June 24, 2011 by Reader's Connection
When beginning my year-long journey through the Dewey Decimal System, I announced that no 2010 publications in the 000 area–Generalities, which include data processing, journalism and library science–had really appealed to me.
But I have to double back and do something in that stretch. Instead of recommending a book, I’m offering a book-length blogpost which relates to library science. It is much too long and personal and gloomy, and can be summed up:
A) As I young fellow, I really liked Stephen Crane’s story “The Blue Hotel.”
B) The movie version is okay, too.
C) The library once had a program called Books to People, which is covered more succinctly on pages 178-9 of the new book Stacks: A History of the Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library than it is in this post.
My thanks to Stacks author S. L. Berry, and to the Library Foundation, for sharing the picture of the Books to People van, aka the Go-Go van.
The 000s. Generalities
|The 100’s: Philosophy & Psychology||Three Questions We Never Stop Asking|
|The 200’s: Religion||What Was Lost: A Christian Journey through Miscarriage|
|The 300’s: Social Sciences||How Wars End: Why We Always Fight the Last Battle: A History of American Intervention from World War I to Afghanistan|
|The 400’s: Language||Last Speakers: The Quest to Save the World’s Most Endangered Languages AND Wordwatching: Breaking into the Dictionary|
|The 500’s: Natural Sciences & Mathematics||A Grand, Bold Thing: An Extraordinary New Map of the Universe Ushering in a New Era of Discovery|
|The 600s. Technology (Applied Sciences)|
|The 700s. The Arts|
|The 800s. Literature & Rhetoric|
|The 900s. History & Geography|
The Amazon and the Blue Hotel
We showed films and circulated paperbacks once a month at the Juvenile Detention Center, and our audience of teenaged offenders was in her charge. Back at the office, we spoke of her with distaste. I´ve forgotten her name, but Jared referred to her at least once as “the Amazon,” and of course that stuck with me.
She wasn’t inordinately tall. The nickname had more to do with her life force. (Was Xena, the Warrior Princess, tall? I didn’t watch the show.) During one of our bad-mouthing sessions, a bookmobile clerk, who must have come along to the juvey center once or twice, announced that the Amazon was beautiful. After some puzzlement I realized this was true. Thirty years later I remember brilliant teeth, a ring of keys at her hip, and perfect huntress posture as she crossed the room. If Jared hadn’t one day muttered about “those keys,” I might have retained only the teeth and her posture.
We were treated every month to a demonstration of her power over the incarcerated boys, and this more than anything rubbed us the wrong way. The form of the demo never changed. We showed our film in a classroom, with the boys seated at desks and the window blinds on the left side of the room always closed. It was understood that if the boys behaved reasonably well during our visit, the blinds might be opened for a moment at the finish.
There’s a Shell station and a Church’s Fried Chicken, today, where East 25th Street meets North Keystone, and nothing more glamorous was situated there in 1978. My memory tells me, in fact, that the Shell and the Church’s were already in place; but according to the City Directory this is only partly correct. The George O. Simmons Shell Service Station was on the northwest corner, apparently in that wooden garage which has since been painted blue and gray and has housed a dry cleaning establishment. Assuming that the directory is always correct, my memory has fork-lifted the old building across 25th Street. No matter. I’m not even sure which direction our classroom windows faced.
Whatever the vision that was being granted, a murmur would run through the boys when the Amazon opened the blinds. I think they were supposed to stay put, but some of them were blown from their desks like seeds from pods. Boys on the far side of the room would stand at their desks to gaze over their fellows, and there were spurts of conversation about the sights or the weather. If a beautiful girl in shorts had walked out of the chicken joint, I might have heard hoots while rewinding our 16mm film; but I remember only quiet, friendly, observational tones. Many boys sat or stood in rapt silence, like Catholics on Holy Thursday adoring the Blessed Sacrament.
We thought the Amazon was being awful. Using this glimpse of sunlight or dirty snow as Pavlovian bait seemed a bit like threatening to deny the boys their oxygen or their hope, and back at the office we always condemned her—without thinking that we, too, in her position, navigating her days, would have employed every gimmick that popped into our heads.
My friend Gloria once gave me a ride to Merrillville, our hometown, at Thanksgiving or Christmas; and it came up in conversation that she and the Amazon were acquainted. Gloria was a teacher, spoke highly of the Amazon’s progressive methods, and explained that Marion County was a backwater. The Amazon was anxious to move on to an environment that would allow the free flow of newer, cosmopolitan teaching-crafts.
Was the trick with the blinds progressive? Or was it a weakness she indulged in the afternoon, when her cutting-edge efforts had left her exhausted? In the confines of our classroom, during our visit, the blinds were all she ever did. And they worked. I don’t remember an occasion when the boys behaved badly and lost their sweet taste of the living world. We would have spoken about it heatedly as we drove away in the van.
(I keep saying boys, but there must have been Marion County girls breaking the law in the late nineteen-seventies. I remember their presence in the room only vaguely. The boys were noisier and more intimidating, though my story is that I was intimidated only during my first couple of visits. In any case, I see only boys over by the window, looking out and chatting while I rewind the movies.)
Books to People was created in 1971 with the use of a federal grant. By the time I moved to Indianapolis in 1977 and came on board, the federal money was gone; but the program lived on until 1980. We circulated books/showed films at nursing homes, day care centers, methadone clinics, neighborhood health clinics, the Marion County Jail, the juvey center, the Children’s Guardian Home, homes of wards of the court and the homes of shut-ins. A wallflower of my caliber couldn’t have found a better way to enter a city.
Jared was the driver, but he was also a Bookmobile driver. For that reason among others he was frequently unavailable and I often drove. Between August of 1977 and the program’s demise in 1980, at least four librarians served as Books-to-People Managers. I was the clerk.
The managers were never given a completely free reign—they weren’t invited to redesign the program—but the way we handled the Juvenile Center is an illustration of how different librarians worked different rooms. Alpha, who was managing Books to People when I arrived, always led a discussion after we showed the film. None of her successors did. I loved Alpha, and she would prove to be of great assistance with my career, but I sometimes felt that her appraisals of these film discussions were a bit too sunny. Back in the office, she would recall a heart-stirring responsiveness on the part of the boys, and I’d remember snarls and silence—but I was new to the job, and nervous on my first couple of visits to the jail or the juvey center.
We’ll skip to Omega, on whose watch the Books to People program was discontinued. This was through no fault of his own; but the Amazon had already asked us to stop visiting, several months earlier, and that may have been partly Omega’s doing. He never led the boys in a discussion of the films I was choosing and he laughed when he heard that the Amazon had complained about it to some other IMCPL staffer who visited the juvey center. On his last visit, we showed a film version of the Stephen Crane story, “The Blue Hotel,” and that sealed our doom.
The Palace Hotel at Fort Romper was painted a light blue, a shade that is on the legs of a kind of heron, causing the bird to declare its position against any background. The Palace Hotel, then, was always screaming and howling in a way that made the dazzling winter landscape of Nebraska seem only a gray swampish hush.
The film was part of “The American Short Story Collection” series that had originally aired on PBS. I’ve never been sure that the filmmakers used quite the right shade of paint on the hotel, but I may never have seen the kind of heron that Crane had in mind; so their blue may have been perfect. Given the time constraints, the film retells the story as faithfully as it can.
Three men—identified as a cowboy, an Easterner, and a Swede—arrive by train in Fort Romper, Nebraska on a snowy day. They are led to the Palace Hotel by its owner, Scully. It quickly becomes clear that the Swede—who may or may not be a Swede—is behaving strangely. But the others tolerate him and ask him to join in a card game beside the stove in the hotel’s front room. He finally agrees, and sits down with the Easterner, the Cowboy, and Scully’s son, Johnnie.
Because of the absorbing play none considered the strange ways of the Swede. They paid strict heed to the game. Finally, during a lull caused by a new deal, the Swede suddenly addressed Johnnie. “I suppose there have been a good many men killed in this room.” The jaws of the others dropped and they looked at him.
“What in hell are you talking about?” said Johnnie.
The Swede laughed again his blatant laugh, full of a kind of false courage and defiance. “Oh, you know what I mean all right,” he answered.
The others argue with him or, in the case of the Easterner, just express their confusion. By the time Scully, the hotel owner, reenters the room, the Swede is on his feet, declaring that he’s going to leave before he is murdered; and he goes upstairs to fetch his valise.
After laying into his son, assuming that Johnnie has provoked the Swede, and learning nothing about what has happened, Scully goes upstairs to reason with his escaping customer. The other three discuss what has happened.
“Well, what do you think makes him act that way?” asked the cowboy.
“Why, he’s frightened.” The Easterner knocked his pipe against a rim of the stove. “He’s clear frightened out of his boots.”
“What at?” cried Johnnie and the Cowboy together.
The Easterner reflected over his answer.
“What at?” cried the others again.
“Oh, I don’t know, but it seems to me that this man has been reading dime novels, and thinks he’s right out in the middle of it—the shootin’ and stabbin’ and all.”
“But,” said the Cowboy, deeply scandalized, “this ain’t Wyoming, ner none of them places. This is Nebrasker.”
“Yes,” added Johnnie, “an’ why don’t he wait till he gits out West?”
The traveled Easterner laughed. “It isn’t different there even—not in these days. But he thinks he’s right in the middle of hell.”
Upstairs, Scully tries to talk sense into the Swede, and then resorts to offering liquor. This fallback seems at first to be a good idea: the lubricated Swede gives up his plan of departure. At the six o’clock supper he fizzes “like a fire wheel.” His boisterousness is encouraged by Scully and annoys everyone else.
The dinner scene plays well in the film. Actor David Warner, who at the time was carving out a career playing marginal oddballs, is infuriating as the Swede; and some appropriate dialogue is added. After the meal, back around the stove in the lobby, the Swede proposes another game of cards (the boys at the juvey center laughed as Warner, cigar and wineglass in hand, intoned “Anybody want to play a game of high fiiiive?”), and with some trepidation the Easterner and the cowboy and Johnnie agree.
The play goes on for a while, and then the Swede accuses Johnnie of cheating. A ruckus ensues, after which it is determined that personal honors—Johnnie’s and the Swede’s—are at stake, and they must have a fistfight out in the blizzard.
This is one of literature’s most worthless fights. Nothing of value is decided. The meaningless slugfest isn’t grist for an action movie, and the film version is faithful to Crane’s pessimism.
For a time the encounter in the darkness was such a perplexity of flying arms that it presented no more detail than would a swiftly revolving wheel. Occasionally a face, as if illuminated by a flash of light, would shine out, ghastly and marked with pink spots. A moment later, the men might have been known as shadows if it were not for the involuntary utterance of oaths that came from them in whispers.
Suddenly a holocaust of warlike desire caught the cowboy, and he bolted forward with the speed of a bronco. “Go it, Johnnie! Go it! Kill him! Kill him!”
. . . To the Easterner there was a monotony of unchangeable fighting that was an abomination. This confused mingling was eternal to his sense, which was concentrated in a longing for the end, the priceless end.
The end comes before long, with Johnnie broken and weeping. James Keach is suitably pathetic in the film. The others help him back into the hotel. Only in the film does the Swede linger outside, chuckling. It may not have been the case on our 16mm film, but on the DVD I’m watching now, David Warner’s teeth almost glow in the dark.
At this point the film version departs from Crane’s story. I assume that time constraints made it necessary to sacrifice a few scenes. Crane’s Swede goes and gets his valise, after all, shares harsh words with the others, and stalks out. He finds an open tavern up the street. His social skills haven’t improved en route, and he soon begins to exasperate the group of men gathered there—the bartender, two merchants, the district attorney and a gambler—by bragging that he has thumped the soul out of a man down there at Scully’s hotel.
The reader is alerted when Crane spends three paragraphs introducing the gambler.
A scrutiny of the group would not have enabled the observer to pick the gambler from the men of more reputable pursuits. He was, in fact, a man so delicate in manner when among people of fair class, and so judicious in his choice of victims, that in the strictly masculine part of the town’s life he had come to be explicitly trusted and admired. People called him a thoroughbred . . . Beyond an occasionally unwary traveler who came by rail, this gambler was supposed to prey solely upon reckless and senile farmers, who, when flush with good crops, drove into town with all the pride and confidence of an absolutely invulnerable stupidity. Hearing at times in circuitous fashion of the despoilment of such a farmer, the important men of Romper invariably laughed in contempt of the victim . . .
We know that Crane must have a reason for spending so much time on this newly introduced character, so late in the story, and we’re not disappointed. The Swede insists on buying drinks for everyone. No one will take him up on it, and he walks over and lays his hand on the gambler’s shoulder. The gambler tells him to remove his hand, and the Swede, drunk and still swollen with glory over having beaten Johnnie, lurches into his favored worst behavior.
“What! You won’t drink with me, you little dude? I’ll make you, then! I’ll make you!” The Swede had grasped the gambler frenziedly at the throat, and was dragging him from his chair. The other men sprang up. The bartender dashed around the corner of his bar. There was a great tumult, and then was seen a long blade in the hand of the gambler. It shot forward, and a human body, this citadel of virtue, wisdom, power, was pierced as easily as if it had been a melon. The Swede fell with a cry of supreme astonishment.
In the film, the Swede never leaves the blue hotel. A stranger enters as the others are arguing, and the Swede attempts to ingratiate himself, boasting of his victory. Rather inexplicably, the stranger pulls a knife and stabs the Swede. It could be argued that Crane’s description of the gambler with his masked character and his cruel class-consciousness doesn’t exactly “explain” the knifing. But the filmmakers themselves seem to have still been wrestling with this character at the film’s completion, and to have been unsatisfied with how they had handled him. The opening credits list “Thomas Aldredge as the Stranger,” but in the closing credits that actor is said to have played “The Gambler,” though his means of earning a living haven’t been mentioned in the film.
She waited a month, until our next visit, to make the announcement. My friend Lucia came with us that time, and led a discussion of the films she had brought. They were animated films, and she asked the boys about the different sorts of animation. Their response was livelier than any I had seen, but this was coming too late. The Amazon had made up her mind. I had to reassure Lucia that her presentation had in no way led to the rupture.
The last scene in the movie is another departure from the story, but in a sense it may be an improvement. Crane begins his last episode with a bit of a puzzle.
Months later the cowboy was frying pork over the stove of a little ranch near the Dakota line when there was a quick thud of hooves outside, and presently the Easterner entered with the letters and the papers.
“Well,” said the Easterner at once, “the chap that killed the Swede has got three years. Wasn’t much, was it?”
Why are these two guys together, months later? Nothing earlier had indicated that they’d become pals or shared a destination. In any case, the cowboy goes on about how the Swede had practically set himself up for death, making ridiculous claims about Johnnie’s cheating. At this, the Easterner blows up.
“You’re a fool!” cried the Easterner, viciously. “You’re a bigger jackass than the Swede by a million majority. Now let me tell you one thing. Let me tell you something. Listen! Johnnie was cheating!”
“’Johnnie,’” said the cowboy, blankly. There was a minute of silence, and then he said, robustly, “Why, no. The game was only for fun.”
“Fun or not,” said the Easterner, “Johnnie was cheating. I saw him. I know it. I saw him. And I refused to stand up and be a man. I let the Swede fight it out alone. And you—you were simply puffing around the place and wanting to fight. And then old Scully himself! We are all in it! This poor gambler isn’t even a noun. He is kind of an adverb. Every sin is the result of collaboration. We, five of us, have collaborated in the murder of the Swede. Usually there are from a dozen to forty women involved in every murder, but in this case it seems to be only men—you, I, Johnnie, old Scully and that fool of an unfortunate gambler came merely as a culmination, the apex of a human movement, and gets all the punishment.”
The Easterner’s having waited for months to reveal this truth is another puzzle, and you’re free to think that it’s a weakness in the way Crane structured his story, or to believe, as I do, that the Easterner has kept quiet all this time because he’s so ashamed of having failed to support the Swede when he saw Johnnie cheating.
The filmmakers avoided these puzzles—and put another limit on the length of their film—by allowing the Easterner to make a shortened, less infuriated version of his revelation, a day or two after the stabbing, while he and the cowboy are waiting at the Fort Romper train station. He doesn’t insult the cowboy or drag in the usual dozen to forty women, but he makes his point. The Swede had been right about Johnnie’s cheating.
One thing’s sure. We all played our parts in his death. We’re all in it.
I’ve wondered if this was a part of what the Amazon didn’t like. I saw a boy sitting and thinking about it after the movie ended. He had obviously been listening to the Easterner’s conclusions, as had at least some of the others. It’s too bad that Omega didn’t start a discussion, and that I didn’t encourage him to do so.
My only visit to the juvey center after Lucia’s last stand came decades later and was a private matter. A sixteen-year-old boy was accused of pulling sexual pranks on my son and another Down syndrome teenager, and I attended his hearing.
He was an African-American kid and wore a baby-blue sweatshirt. It came out during the hearing that he had been repeatedly molested while he was growing up, and that his current foster mother, though aware of his drives, was also serving as foster mother to two Down syndrome kids, which seemed ridiculous. The judge told the boy that he was the “most despicable” person she had ever encountered. I didn’t want this boy to return to that high school–I didn’t want him anywhere near my son—but I asked the prosecuting attorney afterward if the judge’s pronouncement had been seemly, and he replied that such statements were one of this judge’s trademarks.
It was impossible, in any case, to avoid believing that a number of other people were involved in the boy’s crime. I’ve wondered if his attorney had counseled him in the matter of dress, and if the baby blue sweatshirt was a deliberate attempt to make the kid look that much more adverbial.
Thirty years earlier, the Amazon may have wanted to steer clear of such thinking. She may have wanted her boys to see themselves as able-bodied nouns, each of them fully responsible for his own incarceration.
But I doubt she was thinking that hard. Her principal objection to the film was the moment of violence. Books to People lost its invite to the juvey center because I, the clerk who had loved the Stephen Crane story when I was younger, had foolishly assumed that it would speak, without any commentary, to this group of boys; and because the Amazon and Omega believed that Point A—All that the two of them were able to see was a bunch of boys, many of them boys of color, screaming when the knife flashed—necessarily proved the truth of Point B—All that any of those boys saw was the knife-flash. The boys had laughed at the Swede’s drunken foolishness, and some of them, at least, had pondered the Easterner’s last words. They had followed the story. Who were the Amazon and Omega to reduce their experience to one moment?
And why didn’t I stick up for them? should be my next question, but the answer comes easily. I, too, was upset when the boys went crazy. Yes, some of them saw more in the film than the Amazon or Omega would allow, but their frenzy bothered all three of us, and I wasn’t able to collect myself and contradict Omega when he denounced my choice of film.
The blinds were drawn at the end of the film, and the boys (and girls?) drank in the wonders of 25th and Keystone. But Books to People was out, and that was a shame.
Financial concerns were going to bring about the end of BTP less than a year later, at the same time we stopped running bookmobiles on Saturday. But a few of the programs survived for a while. We continued to visit the jail for a time, and Extension Division (now known as Outreach) continued to provide service to the Books-to-People shut-ins. Maybe we would have stayed on at the juvey for a while if we had abided by the Amazon’s reasonable wishes and always discussed our films–and maybe we would have been doing that, if the Amazon had spoken to Omega about it, earlier on, rather than griping to third parties late in the story.
Our mutual acquaintance, dear Gloria, died last year, so I can’t ask after the Amazon. I assume that she departed the juvey center decades ago. Ages may have passed since she worked with a ring of keys at her hip. Alpha and Omega and Jared and Lucia have long since left IMCPL.
Stephen Crane, who died when he was twenty-eight, lives on, as they say. If you click on the high five game at the right, you’ll see the “Blue Hotel” holdings–copies of the story and criticism–at the library and in the libraries of our Shared System partners. There’s a collection of tales of the wild west–though the Cowboy and the Easterner would have disagreed with that placement–a collection of mysteries, and some collections of classic American tales. There are blue hotels everywhere.
If I’ve ruined the story by telling what happens, you have alternatives. Take a ride in “The Open Boat.”