Saturday, April 17, 2010

Library Tough Guy

Actor James Cagney came up tough. Born above his father's saloon in 1899, he spent his childhood in the Five Points neighborhood on the Lower East Side in New York City. His family led a hard-scrabble existence, and Cagney held at least a half-dozen jobs as a kid -- he was a bellhop, a night doorman, and a copy boy at the New York Post. He also worked a stint as a book custodian at the New York Public library, where he cleaned up tables and shelved books.

Cagney came to the job with a love of books and learning. He fed that fire with a library card. Doing that, he developed a view of the public library you don't hear about much today. For Cagney, the library was the Poor Man's University. The key to that university was a library card, and the cost of the education it offered wasn't measured in dollars. Instead, it was measured in time, and determination, and discipline.

As a kid in Five Points, Cagney had all three in spades. He invested the first, and developed the other two at the Poor Man's University. "I saw a television program once on CBS about young men from the mean streets of town who were seemingly not able to advance themselves," Cagney said later in life. "The program showed footage of the young men sitting on the stoops of old houses, doing nothing, just sitting there obviously ripe for mischief. And the commentator droned on, saying over and over again until it drove me absolutely nuts: 'Where can they go? Where can they go? Where can these young men go?' Which just infuriated me to the point that I actually jumped out of my chair and shouted -- after I had heard that god-damned 'Where can they go?' just too many times. I got up and shouted, 'To the library. That's where they can go. To the god-damned library!' I meant that, and I mean that, with every fiber of my being."*

*Cagney quotation from Cagney by John McCabe.