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I Drove a Bookmobile

I Drove a Bookmobile

Kids need books to read and places to do it. One summer, I helped to provide both.

An earthquake had rattled Southern California, damaging library branches from Sylmar to San Pedro, and the L.A. Public Library acquired a fleet of bookmobiles to serve patrons while the buildings were being repaired. I needed a summer job, and I had worked for the city the previous summer as something called an auto messenger clerk, a position which, according to some misguided bureaucrat, made me eligible to drive a bookmobile.

To understand the folly of this, you have to realize that these bookmobiles were not the small, friendly kind with a few books and magazines; they were as big as a city bus and carried five thousand volumes. God knows how much they weighed.

God was probably thinking that very thing the day my attention waned and I nearly rear-ended a car carrying a woman and her baby. Afterward, quivering, I wondered what in the world qualified me to maneuver all that weight through crowded streets when the only vehicle I’d ever driven, for the city or anyone else, was an automobile.

I paid attention after that, and soon I came to realize that driving a bookmobile was a great job. In the morning I drove to the stop, usually in front of a damaged library building, and in the afternoon I drove back. In between I sat and watched the librarian and clerk help the patrons find books. If things got busy I would pitch in at the checkout desk.

Virtually all the patrons were either African American or Latino. So were my co-workers: Grace Smart the librarian, Wardlaw the clerk, Mr. Martinez the other driver. One day at the checkout desk a young patron, perhaps ten years old, handed me his library card, and I was stunned to see that his name was Ronald Kidd.

“That’s me!” I told him. “That’s my name too!”

I pulled out my driver’s license and showed him. It was a miracle.

The kid looked at the crazy white guy, then wordlessly checked out and left.

Usually I brought my lunch and ate on the bookmobile or at the depository where we went to reshelve between stops. There I’d usually be joined by Grace Smart or Mr. Martinez, who carried a bottle of hot sauce in his pocket and applied it liberally to all his food, including ice cream.

Mr. Martinez had been driving bookmobiles for years, and he quickly realized I had no idea what I was doing. He was kind enough to take me for a training run, in the process possibly saving a life or two.

Most of our bookmobile stops were from four to six hours long, and there was only so much help I could offer Wardlaw and Mrs. Smart. Soon, inevitably, I grew bored and then curious. What were all those books?

Many of them, I discovered, were for children: Charlotte’s Web, The Wind in the Willows, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, A Wrinkle in Time, as well as dozens of other classics I had heard of but somehow, in my eagerness to grow up, had never actually read. So I tried them, day after day, book after book, from Lloyd Alexander to Charlotte Zolotow. Somewhere around Lois Lowry I had a startling thought.

I could do this.

I could make up my own stories, dream up my own characters, like Milo in The Phantom Tollbooth or Dorothy in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. I could write children’s books.

And, thanks to the bookmobile, that’s what I did.

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