In Honor of a Recent New York Public Library Retiree Marie Zwanziger
37 years. That’s what it was, 37 years working at one job. She came to NYC from Strawberry Point, Iowa in 1970 and started working at New York Public Library in 1972 (can you believe that name "Strawberry Point"?, note there is a new book that was recently reviewed in the NYTimes Book Review, titled Methland – it recieved a good strong review too- the town that is the focus of that book is 20 miles outside Strawberry Pte! Dorothy, I guess you can never go home again.) She worked everywhere, in every condition and in every capacity; trudged through blizzards to make it to work, broke an arm doing it too and at another time she was relegated to taking a ferry to a train and finally a bus to the outer regions of Staten Island. She even tried to get to work in the debacle of 9/11, only to learn that there was no work to go to that day. Instead the decision to heed the call to help others was greater than staying home and watching the disaster unfold on TV. Marie trekked all the way to the east 90’s on foot from Alphabet City to donate blood. She made it there waited and waited until sadly she learned as the whole city learned that there would be no need for blood on that day. She made her way home in the wee hours of the night, satisfied she tried.
Marie is quirky, even scary. She has a reputation as being a bear, most stay away from her. She has a personality as obtuse as a funhouse mirror, a will as strong as tempered steel and a depth of intellect as great as the information contained in the authoritative works she dispensed with on a daily basis at the reference desk. Her character was unequaled. Her loyalty unwavering. Her integrity was of the highest standard. When a co-worker had a baby, Marie was at the hospital to welcome the new face to the world before anyone else. When another co-worker was stricken by a stroke, Marie maintained a vigil by this person’s side long after others stopped going. Quietly she showed herself to be one of the finest people I have ever worked with.
Marie could be abrasive. She would often bark at co-workers. She saw nothing wrong with how she went about her life. Her life was full and rich. She breezed through life like everything was copasetic. She lived in essentially the same apartment she had when she came to the city so long ago. Her place on east 7th street, directly across the street from Tompkins Square was once a hotbed of civil unrest in the 80’s and before that it was destination of drug addicts. I often asked Marie to talk about the tough times of Alphabet City. To listen to her talk about squatters that would often occupy the foyer of her apartment building, was funny. The thought of Marie taking care of bad guys on the Lower Eastside is surprising and humorous to me, but she did just that. With her red and white gingham shirt and sensible denim culottes and a topper of a Gilligan’s Island hat, Marie cut a striking figure amongst the downtrodden that once occupied her area. With a paper under her arm and a packed lunch in her bag, Marie traveled about without fear. She believed she earned the right to be where she was and somehow she coexisted with others that would surely make most of us crumble. Marie can now enjoy the fruits of her longevity in a once crime controlled area, in her rent controlled, no doubt book filled apartment. Right outside her second floor living room window, flowers adorn well tended park side gardens where once bald covered hills, pocked with little islands of weeds, strewn with the human detritus of broken glass, discarded needles and other garbage were the visual delights of the 70’s and 80’s in Tompkins Sq Park. Now Marie has only beauty and for the most part safe streets to deal with.
The quality of Marie’s work was unequaled at New York Public Library. When at work, she worked. Her specialty behind the scenes was the detail of cataloging records and her ability to order the best in any subject. She knew respected works of criticism from reliable publishers, as well as the best translations of any work. Her strength at the reference desk was her willingness to go the distance with a patron. Generally though, she was so good she could size up a patron and give him three or four of what he wanted before he even knew what he wanted. She could talk about this and that edition of Shakespeare, or American theatre, or Joyce, or Hemingway, or French Literature and Greek literature and histories like it was happening right now. Her mind was keen, her memory astonishing. Marie had it all stored behind that big eyed face of hers, full warmth and humor if you only took the time to see it. I was once at the reference desk when a patron came up to me and pointed out as Marie walked by that as a child he was her librarian at Hamilton Fish. He said she was the best librarian there was and he learned the love of books from Marie. Marie you will be sorely missed at the library.
Last week with a dinner among friends, we bid our brilliant colleague a fond farewell from the grand institution she so loved.