An unusual sight in the stacks


Something unusual happened to me yesterday.

Let me set the scene.

img_20170117_135407I was deep in the stacks at the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh. For those who don’t know, the stacks are a labyrinth of floor-to-ceiling shelves stuffed with books.  This isn’t the spacious reading room for leisurely thumbing through magazines or browsing bestsellers.  The stacks are for hiding from the world and getting work done.

I had an ambitious day of writing scheduled, and I scribbled away with the smell of old books keeping me company. I was making steady progress when I saw movement out of the corner of my eye.

A small pink object on a string slowly descended from the ceiling. When it stopped, I realized it was a pad of post-it notes and a pen.

I looked to my left and right. A woman was studying at the far end of the hallway, but otherwise I was alone.  I looked back at the suspended post-its.  I shrugged and went back to my manuscript.

The post-its began bouncing up and down. Unable to contain my curiosity any further, I stood and examined the post-it.  Someone had written a single question on the top sheet.

Is there anyone down there?

I looked above me. I was on the bottom floor of the stacks, with two floors above me.  I had never noticed before, but there was about a two inch space between the ceiling and the bookshelf.  Someone had sent down this message from one of the floors above.

Half-expecting some TV film crew to jump out, I examined the string. It looked like the drawstring from a jacket with a girl’s hair tie twisted on the end.  The clip on the pen secured both the pen and the post-it to the hair tie.

I pulled off the pen and wrote, “YES!

Unsure of what to do next, I tugged twice on the string. Instantly I heard gasps from above, and the post-its began ascending.

“Someone took it!” I heard, followed by girlish giggling and an explosion of ohmigods.

I sat back down and resumed writing. A few minutes later, the post-its descended again.

Nice to meet you. What are you doing here?

I wrote back that I was writing a novel, and thus began my conversation with the most improbable of pen pals.

We passed notes for over an hour. They told me I should listen to Demi Lovato and Lady Gaga.  We lamented Rory’s fate in the new Gilmore Girls episodes. They told me they were studying for biology and world history exams.

What is your novel about? (If you don’t mind us asking?)

I hadn’t told anyone the plot of my new novel. I like to keep the details to myself until I’m sure the story will work out.  I hesitated for a moment, my pen hovering above the post-it, but the layer of anonymity primed me for confession.  I wrote a brief description and sent it up with two tugs.

The “if you don’t mind us asking” tone was typical of their notes.  They were obviously in middle school, maybe early high school.  They were unfailingly polite, curious, and fun.  Their scheme amused me because it was exactly the kind of thing my friends and I would’ve done at their age.

At the end of the conversation, the girls thanked me for talking to them. But I should be the one thanking them.dscn0663

I used to have a note taped to the computer in my corporate cubicle. On it was a quote by Peter Ustinov which read, “It is our responsibilities, not ourselves, that we should take seriously.”  I changed jobs and lost the note somewhere along the way.  I think I may have lost a bit of the sentiment as well.

But Saturday the girls in the stacks reminded me that even when you are busy, it is always wise to keep your heart open to serendipity and silliness.

I didn’t get as much writing done as I’d planned, and I know the girls didn’t study as much as they should have. But when I got home I typed up that Ustinov quote, and I’m going to pin it on my cubicle wall first thing Monday morning.

And I have a feeling the girls will do just fine on their exams.