Two gas pumps in upstate New York inhabit my memory the way two large stone lions do the residents of Manhattan. The gas pumps stood for years at the crossroads of Depot Street and Main Street in Sidney Center in Delaware County, New York, across from the Walsh Hotel and the Cheer Up Department Store. With their globular tops, and their long hoses on their sides, the pumps were like those John Updike must have been thinking of when he wrote the poem “Ex-Basketball Player” because they did look like people, like the men I often see hanging around the fronts of convenient markets sucking on coffee and cigarettes and waiting for the day to begin.
When my father wasn’t preaching hell and damnation, visiting his parishioners or driving people to doctors’ appointments, he could be seen at one of these two pumps at the W. J. Garbaden Texaco station, pumping leaded, ethanol free gas into cars. At 27.9¢ a gallon, it was not unusual for some people to ask for a dollar’s worth. The Garbadens either paid my father cash or subtracted his wages from the bill he always seemed to carry with them.
Behind the gas pumps was a small building, somewhat larger than a shed, from which Mr. Garbaden sold oil, windshield wipers and other auto accessories. To the left of the shed, and farther back from the road, was the house where Mr. Garbaden lived with his wife. The most interesting thing about the property was the bottom floor of the Garbaden’s house, where the Sidney Center branch of the Sidney Public Library was housed.
At some point in the early 1960s, I walked past the two Texaco pumps and into a library for the first time in my life. When I opened that door to the library, I discovered a gold mine, an Ali Baba’s cave, a treasury trove of the aspirations and imaginations of gifted men and women. Here I discovered Highlights magazine, the Timbertoes and Goofus and Gallant. Here I discovered the Childhood of Famous American Biographies for children with their silhouette illustrations. At age seven, I read the biography of Revolutionary War hero, Daniel Morgan. I remember that book specifically because I began reading the comic strips in our newspaper about the same time, and I began following the long career of Rex Morgan, M.D. Although very different Morgans, the two men reinforced each other in my memory.
There are other books from that time that stand out in my mind, although I can’t be certain I found them at the Sidney Center Public Library—books like The Cat in the Hat, The Cat in the Hat Comes Back and Harold and his Purple Crayon. There is only one other book I am certain that I borrowed from that small library and that is A Pictorial History of World War 2. I only remember one photograph from that book—a photo of a woman holding a child in the bombed out ruins of Helsinki, Finland. The photo itself impressed me, but I have a feeling that it stuck in my mind because of the old Finnish lady, Hilda Rolig, who came to live with us about that time.
When we moved to Bangor, Maine in 1964, we started going to the Bangor Public Library, known as the biggest and best library north of Boston. Its reading room was bigger than the entire library in Sidney Center. Without a television in our house, we went to the library almost weekly, walking four blocks down Somerset Street, then down 77 stairs to Harlow Street where the library was.
The Bangor Public Library is a magnificent building, set between the old high school—now an apartment building—and the Lumberjack Memorial. At this library, I added the We Were There and Landmark series to my reading list. By the time I left Bangor at age 19 in 1975, I had graduated to The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron and The Gulag Archipelago by Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
During the past fifty years, I have been in so many libraries I doubt I can remember them all. I have been in village libraries, college libraries, county libraries, seminary libraries, personal libraries, church libraries and more. My current haunt is the Amsterdam Free Library, donated to the City of Amsterdam, New York by Andrew Carnegie with the words “OPEN TO ALL” chiseled in the stone above the front door. All of the libraries I have been in since 1964 were bigger and better than the one on the corner of Depot and Main in Sidney Center, behind the two gas pumps where my father worked part-time to provide for his large and ever growing family.
The library in Sidney Center still exists, although it has moved down the street. The Garbadens’ house still stands as does the garage like structure from which William Garbaden sold oil and gas. But the gas pumps are gone. Most likely they are in somebody’s collection of gas station memorabilia and antiques.
But photos of the pumps exist. And they exist in my memory. I can still picture them every time I drive down Main Street in Sidney Center, the same way you can see the two stone lions, named Patience and Fortitude, as you walk up Fifth Avenue or 42nd Street in Manhattan. The two Texaco pumps and the little library are like a first love, someone you are no longer connected to but are still fond of because through her you were initiated into some of life’s most precious mysteries.