville2 where neo-nazis gathered to march have also been in the news, and not in the distant past but since 2020.
Maybe things haven’t changed so much as layers have been added, layers of diversity and tolerance that weren’t present when I was a kid. But sadly, it appears that the bad stuff is still here.
But back then, Woburn wasn’t an affluent place. And to have a public library this grand…it was almost like a Victorian-era UFO had landed in sight of City Hall.
Like many of Richardson’s buildings, including Boston’s Trinity Church, the library, built with the money from a family that owned a leather goods factory, uses a distinctive red sandstone that came from quarries in East Longmeadow, Massachusetts.
My babysitter and her friends never came inside; at the time, there were big mounds of earth behind the library, construction debris that had been left there long enough that long grass and weeds covered them. They’d go out back and smoke cigarettes. What I remember about their conversations was how much of it was about who to be angry with, what they’d done, why that was so bad.
But that day, one of them came into the library. One of the girls. She had the same purse all of the girls seemed to have: a massive leather sling, something I could probably pack for an entire weekend in if I had one today. I was up in one of the upper levels of the stacks, and she followed me up there.
She brought a razor blade out of the massive purse, and was just about to carve one of those “my initials + their initials” things into the scrolled wood.
She didn’t intend to cut me and I didn’t intend to get cut. But I remember putting my hand out and saying, “Wait!”
Then, of course, we were instantly united in a single, shared, urgent mission: we couldn’t get in trouble.
And that meant we couldn’t let the adults find out.
They were the babysitters and I was the kid, but our immediate and unshakable allegiance proved one thing: we were both just kids. And this was the biggest kid rule: don’t tell the adults. Stick together, shut up, and stay out of trouble.
We raced down the spiral staircase. We had to get to the bathroom, but that meant crossing the reference area of the library, where the librarians stood on a raised square platform surrounded by a wooden counter.
I squeezed my hand into a fist and pressed it against my tee shirt. By the time we got into the entryway, I’d left a trail of dots of blood on the tiles. It was really bleeding.
This area of the library once housed the raised platform where librarians checked out your books. I did not go to Woburn for many years after I left. Recently, I had reason to go and visited the library I once loved so much. I’m glad to say that a renovation did not ruin it, and I felt very uplifted by my visit, as if the building itself welcomed back a devoted believer. Photo Lisa Williams, 8/30/2023, 6:30PM.
The paper towels in the restroom were no help – they were those scratchy, brown, industrial kind that never seemed to absorb anything at all. We left, and got the rest of the miscreants behind the library. The one with the car took off immediately. We walked around the neighborhood behind the library until we decided to go see the mother of one of the kids. She worked in some sort of medical job – maybe a nurse or a nurse assistant – and worked nights. She looked harassed when she got woken up and said, “You’re going to have to take her to the hospital. That needs stitches.”
That meant walking up the hill, time we used to get our story straight. I told them at the hospital that I’d cut my hand on glass in the area where the construction stuff was dumped behind the library. I remember submerging my hand in a metal pan of betadine, wondering if the ruby red water was going to hurt and being relieved it didn’t.
I don’t regret sticking my hand out. A public library, especially one this grand, especially in a town where there weren’t many grand things, is worth shedding a little blood for.