Life Above A Library Was Like Living In Neverland Sharon Washington grew up in an apartment above a branch of the New York Public Library — her father was its custodian. After hours, she had the run of the place. She tells that story in a new play.
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Life Above A Library Was Like Living In Neverland

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Life Above A Library Was Like Living In Neverland

Life Above A Library Was Like Living In Neverland

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Imagine what it would be like to grow up living in a library. For much of the 20th century, public libraries built by the philanthropist Andrew Carnegie included apartments for the families of custodians. A new play opening in New York's acclaimed Cherry Lane Theatre tells the story of one such family. Jon Kalish has more.

JON KALISH, BYLINE: The St. Agnes branch of the New York Public Library on Manhattan's Upper West Side was home to the Washington family back in the 1960s.

SHARON WASHINGTON: This (unintelligible).

KALISH: Sharon Washington descends the marble steps her father once kept spotless, holding onto the wooden banisters she slid down a half century ago, and arrives on the library's main floor.

WASHINGTON: My father would sort of be horrified by the floors.

KALISH: Why is that?

WASHINGTON: They're scratched and well-trafficked. He wanted them shining. You know, I want to see myself in these floors. Don't step on my floors.

KALISH: But she did. When the library was closed at night and on weekends, Washington climbed the 5-foot-tall shelves and raced her friends on the book carts. She had access to all three floors and a roof the size of a small playground where her dog Brownie could run free.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "FEEDING THE DRAGON")

WASHINGTON: (As herself) The library roof was an enclosed space that only we had access to. It's where I learned to jump rope, play hopscotch and ride a bike, all under my mother's watchful eye.

KALISH: Washington plays herself, her parents and a dozen more characters in "Feeding The Dragon." The play's title refers to her father's daily ritual of shoveling coal into the furnace. She got the idea for the play after taking a memoir writing workshop with novelist Patty Dann.

PATTY DANN: I've heard many stories from all sorts of people who grew up in interesting places. But living in a library really is hallowed ground. And so from the outset I knew she had a unique story.

KALISH: Dann helped Washington connect with New York Times columnist Jim Dwyer, who wrote about her in 2009.

WASHINGTON: The next day his inbox and my inbox were inundated with people who wanted to write my story. It was crazy. It was kind of overwhelming. And what I wanted to do was write my own story.

KALISH: Washington got offers from filmmakers and writers who wanted to collaborate on a children's book. But her story was hardly unique. John Berry's family lived above another Manhattan library. He and his six siblings played hide-and-seek and rode in the library's dumbwaiter.

JOHN BERRY: We were playing tag, and the card catalog fell over. The drawers broke. Cards went everywhere. And we knew that our life was over in that day (laughter).

KALISH: Berry lived above the library for 20 years, riding his bicycle and skateboarding through the stacks.

BERRY: Being in the library after hours is probably equivalent to Michael Jackson's Neverland. It's like living in a mansion because you don't make a distinction between I live in an apartment above the library and the library's downstairs. You don't make that distinction. You live in the complete library. There are just a lot of guests during the day.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "FEEDING THE DRAGON")

WASHINGTON: (As herself) Our story isn't told in any of the books that line the shelves of the St. Agnes Library.

KALISH: Playwright and actress Sharon Washington onstage.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "FEEDING THE DRAGON")

WASHINGTON: (As herself) But in its polished wood is my father's sweat, on the marble stairs my mother's tears, on the wrought iron bannisters my grandmother's prayers.

KALISH: But the books did light the path she would take.

WASHINGTON: I stumbled onto Shakespeare down in the library. And I was like, I didn't really get it, but I thought the stories were kind of cool and all the fairy tales. I think my father as the custodian and maintenance man couldn't afford to give me a lot. But he gave me a library.

KALISH: And he gave her a story that she plans to tell in other media.

WASHINGTON: Limited HBO series - why not? Netflix, Hulu - I'm open. And I don't even have to be in it (laughter).

KALISH: And Sharon Washington says she still hopes to turn her play "Feeding The Dragon" into a children's book.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "FEEDING THE DRAGON")

WASHINGTON: (As herself) So here I am, the little girl who lived in the library, a teller of tales, a holder of history, a king's daughter. I am the story.

KALISH: For NPR News, I'm Jon Kalish in New York.

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