Page 31


GAIL WOODS AFTERWORD Public Service at its Best BY FRED SCHMIDT I’D LIKE TO SAY a word for the San Antonio Public Library. Not that it needs it, but because I owe it. When one becomes 70 years old, he begins to feel grateful for all the things that have happened that make it possible to look back over so many years with satisfaction. One of the best things that ever happened to me was the San Antonio Public Library, and that might not have happened had I not been kicked out of Joske’s one afternoon about 55 years ago. When I was going to Thomas Jefferson High School in the early ’30s, I was one of those teenagers who fooled around downtown a lot. That wasn’t for any mischievous reason, for I was too shy, gawky, and unassured to get into much mischief. It was partly because I had no need to go straight home after school, as I was living alone and there was no one to go home to. I became a street loiterer because I was in a situation where it seemed I had to grow up fast and the only way I could figure to do that was to spy on adults and see how they did things. I would pick out some person in a crowd, someone who looked worldly-wise like I wanted to be, and then tail that person as though I was a gumshoe detective. I regarded it more as studying than spying. For instance, I would study how a man hitched up his belt, stalked into the Buckhorn and said with authority, “Draw me a beer.” That was important information for a kid the adults used to make sport of when he went into a saloon at Broadway and Hildebrand to tell his dad that mom says that supper is ready. There’s nothing as cruel as laughter, and I didn’t ever want to be laughed at again. I would follow men into those big marble and brass shoeshine parlors off Alamo Plaza where they sat on a throne and said, “Lemme hear you snap that rag, Boy!” Fred Schmidt is retired from the faculty of the Graduate School of Management at the University of California at Los Angeles, and now lives in Fredericksburg. This essay originally appeared in the San Antonio Express-News. Boy howdy, adults sure knew how to handle themselves. I stalked Sen-Sensmelling dudes with slicked-down hair going into that ice-cream parlor with the bent wire chairs near the Majestic Theater for a CocaCola date. They always squared their shoulders before marching in, while those leaving downtown to slink along Matamoros Street always looked back over their shoulders to see if anyone was watching. Of course, I wasn’t ready for any of that kind of stuff. I didn’t even have shoes that would take a shine. It was just information to tuck away, information that might help me develop enough savoir faire to where I could walk into a place and not be treated as the stupid kid I was. Joske’s turned out to be the perfect place to practice. I cased the joint carefully and noticed that one could go into the book department and saunter around with a serious mien, picking up this or that book to peruse, and no officious clerk came around to hover over him. Joske’s became my killing-time place. I would stroll in, walk deliberately to the book department like I knew what I was about, snatch up a book as though it was a great discovery, and stand there and read without anybody bothering me. I felt that I was breaking into the adult world, for by being ignored I was being accepted. The problem was that I overdid if after picking up Will Durant’s Story of Philosophy one day. That book struck me as the most profound thing ever written. I gave up acting like I was searching for something to buy and just went directly to that book evdry day to read a bit more. Before I ever got out of chapter four, a huffy salesman came over, grabbed my elbow, turned me to face him and said in an icy voice only a man in a starched collar can muster, “Young man, if you want to read that book don’t you know that there is a perfectly good free public library right down on Water Street?” I felt as if I had been caught shoplifting. I stammered something unintelligible and said that no, I didn’t know ,anything about the library. He was unyielding: With his thumb digging into my skinny arm he marched me to the door. “Well, then, just you take a left as you go out of here and then walk to your right for a block or so and you can’t miss it.” I did as he said. I always did what adults said. The library looked like a temple from the