It's Fashion Week in New York, a wild and crazy time when everyone seems desperate to know: Is the babydoll dress back? Leggy gals spill out of limos. Modeling agencies throw wild feasts. ("Tic-Tacs for everyone!") In billowing tents covering an entire park in mid-Manhattan, designers are sewing, swearing, sweating and shrieking. But three flights above it all, things are moving at a very different pace.
"I've been working on my book for five years," said Jonathan Gill, poring over a century-old volume of Harlem Life in the ornate and enormous Main Reading Room of the New York Public Library. The fashion tents below disturbed him not a jot.
Gill is writing a book about the history of Harlem. Actually, he's already written it. "It was three times too long," he said.
So why is he doing even more research?
"Don't put that in! If my editor sees that he'll go crazy!" cried Gill, eliciting a nasty stare from a woman trying to concentrate at the next table. "You'll notice," he continued, sotto voce, "I have no note-taking materials with me." He's just reading every single issue of the long-dead magazine because … that's what scholars do. They research. Then they research some more. Once they end up in the Main Reading Room, they have reached research nirvana.
Take Senta Driver. She's been researching her family history for 10 years. What makes the subject so fascinating?
"Remarkably little," Driver said. "They saw everything happening in the history of America all the major events but they didn't fight, they didn't get into politics."
That might be enough to dampen some folks' genealogical enthusiasm, but Driver arrived at the Reading Room the other day with receipt from 1701 for her great-great-great-great-somebody's coat. She was dying to find out what kind of material it might have been made of.
That's a research junkie for you.
The junkies here even have an enabler: David Smith, a librarian ready to help just about anybody with just about any question.
"Somebody asked how to make a bullwhip," Smith said. "I pointed him in the right direction." Another inquirer wondered, "Were horseflies used in the cockpits of fighter planes as an indicator of air pressure?"
After great study, Smith determined: Uh, no. And then there was a guy, Smith said, "who was doing years of research to prove that a black Jewish woman named Amelia Bassano Lanier wrote some of Shakespeare's plays."
Another Shakespeare scholar was hard at work in the Reading Room near Smith. He's writing a play about the person he thinks wrote Shakespeare's plays (neither black nor Jewish nor female). "I'm in touch with the Royal Shakespeare Company," said the man, who would only give his name as Charles. "I'd like them to produce it first and then move it to Broadway."
Let's hope it happens soon. Charles is 85, a former accountant. Like just about everyone else in the Reading Room (except Gill, of course), he was taking notes and having the time of his life.
L.J. Davis was working on his history of the assembly line. He's written three books in the Reading Room, even though he only meant to write one. Mabel Gonzalez was researching the Spanish Inquisition the one in Peru in the 1700s. Lyda Abonte de Zacklin had come in to track down a book by her favorite philosopher.
"It has to do with how our identity is getting lost and everybody is just a number," she said. "But just at that moment when you think there is nothing, you feel desperation. And that moment saves you."
Saved by desperation. That sounds more like the fashion world. Up in the Main Reading Room, the people don't need saving. They're already in heaven.