By Pago Habitans*
Libraries are just about the only public spaces where complete quiet is the guiding principle. Into those silent sanctuaries a congregation of New Yorkers retreats daily to research, read, write, think, dream, or simply get warm in cold weather and cool off in the summer.
The West Village has easy access to two public libraries: Jefferson Market and Hudson Park. When the former closed for renovation I discovered the charms of the latter. Opened in 1906, it has a well-used feel about it, broken in by generations of Village residents and overseen by a staff of always helpful librarians.
The other day I spotted my mystical friend Brother Ben sitting at a table near bookshelf sections marked Non-Fiction, Romance, and New Citizens. His companions were a woman wearing a bone-colored linen robe in the style of an eastern monastic, and a bearded man sporting a dark blue pin-striped suit with a crimson cravat. Ben signaled for me to join them.
“Hattie and Thadu, this is my friend Pago.” Hattie smiled and bowed her head in greeting, while Thadu addressed me enthusiastically in a language I did not understand. He sounded like a general on horseback rallying his troops.
I felt certain no one in the history of the Hudson Park Library had ever presumed to declaim so boldly, but when I looked around, the other patrons seemed not to have noticed. However, when I began, audibly, to express my pleasure at meeting Hattie and Thadu, a commanding voice from across of the room shouted, “Quiet!”
With great embarrassment I sank into a chair. Ben explained that Hattie and Thadu were old friends from the days when they lived together in a commune on Jane Street. Hattie had been a band singer at Cafe Society on Sheridan Square and Thadu had worked as a steward on the ocean liner Andrea Doria.
I quickly calculated that Hattie and Thadu must be much older than they appeared to be. Cafe Society closed in 1948 and the Andrea Doria sank in 1956. I was puzzled and therefore speechless, which is not a bad thing in a library, as I had just been reminded.
Suddenly, precluding further conversation, Brother Ben and his friends were on their feet and heading for the door. Over his shoulder Ben cried, “We’re off!” Once again finding that no one seemed bothered by the outburst, I followed them out. We walked west on St. Luke’s Place past the recreation center swimming pools and James J. Walker Park.
In high spirits, Brother Ben turned to Hattie and Thadu and asked, “Do you remember the song they used to sing in the streets and speakeasies when Jimmy Walker was running for mayor?”
Hattie’s face lit up, Thadu cleared his throat, and the three of them sang out:
Our Jimmy’s the gent
Angel Gabriel meant
When he blew his gold horn
To announce one fine morn
That a lad had been born
Who was destined for fame.
Yes, it’s one and the same:
James J. Walker’s his name!
I stopped at the corner of Hudson Street and let them continue on without me. I was now more puzzled than before. Mayor Walker was in office from 1924 until 1932. As the trio disappeared from view I wondered exactly how old they might be. But then, I reminded myself, when it comes to free spirits like Brother Ben and his friends, conventional measures of time may not be all that relevant.
* “Village Resident,” otherwise known as T. P. Miller