Written by Jim Dwyer and Originally Published in the New York Times on December 4, 2009
An age ago, Sharon Washington would sit in her neighborhood library early in the evenings, perched on a short-legged chair sized for the children’s section, lost in the words and woodcut drawings of “The Red Fairy Book.” No one else would be around. The building was closed. The other kids had long since packed up their school bags. The librarians had gone home. It was just 8-year-old Sharon, alone, in the shush-less quiet of an empty building on Amsterdam Avenue.
Except she would be far away, standing, perhaps, in an unnamed forest, gazing up at the tower where Rapunzel awaited her prince and endured the wicked enchantress.
Somewhere over Sharon’s head, the hinges of a door would creak.
Her mother’s voice echoing off the marble stairs.
Sharon would linger as Rapunzel wove the silk escape ladder.
“I know you can hear me!” her mother, Connie Washington, would yell. “I’ve called you three times.”
And Sharon would close the book and go home — walking up two twisting flights to the apartment where she and her family lived, at the very top of the library.
When Sharon Washington says she grew up with books, she is speaking literally: Her father, George King Washington, was a library custodian, a job that for much of the 20th century included shoveling coal into the furnace at all hours. It came with an apartment, and a world of remembered magic for the little girl who grew up in the library, an only child.
“It was the books, of course, but it was also my father, working on the furnace, feeding the dragon that ate the coal,” said Ms. Washington, 50 and a successful actor, shown above with her father in 1963. “I remember the coal truck deliveries.”
The coal sluiced down a chute next to the furnace. The pieces sparkled with blackness. Her father — a long, lean man — had a shovel nearly as tall as himself. She would sneak downstairs to watch him wield the shovel and spin the ash cans to the curb. “The family mantra was: Don’t let that furnace go out,” she recalled last week.
After seeing Superman on the old TV series create a diamond by squeezing a piece of coal (“put it under a million tons pressure for a thousand years”), Sharon tried it. “Coal dust all over my hands and face,” she said. “I had to explain to my mother what I was trying to do.”
Her mother, who graduated from Wadleigh High School and worked as an executive secretary, grew up on Mulberry Street and met her father when he was working in a store on 99th Street.
They married in 1940. He was from South Carolina and had little education. But he learned to cook in the Navy during World War II, was very handy and a ferocious worker. He also drank. Sharon, born in 1959, said she was “a reconciliation baby.” A few years later, he landed a job as the custodian of the St. Agnes branch of the library on Amsterdam Avenue, a defining moment for the Washington’s.
Sharon went to public school on the Upper West Side until second grade, when a vice principal told her mother to send her to Dalton, the exclusive academy for the wealthy. She got a partial scholarship. “I would never have called us poor,” she said. “My mother probably would have. They scrimped for the tuition.”
A birthday party for a Dalton classmate might involve a private movie at the Paramount screening room, complete with a help-yourself popcorn machine. Sharon had her birthday parties upstairs in the library.
The apartment at St. Agnes had a big kitchen and three bedrooms, one for her grandmother, a great reader. Sharon wore out books. “I would always be downstairs, creating these worlds for myself,” she said.
Over her girlhood, the Washington’s lived in three Manhattan libraries until her father could no longer manage the physical grind. Ms. Washington went on to Dartmouth College and then to drama school at Yale.
One morning last week, she stood on East 79th Street, peering up at the limestone walls of one of her old homes, the Yorkville library branch. Her parents are dead. The last resident custodian retired from the system in 2006. All the old apartments are now either deserted or used for library business.
Her mother kept diaries, but used stenographic shorthand when dealing with tender subjects, so Ms. Washington can only guess what was happening. She remembers that when her father — “90 percent of the time he was so reliable” — would hit a bad patch of drinking, she and her mother would have to feed the furnace.
“It took the two of us to handle that shovel,” she said. “We all lived by the rule — don’t you let that furnace go out.”