We’ve been pitching pennies around the ole homestead lately, thanks in part to both cars going into the shop one after another for unexpected hiccups, and three pets in their golden years requiring routine service and maintenance. Anna the dog, for instance, is facing an onslaught of maladies two years after we rescued her from an adoption-blitz festival here in Birmingham, and my wife, Jessica, and I are being forced to stock up on a small pharmacy of pills and steroid shots that, once administered over the next couple of weeks, should put her in league with a 1998 Mark McGuire.
Dobby the cat is still going strong, as long as we inject him with his regular two units of insulin twice a day to offset his diabetes, and mix cat Metamucil in with his dinner so he can stay regular and continue being our own personal Wilford Brimley for as long as possible.
And as for Butterball the cat, she's her own usual, paranoid self, requiring no 24/7 vet-on-staff like the other two, but may soon enough if she continues to be so picky about her food. She won't eat the cheap stuff, so we have to spring for the top shelf grub, which is always a crap shoot because her tastes change every week like some kind of snooty Real Housewife. Last week, we brought home the Paul Newman Organic, and she snubbed that bowl like it had just slept with her ex-boyfriend. Fine, Butterball, I guess a bunch of naked, starving children in the third world won't get their slice of the Paul Newman charity pie because you don't like the food that's helping them. Have it your way.
But even though we're keeping the checkbook locked up these days and tightening the belt so much it's making us look like a Max Fleischer cartoon character, that doesn't mean we're not still looking for cheap, fun haunts around our city. This Sunday, I stated the most obvious choice when pressed: "Let's go to the library!"
I can make an upbeat parody-style video for the library -- kind of like the one they did for the '95 "Brady Bunch" movie when they put on their Sunday's finest and go to Sears. Except this wouldn't be a joke. The Hoover library next to the Riverchase Galleria has been a favorite place of mine to hit up at times when I don't have a lot of money to burn but I still want to soak up my pop culture palette with reckless abandon. It is not your grandmother's lending library, and there is literally something for everyone, even if they don't like to read. The Movies and Music section alone is so full of obscure titles that have been acquired by the library system over such a long period of time and from so many odd sources that you're pretty sure they could comprise a whole disk of information that would have been shot into Keanu's brain in "The Matrix".
And the best part of all this pop paraphernalia -- movies, music, magazines, books, comic books? It's all free!
At any moment while you're paroozing the stacks, a strange feeling might creep over you, like you're taking advantage, and some corporate bean counter is suddenly going to come racing past you with a price gun. But that's just paranoid fantasy. The library has no problem with you taking as much as you want, and really for however long you want. I know, I know. There is such a thing as late fees, but Good God, a quarter a day for a book? A dollar for a movie? (Okay, that could actually add up -- that's one of the reasons our society got rid of video stores). In any case, there is absolutely no guilt at the library when it comes to loading yourself up. I've been known to check out basket-fulls before, everything from prestigious Jim Jarmusch Criterion DVDs and all the Lethal Weapons to a load of Stephen Kings that I know as well as the librarian who works very hard not be judgmental as she checks me out I will absolutely never finish in two weeks.
This past Sunday Jessica and I came into the library from the bone-crunching 109-degree summer heat, and were hit over the head -- almost immediately -- with a magical surprise. Taped to all the walls in the Kids and Young Adult sections was old world-looking stone wall wallpaper, and on every table was a Goblet of Fire and bowls of multi-colored powder, apparently -- according to the signs -- to be used for potion-making. Jessica, a Harry Potter fan since the near-beginning, realized right off the wand that we were not in the Hoover library, but on the enchanted streets of Diagon Alley, and today was the famous boy wizard's birthday.
The sign in the front said the "official" celebration would not begin until 4 pm (me not being a fan, I had no idea if this was some reference to the whimsical wordsmithing of J.K. Rowling or just a practical time for all the teenage volunteers to get off church and come in just in time to put on cloaks and act their parts); nevertheless, the two story library on four acres was ablaze with kids lining up at various events, fashioning their costumes last-minute, and having their parents take their pictures, or videos, in the "moving picture frames" that had been set up.
Jessica got a real thrill out of seeing all this. The night before had been midnight release party at Barnes and Nobles for the new official Potter book, "The Cursed Child", and she had been a little depressed all day because it was the first such release she had missed since the books started getting "Star Wars"-level popular back in the early 2000's. She had told me that she missed the anticipation, the Halloween-like glee of seeing all the kids get excited over their favorite fictional characters. She had been suffering that sadness that always seems to veil nostalgia, when you feel older and a little out of your body trying to enjoy the stuff you once did.
We walked around the library for a while soaking it all in. We walked past the aging youth librarian practicing her paltry British accent that she would use shortly with the kids and Jessica didn't bother suppressing her giggles. There was no snobbery here. She explained to me that when you talk Harry Potter, you can't help but talk in your worst kind of British that makes cockney look like the tongue of the royal family.. Then we decided the devil with the penny pinching, and went for a coffee at the library's cafe, where we made the naive mistake of expressing enthusiasm to the cynical barista.
"Yuck, Harry Potter," he dismissed.
"I think it's kind of cool," Jessica said. "You get to see all the kids dressed up."
"Yeah, but Harry Potter was, like, twenty years ago. It's, like, get something new."
I took it from there because I could sense Jessica frothing with anger under the surface. I mentioned to him that my eight-year-old niece has recently gotten into Harry Potter in a big way, and that it's all she can talk about -- whereas a lot of other kids her age can only obsess over lesser material like My Little Pony. Also, I said, Star Wars was WAY longer ago, and what if we had abandoned that to, "like, get something new?"
But he could only scoff like the prototypical working class hero he was, and hand us our coffees. "Enjoy your day," he said.
Making our way from the quiet cafe back into Diagon Alley, we walked past a dark room with a locked door, where inside we could see a table full of enough cupcakes to feed a hungry army. This must've been the coup de' grace for the mob of kids that were starting to crowd the library like it was about to have a Black Friday-level Doorbuster. As we were oogling the sweets, we wondered if we could take part in the festivities even though we didn't have a kid to call our own. After all, we were the generation that inaugurated Harry Potter, made that magical little scamp into the legend he is today! Then, suddenly behind us, we heard a familiar voice: "Hey, I know you two, and I love you!"
It was our friend, Francesca, whom we hadn't seen since our wedding back in December. She was conveniently seated outside the room with all the cupcakes, reading a book about the misadventures of a Pig and an Elephant to her two young children. "Yeah, I'm not here to be the first in line for the cupcakes," she winked. "I wanted to sit down and read a story to them, and this happened to be the first chair I saw..."
We caught up for a while and went through the motions of polite conversation, but eventually cut through the bullshit. "Can we ride your coattails through the celebration?" Jessica said. "We don't have a kid, and I think you need a kid."
Francesca didn't hesitate. "Sure! Take one of mine!"
It was in that moment that I felt the most satisfied with our impromptu Sunday trip to the Hoover library. It was because this random building next to the fire station and across the street from the closed-for-business Staples was proving itself as the great community institution it was set up to be. In an age where we live our lives on the Internet and Roku box, increasingly disconnected from a physical community, it's nice to know that there is still a place where friends and neighbors can gather, reconnect after months of separate lives -- heck, even change over kids to get free cupcakes. It didn't matter that Francesca's kids gave us the same look they would have given a crooked villain who was thwarting the Pig and the Elephant, and cowered behind their mom at the prospect of going off with us to celebrate Harry Potter's birthday; it was the thought that counted, the feeling of participating in a brick-and-mortar society.
Our conversation with Francesca ended abruptly at four on-the-dot. Her oldest was pulling her impatiently toward the fray of celebrants who were beginning to spill through the slit in the wallpaper that was strung up between two columns to look like Platform 9 3/4. Left alone to observe, we watched for a bit as the kids rushed their parents through the program. We saw their first stop in Diagon, a dimly lit alcove of the Kids' section that was set up to look like the apothecary where kids could pick out their wands and textbooks. There were stuffed effigies of mysterious beasts set up for the kids to look at, and even one lucky teenage volunteer who dressed up like a two headed-dog and was hunched inside a crate, barking at the young wizards-for-a-day as they passed through. We couldn't help but admire the time and attention the Hoover Library staff and their volunteers had put into making this event memorable for their young patrons.
After a few minutes, Jessica tugged on my arm, a little sad. "We can go now," she said.
"No, it's okay," I said. "We can stay as long as you want."
But I saw that creeping depression on her face again. The communal spirit had worn off her as we saw parents making potions with her kids, and now I could see that she felt again like an outsider. "We're the only ones here who are watching," she said.
"That's not true," I said. "That weird giant with the beard is just standing around."
"That's Hagrid," Jessica said, and moved on. I followed her on to the non-fiction section, where all the other adults were, without children, looking intellectual, or browsing Facebook on the communal computers.
In the end, I checked out two books -- one on the wild world of Independent Film in the '90s and the other about the development of Walt Disney World -- for a combined total of 900 pages. The librarian gave me a great Poker face as she scanned my books and gave me a slip that said they were due in three weeks. I looked at the clock on my cell phone as the doors parted for us and we were immediately greeted once again with the stifling heat. It was 4:30. Amazingly, two hours had passed, and we had only spent six dollars for the coffee made by the bitter barista.
I sometimes think that the best entertainment in the world comes when you don't have two nickels to rub together. There's something about walking around a communal place, like the mall or the Park or your local library, and not paying to be entertained, but rather turning your brain on to the world around you. This concept has definitely influenced my podcast over the last several years, as I think some of my finest shows have been recorded while walking around and observing. We can sometimes forget that we have this ability to just park the car and start walking, without any mission or purpose whatever -- just to see what we can see.
My only advice would be to buy a cup of coffee if you're in a Mall. They don't like loitering. I found this out while recording a show back in June 2015.