Editor’s Note: Joe Russo is a “Nortsider”, a retired teacher, and an aspiring writer. We’ve asked him to share his stories of the past and offer his perspective on the present and future of our neighborhood. His posts will appear each month under the category, “Old Times on the Northside”.
I remember in the early elementary grades not really being interested in reading. Joey DiMento, my classmate at Our Lady of Pompeii, was a terrific reader. My mom always told me if I could read like Joey DiMento I’d get grades like his. I wasn’t really that concerned. In first, second and third grade friends were important, dreams were important and imagination was really important. My parents talked often about reading that interested them and they encouraged me to be a more active reader. My mother read serious stuff like novels by Ernest Hemmingway. My father loved the Zane Grey adventure stories about the Wild West like Riders of the Purple Sage. I just wasn’t interested.
In fourth grade it all changed. I became enthralled with early societies. The cavemen and Native American societies before the Europeans came to America were of particular interest. While talking to my mom about my new found interest she took off her apron and suggested we walk to the White Branch Library on Butternut Street. “Why”, was my response? She knew I didn’t like to read. “They’ve got more than books at the library”, she said, “Let’s go together and I’ll show you.” I was reluctant but we went to the library.
After meeting the librarian and selecting a few books on the Apache and Navajo tribes I sat on the floor and scanned through the colorful pictures. Once I decided what to bring home the librarian talked me through the check-out process. She emphasized the due date by tapping her finger on a card imprinted with a date in blue ink. She promised to show me how to use the card catalog the next time I came to the library.
At home I read and then re-read each book to make sure I hadn’t missed anything. My favorite was about a 14 year old Apache boy preparing himself for the tribal manhood test. He had to learn how to survive the desert heat and hunt for food. I found the ingenuity of the Apache teenager especially appealing. At the family dinner table I often imagined we were eating a rabbit I hunted and trapped on my manhood test rather than a chicken we bought at the Farmer’s Market.
While reflecting back on these times I decided to visit the White Branch Library to see if it would trigger more memories. My visit turned into a wonderful surprise. I remembered the White Branch being small, quiet and with just a few patrons. The beautiful Wednesday morning I arrived it was a busy, energetic place. Both children and adults were actively engaged in reading, research, English language studies, resume writing and enjoying all that the library had to offer. I introduced myself to the branch manager, Renate Dunsmore. She introduced me to students from the Grant Middle School using the Oxford English Dictionary to look up vocabulary words. Renate explained that at one time the White Branch had German and Italian dictionaries to assist the immigrant population from that era. Today’s Northsiders are from Africa, Asia and South America.
Originally my visit to the White Branch was purely for nostalgia. Reminiscing about my mom, and the old Northside, and the way things used to be. It turned into a life lesson about how things are different but they remain the same. I needed the White Branch Library to explore, learn and exercise my imagination way back in the 1950’s. And some will say it is so different today in 2013. It is but it isn’t. Yes, many of the new Northsiders are from Africa and Asia. They need to explore the English language. As in the 1950’s, they also need to learn about our culture so they can navigate through school and society. And, of course, like all of us they need to imagine success for themselves and their families. What was most impressive about the young people in the library was how eager and enthusiastic they were about reading and learning. They wanted to learn about other cultures and languages. When the librarian told them I wrote a Blog they got all excited and wanted me to show them how to find it. They really wanted to read about the “Old Times in the Northside”. One young man said, “My father loves stories about the old Northside.” So do I and everyone I know who grew up on the Northside. We’re not so different after all.