Rage at the dying of imagination's light

MICHAEL OLESKER

November 17, 1991|By MICHAEL OLESKER

The last time they threatened to close libraries in my city, I hollered as loud as I could. I hollered for Roy Tucker. He used to play right field for the most wonderful baseball team that never existed.

Roy Tucker lived inside the imagination of John R. Tunis, who wrote sports books for kids. I found his stories maybe 35 years LTC ago at the Pimlico branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, on Park Heights Avenue, and I never forgot them.

Now the closers of this city's library branches, including Pimlico, say lots of us will have to forget them.

Goodbye libraries, goodbye firehouses, goodbye school system.

And, while we're at it, goodbye city renaissance.

We close firehouses, and people may die. We close libraries, and the imagination dies. The man in the White House may not notice, as he is reportedly preoccupied with overseas developments, but the city of Baltimore is beginning to expire all over again.

And, for what it might be worth, Roy Tucker is among the victims.

Are you listening, George Bush? Has it occurred to you that the old cities like Baltimore, which returned from the dead and inspired the whole damned country when Washington paid us some attention, now threaten to return to the grave because you and Ronald Reagan have been looking the other way for the past decade?

Will the last one out of Baltimore please turn out the thousand points of light?

Throughout this city can be heard the psychological packing of bags. Few may actually move, of course, since the ability to move involves the purchase of a brand new place to live and no one wishes to risk the expenditure of large money in a time of nervous employment.

But the city is hurting badly. Budget cuts are everywhere, and crime is a constant shadow. The latest news on schools continues to be discouraging. And, with literacy at risk, we will close the doors to library branches in the next couple of weeks.

In this past decade, someone is always talking of cutting libraries. Sorry, they will imply, but literacy is something of a luxury.

The last time there was talk of saving money by closing libraries, I wrote a newspaper column saying that such a move would involve the killing of Roy Tucker and therefore the killing of an inspiration to many.

On the day the newspaper column appeared, I got a telephone call from Washington, D.C. A lady on the line said, "This is Senator Paul Sarbanes' office. The senator is trying to reach you."

"About what?" I asked.

"I don't know," said the lady on the line, "but he said it's important and he needs to reach you. He's on the road. Can he call you at this number from his car telephone?"

Five minutes later, the telephone rang. The voice was familiar, but the introduction was not.

"This," Paul Sarbanes declared in a booming voice, "is Roy Tucker."

"You, too?" I asked.

"Of course," said Sarbanes.

Roy Tucker bridged our generations. We talked about him for the next several minutes, about how he'd taught us not only about baseball, but about honor and sacrifice and hard work and decency and courage. That's what good books do. They put worthwhile ideas into the heads of citizens.

At the Pimlico library branch now, there are signs on the front door.

One says: "Library Temporarily Closed." This is known as optimism. If they manage to open the library in the next two

weeks, it will be just in time to close it permanently.

Another sign on the door says this: "Narcotics Anonymous meetings will be held at Brown's Memorial Baptist Church."

This city has tried to patch things together. Libraries aren't just for books, they're for meetings of reformed junkies. But now, even the reformed junkies will have to seek shelter with the Lord.

L "Oh, yeah, it's sad," Charles Lane was saying the other day.

"A sad day," Kelavin Weaver agreed.

The two of them, who transport books between the various Pratt branches, stood in the quiet of the Pimlico branch one morning last week and glanced around at all these shelves of books.

"Trapped words," the critic John Leonard once called them. You open a book, you untrap the words, you liberate them into someone's head. You teach a future U.S. senator about a democratic process. You show a future newspaper reporter how to put a noun next to a verb. You unite these two people, and countless others, with a baseball character who's really the embodiment of a bunch of high ideals.

"Maybe the city will sell these buildings," Kelavin Weaver said now. "Shame to let a nice building just sit here."

"Shame for the neighborhood," said Charles Lane, noting that there's no other library even vaguely within walking distance.

The two of them said they don't know their own future. Layoffs are hitting everywhere, and they could be among the victims. A library here, a firehouse there. Kelavin Weaver and Charles Lane here, and Roy Tucker there.

And the man in the White House is still looking the other way, as the city of Baltimore begins to die all over again.

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